How have the recent histories of Soho and the surrounding areas been shaped by those defined in history as queer women20 minute read

‘She loved these walks through London…it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets.’- The Paying Guests, p36

In 2017, the Tate Britain held an exhibition, entitled ‘Queer British Art’. Whilst this sounded like a fantastic exploration of all forms of queerness, and their relation to British art, the reality was that it was largely dedicated to cis gay men, with women, trans people, and those outside of the gender binary being given little attention. This struck a chord with me- I began to realise how little I knew about queer history, other than the sanitised version in which gay men are the eternal protagonist. As a long-time fan of Sarah Waters, who produces historical fiction featuring queer women that, whilst fictional, always could be true, I decided it was time to look more into the experiences of my predecessors.

This project will provide a palimpsestuous look at the way that the recent histories of Soho and the surrounding areas have been created by queer women throughout history, and how this lives on in the present day. After beginning by looking at context and methodology, this essay will look at the main themes of theatre, night-life, activism, and sex work. After a brief look at the way that Soho has seeped out into the rest of the world, this essay will conclude with the overarching theme of the essay: that of absence, and absence as presence.

A Note on the Research Question

To begin with, the title of this project was ‘how have the recent histories of Soho been shaped by those ‘invisible’ within the queer community?’. However, due to a lack of historical accuracy around identity, this was refined, to create a question that more aptly sums up it’s contents. That being said, it should be noted that this research does not look at all queer women- due to a lack of historical representation (as well as gross racism) and the position of the researcher as white, it is largely just queer white women who are accounted for. Furthermore, whilst many of the subjects referred to are recorded in history are ‘female cross-dressers’, this may not have been how they identified. Hence, the research question allows for the definitions that have become historicised, whilst trying not to impose identities. For the same reason, of seeking not to impose identities, those assigned a male sex but who presented as female- such as infamous couple ‘’Fanny and Stella’ (McKenna, 2013) will not be discussed here, due to the ambiguity around how they themselves identified. Lastly, the slight broadening of the area to take into account the area around Soho was done partly due to difficulties in defining the exact area, and partly so as not to discount several key sites to this project.


Sexuality and gender have long been the subject of research. The most pertinent concepts to this essay are that of sexuality as a modern creation (Foucault, 1978) and, subsequently, the idea of identity as performative (Butler, 1990). In addition, whilst not initially created in relation to identity, theories around surveillance, and control of both body and mind (Foucault, 1975) can be drawn on heavily. However, whilst academia on sexuality and gender is important, it largely focuses on gay men (Halberstam, 2005: pp12-13). Whilst men may have been criminalised, women (and those identifying outside of the binary) have largely been ignored (Oram and Turnbull, 2001:156). Further to this, many women (and, likely, those outside the gender binary) feel that their histories and experiences have been monopolised and dominated by men (supported by articles in the CHE magazine Lunch, 1972). As a result, whilst there is much material detailing the lives of queer men throughout history, there is a great lack of the same for women- which is largely what inspired this piece.

In regards to the site, again, there is a wealth of academia. A majorly useful resource for theorising came from the acknowledging of ‘queer time’ and ‘queer place’ (Halberstam, 2005), and moves away from a paradigm in which the geographical place of social happenings is largely ignored (Tyler, 2011). Both of these are highly interesting to this research. In addition, the queer community has long seen a division between home life and public life, particularly as a result of both risks that public space involves, and the gendering of domestic space (Halberstam, 2005). As well as being an aspect of queer place, this can be looked at further in regards to gendering, and the way that many public queer areas have been dominated by men over women, something this essay looks closer at later on. Lastly, to look at Soho itself; Soho has long been related to the idea of queerness, with the queer ‘centre’ moving in conjunction with consumer culture in the 1800s (Ackroyd, 2017:181-182). Aside from this, Soho has a hugely conflicting reputation: a place both ‘inspirational’ and ‘seedy’, ‘tempting’ and ‘condemned’ (Tyler, 2011:1478).

Finally, on palimpsests: the concept was first created by de Quincey, who used it in a romanticised way to bring his deceased sister back (Dillon, 2006). Over time, the idea was taken up by a number of academic disciplines. In the present day, a palimpsest is a way of looking at a subject whilst seeing what was there before. A conglomeration of queer theory and the concept of palimpsests produced what Dillon (2006) sees as somewhat of a queer structure- in which the past is not layered, but rather intertwined, with interlocking narratives. Being a queer essay, this is the approach that will be drawn on, whilst paying homage to the more romanticised notions stemming from de Quincey.


