Vauxhall’s Gay Scene: A Palimpsest20 minute read

The aim of my palimpsest project is to understand the emergence and current day contestations of Vauxhall’s gay scene as an intersection of processes across time, by investigating the history of this site as a gay space with a palimpsestuous lens. I will argue that the gay scene has been constructed and is being constantly contested through the movement of homosexuality into transient, peripheral and marginal locations, whether the community is coerced into these locations through social or economic processes, or through acute marketing of gay space. I will investigate how representations of homosexuality in society, through media and literary accounts, and through marketing, perpetuate the movement of gay men into these marginal spaces. As this is a palimpsest project I will draw on Vauxhall’s history and draw parallels between processes of marginalisation that occurred in the past with processes that occur today, and explore what these lessons from the past might tell us about the future of Vauxhall. My first section will explore the period of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (1661-1859), I will analyse the sexually deviant representation of the gardens, and how this laid the foundations for the emergence of Vauxhall as a gay space, and then locate these activities in the margins of a wider societal view of homosexuality. I will then draw parallels between the marginality of homosexual activity during this period with that of today’s period, comparing it with the emergence of a more sexually-explicit gay scene in Vauxhall away from the more commodified gay village of Soho in the centre of London. My argument is that the marginality of the hidden spaces in Vauxhall’s post industrial landscape can be attributed to its success in the adoption of London gay scene’s more marginal activities, and that deliberate attempts have been made to market the area on its deviant and hedonistic origins in order to attract these marginal activities. Finally I will look at the current day contestations of Vauxhall as a gay space as wider forces of economic change, the commodification of this space, and the subsequent erosion of the identity that made it a success, could contribute to the future movement of the gay community, as it is again forced into new transient, peripheral and marginal locations across London. The relationship between the movement of gay men into the margins of society and the creation and destruction of Vauxhall as a gay space will be the focus of this essay, leaving detailed analysis of the rest of the LGBT community unfortunately outside of its scope.

Figure 1. Thomas Rowlandson’s Vaux Hall (1785)
Figure 1. Thomas Rowlandson’s Vaux Hall (1785)

Homosexuality at the time of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Thomas Rowlandson’s watercolour portrayal of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Vaux Hall (1785) (Figure 1) is one of the earliest and most illuminating representations of the Gardens; with the group of 5 in the foreground engaging in the sort of sexually-explicit encounters that became synonymous with the Gardens, where visitors could ‘indulge their impolite passions and play at crossing the boundaries of class and gender’ (Borsay, 2012; 70). Terry Castle (1986; 6) described the space as ‘a world turned upside down, an intoxicating reversal of ordinary sexual, social and metaphysical hierarchies’. The Garden was host to art, music and drama, as well as extravagant light shows, and provided a space in which the pauper could interact with nobility. In this sense the Gardens were a space for a hedonistic exploration of the rifts in the fabric of society’s rigid social structure at the time. Andersson (2011) draws on William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-28/1986; 63) in which Thackeray describes ‘the dark walks’ that were concealed in the gardens, ‘so favourable to the interviews of young lovers’, spaces that became an relatively safe environment for gay cruising in the shadow of the city. A tolerance developed within the Gardens unbefitting of the rest of London, they were host to masquerade balls that were famously erotic and became a welcoming space for homosexual men. One of the first well-known British homosexual men, a drag queen known as Princess Seraphina, was a regular attendee of the balls. She would appear in female dress and have the ‘satisfaction of dancing with fine gentlemen’ in a relatively public domain (Borsay, 2012; 70). The alternative ‘public walks and gardens appearing in London and provincial towns did not have the risqué reputation of Vauxhall’ and ‘did not aim to push the boundaries of appropriate behaviour too far’, and by the end of the 18th century this led to a growing disapproval of the Garden’s ‘unconventional and transgressive modes of sexual behaviour’ (Borsay, 2012; 70). It was the impoliteness of the Gardens that defined the politeness of the rest of London as Its reputation spread, but the Garden’s marginal location enabled it to remain a space for gay men out of the public eye. Borsay (2012) makes the case that the Gardens ‘constituted spaces and moments in which social and sexual norms could be inverted temporarily’, stressing the temporality of the relaxation of these norms.

