Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1954-70: The Leeds Link

As part of LGBT History Month in February, Leeds-born writer John-Pierre Joyce will give a talk and read from his book Odd Men Out: Male Homosexuality in Britain from Wolfenden to Gay Liberation, 1954-1970. Here, he takes a look at Leeds and its people at a time of immense social and political change for gay men.

Fifty years ago, in July 1970, Yorkshire hosted the first ever conference in Britain on the social needs of gay men. Lasting three days (10-12 July) and held at York University, the conference had its origins in Leeds. The two organisers were the Albany Trust – the charitable arm of the Homosexual Law Reform Society – and the Yorkshire Council of Social Service, which was based at Charlton House on Hunslet Road in Leeds. A year earlier, in March 1969, the Council’s secretary, Raymond Clarke, had arranged a similar one-day seminar at York on ‘Coming to Terms with Sexuality’.

This footnote anniversary is a reminder that the city – and the people – of Leeds played a significant role in efforts to decriminalise homosexual behaviour in the 1950s and 1960s and in the push for ‘gay liberation’ in the 1970s. Two prominent local M.P.s – Denis Healey (the Labour member for Leeds East, and Defence Secretary in Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 cabinet) and Sir Keith Joseph (the Conservative member for Leeds North-East, and Social Services Secretary in Edward Heath’s 1970-74 government) – were consistent supporters of homosexual law reform in parliament during the 1960s. Leeds University students were also early campaigners for what would later be called ‘gay rights’. Shortly after the foundation of the Gay Liberation Front at the London School of Economics in October 1970, Leeds students set up their own Gay Liberation Society. Tom Ellison of its Action Committee even wrote to the Yorkshire Post in March 1971 to outline some of the society’s aims and to thank the newspaper for its ‘sympathetic treatment of our cause’. In June 1971 Leeds University Students’ Union also hosted the Gay Liberation Front’s first National Think-In.

Three years earlier, in March 1968, Leeds University student John Dalton had written an article for the student newspaper Union News about the Hope and Anchor pub (now the New Penny) on Call Lane. There he met 19-year-old ‘Kevin’, barman Donald Wardman and landlady Cathy Wilson. Two weeks later, Denis Cassidy of The People made a trip to Leeds (possibly up the M1, which was newly extended from Rugby to Leeds that year) to visit the Hope and Anchor. He was horrified by what he saw:

Men DANCING CHEEK TO CHEEK to the music of a juke-box. KISSING PASSIONATELY on the dance floor and in secluded corners. HOLDING HANDS, PETTING and EMBRACING unashamedly.

He too met Kevin, Donald and Cathy, and also ‘James’ (aka ‘Jane’), who told him, ‘I don’t want to change. I enjoy being what I am.’ Cathy claimed that 90 per cent of her customers were ‘queer or lesbian’. She added, ‘If I threw them out, where could they go? They come in here because they regard it as their pub. I would rather run a pub like this for these people than have a pub full of some of the normal types we have in Leeds.’ Just two weeks later, on 9 April 1968, some ‘normal types’ – in this case Glasgow Rangers football fans – wrecked the pub, forcing it to close. Enraged by their 2-0 defeat by Leeds United at Elland Road, the fans probably also targeted the pub because they had read about it in The People. That was certainly the view of one Leeds student who was interviewed for We Who Have Friends, a 1969 documentary film about gay men. Shot at various locations in London and Leeds and directed by Richard Reisz and Richard Woolley, the film attracted the interest of the BBC, but was never broadcast.

19th October 1932 Junction of Lower Briggate and Call Lane. Fred Verity and son Ironmongers listed as been 174-178 Briggate and 60-68 Call Lane. Sign on side of property advertising ‘Garage at top of street’ which is listed as been owned by fred Verity and son in the Kellys 1932 Directory of Leeds. On opposite side of road is the Hope and Anchor Public House, then Pitfall Street then Tom Langton Builders merchants. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

As in other large cities, Leeds hosted a lively, if discreet, gay scene. The Mitre pub on Commercial Street welcomed gay customers during evening hours, until it closed in 1961. According to Gordon Cooper, a regular drinker there, police officers often came into the pub before closing time, had a couple of pints with the landlord, a Mr Simpson, and then left, saying, ‘Goodnight lads. Behave yourselves.’ The Golden Cock on Kirkgate, by the stage door of the Empire Theatre (demolished in 1962), was also gay on Sunday nights. The Golden Lion Hotel on Briggate and the Royal Hotel on Lower Briggate were similarly frequented by gay men, and the Hotel Metropole on King Street had a cocktail bar where gay men could also mingle.

c1901. North east side of Kirkgate (nos. 13 and 14), showing The Golden Cock pub and entrance to Bewley Yard. Photograph by Alf Mattison. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

The nearby railway station – and in particular the toilets – had a reputation for hosting encounters of a more intimate kind. In April 1958 the News of the World even reported the case of Michael Walker, an enterprising 27-year-old laboratory assistant from Huddersfield who sold ‘improper’ photographs to men through a hole in one of the cubicles. A more relaxing – but equally risky – place to make friends was the corporation public baths on Union Street, next to Millgarth police station. A sign outside the steam room warned customers not to indulge in ‘indecent behaviour’, and arrests were sometimes made.

