Searching for LGB women in Soho

Words: Bex Dudley

In 1845, while looking for ways to invoke the spirit of his deceased sister, essayist Thomas de Quincey came up with the term ‘palimpsest’. Now used in both literature and geography, ‘palimpsest’ refers to the ways in which history layers, or is entwined with, the present day – in the landscape, but also in its people and their activities. It’s a word that shows that history is never so far behind us: something of particular importance to the LGBTQ+ community, a people who owe so much to our ancestors.

While living in London, on the outskirts of Soho, I was gripped by the idea of palimpsests. Some of them are easy to see: for example, the Admiral Duncan, bombed in the 1999 homophobic attack but still proudly resplendent. As with much of history, though, there are parts for which you have to dig. For many, including myself, Soho often feels like less of a site of LGBTQ+ history, and more of a site of gay men’s history specifically. With the idea of palimpsests in mind, I wanted to look at how LGB women have made their mark on today’s Soho.

Finding historical research on LGB women was hard, and finding anything that accounted for race was near impossible. That’s not to say that LGB women of Colour didn’t exist in the Soho of the past, but they were – and still are – ignored, or actively covered up, and the scope of their experiences and contributions deserves a wealth of research in its own right. Similarly, while looking at LGBTQ+ history, it’s important to be aware of modern-day understandings of gender and sexuality, and to be wary not to ascribe identities posthumously. ‘LGB women’, therefore, refers to those marked in history as women, who appear to have some association with attraction to other women.

Bon Ton Magazine, an early predecessor to Playboy, made reference in 1972 to the ‘Jermyn Street female flagellists’. Flagellists are people who engage in whipping; originally a religious practice, it also has links to BDSM – and the contextual implication is, of course, that the Jermyn Street group was the latter. The group kept themselves largely secret, so there’s little information available about them now. What’s clear, though, is that they were a group of women who had sex with women, in a location in Soho. There is some earlier suggestion, too, from the late 1700s through to the 1800s, that ‘anandrinic societies’ existed – now described as clubs for lesbians. It’s only the Jermyn Street club, however, that has survived with a locational tie: and that that location is in Soho shows that the area had significance for LGB women of the past.

Over the course of the 1800s, theatre became an integral part of the Soho landscape. Now, theatre is associated with a stereotypical imagining of gay male identity – but historically, theatres were crucial for fostering all kinds of LGB relationships. For women, the stage could be a place for women to explore their gender, as seen with the character of Nan in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. This ‘cross-dressing’, as it was perceived then, didn’t necessarily stop at the stage door: there are lots of records of people designated ‘women’ who dressed as men off-stage. 

This was, in part, attributed to the sexism of the time, which meant that cross-dressing allowed women to gain ‘access to experiences […] defined as accessible to one gender only’, but there are also accounts of people who were categorised as women but dressed as men in order to enter into relationships with other women. For some individuals, this may have been an expression of gender identity instead, or as well – but either way, it allowed for a transgression of public sexuality expectations. The tools afforded by the theatre were instrumental for building the foundations of women’s LGB identity. 

Theatre continued to be important in the 1900s. In the Palace Theatre, in 1908, a dancer named Maud Allen performed a run of a piece called Visions of Salome. The dancer in question was an LGB woman, who at one point was in a relationship with a woman identified only as ‘Maud’ – but it wasn’t just that which made Allen’s dance significant. Visions of Salome had been banned by most, if not all, other venues for being too explicit and provocative, so that it was allowed to be performed in the Palace Theatre – one of the central landmarks of Soho, set on a major crossing, and currently home to JK Rowling’s The Cursed Child – is surprising and fascinating. Although censored elsewhere, in Soho, Allen was far from relegated to the backstreets.

Another key focal point in Soho are the multiple plaques dedicated to the Suffragettes. There’s evidence to suggest that many of the key suffragettes were LGB women, which is circumstantially corroborated by evidence throughout history that women’s activism provides a home for LGB women and their relationships. Do these plaques commemorate LGB women, then, even without meaning to? (It’s important to note in conversations about the Suffragettes, of course, that they weren’t the ideal they’re often held up to be, particularly with regards to their focus on wealthy white women. This, too, is erased from mainstream narratives of gender politics and of London.)

