Lewisham’s lost queer spaces
This project, led by Bijou Stories, uncovers the histories of Lewisham’s lost gay venues that thrived from the 1970s – 90s and the informal communities that formed there, responding to social and political challenges including the AIDS crisis.
After gathering a wealth of memories, photographs and stories from those who spent time there, the project produced a series of creative responses inspired by the history of these lost spaces and their importance to the LGBTQ+ community
In the autumn of 2022 a collaborative exhibition was held in Lewisham Shopping Centre that played host to workshops, discussions, play readings and socials. The exhibition addressed the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ spaces, documenting a forgotten past and empowering communities of today.
After the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, London’s gay bars were able to legally operate in relative peace. For 30 years, Lewisham’s bars and pubs acted as safe spaces for people to meet, have a drink and overcome collective challenges. Venues like The Castle, The Queen’s Arms and The Roebuck hosted regular quizzes, drag nights and parties throughout the week.
During the 80s, these pubs also held carboot sales, raffles, performances and other activities to raise money for those in the community suffering from HIV, contributing to a network of support across the borough.
The end of the 20th century saw the steady decline of Lewisham’s gay bars, a loss that had consequences for the communities they served. In 2012, the borough’s only gay bar at the time, Two8Six, closed its doors permanently after a disagreement with the landlord, punctuating the end of a string of closures.
The project’s exhibition in Lewisham Shopping Centre was designed by artist, Kleanthis Kyriakou in response to the ephemeral nature of many LGBTQ+ spaces. It featured a large pink ‘Archive Tent’ that housed memories, photographs and ephemera from the people who shaped Lewisham’s queer community, inviting visitors to sit on the soft, pink floor and explore their stories.
At the entrance stood a ‘Memorial Wreath’ commemorating and memorialising lost LGBTQ+ spaces. London-based artist duo, Alexandros Xenophontos and Ben Holland also designed a ‘Smoking Area’ installation to collect and visually interpret visitors’ oral histories.
Once open, the exhibition functioned as a temporary queer space with a full schedule of events. The project’s weekly social, Sequin Sundays, featured in Timeout Magazine’s Things to do in London section and attracted a large attendance.
In early 2023, the oral histories conducted by the project were used as the basis for a detailed and moving podcast, delving into the personal histories and experiences of those who found community, creativity and solidarity in Lewisham’s lost gay venues.
Reflections by project lead Paul Green
‘Where to now that the sequins have gone?’ was a deeply personal project for me to undertake, one that asked the impossible – that I remain objective while talking about times, places, and people that had been so important to me.
Listening to the stories people shared sometimes led to tears – tears of laughter and joy, as well as tears for those people whom I thought would be there forever, sharing their jokes, advice, and coconut macaroons, whenever they guessed I was feeling down.
It was a great help to have Rosie Oliver by my side throughout the process as she could take a more pragmatic approach, cutting out the shaggy dog stories and finding the narrative thread that tells the story not only of a handful of gay bars in Lewisham but also of the wider social and political history of the 80s/90s.
When I set out on the project, I knew that I wanted to capture the power of people’s history. As with all the stories in the ‘In Living Memory’ programme, these were stories of resilience and empowerment, of strong friendships and powerful connections with place; stories that demand to be taken to a wider audience than the tag ‘oral history’ can sometimes imply.
The project became a living archive that used memory as a catalyst for celebration, whether it was through the recreation of a Sunday afternoon cabaret or taking a Pride flag made by the pub regulars out of the mothballs and hanging it pride of place in an exhibition.
The project opened up many other potential avenues of exploration, from stories of cabaret performers to a history of the gay fringe theatre of the 70s-90s. Indeed, it was the many local links to gay fringe theatre which introduced me to the rich history of Gay Sweatshop, which is the focus of my next project.
Working on In Living Memory has taught me the power of local history and the lasting impact of cherished memories as a way of understanding our shared history and making some sense of the future.
- Paul Green, Bijou Stories, freelance Project Manager and Curator
- Rosie Oliver, Bijou Stories