F.D. Ommanney’s 1966 autobiographical memoir The River Bank contains a fascinating account of how pubs fit into the London gay scene of the 1920s.
Francis Downes Ommanney was quite well-known in his day as an Antarctic explorer and travel writer who served in the Royal Navy during World War II. This particular book covers in frank detail the period when he realised, as (by his own admission) a rather randy young man, that he was gay.
His account of various cafes and clubs where gay men mingled are entertaining, especially the description of one section of an otherwise bland tea room near Piccadilly Circus which was known as the ‘Lily Pond’, but we’re going to stick to his comments on pubs in this post. First, there is his general view on how pubs had changed since his youth:
In those days pubs were not the elegant establishments that many of them have now, rather deplorably, become with chandeliers, brocade wallpapers, bursts of artificial flowers and high-busted ladies in artificial pearls behind the bar. They were much more down to earth and utilitarian, intended strictly… for the sale and consumption of alcoholic liquors.
And then he gives an account of the social hierarchy enacted in the way pubs were arranged:
There were several bars, a saloon and a public bar as a matter of course, but there might also be others, like the lounge, the private bar and sometimes the ladies’ bar. In the saloon, where I think bitter beer was about 8d. a pint, the surroundings were distinctly more classy than in the public where the same beer was only 4d. or 4d. a pint. There were sofas and tables with ash-trays and there might be a tinny piano, though this was rare in the West End… The public bar often had sawdust on the floor to absorb the beer swills, spittoons and a generally spartan, poverty-stricken air so that the patrons might feels themselves a step or two lower down the ladder than their neighbours in the saloon.
Subtle and archaic as all that might seem Ommanney also describes what might happen if the class signals were ignored:
I usually patronised the saloon because once or twice in the public bar the proprietor had looked at me in a meaningful manner and said severely, ‘Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the saloon bar, sir?’ And I had immediately felt guilty as though I were there for a nefarious purpose, as perhaps I was…
There then comes a portrait of the Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street:
Perhaps the liveliest of all the bars I frequented was the Fitzroy Tavern in Soho which had an atmosphere as close to that of a Paris boite in its earthy gaiety as it was possible to achieve in London. It was frequented by an extraordinary collection of bohemians, dope addicts (very sinister in those days but nothing, apparently, now), lesbians, queers and oddities of all sorts. It was always full of soldiers and sailors, especially the latter, who always love the free-and-easy, pick-up atmosphere of a joint anywhere in the world.
It’s hard to reconcile that description with the Fitzroy of today which is a lovely pub but hardly a Bohemian hangout. (Unless you count Doctor Who fans.)
After a couple of pages dedicated to Paul the long-haired, fan-waving, jewellery-wearing piano player, Ommanney gets on to a more general appreciation of London’s military pubs:
The Household Cavalry lounged elegantly in their chosen pubs wearing blue tunics and skin-tight trousers with a red stripe down the side... I was conscious of the erotic appeal of uniforms and so were many others, for pubs which were frequented by Army and Navy were always a magnet for men about town.
A couple of specific pubs get a mention — the Bunch of Grapes on the Strand, ‘nearly always crowded with sailors’ and…
a fine pub called the Pakenham in a pretty… building near Tattersall’s which was always full of guardsmen in scarlet. I have bought many pints of dark there and listened to stories about the sergeant who was a right bastard and the prospects for the inter-battalion boxing tournament next month.
Ommanney also mentions a ‘large, bare, forbidding boozer’ near Waterloo station and a ‘big smoky bar off Leicester Square kept by a Jewish ex-boxer named Jack Bloomfield’ but no obvious candidates spring up from Googling.
UPDATE 12:13 07/12/2015: Via Twitter @CockneyCampaign and @TheMuseumOfSoho have identified Jack Bloomfield’s pub as the Sportsman’s Saloon, Bear Street, AKA (we assume) The Old King’s Head, which is actually mentioned in Maurice Gorham’s Back to the Local if we’d thought to check.
This chapter is another candidate for the anthology of pub- and beer-writing we’re never going to get to compile and well worth the £2.81 (delivered) we paid for a used copy of the book.