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The War On Vice In The East End

May 30, 2024
by Peter Parker

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The Brown Bear, Leman St

‘well known as being frequented almost exclusively by homos’


Peter Parker, editor of SOME MEN IN LONDON, Queer Life, 1945-1959 published today by Penguin, explores the roles of Edith Ramsay and Father Joe Williamson who made it their mission to clean up ‘vice’ in the East End.


Introducing a debate in the House of Lords on ‘Magistrates’ Powers and Control of Clubs’ in June 1960, the Labour peer Lord Stonham stated that he wished ‘to draw attention to the sudden growth in London, and other large towns, in the number of so-called ‘clubs’  at which, at great profit to themselves, vicious men exploit with impunity almost every known vice, and, in the process, break almost every legal and social law, written and unwritten.’

Having been born in Whitechapel, Stonham was particularly concerned about the clubs of the East End, a number of which had ‘become notorious for prostitution, homosexuality and drug-trafficking’. Among those supplying Stonham with information about the area’s social problems were Edith Ramsay, a long-serving member of Stepney Council whom he dubbed ‘a Florence Nightingale of the brothels’, and Father Joe Williamson, the well-known High Anglican vicar of St Paul’s Church, Dock St, who was known as ‘the prostitute’s padre’.

The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Ramsay was born in Highgate in 1895, but moved to Stepney as a young woman to teach vocational skills to young people (from the ages of fourteen to sixteen) at the Day Continuation School in Old Castle St. Her principal career was in education, and in 1931 she became head of the Stepney Women’s Evening Institute, a post she held until she retired in 1960. When she first came to Stepney she also spent time in local women’s hostels in order to understand conditions among the poor, and this led to her volunteering to do social work in the area, particularly among prostitutes,  immigrants and homosexual men.

Among Ramsay’s papers in Tower Hamlets’ Bancroft Library are a number of documents relating to the prevalence of ‘male vice’ in Stepney in the late fifties and early sixties. These give a frank and fascinating insight into a queer underworld far removed from that of the rather more soigné clubs and pubs of the West End.

The Wolfenden Report of 1957 is chiefly remembered for its recommendation that homosexuality should, with certain provisos, be decriminalised, but the Wolfenden Committee had been additionally appointed by the government to investigate prostitution. Both ‘vices’ were thought to have grown exponentially in the wake of the Second World War and were widely believed to be threatening the moral fabric of the nation.

As legal and social outcasts, some prostitutes and gay men had a kind of camaraderie, frequenting the same areas and patronising the same pubs, clubs and cafés. This was certainly true of the East End, though some venues gained a particular reputation as homosexual meeting places, as Ramsay explained. ‘There is the clear distinction in Stepney between ‘common pouffes’ and ‘select pouffes’,’ she wrote. ‘They have their own assembly points, and these change. For instance, the Cockney Cafe and the Brown Bear pub were well known as being frequented almost exclusively by homos. But this suddenly changed.’ Such changes were often a result of police raids, after which the clientele simply took their custom elsewhere.

Like pubs, clubs had to be licensed, and until 1954 there were a mere eighteen of them in Stepney, some attached to churches, others catering for medical students, sailors and those employed by breweries or the docks, and all of them ‘respectable’. By 1960 the number of clubs had risen to eighty, twenty-four of which had had their licences revoked – mostly for serving drinks outside licensing hours, though the New Life Club at 102 Commercial Rd was ‘struck off’ for a ‘deplorable record’ that included regular fights, broken windows and organized prostitution. Once a venue had been removed from the register, no new club could be  established on the premises for a stipulated period, usually twelve months.

Another infamous establishment was the Creole Club at 72 Cable St, which the Observer journalist Godfrey Hodgson had visited. According to one of Ramsay’s informants, Hodgson was greeted there by a white man, drunk, who apologised for leaving but said he must get back to his wife. (The men in the Club believed this man to be an MP but there is no proof of that.) The man introduced Hodgson to an African who was obviously his ‘boy-friend’, and charged the African to look after Hodgson. The African offered him ‘Men, boys, women, drink after hours, minor and major drugs’.

Some politicians could in fact to be found ‘slumming it’ in the East End, among them the Conservative’s Lord Boothby and Labour’s Tom Driberg, two men who may have been separated by party allegiances but were united in their taste for East End boys.

In 1959 an unidentified social worker was recruited by Ramsay to accompany Father Joe on several guided tours of the East End’s most disreputable haunts and to make written reports. Their first stop on a Saturday night was the aforementioned Brown Bear pub in Leman St, which Williamson declared ‘especially rough’, patronised by female prostitutes but also known as ‘a homosexual rendezvous’.

