Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-35460-6

Chapter One



It is received wisdom that, as Liz Gill put it in the Guardian recently, "being gay was illegal" until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. If the statement is misleading in its conception of the law, it nonetheless highlights the accumulated battery of legal provisions designed or utilized to suppress sexual, social, or cultural interactions between men in the first half of the twentieth century. As Harry Cocks demonstrates, the offences of buggery and indecent assault evolved within common and statute law from the late eighteenth century to encompass any homosexual encounter, wherever it had occurred, and whether or not the men involved had consented. These provisions were codified and elaborated in the late nineteenth century. Sections of the Offences against the Person Act (1861) dealing with buggery and indecent assault were followed by the notorious section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885), defining any act of "gross indecency" between men in "public or private" as an offence. Statute law was, moreover, complemented by the offence of "indecency" under many local bylaws.

These narrowly defined sexual offences were supplemented by a series of provisions that targeted wider social and cultural practices. Responding to anxieties about the condition of London's streets, the Vagrancy Law Amendment Act (1898) and the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1912) introduced the public order offence of "persistently importuning for an immoral purpose," which attempted to suppress queer men's use of public space for "cruising" and social interaction. Generalized public order statutes and licensing provisions, moreover, notionally made it an offence for a commercial venue to tolerate queer men's presence. It was never illegal simply "to be gay," but the law criminalized a series of discrete social, sexual, and cultural practices in which men might participate.

The formal regulation of male sexual and social behavior was thus structured around a dual logic. Although the introduction of legislation was often ad hoc and haphazard, in practice the law constituted a pervasive system of moral governance, defining sexual "normality" through the symbolic ordering of urban space. Acceptable sexual conduct was defined around the bourgeois nuclear family-private, between adult "heterosexual" married couples. Legislation against homosex thus echoed that against prostitution or public sex-in Philip Hubbard's phrase, making "dominant moral codes clear, tangible and entrenched, providing a fixed point in the attempt to construct boundaries between good and bad subjects." In so doing, the law collapsed the conceptual distinctions between public and private that, notionally, went to its very heart. As Leslie Moran suggests, public space was understood as the realm of law's full presence-"a space of order and decency through the law." The private, by contrast, was "an alternative place where the law is absent." The law's "absence," however, was contingent upon conforming to notions of normative sexual and social behavior. The "bad subject"-the sexual deviant-remained subject to state intervention, and was deemed sufficiently dangerous as to warrant intrusion into the sanctified private sphere.

For queer men, these provisions had profound implications, for the law threatened to follow them into the intimate, prosaic, and ubiquitous spaces of everyday urban life. If they looked for partners in the street or park or simply had sex in their own home, they could be arrested, prosecuted, imprisoned for up to ten years, and-in certain cases-whipped. If they met friends in a caf�� they could be caught up in a police raid, their names taken, and the venue closed. The formal technology of surveillance institutionalized and embodied by the law suggested that the British state was unwilling to tolerate any expressions of male same-sex desire, physical contact, or social encounter. In all its erotic, affective, and social relations the queer body-and the spaces it inhabited-was a public body, subject to the draconian force of law. De jure, the modern metropolis held no place for the queer.

To read queer men's experiences of the law from its formal provisions, however, fails to comprehend the complex and often contradictory ways in which legislation was implemented. Only through the intermediary agencies of municipal governance established in the nineteenth century-the Metropolitan Police (the Met), the London County Council (LCC), the Metropolitan Borough Councils, and the Military Authorities-did that legislation acquired tangible significance. Rather than what it said, the issue becomes how, and with what effects, was legislation translated into practice on London's streets. How was the law embodied through the daily routine of police operations?

While queer urban cultures were subject to surveillance by a diverse range of agencies, this chapter focuses upon the operations of the Met and, in particular, their enforcement of the sexual offences laws. It was in London's public spaces and through the figure of the policeman that queer men most often encountered the law. The Met were always most active in policing men's behavior, providing information to all other agencies. Moreover, this case study highlights the tensions between legislative pronouncements and the realities of regulation. I will return to the policing of commercial venues and the activities of other official agencies throughout part 2, setting shifting forms of regulation against the changing organization of queer sociability. My argument here-elaborated in the chapters that follow-is simple: policing was idiosyncratic and contingent, rendering specific practices and places invisible while bringing others into sharp relief. The de jure exclusion of queer men from metropolitan London collapsed amidst the operational realities of modern police systems.


