‘Men , with their B.M (Bloody Manly) walk, were so terribly difficult to emulate. The biggest give away was the gay walk’ (Skinner, writing in Gay News 1978 quoted by Rictor Norton in The Myth of the Modern Homosexual 1997).
This post, written as part of the coursework exploring queer public history for the Queer History MA at Goldsmiths, aims to take the reader on a tour of Clerkenwell (occasional strolling into neighbouring areas). Its theme is how queer culture has intersected with the radical fabric of the area.
Clerkenwell was traditionally one of the poorest areas in London and its proximity to Fleet Street where the print industry was developing in the 17th century created the conditions for an emergence of political dissent. The area is part of the borough of Islington where in recent history the balance of power in local government has nearly always been held by The Labour Party.
In 1985 this neighborhood became home to the Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) at 66 Cowcross Street. The LLGC aimed to provide a self-managed, non-commercial, autonomous queer space.
Founding statements by the Greater London Council on its reasons for funding the London Lesbian and Gay Centre
Central to the Greater London Council’s (GLC) equal opportunities policies, this five-story building cost over £1 million. Championed by the left and scorned by the right it was perceived as the embodiment of everything municipal socialism stood for. While criticised by the right at the time, the GLC and Islington council policies towards lesbians and gay men have now become standard across the political spectrum.
Various press clippings found in Capital Gay which trace the establishment of the Centre
During its lifespan the centre housed various groups, some still in existence today. These included The Hall Carpenter Archives group from which this post is indebted to for providing most of the visual input.
The Centre also reflected the political culture within the community. Fierce debate raged in the pages of London’s gay press over whether bisexuals and a group calling itself ‘SM Dykes’ should be allowed to used its facilities.
Despite a relatively short existence the Centre left an enduring legacy. This was an experimental space where many long lasting projects and ideas were formulated that cemented together various diverse strands within the queer community leading to lasting friendships and alliances. Its decline raises broader questions exposing difficulties arising from its reliance on state funding and the changing political climate. But like a phoenix from the ashes maybe one day the centre will open its doors at a new location with a new outlook on diversity more suited to the 21st century and catering to the BTQ of the LGBTQ community, not just the LG!
Walking up Cowcross Street and crossing the road to St John Street the next stop on our queer tour is 16 St John Street, a tall slim building now housing several commercial offices but once home to the Headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Around 1982 a young queer punk squatter from Portrush Northern Ireland made a trip to Bangladesh. The sick, poverty stricken children and people begging on the streets changed his whole attitude to life. He became a communist. His name was Mark Ashton and he was the first ‘out’ gay man to become general secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL).
During his time at the YCL his passion for politics and flair for winning arguments Despite its declining membership the Communist Party and the YCL were proficient in ‘punching above their weight’ Mark in his role as an active communist became a prominent member of broader organisations the most remembered being Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners. This group organised collections for striking miners outside gay venues, and the connections it forged with the Dulais Valley South Wales, helped place lesbian and gay rights firmly on the labour movement’s agenda. Mark died from AIDS in January 1985 but 3 days before he was in hospital he was on the picket line at Wapping.
Here is a party membership card belonging to former Communist, journalist David Aaronwich. He once wrote that ‘growing up a British Communist meant to encounter a series of connections which others simply did not have.’
Walking down St John Street I turn right through back streets of council housing juxtaposed with new coffee shops and art hubs. This is a reminder of the area’s working class roots. The various points in this part of the walk which pass through these North London housing estates echo the theme in my previous post based in Deptford. Here in North London I consider how social housing has impacted queer Londoners. Matt Cook in his study of queer domesticities reports that from the 80s the GLC and other Left Wing Councils, Islington being one of the most prominent, began tackling discrimination directly in their housing policies. By 1986 Islington had a an equal opportunity housing policy designed to accommodate Lesbians and Gay men, recognising these minorities were vulnerable to homelessness. They offered protection from harassment and secure housing tenancies on the same terms as heterosexual single people and couples.
Arriving at 25 Noel Street, former home of another rebel, gay playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Back in 1962 when homosexuality was unmentionable they were arrested for stealing and defacing books from Islington’s public libraries Orton and Halliwell were sent to prison for 6 months and fined 40 shillings. On Thursday 13 Jan 1983 Islington council decided to erect the green plaque outside the house
Ironically it is the councils libraries panel who is responsible for green plaques. This was a move urged by the Gay and Lesbian Working Party and is evidence of how in the space of 20 years municipal attitudes in the borough towards sexual minorities had turned full circle. Deputy Librarian Stan Marshall told Capital Gay ‘There is a kind of irony I suppose, with the distance of time it is now quite witty, but at the time it was different’
Just a few yards away from Noel Street stands the site of the Fallen Angel at 63-65 Graham Street now fallen to the same fate of many of the pubs covered in my Ghost Pub Walk and converted into residential property. Benefits for social groups such as the London Gay Teenage Group, an all day vegetarian cafe and a women only night on a Tuesday, all combined to make this venue a popular alternative to the commercial gay scene. It became the subject of controversy when its women only night was successfully challenged in court on the grounds of sexism, leading to the establishment of a picket line outside the pub in order to dissuade men from entering the premises on women only nights.
Reaching the junction of Upper Street and Pentonville Rd I walk down into Kings Cross.
I passed the site The Bell ( the home of the ‘alternative clone’) once stood and at end of Pentonville Road to my right is the Scala nightclub. During the 1980s this venue offered an unique queered experience of cinema going with its all nighter attracting an eclectic mix of cinema goers. These all nighters at the weekend showcased arthouse features by the work of cult film makers such Russ Meyer, John Waters, and Derek Jarman to name but a few.
To my left is Houseman’s Established at 5 Caledonian Road since 1959. This is a radical bookshop which for over 60 years has a tradition of stocking ‘everything from obscure journals and rare freesheets to esoteric gay titles’
Exiting Kings Cross via Grays Inn Road, crossing into Farringdon Road and through Exmouth Market I pass by an expansive building, the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). This archive acknowledges that London has always been the capital for the LGBTQ community in the UK and is committed to reflecting this. Within its stored records can be discovered committee minutes, correspondence and grant files relating to the establishment and assistance of LGBTQ groups from public bodies such as the GLC Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).
The LMA continues to document the history of the LGBTQ community by actively collecting archives relating to the queer experience in London. They partner with the Speak Out London, an oral history group, and the Black Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Cultural Archive, RUKUS.
Before turning back into Farringdon Road I spot a pub at 2 Northampton Road, The Bowler, this used to be called The Surprise. While not an exclusively gay venue, it did however play host to several queer club nights, one of these was a regular event held on a Saturday night called The New Depression. This offbeat and friendly club was similar to The Bell and The Fallen Angel in its choice of music, and clientele.
Given the aforementioned radical roots of the area and its history of embracing the marginalised, it is fitting that I end our walk on Clerkenwell Green at Marx House, the site of the Marx Memorial Library. As well as archiving a vast array of socialist material the building plays host to various leftist educational and activist gatherings.
So ends our tour of queer Clerkenwell. Hopefully I have demonstrated the importance of this part of London from a queer perspective and I hope for some of you this has triggered many happy memories. If there is something you feel has been left out from our walk please free to add this in the comments box below.
Cook, Matt, Queer Domesticities (London: Palgrave, 2014)
Farnham, Margot, and Paul Marshall, Walking After Midnight; Gay Men’s Life Stories (London: Routledge, 1989)
Norton, Rictor, Myth Of The Modern Homosexual (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016)