Passing the pub again on their way home at closing time, they observed a gang of fifteen or so youths ‘larking about outside, breaking milk bottles, very drunk and probably homosexuals from the look of them’. Quite what it was about these youths that identified them as homosexual is not revealed. Apparently bypassing East End Passage, which ran off Leman St and had been reported to Ramsay as the haunt of homosexual prostitutes, Father Joe also called at Wellclose Sq, where in Church House he had set up a rehabilitation hostel for ‘fallen women’. Williamson reported that on the corner of the square he had recently seen ‘four or five men, two of them with their trousers down and the others “driving up them like dogs”’ – not the kind of homosexual act ‘in private’ that the Wolfenden Committee had recommended should be legalised.  Not everyone approved of Father Joe’s social work, and some of the East End’s homosexual prostitutes resented what they saw as mere interference. Williamson related how one of them, accompanied by ‘two clients’ had knocked on his door and threatened him.

[Williamson] ‘went outside the door and locked it behind him and said what he says he always says ‘I’m too busy to be frightened of you. Now what have you got to tell me.’ He was really badly cussed; but later the publican from across the road said that he had been waiting in the shadows and that if there had been any trouble he and his friends would have given them a beating up they wouldn’t recover from.’

It is unclear which pub this was, but evidently not one where homosexual patrons would be as welcome as they were at the Brown Bear.

The second tour took place a week later and lasted from 9 to 11.30 pm. It was a Thursday, and so things were quieter than on the previous Saturday, but there were still some awkward encounters. ‘A new feature was a constant hanging-about on the corner of Leman and Dock St, shifting groups of three to six men, white. One as I passed, Irish, delivering a vehement harangue about something. W[illiamson] said he was homosexual, one of the ones who had threatened him the night the publican intervened.’ They then visited Cable St, where there was a ‘gambling joint’ called the Valletta where drugs were peddled. (The club’s name suggests that, like many such places in the East End, it was run by Maltese.) Father Joe said that he thought that ‘some doctors in the district give coloured men drugs, and one good young doctor admits that he has a patient who takes [i.e. steals] them.’

Another patient named in the report was Tony Hyndman, the former boyfriend of Stephen Spender, who appears as ‘Jimmy Younger’ in Spender’s 1951 autobiography World Within World. The report tactfully refers to Spender only as ‘a very famous writer’, adding that he ‘later married and ditched’ Hyndman, who was now living in the area and hopelessly addicted to drugs. ‘He was at one time given to ringing up very early in the morning to get money out of the writer’s wife, who gave it to him, but W claims to have stopped him doing that. He was left alone in the doctor’s surgery by a locum and stole a large amount of narcotics. Most of which he took until he was in a really serious state.’

By 1963, Edith Ramsay felt  that there had been ‘a remarkable decrease’ in the homosexual population of Stepney – or at any rate in the area’s visible homosexual activity. She added that ‘both “Maralyn” and “Jezebal”, two famous figures in that underworld, have both married and had children’. This did not lessen her concern for what she always saw as a social problem. Unlike many devout Christians, she believed that the church and society needed to reach out to homosexual men rather than ostracize them. ‘Of course homosexuals need special consideration, and parish priests should be given help to enable them to help the homos,’ she wrote to Kenneth Leech, a Stepney resident who was training for the ministry at Oxford and would become a curate at Holy Trinity, Hoxton. Leech had suggested founding a ‘special ministry’ for gay men, but Ramsay replied that ‘a “special ministry” implies segregating them, when what they need is to be brought into the normal community and helped – those who want help must have it by medical and, psychological experts.’

Of course, many homosexual men didn’t want this kind of help, preferring to be left to lead their lives as they saw fit. Within four years, a step in this direction took place when the Sexual Offences Act, 1967 was finally passed, meaning that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private’ was no longer be a criminal offence.

Father Joe Williamson

‘the prostitute’s padre’

St Paul’s, Dock St

Daily Mail feature of 1961, with Father Joe praying in thanks for the destruction of local housing with the caption, ‘Vice takes a knock – an old man thanks God.’

Church House, Wellclose Sq

Father Joe’s rehabilitation hostel for ‘fallen women’

Councillor Edith Ramsay MBE

‘There is the clear distinction in Stepney between ‘common pouffes’ and ‘select pouffes’

102 Commercial Rd, site of the New Life Club which was ‘struck off’ for a ‘deplorable record’

‘A new feature was a constant hanging-about on the corner of Leman and Dock St, shifting groups of three to six men…’

Williamson reported that on the corner of Wellclose Sq he had recently seen ‘four or five men, two of them with their trousers down…’

You may also like to read about

The Lost Squares of Stepney

2 Responses leave one →
  1. May 30, 2024

    I would hope that the troubling attitude of the interventionists in the middle part of the 20th century is a thing of the past, but humanity is a judgmental race…

    One thing I would say with certainty is that it is very difficult to genuinely help people with whom you can’t–won’t–identify, and it risks becoming self-righteousness, or at the least, condescension. It was the key piece that was missing from Ramsey’s and Willliamson’s initiatives.

    Such a difference from Malcolm Johnson’s outreach at St Botolph’s.

  2. Bill permalink
    May 31, 2024

    Horrible being regarded through someone else’s prejudices and expectations, especially when both do so much harm. Create the conditions for a hellish existence, then step back to admire the result. And then step back in with “helpful” advice.

    Imagine others offering one therapy.

    Well, they are both dead.

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