Remembering LGBTQ+ History in Soho

Soho, London is the heart of the city’s LGBTQ+ scene. The annual Soho Pride (est. 2003) attracts an estimated 50,000 people and rivals the main London Pride Event. The LGBTQ+ part of the Soho scene originates back to the secret clubs of the area where people often met despite, the risk of prosecution, to celebrate the freedom to be oneself.

London in the 18th century was not only witness to a multicultural revolution, but a new concept of sexuality was being developed here. Late night venues could be found in Soho and Piccadilly, places where people challenged the conventional views of sexuality within society.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Soho went through a massive transformation with Piccadilly Circus being expanded and theatres and music halls being built around Shaftesbury Avenue. With this expansion came an embracing of the arts and a bohemian style of life; it also saw the development a thriving sex industry. Both male and female brothels could be found on the streets of the area that was once known as ‘St Giles Field’.

During the 1920s and 30s Soho had a thriving club scene; unlike other areas of London here you could find several gay-friendly cafes and clubs. The most renowned venue at that time was the Caravan Club “London’s Greatest Bohemian Rendezvous”. At a time when being openly gay was punishable by imprisonment, the Caravan club in Soho was an illicit haven for LGBTQ+ people.  It was a private members’ club in the basement of 81 Endell Street where guests could go and be themselves. Subject to constant surveillance and raids it was quickly forced to close-down, only to be replaced by another club around the corner! Such was the way at the time.

Unfortunately, the second world war stalled the libertine side of Soho culture, and the area became a no-go zone for the LGBTQ+ community. By the late 1950s society began to evolve again, as minds began to re-open and Soho was at the forefront of this cultural revolution once more. And this was the scene that Paul Raymond met when he first opened the Revuebar on Brewer Street in 1958.  

The 1960s & 70s can be epitomised by the slogan ‘sex, drug and rock and roll’ and Soho embraced the spirit of the times. Club Louise on Poland Street was a notable LGBTQ+ members club. Run by Madame Louise, a chic, older French woman, with its red painted door, the club also provided a hangout for the emerging punk movement and regulars, included Siouxsie Sioux, members of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Slits.

In 1981, the King of Soho, Paul Raymond launched the famously decadent club Madame Jojos on Brewer Street, bringing the LGBTQ+ clubs into the mainstream. This club was not underground, it was loud, it was opulent, and it was iconic. Acts such as Ruby Venezuela and Lily Savage featured. For nearly half a century Madame Jojo’s was home to some of London’s most diverse nightlife. 

In the mid 1980s Soho provided respite and community for the LGBTQ+ scene; the ‘pink pound’ moved in as the sex workers were forcibly moved out by Westminster Council. The infamous nail bombing of the Admiral Duncan in 1999 saw the LGBTQ+ scene in Soho come back louder, stronger and prouder than ever before – we were not going to be intimidated by violence, Soho embraces the free.