Speak Out London and the Drill Hall Archive

Blog Photo 2Blog Photo 3Drill Hall Archive

Our Catalogue Officer, Rosemary Munro,  reveals more about her Speak Out work.

One of the collections that we’re going to be cataloguing as part of Speak Out is the archive of The Drill Hall, an arts centre run by Central London Arts Limited with a long history of showing radical plays and performances. The collection starts from the 1970s and continues until 2012, at which point following the sale of The Drill Hall the organisation became known as Outhouse London.

Each file in the collection contains records of a performance (or sometimes a few performances), which could include correspondence, posters, leaflets, agreements, newspaper reviews, and (my favourite) black and white photos of the performances. There is a real mix of shows and many of them reflect or pose questions about the times in which they were conceived. For example, many deal with the troubles in Northern Ireland during the 80s, as well as Feminism, immigration, and, of course, LGBTQ issues. For me, reading the reviews of some of the productions has been a very eye-opening experience. As a 90s child, it was quite a revelation to see some of the opinions being expressed towards homosexuality in mainstream media outlets such as The Sun as late as the 80s.

Dagmar Kattler has made a great start on kick-starting the cataloguing and we have now repackaged and inputted the data for on 124 files. It’s going to be fantastic to get more volunteers involved with this interesting project. Do let us know if you’d like to get involved!


Rosemary Munro is our new Speak Out Catalogue Officer…

We are pleased  to welcome Rosemary Munro as the latest member of the Speak Out team. You’ll be hearing a lot more from her very soon.

Well hello there. A few words of introduction to start off with: My name is Rosemary and I’ve just started work as catalogue editor on the Speak Out project. Eventually, my role will include cataloguing the new LGBT-related material which has been given or loaned to LMA and improving existing catalogue entries. I will also be involved in identifying items which will be of interest for the forthcoming exhibition and website launch. It’s all very exciting.

However, I’ve spent my first week on slightly more mundane tasks such as attempting to find my way around the building (i.e. lingering in corridors until someone rescues me), memorising a variety of different passwords and codes, and trying to have a presentable staff photo taken.

I’m really looking forward to meeting all of the volunteers working on the project and listening to some of the oral histories that they have been collecting, as well as seeing the project take shape during the coming months.

Discovering Life in Wartime London

Jason Green reveals some of his discoveries whilst working on the magistrates records

One of the tasks of the Speak Out London volunteers is to discover and index all offences relating to homosexual “importuning” or acts of”gross indecency” recorded in London magistrates’ records during 1939-1970.”‘Gross indecency” is a legal term taken from the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Under this law, homosexuality became an illegal activity in the United Kingdom until it was partially decriminalised in 1967. Ironically, these magistrates’ books – and other similar legal records – are often the only documentary evidence we have for tracing the presence and lives of gay and bisexual men during these years. By cataloguing these offences, it allows us to slowly build up not only a map of activity in London, but also a picture of the men behind the statistics.

My starting point was two volumes from the Marylebone Magistrates. The first covered the months April, June and August in 1941; the second volume covered November 1941 and January and March 1942. The police recorders worked initially from loose sheaves of paper, and these were later bound in impressive leather registers. Why the books were bound with alternate months, rather than a simple chronological calendar order, is not known. A quirk of the English legal system?

The entries are handwritten, and usually follow a standard format. Information is recorded in columns. In the first column, the name of the arresting officer or complainant is recorded; in the next the name, age and occupation of the apprehended are noted; the nature of the offence and the relevant piece of legislation breached in the third column; in the fourth the plea recorded (G for ‘Guilty’, NG for ‘Not Guilty’) and in the final column comments are made by the Adjudicating Magistrate as to the outcome of the case. The handwriting is usually an elegant ‘secretary’ style. Standard, presumably legal, phrases are employed when noting the offence. Abbreviations or shorthand are employed. For example, ” DR & DIS” indicates the offender was drunk and disorderly; “3 mths H.L.” notifies a sentence of three months’ hard labour was given. Other notations such as “P.O.A.” are less obvious. (‘Proof of Age’? Grateful for any suggestions.)

One of the first aspects of the registers I noticed is their stiff, quaintly formal language – “therein”, “during the hours of darkness”, “to wit”, “feloniously” and my personal favourite, “burglariously”. In addition, some remarks are quite convoluted or clumsy – “stealing from the person of some person unknown” or “did unlawfully knowingly make a statement false in a material particular to wit”. After a while, however, you become accustomed to the style of language.