Building on the idea of Soho as a site of protest and activism, a theme that came up over and over again when researching LGB women’s history was that of their exclusion. Archival evidence shows that the Gay Liberation Front experienced tension over the positioning of women in their activism; both the film of Pride and the related book by Tim Tate show how the same issues came up in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Regardless, activism in general has been important for Soho’s LGB women: in Tate’s book, Steph Chambers states ‘when I went to Greenham [Common, site of a women’s anti-nuclear weapons protest camp], it was primarily […] to meet women and be with women.’

But the exclusion of LGB women is not confined to activism. When talking to older LGB women about their memories of Soho, something that repeatedly came up was how short-lived many of the nightlife venues were. In archives, I found flyers for different events clearly aimed at LGB women, but each seemed to be held at a different location, or affiliated to a different group. There was no solid history relating to just one space, the way there might be for clubs like Heaven. These LGB women didn’t fear whether their spaces would disappear, but when

LGB women in Soho didn’t fear whether their spaces would disappear, but when.

Looking at present-day Soho with this knowledge in mind, the ways in which the history of LGB women entwines with the present are clear. Theatre remains a key part of Soho’s identity, with the Palace one of its central tourist spots. The UK’s biggest yearly pantomime is held in the Palladium, on the outskirts of Soho, and pantomime has a long history of gender fluidity – not just in the figure of the dame played by a man (an area ripe for trans critique), but also in the tradition of the lead male being played by a woman. I’m sure I’m not alone in these roles being part of my queer journey. 

Anyone walking around  Soho will encounter a variety of people and forms of presentation, with many combining femininity and masculinity. With or without an awareness of history, these individuals are directly creating a palimpsestuous Soho, where the past continues to be present.

On the other hand, when a stage adaptation of Tipping the Velvet was presented in London in 2015, it was in a theatre in Hammersmith. While there are all sorts of complex processes that go into the choosing of a theatre for a show, it feels sad that a venue in Soho wasn’t used given the story’s own strong links to the area. It would have been fitting for the show – and the identities it links to – to have ‘come home’, in that sense.

Interestingly, there do seem to be fewer people, even within LGBTQ+ communities, who associate Soho with the present-day LGBTQ+ life; and some who are unaware of its history. This contrasts with the history of Soho as a clearly-defined hub. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it could show LGBTQ+ lives improving, no longer being restricted to specific safe sites; it could highlight different intersections of the community finding their own places to call home. But it does mean that Soho’s links to the LGBTQ+ community are increasingly diluted.

Another less optimistic observation is that LGB women continue to be hidden. Soho is home to one major nightclub aimed at LGB women, known as ‘She Soho’. This is tucked away – literally underground – with a small sign. The contrast to G-A-Y, a more male-dominated club on the same street, could not be more pronounced. 

Soho is also home to a number of sex shops which are largely male-focused. The ones aimed at women (or at least not so explicitly aimed at men) tend to be less brazen about their role, and are often chains. To my knowledge, London has one sex shop that might describe itself as explicitly women-centric: this is ‘Sh!’, situated well away from the streets of Soho. While Soho remains as an LGBTQ+ hub, there’s definitely a move to other parts of London, and other parts of the UK. 

The presence of LGB women has shaped and continues to shape Soho in all sorts of ways, and the area continues to profit from them – in blue plaques, in theatrical tradition, in night-time revenue. The theme of erasure doesn’t mean that LGB women have ever been absent from Soho, and nor is it to say that LGB women of the past are not present there today. Instead, it’s that they are hidden, or fragmented, or both. They’re often left to exist as ghosts. In a historical sense, their presence is, heartbreakingly, in their absence.

learn more

  • BOOK: Queer City – Peter Ackroyd
  • BOOK: Gateway to Heaven – Claire Summerskill
  • ACTIVITY: Queer Tours of London

Bex Dudley is a queer writer, activist and fiction fanatic who resides between Bristol and London. Fascinated by language, Bex is particularly interested in the relationship between language and social perception. They can be found on most social media platforms at @bexnotrebecca.