brighton's history

A History of Lesbian & Gay Brighton

Chapter 2: An Underground World, 1900-67

By the 1920s and 30s Brighton was well established on the queer social map as 'the place to go and let your hair down'. Radclyffe Hall (author of The Well of Loneliness) came to party - 'we all talked and howled till 1.30 am'; there were women-only tea dances at the Royal Albion Hotel and in 1929 the Brighton Man-Woman hit the headlines. Lillias Arkell-Smith, passing as Colonel Sir Victor Ivor Gauntlett Blyth Barker (man-about-town, huntsman and cricketer) had, six years earlier, wooed a local woman, married her at St Peter's church and honeymooned at the Grand Hotel. Lillias, regarded by Radclyffe Hall as a 'mad pervert of the most undesirable kind', was found guilty of describing herself as a bachelor in a register of marriage and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. The Evening Argus muttered to its readers that 'there are obvious difficulties in discussing the case'.

A case the Argus had less trouble discussing concerned the death of a young man in his employer's flat in Hove in 1936. He was chauffeur to an antique dealer and their friendship was remarked to be 'much closer than usually existed between employer and employed'. The dealer, found guilty of murdering his servant, claimed that his 'absolute companion and friend' had committed suicide because the true nature of their relationship had been discovered. He was sentenced to death.

By the 1930s pubs with a lesbian or gay clientele were flourishing - among these, the Star of Brunswick in Brunswick Street West and Pigott's bar at the St James's Tavern in Madeira Place were especially popular with the boys and girls respectively. Playwright and local historian John Montgomery later wrote, 'From London in the thirties we used to roar down to Brighton in fast sports cars...The main rendezvous was the Star of Brunswick pub in Hove, outside which Rolls Royces, Daimlers and MGs were parked far up the street. There was also the New Pier Tavern, long since gone, with its noisy honky-tonk piano, thick atmosphere of tobacco and sprinkling of red-coated, pink-faced guardsmen, and sailors from Portsmouth.' 1

For much of the Second World War, Brighton was closed to casual visitors for reasons of national security. The beach was swathed in barbed wire and all but the stretch of King's Road from West Street to the Palace Pier was inaccessible. But for homosexual residents, there were other attractions - Brighton was again full of available soldiers: Australians and Canadians. 'You used to meet them round the Clock Tower and off you'd go, there was plenty of places because of the blackout.' (Bob) Having more important things to worry about, the police posed no threat to these night-time engagements. Jack recalls, 'Brighton was so gay during the war, it really was. There were so many sailors. They were stationed at Roedean girls' school and a lot of the gays used to almost camp outside the gates.' The Star of Brunswick was still going strong as a meeting place for homosexuals and apparently attracted enough interest from officer-cadets at training base HMS King Alfred to warrant naval authorities putting it out of bounds.

Women and men in the forces who were away from home meeting other gay people for the first time in their lives also heard about Brighton and its special pleasures - later they came from all over the country to visit and many stayed to make their homes here and helped turn Brighton into a Shangri-La in the post-war years, with an extensive gay culture, unusual for a provincial town of its size. Until the cheap package holiday changed the face of tourism in the late sixties Brighton was the premier destination for British gay holidaymakers. Word filtered along the grapevine about guesthouses where the proprietors were willing to turn a blind eye to illegal 'goings-on'. Some establishments were owned by gay men who welcomed gay holidaymakers. 'Couples could stay without fear of being suspected or molested' at the St Albans Hotel in Regency Square, the Cecil Court Hotel on Kings Road or Le Chateau Gaye in Castle Street, the forerunners of today's gay hotels which contribute so much to the City's economy.

The highlight of the social calendar for some lesbians and gay men in the grim days of post-war austerity was the Sussex Arts Ball, held annually in the ballroom of the Aquarium (now Brighton Sea Life Centre). It was started in 1947 with the idea in mind that local businesses and art students would create a carnival spirit, but it became a magnet for cross-dressing gays of both sexes including flamboyant drag artist, Betty Lou, who regularly stole the show. Michael recalls:

'I came on the scene when Betty Lou had the idea for the peacock. It went up eleven foot or twelve foot high with these peacock's eyes all round and it was absolutely beautiful. The bodywork of the peacock itself was all done in glistening sequins and pearls.'

Many gay people never found their way to a gay venue - with no gay press and no Switchboards, you had to have already met somebody who could tell you where to go. It was not uncommon for lesbians and gay men to find out about bars and fellow outcasts by being warned off them. Of those who did find their way through the looking glass into wonderland, not everyone enjoyed the experience. This Mass Observation account of a day trip to Brighton on Easter Sunday 1949 illustrates the point:

'Arthur, Michael, Peter and I went into a small bar which was completely full of about 35 males - the vast majority of whom appeared to be homosexuals. Frank refused to go into the bar, saying that he just didn't want to and would sit in the car and wait for the others. Frank is the clandestine type of homosexual. He heartily disapproves of all varieties of 'camp' and unless he was known as such, would never be identified as a homosexual.' 2

There were other reasons for not going to gay bars and clubs in the 1950s and '60s - the police liked to make their presence felt and were known to raid gay haunts, taking names and addresses of those present. People usually kept a 'club name' for these occasions. Evidence of a hostile world sometimes burst through the doors of bars in the shape of thugs out to smash and wound - or sidled in with a smirk, 'sightseeing'. If the press got hold of a story a person could lose their job, their home, their family and friends. Many chose not to take the risk. Barbara, who lived on the outskirts of Brighton in the 1950s with her lover, a professional woman remembers:

'We were discreet. We lived a serene life in the suburbs. We never went to the cinema, we never went dancing, we never went to a pub or a club. I'm sure the neighbours didn't suspect we were lesbians. Even Emily's friends didn't know about us. We kept separate bedrooms and were careful not to show affection when they were around. Lesbians were never mentioned. Emily and I didn't even mention it to each other.'

This kind of lifestyle was probably prevalent among the majority of lesbians and a large number of gay men. Later on, in 1963, the Minorities Research Group (MRG) started in London as a social and discussion network for lesbians. Its monthly magazine, Arena Three, was the first openly available gay publication in Britain, predating Gay News by nine years. Brighton became the base for the south coast region's branch of MRG. A counselling and befriending service was offered for isolated lesbians and those whose relationships had broken up. Members organised a lively round of outings and gatherings in one another's homes.

'It was wonderful to go to these things because you could just be yourself - you hadn't to pretend or be afraid to make a glance or a gesture or say what you thought. It was wonderful to be free.' Barbara

For the many who did venture onto the scene in the fifties and sixties, Brighton offered a seemingly vast array of clubs and pubs, catering to every class and lifestyle. Venues ranged from the lavish Regina Club in North Street and the very select Argyle Hotel in Middle Street to the Belvedere and Fortune of War pubs on the seafront 'mostly used by the very big, butch lesbians that really looked like navvies. There were queers among the upper, the middle and the lower classes. A lot of queers would say, 'Oh, I wouldn't go into that place, they're awfully common in there.'' (Grant)

Chapter 3 of 4: Out of the Closet, 1967-87


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