Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A London Drag Ball, 1930s

"If you went to clubs in those days before the war, you'd have been arrested and put in prison. I know personally a case where a woman, who I knew very well, started this gay club. Now I am talking many years ago, before the war, and I could see the danger. I said, you've got to stop it. But she took a house in Holland Park. It was known as the Holland Park case. They just danced, nothing so blatant as they do now. And one Saturday night the whole of Holland Park, reaching up to Shepherd's Bush I should think, was simply full of black marias and police. People thought the war had started or something. And there were two young policemen who were dressed up. Of course they gave the evidence. And everyone was arrested.

Now what I'm saying is history. They took them all to Brixton prison. And kept them there, they were not given bail. When they went up to the Old Bailey, it was top news, they had placards then, you know. The Evening News used to have a placard on, and everyone was talking about it. The judge made them wear a placard. He said there's too many to deal with these terrible people, put a placard on them and a number. And so they were numbered, with the indignity of this bloody placard. And then the trial came to the time of the sentences and he sentenced them to imprisonment.

When it was all over, the judge called these two detectives and praised them. He said, I am going to recommend your promotion for dealing with this horrible case. I feel so sorry, it must have affected you mentally. And I direct now that under no circumstances must you ever be involved in a case again of any description with homosexual men because no human being could stand it. It just shows you the scathing bitterness they had for it" (Roy, born in Brixton in 1908).

Source: Between the Acts: Lives of homosexual mean 1885-1967, edited by Kevin Porter and Jeffrey Weeks (London: Routledge, 1991).

The Holland Park Avenue drag ball raid is also covered in Matt Houlbrook's excellent book 'Queer London', where its is reported that 60 men were arrested in the raid leading to a trial in March 1933:

“The ballroom had been let for a series of dances by Austin S. – more commonly Lady Austin – a twenty-four year old barman, John P., a twenty-two year-old waiter, and Betty, who ran other West London dance balls. Publicized via word of mouth and a flyer advertising ‘Hotel Staff Dances’ within a network of friends working in nearby hotels, the events were run “only for our love for each other”. In court, arresting officers described a “blatant” spectacle of sexual transgression: men had danced together, kissed, and been intimate: they had worn women’s clothes and makeup and called themselves “Lady Austin’s Camp Boys”… David M [one of these arrested] asked of one policeman: ‘Surely in a free country we can do what we like? We know each other and are doing no harm… it is a pity these people don’t understand our love. I am afraid a few will have to suffer yet before our ways are made legal’’

Source: Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

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