We’ve delved into the GT vault this festive season, to give you some holiday reading.
30th December 2015
The relationship between the police and the gay community has always been a difficult one. It’s taken tragic incidents, like the 1999 bombing of The Admiral Duncan pub in London’s Soho, to encourage the police to work more closely with us in ways that would’ve been unthinkable before that event happened.
For example, the Gay London Police Monitoring Group, the Gay Police Association and the Metropolitan Police’s LGBT Advisory Group must take some of the credit for helping to build bridges. But enough recognition is given to individual community advisers who’ve worked, voluntarily, up and down the country, on the front line of our communities.
For the last two decades, I’ve been active in the London Borough of Southwark as a voluntary independent adviser or ‘critical friend’ to the police. In the 90s, I realised it was easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise the police without doing anything constructive to change the relationship. So, in 1995, I put my head above the parapet – and into the lion’s cage – and set up one of the first locally-based forums to bring together members of the LGBT community and the police to specifically address homophobic hate crime. I focussed on building trust and confidence with local officers and, gradually, I found willingness on their part to talk about the issues that needed to be addressed.
Meanwhile, in 1990, a group of gay police officers met in secret at the home of an officer based at Battersea Police Station in South West London. They had to meet in secret because, even as recent as 1990, they risked persecution and being thrown out of the force if they were found out to be gay. The meeting marked the beginning of the Lesbian and Gay Police Association, which later changed its name to the Gay Police Association. This group committed itself to offering advice and support to fellow officers. Three years later, in 1993, Marc Burke, a former police officer, wrote his landmark book Coming Out of the Blue, which exposed the homophobia that lesbian and gay officers faced on a daily basis. However, with the exception of PC Harry Daley’s autobiography, This Small Cloud, published posthumously in 1987, hardly any documentation exists that informs us about the lives of gay police officers before Daley died in 1971.
In the days when gay officers had to hide in the closet, Daley, who served with the Metropolitan Police from 1925 to 1950, was an exception. In 1930, wearing his uniform, his portrait was painted by the gay artist Duncan Grant. Around the same time he began a love affair with the novelist EM Forster, but Daley was too indiscreet for the closeted Forster. The risk of being found out and imprisoned alarmed Forster to such a degree that he terminated the relationship. Until he retired from the force and joined the merchant navy, Daley happily continued to engage in unlawful acts while upholding the law. As the ‘human face’ of the British bobby in BBC radio broadcasts in the 1930s, he may have inspired the writer Ted Willis to create PC George Dixon, the friendly copper who pounded the beat in BBC TV’s popular Saturday night drama Dixon of Dock Green, from 1955 to 1976.
When I was growing up in Peckham, in South East London, in the 1970s, if I saw a policeman I didn’t ask him the time, I ran for it! If the copper happened to be PC Cole, there wasn’t any point in running away because he’d know who you were and where you lived. For 30 years, from 1953 to 1983, PC Cole walked the beat in South East London. He never moved from his base – the notorious Carter Street Police Station, situated off Walworth Road. Legend has it that villains used to beg their arresting police officers to take them anywhere but Carter Street. Now and again, PC Cole visited my school – a rough secondary modern – and spoke to us at morning assemblies. Though PC Cole was more approachable than his colleagues, in those days in South East London, almost everyone feared and mistrusted Lily Law.
After I left school in 1977, PC Cole became well known as the bobby who wrote a series of best-selling books, in which he related his experiences of walking the beat. This entertaining collection offers insights into an interesting and eventful life. When he died in 2008, our borough commander described him as ‘a talented man with a tremendous sense of humour. His books did much to enhance the reputation of the police service – his amusing anecdotes showed the other side of policing – the human side. He had a real sense of loyalty and passion for policing and for Southwark borough.’
When I read PC Cole’s book, Policeman’s Story, published in 1985, I was intrigued by his brief reference to PC Jimmy Davenport – not his real name – a ‘homosexual’ officer he befriended when he joined the police in 1953. Curious about PC Davenport, in 2004 I tracked down the then retired Harry Cole to find out more. What transpired was a revealing insight into attitudes towards a gay serving police officer in London in the 50s.
Harry informed me that his publisher insisted that he cut the references he made to Jimmy’s gay life, so Harry revealed what was left out of Policeman’s Story: ‘I met Jimmy when we arrived that first day for training at Peel House. Jimmy was in the next bunk to me and we became quite friendly. When we were at the training school, Jim was always singing in the shower. One of his favourite songs was Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Good for nothin’ men are good for nothin’’. Then Jim and I were posted to Carter Street, on the same shift and on the same beat. I liked walking with Jim because he was such a good-looking fella, and all the girls would always be looking at us. He was a tall, upright bloke. He had a baby face. And the funny thing was he had very big hands! But he never seemed to know what to do with them!”
