When you think about The National Trust, romantic images of grand country estates and lush green parks are undoubtedly conjured up in your mind. The Trust are deeply associated with British tradition, which makes it all the more surprising that the Trust’s latest project, Prejudice and Pride, focuses on stories from the sidelines of British culture. Over the space of one year, The National Trust will explore individuals who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality and the precious spaces that they inhabited. One of those spaces was the Caravan Club, a queer club in Soho that operated whilst homosexuality was still illegal, and which was subsequently raided and closed in 1934. The recreation of the club at its original site is at the heart of Queer City, a programme of talks, debates and events celebrating the decriminalisation of homosexuality whilst also delving into the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in a society that silenced them. Joseph Watson, the creative director of National Trust, told us about the project and the importance of bringing these untold stories to light.
London Calling: How did the idea of Queer City and recreating The Caravan Club come about?
Joseph Watson: It’s part of a major project we have at the moment called Prejudice and Pride exploring LGBTQ+ heritage, and uncovering some of the histories and stories about places that we don’t talk about as overtly as we ought to.
We had very good conversations with people like the National Archives and London Metropolitan archives, and we found that the Caravan Club really stood out, not just because it had all the police records, which include photographs of the interior after it was raided, but it also had some very strong human stories, including extraordinary love letters cast on the ground after the police raids.
We used these accounts to reconstruct the club and get a window into the lives of the people attending it, as well as the lives that were shattered by the raid and the aftermath. We wanted to celebrate decriminalisation whilst also focusing on the fact that lives were shattered by attitudes at the time.
LC: Can you give us a bit of a taster of what visitors can expect, particularly from the club experience and the programme of talks?
JW: The tours will chart the period from 1918 up to 1967, taking in the wider Soho area and ending at the Caravan Club, exploring the point just after the club has been raided by police, and trying to then understand what happens after that, and the severity of it. The more celebratory elements will be our evening events, where we essentially recreate the club as it would have operated in the 1930s.
We’re delighted that Freud, the bar that now stands on the original site of the Caravan, have created a cocktail menu that includes cocktails from the era. There will also, on certain nights, be entertainment from the era including an accordionist and dancing. There will also be a debate about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 with the documentary filmmaker Tom Cordell.
Photo credit: The National Archives
LC: It seems like the National Trust are trying out new and innovative ways to conserve and tell stories of buildings all the time, for instance with your interactive exhibition at Fenton House and with Queer City. Why do you think you have gone down this path and how are audiences reacting to it?
JW: They’re reacting very well! It’s about finding new ways of telling history. A few years ago we did some research on Londoners and what interested them, and trying to understand their emotional connection to particular places.
At our core, National Trust is about the connection people feel to places. With Queer City, we decided we wouldn’t go down a digital route, we wanted to focus on face-to-face interaction with people attending our tours and events, and we wanted to create a focal point to spark discussion and debates.
It’s a culture that is very much under threat, Soho is undergoing many renovations at the moment and we wanted to flag up this longer history of Soho and the area, a place of entertainment and subcultures.
LC: The work of The National Trust is often associated with conservation of nature or English Heritage properties. Was this a conscious departure for The National Trust to work with more unconventional, queer spaces?
JW: For us really, it’s about saying that we as an organisation are a broad church. At one end we can be the curators of some of the most iconic, artistic and natural spaces, and on the other we can be provocative, and talk to people about the boundaries of heritage. One of the most important things about the Prejudice and Price programme this year is exploring histories that have been sidelined in the past, that are just as important as any of the male, pale and stale histories. They have their importance and their place, but so do these other stories. Covering those and giving them their moment feels incredibly important.
LC: Obviously we’re living in a time where the rights of queer people are being compromised and queer spaces are even being attacked. Was that a factor in putting together Queer City?
JW: Yes absolutely. We never wanted to get too political, but we’re the first to say that if we can use history to understand where we are now as a kind of tool for understanding, then that’s our core purpose.
Queer City: London club culture 1918 – 1967 events will run 2 - 26 March 2017, find out more here. It is part of a wider, year long programme of events celebrating LGBTQ+ spaces and queer stories, which you can read more about here.