Agents, provocateurs and informers were used to expose homosexual activities and spaces, and it was these ‘ideas of visibility and invisibility, of secrecy and exposure [that] were crucial to the genesis of ideas about homosexual identity in the city’ (Cook, 2003; 12). Cook (2003) postulates that homosexual behaviour was incorporated into the visual economy of the city, with parks and molly clubs being marked as gay spaces. Attendees of Molly Houses were referred to in Ned Ward’s Satyrical Reflections on Clubs (1710) as ‘sodomitical wretches who were so far degenerated from all masculine deportment or manly exercises that they rather fancy themselves women’. The most famous case of a crack down on these gay spaces was the raid of the White Swan in 1812, located on Vere Street, which was later obliterated by Kingsway. The Vere Street Coterie published in 1813 described the men as ‘a catamite brood, kneaded into human shape’, victims of ‘damnable propensities’ (Cook, 2003; 8). 6 of the men arrested during the raid were subjected to a public pillory that The Times reported on in a manner that reflected the wider view of homosexuality at the time. ‘The disgust felt by all ranks in society at the detestable conduct of these wretches occasioned many thousands to become spectators of their punishment’, reporting how the men were pelted with dead cats, rotten eggs, dung and blood by the 30,000 strong crowd, resulting in the men being ‘so thickly covered with filth, that a vestige of the human figure was scarcely discernible… some of them were cut in the head with brick-bats and bled profusely’ (The Times, 28th September, 1810). A newspaper later reported that 2 of the men, including a 17 year old boy named Thomas White, were both executed for their crimes ‘of the most revolting nature’, ‘after a few minutes prayer, the miserable wretches were launched into eternity’ (Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 11th March, 1811). The abhorrent nature of the punishment and its reporting paints a vivid account of the treatment of homosexuals at the time, this contextualises my argument that the peripheral locations surrounding London like the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were necessary in providing gay men with a space that was sufficiently hidden and accepting to conduct activities deemed extremely marginal at the time.


Movement into Vauxhall since the 1990s:

By investigating some of the history behind the emergence of Vauxhall as a site, I am now able to draw parallels between the construction of gay space during the period of the Gardens and the construction and development of that gay space today. I argue that it is the movement of gay men into the margins that has sustained the development of this space today, albeit in a different social context. Rather than society and the law coercing the gay community into the hidden spaces of the Gardens to be able to conduct any form of homosexual relations, today the scene seems to have moved to Vauxhall due to its acceptance of more overtly sexual activity. Vauxhall in this sense remains a space of heightened tolerance within the city, the preferred location for the marginal activities deemed less acceptable in the centre of the city, much as it was the preferred location for marginal activities in the past.

Since the 1990s we have seen bars, drug-fuelled after-hours clubs, fetish venues, gay gyms and gay saunas cropping up in the industrial spaces that were left behind by nation-wide industrial decline. London-wide since the 1990s we have seen certain types of policing suspended as a result of shifting attitudes towards homosexuality. As a wonderful direct comparison of how attitudes have changed since the time of the Gardens, the very same publication—The Times— that described homosexual behaviour as detestable and disgusting in 1813, actually seemed to boast of the public-sex venues in London in 1998, describing the ‘booming’ sauna scene (Andersson, 2011; 89). Lambeth council has taken a particularly relaxed attitude towards activities involving sex and drugs. In 2002 after threats of its license being withdrawn the fetish club Fist was relocated from Camberwell to Vauxhall, demonstrating Lambeth council’s relative tolerance to more sexualised and, at the time, semi-legal activities. The location of more overtly-sexual gay enterprises into Vauxhall during the late 1990s and 2000s is emblematic of a movement of the more marginal activities into the more marginal, transient and peripheral locations with in the city. Vauxhall today is viewed in a sense like it was during the period of the gardens in that it is a space in which there is again an ‘intoxicating reversal of ordinary sexual, social and metaphysical hierarchies’ in comparison to the dominant heteronormative tone of the rest of London (Castle, 1986; 6). This is not merely a product of a blind eye to certain activities from Lambeth council and societal pressures forcing the gay man into the margins of the city, but it is also a product of deliberate attempts at marketing Vauxhall as a space for this intoxicating reversal of norms.