8th February 1938. View of Golden Lion Hotel on junction of Lower Briggate with Swinegate. Business can be seen occupying lower level of Hotel building. The Hotel was designed by Thomas Ambler in 1879 and built on part of the site of the Commercial Hotel Coaching Inn. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

By the late 1960s there was a growing demand for safer spaces where gay men could meet and socialise without the unwanted attentions of the police and the press. The passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 – which decriminalised consenting adult male homosexual behaviour in private – and the growing tide of social and sexual permissiveness in Britain prompted the Manchester-based North-Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee to set up a private company with the aim of establishing a chain of clubs around the country. Leeds was on their wish list, along with Blackpool, Bolton, Burnley, Eccles, Chester, Liverpool, London, Nottingham, Sheffield and Swinton in Lancashire. The scheme eventually collapsed, but some resourceful Loiners had already taken the initiative. In June 1968 a police sergeant, Terence Spencer, and a printer, I. Suckell, travelled to London to meet the Albany Trust to discuss (in the words of the minutes) the ‘urgent necessity in the Leeds area for a well-run club for homosexuals’. The pair – who lived together in Roundhay – said that they had raised the issue with Spencer’s former chief constable, who had told them that ‘everything was ok so long as they kept within the law’. Two years later, in January 1970, Raymond Clarke wrote to the Homosexual Law Reform Society to tell them about a meeting he was planning at his home to ‘discuss the possibility of group/club meetings’.

1908. Lower Briggate eastside, showing nos. 159 – 162, Royal Buildings and Royal Hotel. Royal Hotel established 1692. Cauldwell, paperhanger on left, Brooks, on right. Photograph by Alf Mattison. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Clarke had previously organised the sexuality seminar in York, which was well attended by Leeds participants, including representatives from the Leeds Diocesan Rescue, Protection and Child Welfare Society (a certain Sister Gabriel), the University of Leeds and the Psychiatric Unit of St James’s Hospital. The presence of a psychiatrist was ominous, however, given the contradictory and sometimes negative attitude of the medical profession towards homosexuality. There is evidence to suggest that gay men from Leeds were subjected to treatments to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality in the 1960s. In the Union News article about the Hope and Anchor ‘Kevin’ explained that he was receiving electrical aversion therapy, which involved ‘watching pictures of nude men and women, and when male figures are shown on the screen he receives a mild electric shock.’ In 1963 the Psychiatric Unit at St James’s appointed Basil James as its Senior Registrar. James was previously Registrar at Glenside Hospital in Bristol, where he pioneered chemical aversion therapy techniques. Patients were given injections of a nausea-inducing drug and then given alcohol to drink. This chemical combination caused vomiting, and, while they were being sick, patients were shown pictures of naked men. This, it was believed, would condition them to become disgusted by homosexual attraction.

By the early 1970s gay ‘cures’ were seen as cruel, ineffective and unnecessary. The Gay Liberation Front’s manifesto, drawn up at the end of 1970, specifically called on psychiatrists to ‘stop treating homosexuality as though it were a sickness, thereby giving gay people senseless guilt complexes.’ There was also a growing acceptance of gay men and their right to live peaceful, undisturbed lives. In Leeds, that kind of acceptance had been common for a long time. People who were interviewed about their attitudes to gay men for We Who Have Friends mostly expressed sympathy, tolerance or indifference. Regular drinkers at the Hope and Anchor watched the high jinks there ‘without a murmur of protest’. One rugby player, pint in hand, told Denis Cassidy, ‘You should have been here at Christmas, mate, when they had the mistletoe up. You really would have seen something then!’

John-Pierre’s talk will be at 6pm on Wednesday 26 February at Leeds Central Library, Calverley Street. The event is free. Tickets from: www.ticketsource.co.uk/leedslibraryevents

John-Pierre is keen to find out more about the people and places mentioned in this article. In particular, he would like to make contact with the following people (or those who knew them):

Kevin’ from the Hope and Anchor

Ex-police sergeant Terence Spencer and I. Suckell

Former patients or colleagues of Basil James.

He can be contacted at newsmailjpj@yahoo.com or on 07787622898.

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