This weekend Southwark Local History Library & Archive are taking part in the ‘Talking Back’ LGBTQ+ History and Archives conference at London Metropolitan Archives. In preparation for this and in celebration of 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 we have been delving into our collections to discover what we hold to tell the histories of LGBTQ+ communities in Southwark.
We hold records for one of the earliest community, council and police-consultative groups in the country to begin tackling homophobia openly, the Southwark Anti-Homophobic Forum that launched in 1995 – still running today as the Southwark LGBT Forum. We also have an archive of the fascinating ‘Southwark Sappho’ lesbian newsletter, produced in 1993 by the Southwark Women’s Centre in Peckham and catering to the needs of a diverse local lesbian audience.
Other collections we discovered include photographs from World War One of soldiers in drag entertaining the troops in ‘concert parties’ abroad, including the incredible Kenneth Lowndes as Cinderella. We also have a watercolour painting from 1935 that shows an extremely rare-depiction of street drag performance, showing a drag troupe performing their high-kicks routine accompanied by barrel-organ on the back streets of Peckham.
We hold many council flyers promoting services to Gay & Lesbian people in Southwark including the launch of the ‘First ever day for Lesbians and Gays in Southwark’ which took place in 1988. We also hold photographs of Southwark’s float in Pride parades in London, as well as copies of an incredible photographic exhibition on the history of Pride in London 1972-2005 produced by Pam Isherwood for the Southwark LGBT Network.
New additions to the collection include Oral History interviews with key local figures including: Stephen Bourne, a prominent gay author and founder of the Anti-Homophobic Forum; Sue Sanders, another member of the forum and founder-member of ‘Schools OUT’ and LGBT History Month; and gay ephemera collector James Gardiner who brought the 1930s love story to the world of upper class Architect Monty Glover and his life partner Bermondsey boy Ralph Hall in his book ‘A Class Apart’.
To enable users to more easily discover these and more we have created a new LGBTQ+ Communities Collections Guide and will be launching a new online gallery showing some key items in the collection. Here is a selection:
These photographs from 21st London Regiment soldier Harry Milner’s scrapbook show Kenneth Lowndes in drag. He was part of the 60th Divisional Concert Party ‘The Roosters’, one of many such theatre troupes who formed during World War One to entertain their fellow troops when stationed abroad. The Roosters formed in 1917 in Salonika and went on to become one of the longest-lasting and popular concert parties, made famous to home crowds across the nation via performances broadcast on BBC radio, and performing to audiences up to the late 1950s.
The Follies Concert Party
This photograph shows the 47th Divisional Concert Party ‘The Follies’, one of many such theatre troupes who formed during World War One to entertain their fellow troops when stationed abroad. They performed a variety of comedic and variety pieces, and one popular song performed by two ‘ladies’ vying for the love of one gentleman was ‘Wonderful Girl, Wonderful Time’ from the 1916 musical Houp-La. The Follies often wore dinstinctive green and black pierrot costumes although this photograph depicts them in character roles.
Turkish room at Bermondsey Public Baths
The public baths on Grange Road in Bermondsey opened in 1927 and were a very grand affair designed in ornate fashion to enable the poor of the borough to wash. While the baths performed their public function very well, the Turkish baths and Russian steam room in the basement also took on another role as a notorious and tolerated homosexual rendezvous. Before the days of open homosexuality public baths such as these were well-known cruising and homosocial spaces, especially as many were open late at night with little supervision. Bermondsey became quite famous in queer circles with even carry-on star Kenneth Williams commenting that having been there for ‘traditional interest’ in 1958 he found it ‘quite fabulous’. [For further information on the London public baths in this context see Matt Houlbrook’s excellent book Queer London]
The Street Entertainers Move On
This watercolour was painted by 18-year-old Winnie Collins for a school competition in 1935. It is a rare depiction of a troupe of Drag entertainers who performed on the streets of Peckham. Female impersonation in theatre was common at this time, especially in the ‘soldiers in skirts’ that existed in theatrical units of the armed forces in World War One. During the 1920s and 30s some of these continued entertaining on stages across the UK and street entertainment drag was common in the working class areas of South and East London.
Southwark LGBT Forum
The Southwark LGBT Forum is a partnership organisation originally formed in 1995 as the Southwark Anti-Homophobic Forum, a panel including representatives from Southwark Council and local councillors working in collaboration with Southwark Police to address problems of homophobia in the borough. Our collections for the Forum include materials from 1995-2011 covering their community outreach work and also project materials for LGBT History Month and Pride.
These pages are from the Lesbian Newsletter ‘Southwark Sappho’ produced by the Southwark Women’s Centre on Peckham High Street from 1993-1994. The newsletter and related group aimed to provide ‘non-separatist support’ for all lesbians, running drop-in sessions and events considering issues such as racism in the lesbian and gay community as well as promoting local services and events taking place across London.