Vauxhall’s attraction over Soho:

Figure 4: promotional poster for a Chav night party at The Hoist
Figure 4: promotional poster for a Chav night party at The Hoist

The area is marketed as a flash back to the deviance of the ‘amorous, hedonistic and raunchy history of Vauxhall’, pushing its image into an increasingly polarised position away from the cosmopolitanism of Soho, (Andersson, 2011; 91). The entrepreneurs in Soho have drawn on its French and bohemian history in order to market it as a contemporary form of cosmopolitanism and this seems to be what the clientele of Vauxhall have rejected, judging by the success of the Vauxhall’s entertainment, which has a vastly different tone. Soho has been accused of adhering to an image of elitist cosmopolitanism that creates another global gay village that is void of any individuality, charm or edge. Bonnie (2000) puts forward Denis Altman’s view that ‘it has become fashionable to point to the emergence of ‘the global gay’, the apparent internalisation of a certain form of social and cultural identity based upon homosexuality, Bonnie (2000) adds that although the idea of a ‘global gay identity’ should be treated with suspicion, globalisation does have an impact on the use of urban space and sexual cultures. ‘Globalisation of the gay village model… [is] reproducing a narrow range of cloned spaces world-wide’ (Bell and Binnie, 2004; 1814) and as a reaction to this ‘sanitised, desexualised and conformist global gay culture’ we have seen the construction of Vauxhall as more overtly sexual and queer space. (Andersson, 2011; 88).

Figure 2: promotional poster for a fetish night at Fire
Figure 2: promotional poster for a fetish night at Fire

In line with this desexualised idea of the conforming gay man, Brewis and Jack (2010) analyse the mainstream literature around the modern gay man that they suggest seems to be based on an essentializing view of a gay male consumer as affluent, savvy, and typically constructs gay male consumers as well-off, discerning, fashion-conscious early adopters, a portrayal which is produced and reproduced within heterosexual and homosexual populations alike (Brewis and Jack, 2010; 255). Sender (2001) demonstrates how Advocate magazine, a publication targeted at gay consumers, has created its ideal-type reader based on the construction of a ‘dominant gay habitus’ for an ‘openly gay, professional-managerial class’ (Sender, 2001; 73 in Brewis and Jack, 2010; 255). Brewis and Jack (2010) suggest that this image has become hegemonic, and that is it now an admired model of homosexual conduct. This hegemonic homosexuality fits in to the desexualised, commercial, professional and cosmopolitan narrative of Soho, and can help explain the success of the reactionary spaces that have been constructed in Vauxhall. Brewis and Jack (2010) postulate that hegemonic homosexuality occludes the fact that gay men are just that, homosexual’, it ‘cleanses’ the gay male identity of sexuality, as this is what straight society seems to be able to ‘handle’. (Brewis and Jack, 2010; 256). Vauxhall can be seen as an attempt for the gay community to claim back their sexuality within London, as well as attempting to disrupt this middle-class aesthetic. Figures 2 and 3 (redacted), are posters promoting club nights in Vauxhall’s two largest nightclubs, Fire and Union, found on the listings of QX online magazine, they are examples of the sexually charged nights that take place in large numbers in Vauxhall, that are—along with drug- fuelled parties—what Vauxhall has become famous for. Figure 4 is an example of the Chav nights that have come under scrutiny by authors like Brewis and Jack (2010), as middle class men fetishise Chav consumption through dressing in chav clothing, re-styling themselves for the evening but without the worry of sliding down the social ladder; which simultaneously fixes and essentializes the working class for the benefit of ‘carnivalesque middle-class sex tourism’ (Brewis and Jack, 2010; 264). Interestingly this is reminiscent of the carnivalesque masquerades during the period of the Pleasure Gardens, in which the working class used to mix with nobility for the evening but later left at the same position in the social hierarchy they came in. The marketing of Vauxhall in this sexual and all-inclusive tone is a deliberate hark back to the Gardens. Amy Lamé the hostess of a night called Duckie at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern often draws comparison when she writes for The Times between the ‘hedonists from all walks of life [that] convergence in such fierce pursuit of pleasure’ today and the hedonists that descended on the Pleasure Gardens in their day (Lame, 2003 in Andersson, 2011; 91). In the same way that Borsay (2012) describes the Pleasure Gardens, nights like these Chav nights constitute spaces and moments in which the social and sexual norms can be inverted temporarily, but also reinforce norms outside of these spaces and moments.

