In his latest book, Queer City, London’s foremost historian Peter Ackroyd talks with Uli Lenart about LGBT+ life in the capital down the centuries
Published to mark the diverse range of exhibitions and events to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, comes this fascinating new LGBT+ history of queer London.
Teeming with incredible stories, amazing characters and extraordinary detail, Queer City is the fascinating story of LGBT+ London from the Romans to the present day and reveals the incredibly rich history of London’s LGBT+ past.
Your latest book, Queer City unearths the incredibly rich history of London’s LGBT+ past. What inspired you to write it?
Well, it came about by accident. Someone suggested it from Chatto & Windus [the publishers] and I thought it was a very good idea. I’d written a long life of London but I’d never really engaged in the queer aspects of London and I thought it was about time I did.
Would you say that sexuality in the past was more fluidly bisexual than today?
It was certainly more fluid: amorphous, non-determinate to a certain extent. So that, whether you were a fetishistic transvestite or transsexual, it really didn’t mean that much. It was just another aspect of ordinary sexual behaviour.
How intertwined would you say is power and class with London’s queer history?
They are very important in terms of power in particular because, even from the very beginnings, a Roman citizen could have sex with a slave or a boy but not with another citizen. That was forbidden. So from the very beginning we have sexual practices determined by social conventions.
Queer City is teeming with some rather evocative and inventive terminology in relation to same-sex sexuality. I’m thinking baedlings, rump riders and rubsters; do you have any favourites from this lexicon that you uncovered?
I quite like the slightly saucy ones. The 18th-century ones. The fribble or whiffle [the character of Fribble from David Garrick’s farce Miss in her Teens, 1747], they were part of the slang of the period. And from the Molly Houses, terms like Miss Muff and The Duchess, and the rest of them. I rather like those transgressions of normal social behaviour.
With those Molly House terms, you can almost hear the queens of the period talking to each other from history.
Oh, yes, and the same kind of language is still being used today. It just a subversive, theatrical phantasmagoria of titles.
London has however experienced an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and condemnation. What are the forces behind those cycles?
It’s a mixture of things, public morality at a certain point, it is social morality at a certain point. It is to do with the prominence or visibility of homosexuals in certain circles and it is to do with pervading sexual mores. It has changed more rapidly than can be imagined.
There is this sense in your book of the body and sexuality being political, of homosexuality being somehow treasonous and having implications for social order and being dangerous.
Oh yes, that is certainly true. Gays were conflated with heretics and with traitors. It was considered part of the same counter-cultural disgust.
Despite always being forbidden, same-sex activity between men didn’t become a capital offence until the 16th century with the Buggery Act. What were the forces behind that legislative shift?
Well, in that case, the Buggery Act was designed to specifically counter the monks of the period. So it didn’t really have any significance beyond that; it was essentially an attempt to suborn any renegade Roman Catholics.
One of the recurring themes of Queer City is public space, and the ways in which queer people always found places in which to gather and have sex. Do you think the rise of hook-up apps such as Grindr represents a threat/disruption to this, or a continuation?
I don’t know. There were plenty of private spaces for gays to meet in every century, it’s not a new thing. But the public spaces were, I do think, somehow more important. If you think of London Bridge – the latrines – Chancery Lane, the Royal Exchange, Ludgate Hill, Whitefriars, Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, St. Paul’s. All these places became well known for their amenability to same-sex coupling and I think that has, to a certain extent, been changed.
There are many characters throughout the book who could perhaps be said to be transgender. Writing the book did you feel at all hindered by a need to use contemporary terminology regarding trans issues?
Not really because it seemed the most appropriate way to describe them. I mean, things like gender-bending, transsexuality, transvestitism are, of course, as old as London itself. It didn’t strike me as being odd to continue the tradition.
For those who may not have heard of them, could you tell us a little about Boulton and Park, or Fanny and Stella?
Fanny and Stella were around in the 1870s and 1880s, and they were boys about town who liked to dress up as girls in order to attract men as clients. But the peculiar thing about their trial was that their defence was that they were just a couple of actresses – actors, and even brought their mothers in to talk of their interest in amateur dramatics, and they were eventually acquitted to huge celebrations from the crowds outside the Old Bailey, which suggests that the effeminacy and transvestism of these boys were of no great concern to the London public, who in fact rather enjoyed their exploits.
The book reads like a refutation of the idea that historical documentation of queer women simply doesn’t exist. Was this an intentional choice on your part? Was it important for you to correct this misconception?
It did exist, it was all over the place. It was widely noticed, almost as much as male homosexuality. It just struck me as being true so I decided to put it in the book.
Researching this book, what would you say was the ratio of source material in terms of information about gay and then lesbian history?
Well, the male would often come up in trials and the female would often come up in diaries.
Can you tell us a little about the lupanaria, “wolf dens” or public pleasure houses that dotted Roman Londinium?
They were the brothels of Roman London. They were well known, little huts with thatched roofs with pink or coloured plaster on the walls. They had a curtained entrance and then within were the booths were the clients would congregate.
I was fascinated to learn that there was once a brothel on the present site of Buckingham Palace and that they had a roster of male prostitutes working there; was that common; male and female sex workers plying their trade from the same premises?
Yes, in Mulberry Gardens, I think it was called. I imagine so, yes, it seems to be a way of dealing with demand for prostitutes if nothing else.
For those who may not have heard of them can you explain what a Molly House was and what they might be like to visit?
A Molly House was a place of assignation for men who wanted to have sexual orgies with their partners. They were well known but they often got prosecuted or closed down. They were an intrinsic part of the London sex scene. They were sort of like gay orgies today, I suppose. They were like drinking dens. They weren’t polite or decorous; they were quite the opposite. You went there for sex and the more the merrier.
July is the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences act and partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Do you view that as a key historic piece of legislation?
I suppose it was. It didn’t strike me like that at the time, I rather ignored it. But I presume that was its purpose. In those days gay legislation was never considered to be that important, it was just a sort of sideshow.
If you could go back in time and have one day and one night in London, when would you go to and why?
I would probably go to the time of Oscar Wilde. I’d be interested in the courtroom and I’d be interested in the public reaction.
You grew up in East Acton. Did you go out on the London gay scene as a young man?
Yes, I got the bus to Earl’s Court and to Piccadilly to wherever the latest thing was and then just cruised around.
Was there anything you discovered researching this book that really shocked or surprised you?
Yes, the case of John Rykener, also known as Eleanor, who was arrested in 1394 for having sex with a man for money and I hadn’t realised that even then sex was infinitely fluid; it could take many manifestations. Was he a homosexual? Was he a transvestite? Was [s]he transgender? We don’t know. The funny thing is all the areas on which we concentrate today are already present in the previous centuries.
This notion that there is nothing new?
No, nothing new at all in any of these activities.
Queer City is published by Chatto & Windus and is out now