The research for this project took a number of forms. There was some ‘traditional research’, using books and the internet to research areas, names and other relevant points of interest. Much of this resulted in snowballing, wherein research in one book threw up a number of further points to research. As well as this, archival material was used, largely from Mary McIntosh and Peter Tatchell. This provided a wealth of information as to what a lived life was like in the past- something supplemented by the use of fictional books which, whilst undeniably fictional, tend to be researched and containing at least a fragment of the truth. It is these books that spurred my interest in this area, hence this essay’s heavy reliance on them. Some use was made of oral histories, however, finding original oral histories proved difficult- so the use of them was second-hand, from sources where they had already been transcribed for use by others. Lastly, the more present-day aspects of this essay come from a guided exploration of the area of Soho, undertaken last so as to be fully informed by previous research; conversations with others within the queer community; and a couple of field trips to notable locations.


‘For we had reached Pall Mall and turned into the Haymarket, where the theatres and music halls begin…with William Shakespeare on his marble pedestal at our backs, we gazed…at the…Empire and the Alhambra’- Tipping the Velvet, p65

In Tipping the Velvet, theatre is a main theme throughout. However, it is far more than a narrative device- although it might be accepted as a stereotype of queer men, there’s a lot of evidence pointing towards theatres as fostering a lot of relationships between queer women (Ellis, 1897 in Oram and Turnbull, 2001). In addition, theatre provided a place for women to dress as men. Whilst this was aimed at increasing ticket sales through using attractive actresses (Jennings, 2007), and was theatrical rather than self-expression, it still gave at least some women a chance to explore both their sexuality and gender identities. In addition, as in Tipping the Velvet, it’s more than likely that women who went along to watch were not impervious to the potential for exploration, either.

It wasn’t just in theatres that women- and, potentially, gender variant people- utilised ‘cross dressing’, however. There were also multiple cases of people assigned female at birth presenting as male during their everyday lives- something again seen in Tipping the Velvet, when Nan takes up her old theatre clothes. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, it could be hard to exist as a feminine presenting person in an urban area. Therefore, to take on a male persona was to ‘[gain] access to experiences…defined as accessible to one gender only’ (Rousseau and Porter, 1987). It also allowed a navigation of gender-based identities such as wives and mothers- so not only does the act of cross-dressing fit firmly into the theories of Butler and performativity (1990), there is also a Foucauldian element of surveillance, and the negotiation of this (Foucault, 1975). On the other hand, whilst historians are quick to attribute this cross-dressing purely to an avoidance of misogyny, it may have also been a way to explore both sexual orientation (as presenting as male allowed relationships with women) and gender identity (there’s evidence that ‘famous lesbian’ Radclyffe Hall might identify in today’s terms as a trans man- Hall 1928:117).

figure one, theatres on Charing Cross Road.
Figure 1: Theatres on Charing Cross Road; picture by author.

Walking around Soho now, it’s hard to miss the ongoing presence of numerous theatres, and the way they mark it’s geography: for example, Charing Cross Road is punctuated throughout by theatres. As theatres required an audience to survive, and, at one point at least, this audience was pulled in by a number of elements strongly linked to queer women, this feature is an almost direct result of their presence throughout history: meaning that, by extension, they remain present today. In addition, the streets of Soho remain populated by a range of feminine presenting people dressed in all manner of fashions, with many dressed in masculine styles. Do these people know they are paying their respects to the ghosts of Soho, just in what they wear? Most likely not: but paying their respects, and keeping those ghosts alive, they are.


‘” How gay the city seems tonight!”’- Tipping the Velvet, p414

Another area in which the palimpsestuous presence of women can be felt is in nightlife. Though there is a recent move away from this- signified, for example, by the increase in vegan food places that operate daytime hours- Soho remains known for its night-time economy (Tyler, 2011). Looking more specifically at gender, there has been a large amount of research into the social differences of queer men and women, particularly in regards to nightlife (Castells 1983, in Bell and Valentine 1995). Much of this is related to the gendering and division of place (Jennings, 2007), and the home as an intimate environment best ‘suited’ to women (Bell and Valentine, 1995).