The palimpsestuous link between the spaces in Vauxhall today and the Gardens then, in which societal norms can be inverted, is not a natural link but one that has been produced and marketed. Andersson (2011; 91) makes the case that the ‘interconnections between an area’s past and present should not be understood as deterministic’, in fact, certain histories in a space are privileged over others by different groups when pursuing their own agenda. The histories of tolerance, the mixture of classes, and the ability for hedonists to meet and be sexually deviant are the histories of the Pleasure Gardens that are deliberately privileged today by venue owners in order for Vauxhall to develop as a gay space. There have been attempts in Vauxhall to provide a space for those who feel marginalised by the cosmopolitan hegemonic homosexuality across London to come and enjoy an alternative scene, which itself has been marketed and commodified for commercial success. The palimpsestuous links that venue owners try to draw are not limited to the Pleasure Gardens but also are in a more physical sense made with the gritty industrial aesthetic that the venues are set in to. Andersson (2011) makes an interesting point that fits with the argument of my essay, that the ‘aesthetic marginality of the urban landscape somehow seems to reflect the marginality of the nightlife’ that takes place in it, and by extension, the marginality of the communities that frequent these spaces. Vauxhall has used its gritty landscape to distinguish itself from a perceived mainstream, this goes beyond ‘youth culture’s recent fascination with urban grit’, into a ‘part of an older queer aesthetic rooted in marginalisation.’


Current day contestations:

The caveat of the successful marketing of the post-industrial spaces as gritty and alternative is that youth culture’s recent fascination has led to an increased number of more ‘mainstream’ and heterosexual club nights being held in Vauxhall’s dance venues like Fire and Union. The introduction of profit-focussed nights capitalising on Vauxhall’s perceived underground nature—a very lucrative trait—could lead to the influx of more and more heterosexuals in Vauxhall’s homosexual space. As a commentator that is not a member of the homosexual community and in fact one of the consumers of Vauxhall’s underground aesthetic through these commercially focussed but ‘underground’ raves, I cannot speak for the longstanding homosexual community in Vauxhall on the matter, however I can draw on Collins (2004) account regarding a similar dilemma on Canal Street in Manchester. Canal Street has become well known as a safe zone for heterosexual women to socialise in, such that heterosexual men now also use this social space in pursuit of heterosexual women. Inevitably, this raises the amount of search effort required for gay men and women to find potential partners, since they increasingly have to filter out more heterosexual individuals from the search pool, and also it may lead to some changes in the sexual ambience and sense of personal safety in the area (Whittle, 1994). In this way, assimilation of gay social space into the fashionable socio-sexual mainstream advances, but may feature, along the way, varying degrees of resentment from some quarters of the gay community that would prefer to retain more sexually exclusive social space (Collins, 2004; 1794). Collins’ (2004) model of development of urban gay villages in England may prove useful in this final piece of analysis. With the appropriate pre-conditions, the stages of emergence, followed by expansion and diversification of the gay village will occur, but then comes the stage of integration, in which the increasing presence of heterosexual custom, and the influx of young urban professionals is predicted to force out early gay residential colonisers. This is not only down to social factors like a reduction in homosexual identity, but in Vauxhall’s case the capitalisation of the industrial edge that made it so appealing to this community, and the increased land prices that the Collin’s (2004) model predicts. Rising land rents could well force the gay community out of this initially marginal space, into a new transient and peripheral location. London-wide soaring land prices has turned Vauxhall into an increasingly profitable area of re-development and the result has been government investment in the area to attract further interest, with projects like the £4.5 million bus station and the construction of a family-friendly take on the modern day Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the park, with a city-farm, an art gallery, a cafe and sports courts. The upshot of this has been attention from re-developers in the venues that have land values above the financial return they bring in as gay spaces.


Concluding thoughts:

The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were closed in 1859 due to soaring land rents in the area making the potential profitability from redevelopment too irresistible for the owners, and the space was developed into housing. LGBT campaigners are making their best efforts to not allow history to be repeated. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has as of September 2015 been grade II listed to prevent its owners Immovate, a german property fund, from repurposing this historic LGBT space. The campaigners successfully drew upon earlier inscriptions on the palimpsest of Vauxhall as a gay space to achieve this listing, quoting its ‘considerable and unique contribution to the history and culture of performance in England and beyond’, which ‘springs from deep roots and links to music hall, Molly Culture and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ (see Appendix for an excerpt of the Listing Application). The pub can be seen as direct continuation of the entertainment that went on at the Gardens, as a space for gay cruising, and its celebration of drag acts and other live entertainment performances. This is one of the ways in which the history of the site interacts with current day contestations, and illuminates the importance behind a palimpsestuous investigation into this gay space in order to understand how it has become ‘a site of safety and socialising central to the vitality of the LGBT community’ today, and how its history can be drawn upon to contest its validity as a gay space, in order to ward off future pressure of redevelopment.

