The number of local gay bars and pubs in east London is significantly decreasing. Many beloved establishments have been lost and those that remain have had to adapt. ELL has mapped the decline of LGBTQ venues in our boroughs over the past 30 years from 1985 to 2015. Follow the story this week to find out why this is happening and what it means for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
The Old Ship pub, The White Swan club and The Backstreet leather bar are Tower Hamlets’ last remaining queer venues. The most recent loss to the borough’s LGBTQ scene was The Joiner’s Arms in Shoreditch, one of east London’s most-loved gay bars, which was closed in January.
The management was informed last year that its lease would not be renewed after it ended in January as a development company was planning to build flats on the site. The current owners, Robobond LTD, had attempted to have the Asset of Community Value status removed so the pub could be demolished.
The Hackney Road bar was turned into a gay venue in 1997 by David Alexander Pollard and was described as “Britain’s trendiest gay dive”, frequented by figures such as Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Patrick Wolf.
The Save The Joiners group was set up to protest the closure and try to save the venue. After an online petition and a campaign of protests, they have been successful in getting Tower Hamlets Council to reinstate the ACV status for the pub. This will help to protect it from developers and is a huge step towards reopening the pub as an LGBTQ community centre.
Comments from those who signed the Change.org petition to keep the pub open show its significance: “The Joiner’s Arms is an important institution in East London. It’s a safe haven for a huge group of LGBT Londoners,” said Brett Mortensen.
“The venue is an important cultural forum for an underprovided for minority,” said Justin Hiskett and Jack Marshall said: “I feel safe in there.”
Last month NewStatesman spoke to Dan Glass, a 31 year-old LGBTQ community worker and campaigner to save the Joiner’s Arms: “There’s no queer community centre in London, which is horrific.”
“It’s about time our community bloody woke up,” said sex worker and staple on the London scene Sleaszy Michael. “This is not just about the Joiners Arms. This is a real and present danger to our whole community.”
The only remaining gay pub in Tower Hamlets is The Old Ship on Wakeling Street. After it was threatened with closure two years ago, the pub has confirmed its position as a community pillar.
As ELL reported in 2013, when Tower Hamlets Council decided to sell their lease for the Old Ship to build housing, a local petition was started to save the pub. Within a month it had 1,250 signatures and the council reversed their decision.
Pub landlord John Fell told ELL: “The neighbours and people who used to live in this area would come in and say ‘we want to sign this petition because too many pubs have closed down; it’s gone too far.’”
ELL went to the Old Ship on a Friday night and spoke to the punters, pub-quizers and drag queens who call it their local.
Richard Brooke, aged 39 (who preferred not to be filmed) and Shaun Hanson, aged 42, have been coming to the Old Ship for about a year since they moved to Canning Town. The friends, originally from Wales and the Midlands respectively, have lived in London for about 15 years.
How have they seen LGBTQ society change? “There’s Soho but even that’s under attack,” said Brooke. “The gay scene as we know it has contracted to the centre more than anything else,” said Hanson. “Bars have been closing further out from central London.”
“There are a couple of reasons for this, firstly you had the smoking ban which didn’t just affect gay bars, it affected all bars. But I think when it becomes a bit more unique to the gay scene is when you’ve got the smartphone and apps like Grindr.”
“Now you can meet people without going out and find out who is around you locally without going to the bar. For the gay scene, it’s a bad thing. It’s destroying the gay scene when it comes to bars and clubs.”
Since its invention, the internet has been instrumental for the LGBTQ community as a method of spreading information and connecting people in different places. Recently gay people have utilised online communication with dating apps like Grindr, which allows gay and bisexual men to meet people nearby.
Once the queer community used secret slang and coloured handkerchiefs to find each other, today all you need is 3G. As it’s put in Channel 4’s new gay comedy Cucumber, “everywhere’s a gay bar now”.
Brooke: “When we go to The White Swan there’s people there on Grindr. It’s spoiling the art of conversation because rather than talking to people around you, you’re just trying to check out who’s there. What’s the point of standing in the middle of a nightclub with your phone? It’s bloody awful!”