To explore the operationalization of the sexual offences laws means reconstituting the cognitive landscape inhabited by individual policemen, the maps through which they organized and understood their own movements across the city. The legal and administrative rules governing policing, as well as the informal knowledge officers gained through experience on the ground, interacted to produce an imagined geography of sexual transgression that defined whom the queer was, where he was to be found, and how he could be apprehended.

Crucially, while legislation collapsed the conceptual distinction between public and private, that logic did not extend to the procedural rules defining the Met's formal operational domain. The result, in Nick Fyfe's terms, was "a set of significant steering constraints of structural importance for [their] time-space deployment." The physical, cultural, and administrative barriers constructed around the home created a de facto private space. Officers could only enter residential spaces with a search warrant. In detecting private sexual offences, the Met thus relied upon public complaints or secondhand information. That the police never made any concerted attempts to pursue the queer into his home placed men's behavior there almost beyond the law: "such acts," the director of public prosecutions (DPP) admitted in 1954, "are unprosecutable." Access to commercial venues was similarly circumscribed, possible only under particular conditions. These formal "steering constraints" confined the policeman's habitual beat to London's streets and open spaces.

Working within these jurisdictional parameters, senior and divisional officers thus established administrative definitions of importuning, gross indecency, and indecent assault that oriented patrols towards public queer spaces, mapping legal offences firmly onto particular urban sites. In Hyde Park, for example, beat officers were directed to the Meeting Ground and Hyde Park Corner. Under these formal definitions the public urinal was identified as the locus of sexual offences. Asked to report on "homosexuality" in the West End in 1952, C Division police officers simply listed the urinals where men could be found. This formal correlation between geography and criminality was, moreover, constantly reproduced at the divisional level. In 1933, for example, the attention of officers at Tower Bridge station was drawn to one Bermondsey urinal "by notes in the rough book." The administrative conventions of policing articulated a narrow operational field that, for the most part, placed alternative sites of queer sexual and social interaction outside surveillance.

Within these formal constraints, the enforcement of the law depended upon the everyday movements of individual officers. Immersed in their operational environment, policemen became ever more familiar with the spatial and cultural organization of queer life, gaining the informal knowledge allowing them to interpret and implement legislation. As one officer was told during a 1932 raid on a ballroom, "you know what kind of boys we are." The importance of knowing these "kind of boys" to policing is clear from the experiences of Police Constable (PC) 89/E Reginald Handford. Handford joined the Met in 1925, transferring to Bow Street station the following year at the age of twenty-two. There he became part of a group of twelve plainclothes policemen employed in the "detection of crime" in the district around the Strand.

Handford learned to police from his more experienced colleagues-Cundy, Mogford, Shewry, Hills, and Slyfield-drawing upon their accumulated experience dealing with sexual offences. In part, officers became increasingly sensitized to the visual signifiers of character that allowed them to differentiate the queer from the fluid urban crowd. The effeminate quean became a working definition both of the queer himself and the perpetrator of a sexual offence, his body a demonstrable sign of deviant intent. While Handford, for example, recognized that "there are different forms of sodomites" and, indeed, arrested one man who "had no outward indication of his nefarious habits," he clearly visualized the transgressive male body in a particular way. When asked, "have these male importuners ... anything distinctive about them?" he replied immediately, "Yes, painted lips, powder." 19 On the beat, this image oriented officers towards individuals and commercial venues. In 1926, for example, Slyfield and Mogford were inside the Strand Hotel Restaurant when Frank W. drew their attention because of his "heavily powdered" face. They watched him cruising in other bars, on the Strand, and in Villiers Street before arresting him for importuning. Within such mentalities, sexual offences could be defined as transgressions of acceptable masculine styles, leaving conventionally dressed men and the venues they frequented invisible.