My project set out to draw upon the history of Vauxhall to understand its emergence and development as a gay space within London. I drew upon representations of homosexual men at the different points of inscription on the palimpsest of Vauxhall in order to provide a context for its construction as a gay space. These representations helped to illuminate the difference between those conducting marginal activities being coerced into the hidden spaces of London during the period of the Gardens, and the venue owners of today deliberately marketing Vauxhall’s spaces to appeal to these marginal activities, invoking the palimpsestuous link to the Gardens. Links are drawn both to the hedonism of the Gardens and the physical ghosts of industrial decline that are used to juxtapose Soho’s clean edges. The reversal of norms in the Gardens is a theme that is reproduced in the marketing of Vauxhall today and this has been a key finding in my helping me understand the success of Vauxhall today. It still serves today as it did during the era of the Gardens as a site of tolerance, and this level of tolerance has simply adjusted to the social context in which it has found itself; it was constructed and has been sustained as a gay space in which the marginalised in society have an alternative space in the margins, away from London’s dominant heteronormative culture, and the community constantly invokes the history of the site to withstand the desexualising and cosmopolitan forces sweeping the city.


References

Andersson, J. (2011) Vauxhall’s Post-industrial Pleasure Gardens: ‘Death Wish’ and Hedonism in 21st-century London In: Urban Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1, 01.2011, p. 85-100.

Bell, D. and Binnie, J. (2004) Authenticating queer space: citizenship, urbanism and governance, Urban Studies, 41(9), pp. 1807–1820.

Borsay, J. (2012) Pleasure Gardens and Urban Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century, in Colin, J. (ed.) The Pleasure Garden, from Vauxhall to Coney Island. University of Pennsylvania Press, 49-77

Bourne, A., Reid, D., Hickson, F., Torres Rueda, S., Weatherburn, P. (2014) The Chemsex study: drug use in sexual settings among gay & bisexual men in Lambeth, Southwark & Lewisham. London: Sigma Research, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Brewis, J. and Jack, G. (2010) Consuming Chavs: The Ambiguous Politics of Gay Chavinism in Sociology journal, BSA Publications Ltd. Volume 44(2): 251-268 DOI:10.1177/0038038509357201

Binnie, J. (2000) Cosmopolitanism and the sexed city, in: D. Bell and A. Haddour (Eds) City Visions, pp. 66–178. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Castle, T. (1986) Masquerade and Civilisation: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-century English Culture and Fiction, Stanford University Press.

Chanen, M. (1999) From Handel to Hendrix: The Composer in the Public Sphere p.17

Collins, A. (2004) Sexual dissidence, enterprise and assimilation: bedfellows in urban regeneration, Urban Studies, 41(9), pp. 1789–1806.

Cook, M. (2003) London and the culture of homosexuality, 1885-1914, Cambridge University Press.

Figure 2: Promotional Poster taken from http://www.qxmagazine.com/listing/ on 12/05/2017

Figure 3: Promotional Poster taken from: https://www.nighttours.com/london/agenda/ gay_agenda.html?datecode=1608850800 on 11/05/2017

Figure 4: Promotional Poster taken from www.CHAV.ink on 12/05/2017

Historic England Listing Application (2015) Case: Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 372 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5HY. Advice Report. Taken from http://www.rvt.community/wp-content/uploads/ 2015/09/NotificationReport.pdf on 09/04/2017

Knopp, L. 1995: Sexuality and urban space: a framework for analysis. In Bell, D. and Valentine, G., editors, Mapping desire, London: Routledge, 144-145

Rowlandson, T. (1785), Vaux Hall, Painting, London
The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle (1811) 11th March Newspaper Excerpt, compiled

by Rictor Norton, taken from http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1810news.htm on 12/05/2017

The Times Newspaper (28th September, 1810) 28th September Newspaper Excerpt, compiled by Rictor Norton, taken from http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1810news.htm on 12/05/2017

Ward, N. (1710) The Secret History of Clubs [Reprinted as Satyrical Reflections on Clubs]

Appendix

Historic England Listing Application (2015) Case: Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 372 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5HY. Advice Report
Historic England Listing Application (2015) Case: Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 372 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5HY. Advice Report
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