With this in mind, it makes sense that queer women are largely absent from Soho’s nightlife scene. However, this is a rather rudimentary observation, and one that can be made within the first few minutes of a Soho-based night out. Something that was more striking to me was the way in which there are, and always have been, queer women’s venues- but these retain a strongly furtive air. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan and Diana visit a Ladies Club intended for the ‘Cavendish Sapphists’ (Waters, 1998:279). The club was located on Sackville Street, not quite in Soho but near it, and was very much intended to be easy to miss: ‘try to spot it: you shall walk the length of the pavement, quite three or four times’ (1998:271). Although this club was fictional, my research found clubs similar in nature, referred to as anandrinic societies. These societies, however, were so secretive that, again, little information on them can be found, other than that they existed, and were Sapphic in nature (Lanser, 2014:198). As frustrating as this was from a research standpoint, I realised that it is hardly any different to today. She Soho, the major queer women’s nightclub, is very much tucked away- to the point of actually being entirely underground- with only a tiny sign. This is in great contrast to the major gay men’s bar on the same street, which is hard to miss when walking down the road, particularly on a night. Whilst thinking about this, I was reminded of another club for queer women that exists in Soho: ‘Century Club’, on Shaftesbury Avenue. Experience as a fundraiser there, as well as conversations with friends about it, made me sure that it was a club intended for queer women; however, this is not deducible at all from the website, or any reviews of the club. In addition, it can only be accessed through a small, unmarked door- Nan’s sentiments on the invisibility of the Cavendish Club could easily be echoed for the Century Club.

Further to this, during a field trip to a well-known queer women’s bar, She Soho, I spoke to an older woman about what Soho had been like in the past. She mentioned there being a number of venues intended for queer women- but the main theme of the conversation was how they had all shut down, often fairly soon after opening. Further research found that although these venues had existed, information past that was very hard to find. Often, there were only references made in passing (such as in McWilliam, 2014), or, as in the case of one club night, an old flyer in archival material.

figure two, Don’t Call Me Babe flyer; from archives of Mary McIntosh.
Figure 2: Don’t Call Me Babe flyer; from archives of Mary McIntosh, picture by author.

The combination of women’s spaces as very hidden, and their existence as fleeting, means that they are largely marked by their absence. This doesn’t mean that Soho and the surrounding areas have not been shaped by queer women: but that the shaping is subtle, hard to notice unless one is looking- but still there. Just in going to clubs such as She Soho and Century Club, queer women and gender variant people in today’s world are continuing to dance with people who went to similar clubs in years, centuries, before them.

Activism and Community

‘Florence- as well as working at the Stratford girls’ home, Freemantle House- volunteered for a thing called the Women’s Cooperative Guild’- p377

Another important area to consider is that of activism and community. Generally, this tends not to be so geographically tethered as other parts of life- however, for the queer community this has not always been the case, again due to the history of oppression and discrimination. The archival material I looked through, largely that which stemmed from Mary McIntosh and Peter Tatchell, showed that this was the case, with multiple organisations- including the Gay Liberation Front, School’s Out and the Albany Trust- all having contact locations at least in the vicinity of Soho.

The resounding theme of the position of queer women within activism and community in Soho was that, all too often, they felt excluded. This often led to at least tension, if not complete breakdowns, in campaigning groups: for example, archival evidence including letters and leaflets from the Gay Liberation Front showed a level of tension and fragmentation, with a key issue being the positioning of women. The same was evident in the recounting of those involved in the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group: whilst the name seemed inclusive of queer women, the movie adaptation of the movement (Pride, 2014) featured one fairly prominent woman, and two more in the background. This is backed up by the oral history book: ‘I was the lesbian in [LGSM]’ (Steph in Tate, 2017:228). Again, this lead to a rift, and the development of a separate group (Nicola in Tate, 2017:222), which caused issues (Tate 2017:224).

Although queer activism might have excluded and sidelined women, many queer women saw and utilised activism that wasn’t specifically queer, as a way to get to know other queer women- ‘when I went to Greenham, it was primarily…to meet women and be with women’ (Steph in Tate, 2017:67). A number of oral histories show that the prevalence of queer women within women’s activism was largely accepted: ‘the Women’s Arts Alliance…another hotbed of lesbians’ (Linda, in Summerskill, 2012:131). This is also found in Florence’s socialist friends in Tipping the Velvet (Waters, 1998).

From experience of attending protests and campaign work within Soho, as well as evidence from recent archival material, it would seem that women remain excluded from Soho’s activist scene. However, historic groups such as the suffragettes met and lived in and around Soho, and their presence lives on in various blue plaques. Hence, they remain present, even though this presence is more latent.

figure three, Picture of Soho Vigil.
Figure 3: Picture of Soho Vigil; QX Magazine, no 228; magazine from archives of Peter Tatchell, picture by author.