The sensitivity of Slyfield and Mogford to the minutiae of self-presentation suggests a further geographical coding of sexual transgression. To put it another way, their experience produced a detailed cognitive map that defined sexual offences as place-specific. While Frank W. may have moved unnoticed outside the West End, in a district imagined as a site of sexual disorder and vice his body drew suspicion. Indeed, the officers' presence in certain venues on the Strand indicates how policing was organized not just by knowledge of who the queer was but also where he could be found. Sexual deviance-and consequently, police surveillance-was, in part, mapped onto the Strand's commercial spaces and places like the Coliseum Theatre. Despite this, procedural constraints and their immersion in public urban life focused officers' attention upon the streets, parks, and above all, urinals frequented by queer men. If street cruising was fluid and mobile, urinals were fixed and physically bounded-as well as being administratively defined-and therefore easy to keep under surveillance. In 1927, almost all of the arrests made by E Division officers arose in fifteen local urinals-places like Durham House Street, Taylor's Buildings, York Place, and Cecil Court.

This local geography of sexual transgression was clearly established by 1917, inherited and elaborated by successive generations of beat officers, and becoming central to occupational definitions of masculinity and competency. The good policeman, quite simply, knew his "ground." Within this milieu Handford, apparently, learned quickly. Through conversation he became aware of the Coliseum's reputation and the "importuners" around Charing Cross. On the beat, colleagues introduced him to the "public house[s] sodomites are frequenting." He knew of the blackmailers operating in the neighborhood and the men who had sex under the arches of the Adelphi. He recognized the "convicted sodomites" he encountered. He identified "four urinals which are used by these sort of people," having "discussed ... the prevalence of this particular crime at this particular place with Slyfield [and] Mogford." Drawing upon this remarkable familiarity with local queer culture, he focused his own attentions on one "notorious urinal" in the Adelphi Arches-"always frequented by certain sodomites." The urinal became an established stop in his habitual patrols. In eighteen months he arrested fifteen men there for sexual offences and was commended three times.

E Division's focus on public space-and particularly on local urinals-reflected the broader geography of urban policing. Between 90 and 95 percent of the incidents resulting in proceedings for sexual offences in London's lower courts arose in urinals, parks, or streets. Urinals accounted for between 55 and 70 percent of the total. Indeed, in 1947 18 percent of all incidents (114 out of 637) were detected in the toilets at Victoria Station. In only two periods was there any departure from this pattern. Pressure from purity organizations to "clean up" London's open spaces resulted in a twofold increase in the proportion of incidents arising in parks between 1917 and 1922. And in 1937-coronation year-there was a marked intensification in the surveillance of West End streets, as officers attempted to cleanse London's public face. Both these years were exceptional: policing consistently focused upon London's urinals.

These broad patterns masked significant differences between local police divisions. Between 1917 and 1957 the Bow and Marlborough Street magistrates, responsible for the central districts patrolled by A, B, C, and E Divisions, heard over half the prosecutions for queer offences. In 1922 both courts tried six cases each month, rising to twenty-one in 1952. East End or suburban magistrates, by contrast, heard only a handful of cases each year. In part, this reflected London's queer geography: most incidents arose in the West End since that was where men gathered in greatest numbers. Yet it was also structured by different patterns of police deployment and knowledge. Central London officers encountered queer men more frequently, were oriented towards sexual offences by divisional officers and thus conducted a more active surveillance of public and commercial spaces. Such operations performed an important ideological function. Central London was the symbolic heart of imperial grandeur, mass consumption, and tourism. Here the queer was a dangerous incursion onto the defining spaces of Britishness, his presence striking because he seemed so out of place. The imagined geography of metropolitan life demanded modes of policing that were simply not deemed necessary elsewhere, containing the visibility of disorderly sexualities and "purifying" the West End. The geography of policing embodied in these statistics fundamentally undermined men's nominal exclusion from the city. If the risk of arrest was ever-present in some places, in others it was distant, intangible, and unlikely.

The Met were certainly not the only agency that maintained surveillance over London's queer spaces, operating alongside a disparate range of other municipal authorities. These institutions, moreover, were supplemented by the quasi-official work of organizations like the National Vigilance Association (NVA), the Central South London Free Church Council, and the Public Morality Council (PMC). Drawing upon the campaigning traditions of evangelical Christianity established in the late nineteenth century, such organizations sought to reaffirm London's moral order. Their agents regularly patrolled streets and commercial venues, attempting to purge sexual dissidence from public space. If their focus was primarily upon female prostitution and working-class "heterosexuality," they periodically turned their attention to the queer men they encountered, gathering information and pressing the police to act against offending behavior at particular cruising grounds, cinemas, and venues.


Excerpted from QUEER LONDONby MATT HOULBROOK Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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