Gay Life: This way for the sex and seediness of Soho village

Organised walking tours of lesbian and gay Soho began yesterday, designed to celebrate the homosexual heritage of what has become London's gay village. Clare Garner visited the hunting grounds of Oscar Wilde and Charles Laughton.

A band of sightseers, with more than a handful of dog collars between them, gathered together yesterday to be guided solemnly through celebrated cottaging country and the17th-century world of Molested Mollies.

Stephen Crane, a virger at St Martin-in-the-Fields, strode ahead, dodging traffic and weaving a path through the labryinth of Soho in central London. His two-hour historical tour of gay hot spots - organised by Kairos, a "spiritual project" for lesbian and gay communities - begins at his church and winds up in Old Compton Street, now centre of the "village" gay life. He pieced it together after scouring records in the British Library.

Left into Wardour Street, right at Ann Summers and into Old Compton Street. "A lot of 18th-century Soho is still here," said Mr Crane, remarking on some ornate shutters. But a lot is not. One is struck by how the cruising landscape of Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter and Noel Coward must have been wonderfully devoid of themed pubs.

"Over the road," he said, pointing his umbrella in the direction of a branch of a French-style cafe chain, "is where 2Is coffee bar used to be. That's where Cliff Richard and the Shadows used to work and where he was discovered."

Into Dean Street, where the serial killer Dennis Nielson picked up rent boys in the Golden Lion pub, and the newly wed actress Elsa Lanchester, living at No 28, famously told her husband, Charles Laughton, that he should get rid of the couch on which he had confessed to "entertaining" young men.

At Charing Cross Road, Mr Crane conjured up an image of Molly Trials on the street in the 1600s. "Most Mollies [an old word for homosexuals] were pilloried at Charing Cross - and it wasn't just vegetables that were thrown at them. It was dead cats, dead dogs, iron and broken glass. Often people died."

On to Soho Square, where William Beckford lived in the 1820s and wrote Vathek, a tract of sin, sorcery, seduction and sex. "He was the richest man in England and also openly gay, which was astounding for that time," Mr Crane said. Beckford spent his time in the Seven Dials, a place he called "the Holy Land" where he could "kiss the relics". "It's always been a seedy area," added Mr Crane.

References to lesbian haunts are rare, but a cafe called The Box, apparently holds a regular women's night. It was, in an earlier incarnation, called As You Like It, and a second home to Quentin Crisp.

At the launch earlier, Neil Whitehead, general secretary of Kairos, explained that the aim of the tours is to raise money. Participants are invited to give pounds 5 towards a Kairos spiritual community centre.

Soho Square yielded another hot spot: No 3, which now houses the British Board of Film Classification, was once the home of Richard Payne Knight, author of a book on phallic worship: The Worship of Priapus.

The tour takes in St Martin's Court, where Pocket books had a gay section before 1967 and Oscar Wilde lived, and St Martin's Lane, where a scene from, Victim, a film about the blackmailing of homosexuals starring Dirk Bogarde, was shot. Kettners restaurant also features. Once the haunt of Wilde and Bosie, it is: "more of a pizza place now, I'm afraid".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk