visit the 1930s gay members' club raided by police

The National Trust recreates London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous as part of a project exploring the city’s queer club culture.

by Matthew Whitehouse
02 March 2017, 3:54pm

It billed itself as "London's greatest bohemian rendezvous." A queer friendly members club considered such a threat to society in the 1930s that it received almost round the clock surveillance, The Caravan was one of several temporary spaces to open at a time when being openly gay could — and often did — lead to prosecution or imprisonment. It offered a safe place for the homosexual community and what's more, it looked like a right laugh too.

Center point to a new project aiming to tell the story of clandestine spaces in and around Soho between 1918 and 1967, The Caravan has been reconstructed at nearby Freud Café-Bar as part of a month of tours of LGBT heritage. Commemorating 50 years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality, the club — run by a former strongman Billy Reynolds and an escapologist know as "Iron Foot Jack" (!) — has been painstakingly recreated using police records held in the National Archives. In a fitting touch of karma, they're the very same police records that saw the place raided and shut it down, resulting in more than 100 arrests in 1934 (can't keep a good club down, eh).

As a different LGBT space seems to vanish in Soho every minute, we had a nice chat with Joseph Watson from the National Trust about what the program's all about and what it means for the city today.

What was The Caravan and how did the project come about then?
The Caravan was a queer friendly members club from 1934. It's the one we alighted on because the archival holdings the National Archives has on it are so incredibly rich, but what we know is that there were many such spaces around North Covent Garden, Soho, Fitzrovia — those kind of bits of central London that were spaces in which gay people could come together and feel at ease with one another and be open about their sexuality in a way that was not possible out on the streets. These places were very important and, for us, the significance of the project is really marking 1967 and the partial decriminalization of homosexuality. There's a bit of celebration in so far as remembering these extraordinary spaces that existed, and then the much more serious story of the impact the prejudice of the era had on people's lives.

What were the everyday prejudices faced by the community at the time?
There's an extraordinary address to the police commissioner which really makes it very clear that a lot of local feeling was very much against the Caravan Club. The club actually only existed for two months, which is not unique at all to the Caravan. The common situation was these clubs would spring up and then quite quickly, police would be alerted by other members of the community who felt very strongly about not wanting these places to exist and these people too near them. And so then the police would start to observe the space or the club and then raid it and shut it down.

How have you gone about recreating the club?
Well, we're using all of the pieces that are held in the National Archives. We're working as closely as we can to make it as historically accurate as possible but not to do so in a too finickity way. For us, the spirit of the place is absolutely the most important element of the project. We want it to feel as much as it can, like this particular club would have felt like. We're working with an organization called Fruit for the Apocalypse, which has a background in Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk. They're actually doing the recreation for us.

How timely is it to be doing this now, when so many LGBT spaces in Soho are under threat?
For us, this is as much about the future of Soho and these sorts of places as much as it is about the past. Part of the project will be tours on a day by day basis which go right into Soho and consider some of the spaces that existed for LGBT communities throughout this era. But also with one eye on the future as well, recognizing the much longer trajectory that Soho has been a place that fostered community and fostered subcultures from the 17th century onwards. To lose that as a very particular space within London that performs a very particular role, we think would be a real tragedy. This is part of our contribution to that debate.

How important is it for the National Trust to be doing events such as this?
We know that people think of us as the country house people and that's fine, we are perfectly comfortable about that. But we're able — and have been for some time now — to do much more interesting projects. We've done various things over the last few years that have included an act or telling the post-war history of Soho. So Soho isn't an entirely new project for us. And then also, we've done projects around Brutalist architecture, we've done projects around Croydon. It's not that unusual for us to be doing this kind of slightly out-there work. We're pleased to be the bit of the National Trust that can push the boundaries a little.

What do you hope people take from the project?
What I really hope people take away is a sense of longer history than they might otherwise have known about — a long view that then helps to inform the future. Because I think this is about asserting the fact that these kind of spaces have existed in Soho for a very long time and they are important to Soho and to that particular part of London. It's allowing the past to inform the future.

Queer City: London Club Culture 1918-67 takes place from March 2-26.


Text Matthew Whitehouse

gay culture
queer culture
the national trust