Soho in the 1930s was for the theatrical, the ostracised, the bohemian, the misfits. It was before, as far back as the 1700s, and in many ways it still is.
It started as a hunting ground, when London’s urban sprawl hadn’t yet reached the West End. The very name ‘Soho’ is thought to come from an old hunting cry. Picture men on horseback frolicking around, crying ‘So Ho! So Ho!’ and you’re probably about right.
As the city developed, Soho became a twisting warren of narrow streets, perfect for those who wanted to stay hidden.
For some, it was because they were up to something shady. Whether it was the Hooper’s Hotel, Mrs. Goadby’s “nunnery”, or Carlisle House, by the end of the eighteenth century, Soho was notorious for its brothels and courtesans.
But for many others, it was because the secret corners of Soho offered important spaces where society’s most ostracised could be themselves.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Soho was already at the centre of London’s LGBTQ+ community. Decades before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised sex between men, some freedom and community could be found in the numerous illegal drinking dens and makeshift private members’ clubs which popped up in and around Soho. Although, unfortunately the safety these places could provide was limited, as they were subject to constant police scrutiny and raids and general public disproval.
On the fringes of Soho was the Caravan Club. It’s not exactly clear when the Caravan Club emerged in the basement of 81 Endell Street (probably for a reason!). The first known reference we have of it was in October 1933, and that was only because it was under police surveillance (and remained so from then on).
It was run by ‘Iron Foot Jack’ Neave and William ‘Billy’ Reynolds. Entrance cost one shilling for members or 1s 6d on the door, for which you could enjoy “all-night gaiety”. Clientele were entertained by the music of the club’s resident accordionist, Charlie, the occasional cabaret act, and various other musical performances. By its own description, it was “London’s Greatest Bohemian Rendezvous”. It’s eclectic, ramshackle appearance – swathes of colourful fabric covering the ceiling, whatever material they could find draped on the walls, tables made out of barrels, and a completely random assortment of furniture – was part of the appeal. I was able to experience just a taste of what the Caravan Club would have been like in the 1930s when I volunteered for National Trust London in 2017 and they painstakingly recreated the interior of the club based on photos held by the National Archives. The small space, dim and mysterious, like you weren’t quite sure what was happening behind each curtain or in its shadowy corners. At the same time though, full of energy and excitement – from the guests who’d come to experience this pop-up space for themselves, who knew they’d found something special, to the fabulous actors who performed and wandered around the space, mingling with the public.
Unsurprisingly, the Caravan Club was not universally welcomed. The police surveillance from 1933 started because they were receiving so many letters of complaints. One anonymous writer was outraged by this establishment which was “only frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites. It’s absolutely a sink of iniquity.” Many of these anonymous letters (against the Caravan Club as well as other similar venues in Soho) were signed off, “A Citizen”, “An Englishman”, “pro bono publico” (for the public good”) – they saw it as their moral and civic duty to shut these places down.
It was then, in the early morning of 25th August 1934, that several plain-clothed officers entered the club. The officers recorded what they saw on entering the venue: “Men were dancing with men and women with women”, “couples wriggling their posteriors”, “acting in a very obscene manner”. Deciding they’d seen enough, the officers took up their positions and raided the club. They announced that the police were there to arrest people “for maintaining the place in a manner likely to corrupt morals”.
103 people were arrested and taken to Bow Street Police Station.
What’s consistent with police accounts from across these clubs is the analysis of what was considered “effeminate” behaviour and the wearing of make-up or having your eyebrows plucked as definitive signs of homosexuality. A sign that policing was still conducted with deep-rooted stereotypes of the queer community. Individuals like Cyril Coeur de Leon (Cyril Lionheart), known only by this pseudonym or as “The Countess”, had to undergo the humiliating process at the police station of having his cheeks rubbed with blotting paper for evidence of make-up. This was a common practice by the police at the time – if any evidence of make-up was found, that was enough for police to accuse you of homosexual offences.
Most of those arrested were found “not guilty” on the condition that they never frequent such a club again. The owners, Jack Neave and Billy Reynolds, were not let off so lightly: Neave was sentenced to twenty months hard labour and Reynolds to twelve months in prison.
What I think is important when we think about the Caravan Club today is the human stories. This wasn’t just an event which happened over 85 years ago, upsetting but too far removed from us today. The Caravan Club was an important place, a safe space, completely uprooted and destroyed in the space of a couple of hours. More than its four walls too: it’s the people who made the Caravan Club. The regulars, the ones just passing through, the people who just happened to be there that night on the 24th-25th August.
This wasn’t just a faceless mass of people: these were shop assistants, waiters, school masters, engineers…
They included owner Jack Neave who defended his patrons during the raid: “I will admit that there is a variety of people who are eccentric… I am willing to swear nothing suggestive or immoral has taken place.”
We see the defiant positivity of Cyril Coeur de Lion, who approached the police inspector that night and said, “Well, I don’t mind this beastly raid, but I would like to know if you can let me have one of your nice boys to come home with.”
Or the heartbreakingly tender side to the same man. In a letter, discovered by police at the raid, scrunched up and torn and hidden under a divan with a powder puff. Cyril wrote to “My darling Morris” that he was “counting the hours until I could see you”, “I only wish that I was going away with you, just you and I to eat, sleep and make love together.” His personal correspondence was then typed up by police and used against his beloved Club at the Central Criminal Court. Sadly, we’ll probably never know the end of Cyril’s story.