Issue 18 . Winter 2005
Rookie to Raunchy
This is the story of how Bubbles (Iris) Ashdown joined the Army and started her fifty year love affair with the Brighton gay scene. Taken from an interview conducted a few months before her death in 1993.
"My date of birth was 25th June 1925 but according to the Army I was born 25th June 1923. I had to add two years to join the Army. I had my first affair with a girl at twelve. Her name was May - I met her at school, she was a bit older than me. My Grandfather put me to quite a nice private school but in 1941 I decided there was no future for me in Brighton because I was born illegitimate, which was very unfortunate, and everyone started asking questions, you see. So I thought the only answer was that May and I would join the Army so we both went up and volunteered at Waterloo Place. Unfortunatley, May had been in the Territorials - she was exservice and it was my first time in, so she never went to the same place as me. I went to Norton Barracks in Worcestershire and then to Donnington on the Welsh Borders."
Bubbles soon after she'd joined up in her ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) uniform, possibly on Ditchling Road where she lived.
"I had my first charge in the Army, then. We used to march two miles to work at the depot and we had no refreshments so I used to take myself a couple of big bits of bread and marg and jam and put them in my steel helmet. And then one day a new officer came, a Miss Peach, she was a second lieutenant. In those days you weren't under military law so she was called 'Miss' and she was what was called PAD officer, which was Passive Air Defence. And she rode this bloody bicycle and she called out, "Gas!", which meant we had to do the drill: swing your gas mask round, put your gas mask on - of course, I had a jam sandwich in it, didn't I? Up on a charge, 'Stealing Army Rations'. I lost two days' pay and I was confined to barracks. But to me it was all exciting, I was only sixteen, it was thrilling, you see."
"I knew I liked women but it wasn't an important issue. I didn't analyse it, I didn't think, 'Oh dear, I'm a lesbian - Oh Dear God, help me' - you know. It was just one of those things. It was part of life. I was just a person. But in the Army I was illegal, so I kept my nose clean. About 1943 or '42, I did have a little affair with an assistant adjutant at a women's camp. If we'd been caught, it would have been very, very nasty."
"Soon after the war I got stationed in Brighton - Tower House on Preston Road, which was rather lovely, with a transport company. Coming to Brighton was like a new world - Brighton was different. I remember the Marine Hotel, which not many do. It was on the seafront. Bill Lloyd - of course a woman - used to run the downstairs. I found it because I got friendly with a girl - I didn't know if she was queer but turned out afterwards she was. We went walking one night, saw this couple of butch types and we followed them and they went down this basement at this Marine Hotel. And it was fabulous - remember it's been wartime and everything's been rather austere - and there's this beautiful velvet and chandeliers. I couldn't believe it. It was full of lesbians - charming, well-dressed women, some in bowties and some feminine. And they fawned over me! I was very young, having joined the Army at fifteen and war ended in 1945. For me it was a new thing. It was fantastic!"
"There weren't many clubs at that time, the Marine Hotel was the main scene. Pigott's was a pub in St James's Street. There'd be a woman called Dolly that used to play the piano and it was queer, it was a queer pub, so I felt right there."
"You used to get soldiers coming in and they used to start a fight with the queer boys. I remember some of the soldiers would come in quite friendly, you know and of course there was always a good sing-song night there. There was a girl called Laurie and Laurie was a big butch lesbian. She would sing Nature Boy. She'd got a good voice. And the soldiers didn't mind her singing, although she was very butch, all collar and tie, you know, the works. And then there was this very camp queen, and he was so camp that one day a soldier took a poke at him - 'cause he was too obvious: 'Dahling' and all that. I used to intervene, very nicely, 'cause I was quite diplomatic in those days. I wasn't in uniform but I would talk the Army jargon. I got friendly with the queer boys because they were illegal and I was illegal. I was twenty-five years in the Army."
Marine Hotel on the corner of Marine Parade and Broad Street in 1947.