Everyone at Carter Street knew Jimmy was gay, but Harry said this didn’t create any problems, even at the height of the ‘homosexual witch hunt’. This intensified in Britain in the 50s around the time Harry and Jimmy worked together as police officers. Up and down the country, gay men were hounded, persecuted and imprisoned because, at that time, there was a perception that homosexuality was morally reprehensible and also politically dangerous. The medical attitude was that it was an illness, that if treated successfully, homosexuals would become ‘normal’. Police officers were encouraged to arrest any gay men they encountered, and gay men were often arrested and prosecuted after they unwittingly made advances to plain clothes police officers. These were known as agent provocateurs, French for ‘inciting agent’. And yet, in South East London, PC Jimmy Davenport avoided detection and carried on with his career as a police officer throughout the ‘witch hunt’ of the 50s. Harry explained, ‘If you have 15 policemen in a shift, in that 15 there’s going to be one you could kill, some you avoid, some you like intensely, others you don’t mind. And Jim was on the good side, if you like. If you have to work with another officer, you want them to be someone you like and get on with. Jim fitted in. Though we guessed he was a homosexual, it wasn’t an issue.’
Harry remembered that Jimmy used to visit a local gay ‘character’ called Maurice who owned a chemist shop in Westmoreland Road, off Walworth Road: ‘Maurice was as queer as a nine bob note, and he had these parties, for homosexuals, but we turned a blind eye. And if a bobby was wandering by, on his beat, especially on a cold winter’s night, Maurice invited him in: ‘Come in, dear boy. Come and have a drink.’ Everyone knew what Maurice was like. He was like a Wild West doctor. Abortion was illegal then but women, whose young daughters got pregnant, went to Maurice and he sorted them out. And there was always a copper who’d put some girl in the family way, so we’d tell him to take her to Maurice. And then, when the Richardson gang started up, if any of them got injured and couldn’t risk going to a hospital, they’d blag Maurice into helping them. He was around for years.’
PC Jimmy Davenport was stationed at Carter Street for several years and then he was transferred to Wimbledon, because his ‘other secret’ came out. In his spare time Jimmy was singing in a pub and getting paid for it! Harry explained, ‘A police officer didn’t earn much in those days, so money was always tight. Jimmy was discovered moonlighting. That wasn’t allowed. It was frowned upon. Things were very strict then. Some years later, it must’ve been in the 60s, I went with a mate to a club in Old Compton Street. When the show started, to my surprise, it was Jim who came on stage and sang! He had such a good voice. And that was the last I saw of him. After that, other officers said they recognised Jim in various West End shows. So he must’ve left the police and pursued a career in showbusiness.’
What PC Harry Cole didn’t tell me was that homophobia was rife in the police service – and if an officer was discovered to be gay, it could lead to instant dismissal. When I interviewed a gay inspector who’d joined the service – outside of London – in 1978, at a time when gay officers remained firmly in the ‘closet’, he told me: ‘You can’t imagine how racist, homophobic, and sexist the police was. If homosexuality was mentioned, it was always about perverts and poofs. Gays were a dirty minority who frequented gay pubs and haunted toilets. I never saw a copy of Gay News. I never heard about the Gay Liberation Front. I never heard about Gay Pride marches until 1986. I knew there were gay pubs in London, but I had no desire to visit them because, as a police officer, I was terrified of being found out and blackmailed. Gays weren’t tolerated in the police and I bitterly resented that, but there was nothing I could do about it.’ I also interviewed a detective constable who’d joined the Metropolitan Police in 1979. He said: ‘We were a police force, not a service. It was very disciplined. We learned nothing about blacks, homosexuals, religion or domestic violence. We had women officers, but they were expected to make the tea. In those days, the Met was made up of a lot of ex-servicemen, so it was a very macho environment.’ He added that the terms used to describe gay men were all offensive: ‘Queer, homo, poof, bender – they were all used in a derogatory manner. In the old days, because we believed we were the finest police force in the world, we thought we could do everything on our own, but we couldn’t. At first we resented people telling us how to do our work. But not now. That’s changed. We no longer see community advisers as busy bodies but as useful allies.’
In 2003 Stephen Bourne was named Volunteer of the Year by the Metropolitan Police for his pioneering work on tackling homophobic crime in the London Borough of Southwark and for his independent advice on critical incidents.
Words Stephen Bourne