Hanson: “Well, without damming Grindr too much…”
B: “He’s always on it, that’s why.”
H: “No, not necessarily! Without damning it too much, if you are in a bar such as the White Swan you can check someone out before you talk to them and you find out what their interests are before you talk to them.”
B: “And they say romance is dead.”
“We’re old school but a lot of the youngsters, especially if they’re at university or something, go out with their friends and they might just go to a normal club anyway and do whatever they want, they don’t actually go to specific gay places like we used to. There’s a lot of that now where everyone just goes where they want. When I go out I like to know everyone is gay”, says Brooke, laughing.
“I think a lot of young people take these things for granted,” said Hanson, “whereas for someone like myself, who’s 47 and grew up in the 80s, the gay scene was different then and you had to be careful who you might have looked at or touched even.”
“If I was going to a straight bar I wouldn’t be as easy or complacent as the young people are today because I’ve been conditioned to keep myself to myself. I still don’t think it’s 100% safe out there. It only takes one person to not like you because you’re gay…”
How did Hanson find becoming part of the gay scene as a young person? “You’d pick up on things but you had to learn fast,” said Hanson, “I had to learn fast because I wasn’t living in the straight world which school brought me up in and even with sex education was never geared towards what my life might be like.”
“Having learnt, dealt with and accepted how other people lived, it was time to learn fast about how I should live and the only way I could do that was from people who were like-minded because there was no other source of education.”
Jonathan Swaddle, aged 42 from Chingford and Dan Martin, aged 35 from South End spoke to us over a pint before the pub quiz started. Swaddle, who was off duty for the night, performs as a drag queen in the Old Ship as well as many other venues, queer and straight.
What did he think is to blame for the decline in local gay bars? “Drugs, the smoking ban and older people wanting to stay in,” he said. “The older you get, the more you stay in and with the gay scene, the young crowd are all in Soho. Pubs like this depend on middle aged to older people. It’s a struggle to fill a gay club now out of town.”
“You’ve also got Grindr now, the gay sex app. If you want to have sex you just use that to find someone. Twenty years ago when I was young there was no such thing, so you went out to meet people. Now you don’t have to.” “It’s tough for pub owners,” said Martin.
Swaddle is a patron of the Albert Kennedy Trust which supports LGBTQ youth: “They foster and take care of young kids – teenagers who have been booted out by their families and are on the street. They’re often fostered by gay couples who would then introduce them to this. They’re too young to come in and drink but it’s something to look forward to, a community.”
“I came out in the late eighties when I was 16 in a tiny little village up north called Wall,” said Swaddle who worked as a performer in Spain for eight years before returning to the UK circuit and the Old Ship 15 years ago: “The scene was different when I came back. Drugs had taken over. Everyone took drugs or takes drugs.”
Why are fewer gay people going to gay venues? “If I’m not working I’d usually rather go to a straight bar. But I think that’s a lot of people now – a lot of people just want to be normal, they just want to mix in with the normal crowd, they don’t want to be stigmatised in a gay pub and have to go to gay bars.”
Will this decline continue until there are no local gay bars left? “I would imagine so. It’s a total shame,” said Swaddle. “I absolutely love working here and I can’t imagine this not being here. But unless people come out and support it, it won’t be here. It’s a business at the end of the day, it’s got to make money.”
What about the situation in other parts of the city? “The gay scene in south London is just awful,” said Martin, “You had The Eagle which shut down, and Southern Pride and The Black Sheep. It’s just rough. It doesn’t feel comfortable to go there. You had really good drag queens who went there but you didn’t feel comfortable outside.”
“I used to manage a gay bar in Stratford for eight years,” said Martin, “The Angel.”
“I did the opening night and the closing night,” said Swaddle fondly. “But the owner went bust.”
“That was a real tragedy – The Angel going.” said Martin. “It used to be the hub of the gay scene in east London.”
They reminisce over the good times they had in the many bars and clubs which have since disappeared before joining their their quiz team and continuing to enjoy their night.
For more information on how the data behind this article was collected, see our methodology.