The volumes present a fascinating, partial glimpse of day-to-day existence in London during the early years of WW2. They also contain traces of a life now long vanished. For example, many of the occupations recorded are wonderfully old-fashioned – Furnace Man, Hosiery Merchant, Tailoress, Greengrocer’s boy – as well as reflecting a pre-automated age – Sheet Fitter, Pipe Bender, Coilwinder.

It is perhaps not surprising that theft is the principal crime recorded. Cigarettes, tinned goods (what is “beef extract”?), soap and chocolate are the property most frequently stolen, as well as – curiously – clothing, bedlinen and towels. I was initially puzzled by the theft of these last mundane articles. Why would you steal someone’s towels? But soon realised this showed the shortage of such items during a time of rationing and deprivation, as well as indicating a thriving black market for them. The suitcase of one man contained “six eggs, 4lbs 2ozs beef, 11ozs of mutton, three lbs of beef and other articles suspected of being stolen”. The two teenage women caught stealing bowls of facial powder and “rouge puffs” have my sympathy. The frequency in which pairs of gloves are stolen – even during the Spring and Summer months – particularly struck me, and shows how standards of dress back then are so different to our own. Ration books and National Registration Identity Cards also feature among those items most regularly received. Some of the more stranger items include two pairs of pince-nez in their cases, a music stool and an “elephant bell”. It is perhaps indicative of the desperation of many people that they had been caught stealing from their employers. William Whiteleys in Bayswater and Marks & Spencer near Paddington station were clearly popular targets for the light-fingered.

People were also taken in on the suspicion that they intend to commit a felony. Individuals or groups of men (it was overwhelmingly always men) are discovered in enclosed gardens or hanging around streets or squares during the night. Their ‘intent’ given away by carrying with them an assortment of “implements of housebreaking” such as crow bars, pliers, bunches of keys, and jimmys. Looting was also an issue with people found on premises exposed by war damage. On two separate occasions, men were caught breaking into Madame Tussards.

An aspect of wartime life which I was unaware was revealed by the registers. There was a nighttime curfew imposed on “foreign nationals” resident in London during this period. This was the result of the Aliens Movement Restrictions Order 1940. Between midnight and 6am, “aliens” were required to remain in their homes. The volumes are littered with entries recording those who were caught breaking this curfew. Interestingly, these allow us to have some idea of the many different nationalities living in London during this time – Indian, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, “Arab”, Polish and Hungarian, among many others – showing that London has always been a multicultural melting-pot.

Identity was obviously important during this time of suspicion and alertness about national security. There are a number of instances in the volumes of men ‘impersonating’ military personnel. In the words of one such case: “Wearing [the] uniform of [a] seaman calculated falsely to suggest that they were members of H.M. Royal Navy”.  According to another entry, one ‘officer’ has gone to the trouble of decorating himself with medals, in particular the “Distinguished Flying Corps ‘Palestinian Medal'”. A “Czecho-Slovakian” woman, and her male partner, are brought in on account of them trying to pass her off as presumably English with a fake English-sounding name. Men and women loitering or “wandering abroad”, and who were unable to give “a good account of themselves” (wonderful phrase!), are also taken in. Desertion or absenteeism from the armed forces is perhaps the second most frequently recorded offence during this time. While most of those detained are male, there are one or two cases of women who have not returned to their military duties.

Darker, more troubling offences also emerge on the pages, reflecting the very different social mores of the time. Suicide was illegal, and there are a few occasions in which people who have attempted to kill themselves have been brought in. Some of these unfortunate people were young male deserters, which makes you wonder what ordeals they had undergone. In another entry, a chemist and his assistant are arrested for using “an instrument upon one {name} with intent to procure her miscarriage”. Presumably this was an attempted ‘backstreet’ abortion, a medical procedure which was outlawed at the time. That the ‘instrument’ is not identified gives the sentence a chilling aspect. No information is recorded as to what became of the woman and her unborn child.