Sex and sex work

‘The gay girls of the Haymarket, I believe, transformed themselves in the public lavatories of Piccadilly’- Tipping the Velvet, p193

A last realm to consider is that of sex and sex work: the importance of which to Soho is highlighted in Tyler (2011), and which conversations with friends about queerness and Soho highlighted as being pivotal to queer experience.

One major historic mention of sex and sex work, Soho (and the surrounding area) and queer women was in reference to the ‘Jermyn Street female flagellists’- however, it was only this; a mention (Ackroyd, 2017; Jennings, 2007). Aside from that it was a group of women who gathered to get pleasure from and involving each other, and that it was tied to location enough to be known by the name of the street, no sources seem to provide more on it. Further to this, there are references to something along the lines of sex shops, and sex workers (Ackroyd, 2017). Additionally, and of most note to myself, was the story of the ‘Visions of Salome’- a sexually charged dance piece that was banned by most theatres but allowed to be performed in the Palace Theatre (Jennings, 2007; Oram and Turnbull, 2001) one of the biggest and most noticeable theatres in Soho. Not only is this landmark in showing the expression of sexuality that could go on in Soho, but the dancer- Maud Allen- was in a relationship with a woman called Margot (Jennings, 2007).

figure four, palace Theatre, Soho.
Figure 4: Palace Theatre, Soho, 2018; picture by author.

In the present day, there definitely remains an association between Soho and sex. As well as being the subject of research by Tyler (2011), when I asked peers what they associated Soho with, both in the present day and the past, sex work was something that came up a lot. As in the past, there is no real recognition given to the place of queer women within this: for example, whilst sex shops are still a major part of Soho’s streets, the majority cater to men, and are staffed largely by men (Tyler, 2011). On the other hand, when speaking to friends within sex work circles, it struck me how many of them identify as queer, and either women or gender variant. Hence, a logical conclusion is that, whilst many of the sex workers within Soho might be catering professionally to men, the people supplying these services are likely to identify as queer women. Whilst many might see this as symptomatic of patriarchy and class division, to me this could be read as a form of power: using an unfair system for one’s own gain (such as money) whilst continuing to live one’s life, in a way that many of those who are supplying the money might object to. This, to me, appears to be highly palimpsestic, with Maud Allen and her grasp of her own sexuality living on in the streets of Soho.

To speak more of Maud Allen, it amused me during my walk around Soho that the Palace Theatre is now home to the Cursed Child, one of the biggest and most sought after shows. The present day and the entanglements with the past reminded me of readings of Trafalgar Square and it’s histories: the way that, even though those walking in the present day might not realise what they are interacting with, they are still interacting (Cherry, 2006). In addition, it hit me how eye-catching the Palace Theatre is, particularly in being an ornate building set on a major crossing: Maud Allen did not just get any theatre, she got one of the biggest and best.

Beyond Soho…

Lastly, it would appear that Soho, as a centre, was somewhat of a liquid: seeping out to other parts of the city, and even the world- and, as it did (and does) so, taking with it this ghostly palimpsest, a cloud stretching across the world. A very clear example of this is Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners: whilst it started near to Soho, the group utilised London however they saw fit at the time, for example by holding the famous Pits and Pervs gig in Camden. In the present day, the group has disbanded: but, as a direct descendent, there exists Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, a group working with the original ideas, to create change more appropriate for today’s world, in a way that reaches far past Soho, London and even the United Kingdom. Something more beautifully palimpsestuous than this would be hard to find.


Overall, this essay has examined the way that queer women have lived and breathed in Soho in the past- and the way they continue to do so today, interlinking with queer women going about their own lives, lives incredibly different to the past- and yet, incredibly similar. Throughout the areas of theatre, nightlife, activism and sex work, the main theme seems to have been that of absence: not necessarily the absence of queer women, but the absence of their recognition. Soho continues to profit from queer women both in history and in the present day, yet little is spoken about them. Those in Soho interact with both the ghosts of queer women, and queer women in the present day, at all times, yet, again, little is spoken about them. Does this mean they’re not there? Not at all. Their absence is, indeed, their presence. Queer women have always, will always, live and breathe in Soho. I hope the future pays more attention to them.

‘But for now there was this, and it was enough, it was more than they could have hoped for…lights being kindled across the city, and a few pale stars in the sky’- The Paying Guests, p5.

Bex Dudley.


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