This information is all very good and well – and hugely interesting – but what about the original purpose of my searches? Well, I have to admit there were no ‘finds’ relating to homosexual ‘offences’ in either volume. The efforts of my co-volunteers searching similar records, however, were more fruitful. Mid-way I did start wishing someone – anyone – would be arrested for an ill-timed grope in a public lavatory, just so I could have some event to record. On the other hand, I was strangely grateful no-one was subject to any such unjust indignity on my ‘watch’. But turning the pages of each volume a vivid and often intimate impression of a busy city and its people striving to live and survive during an uncertain, chaotic and often frightening time is revealed. The importance of these documents – and many others like them – as invaluable social history is thus demonstrated, and it has been a privilege to read their ‘stories’.

Working on Archive Collections: A Volunteer Reflects

One of our Speak Out volunteers, Jill Allbrooke, shares some thoughts on what she has discovered in the pages of some magistrates court records held at London Metropolitan Archives.

I’ve now done two sessions working on the Marylebone court records for 1951 and 1961. I’ve found gay-related cases in all the volumes I’ve looked at so far, but to be honest the most interesting part for me is the vivid and entertaining picture the records paint of life in west London 50 – 60 years ago.

I’ve looked at nineteenth century court records in a previous life and the first thing that struck me about the Marylebone records is how similar they are in some respects, especially in the triviality of the offences people are charged with, such as stealing pairs of socks and bars of soap. However, in the nineteenth century such petty thefts could earn you a date with the hangman or at best a one-way trip to Australia, whereas in the 50s and 60s many offenders were simply discharged.

The most common crimes in both years are being drunk and soliciting (by women). Many of the drunks compounded their crime by “urinating on the footway.” Sleeping rough is described rather poetically as “… did wander abroad and lodge in the open air.” There were lots of prosecutions for deserting the armed forces, running brothels, betting in public, selling from unlicensed barrows, attempting to procure miscarriages and quite a few straight couples having sex in public. Popular thefts include money from gas meters and automatic cigarette machines, typewriters and wirelesses (no laptops or mobile phones back then) and large quantities of lead and coke (the fuel not the drug). In 1951 lots of people were charged with stealing or defacing ration books and identity cards, and in 1961 there was much more shoplifting, I suspect because there were more self-service shops by then, and items such as tins of cat food and jars of Marmite are laboriously listed by the court officials.  In the 1961 volume I came across a surprisingly large number of people charged with possessing “Indian hemp.”Occasionally a serious charge such as murder or rape appears amid the long lists of drunks, prostitutes and car thieves, and is quite shocking in comparison.

I find myself strongly tempted to look below the surface for more evidence related to the LBGT history of London. For example, on 12 January 1951 someone was prosecuted for breaking the windows of the Black Cap pub in Camden. I’m wondering if the Black Cap had a gay clientele that far back, and if it did, whether this could point to a homophobic incident? Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

The Speak Out Project is up and running…

Our volunteers attended four days of training between January and February, gaining insights into existing collections, archival practice, recording oral histories and receiving instruction on document handling and scanning. Between 25-30 volunteers attended each day which was a wonderful turn out. The group was always full of energy and ideas and it this commitment that will make Speak Out an exciting and dynamic project. It’s also been

Since the training was completed volunteers have started on individual activities. Some people have started their oral history recordings, some with the support of our oral historian, Clare Summerskill. We’re very much looking forward to hearing the first set of stories over the next few weeks.

Some volunteers have been making a start on exploring some existing records and uncovering relevant history from magistrates records. These records list cases but are not indexed. Our volunteers are working their way through the volumes, noting relevant information ready for the Speak Out website, which will launch in summer 2016. Other volunteers are coming in to work on the Drill Hall collections, so there is a lot going on.

On Saturday 14 February London Metropolitan Archives hosted the first of our Speak Out history share days. People dropped in and had their LGBTQ material scanned, shared some stories and asked lots of questions. Again, our Speak Out volunteers did a great job hosting and chatting to our visitors. It was a really lively day, with people coming forward with lots of ideas.

Our team of Speak Out volunteers worked with archive documents as part of their training.

Our team of Speak Out volunteers worked with archive documents as part of their training.

Clare Summerskill leads her oral history training session

Volunteers practice interviewing

Exploring archive materials


Welcome to the project blog. Speak Out London – Diversity City is a new LGBTQ Oral History project based at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), which has received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Our Heritage funding stream. The project will run from late September 2014 to August 2016. You can find out more here.