During World War Two, Black gay men existed in all walks of life in Britain
By Stephen Bourne, Historian
It is disappointing that only fragments about the lives of Black gay men in British history have surfaced. Either homophobia or reluctance on the part of the interviewer or interviewee to explore the subject has meant that crucial information has been lost.
However, information does exist. It is out there, and it can be found with diligent research.
During the Second World War, Black gay men existed in all walks of life. To earn a living, some danced in cabaret shows in West End nightclubs, while others worked as artists’ models.
The Jamaican Granville ‘Chick’ Alexander managed to survive this way, but in his spare time he also volunteered for Air Raid Precaution (ARP) duties as a stretcher bearer, when the Blitz began on September 7, 1940.
Also from Jamaica was Patrick Nelson, who had arrived [in London] to work as a ‘gentleman’s valet’. He then became an artist’s model, and in 1938, befriended the Bloomsbury Group painter, Duncan Grant. They became lovers, but in 1940, Nelson joined the army, and went to France with the British Expeditionary Force, where he was captured by the Germans. He remained a prisoner of war for four years.
The London-born Reginald Foresythe became famous in the 1930s for his innovative jazz compositions, but, in 1941, he joined the Royal Air Force, though he insisted [on] having his officer’s uniform made for him by his personal tailor.
Also in the world of music, the Guyanese bandleader, Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, had become one of the most famous Black men in Britain by the time the war broke out. His ‘swing’ music was popular in West End clubs, such as the Café de Paris, as well as recordings and on BBC Radio.
Tragedy cut short Ken’s life in 1941, when a bomb hit the Café de Paris and killed Snakehips at the age of 26. But his legend lives on. He is often mentioned in the popular BBC TV series, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. He was survived by his lover, Gerald Hamilton, who, to the day he died, kept a framed photo of his ‘husband’ by his bedside.
The London Blitz continued until May 1941. At the height of the bombing, the Elephant and Castle area of south London was practically razed to the ground. Nearby, many buildings in Newington Causeway were demolished, except No. 112, which survived. This was the surgery of a popular family GP, the Barbadian Dr Cecil Belfield Clarke. He had opened his surgery in 1920, and kept it going until his retirement in 1965. In spite of damage from air raids, and the loss of gas and electricity, Dr Clarke kept the surgery open for his patients. He continued to travel to Newington Causeway all through the Blitz from his beautiful home, known as Belfield House, in north London which he shared with his partner, Pat Walter.
Ivor Cummings was one of the most important leaders in the Black community in wartime Britain. In spite of his public-school education, he had been rejected by the Royal Air Force for a commission in 1939, because of his colour. Cummings had been born in Hartlepool to a Sierra Leonean doctor and his English wife. Following the rejection from the RAF, Cummings began working for the Colonial Office in Whitehall, and undertook invaluable work on behalf of Black workers in London, who suffered discrimination in factories and on the streets. His job as the assistant welfare officer for the Colonial Office earned him a reputation as someone who would assist any Black person in trouble.
It is unlikely any of these men were open about their homosexuality, which was against the law until partial decriminalisation in 1967.
However, for the duration of the war, racist and homophobic attitudes were, for the most part, set aside, as Britain fought a common enemy. Everyone pulled together to ensure that Britain and their colonies in West Africa and the Caribbean were not invaded.
The war ended in 1945, but, soon afterwards, the situation changed dramatically, with the witch-hunt of gay men and racist attacks on the new arrivals from Africa and the Caribbean.
But lessons can be learned from the friendships made in wartime, and the respect shown towards people from different backgrounds.
Stephen Bourne is a historian and writer. Stephen’s books include Under Fire – Black Britain in Wartime 1939-45 (The History Press, 2020) and Fighting Proud – The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars (Bloomsbury, 2019)
All opinions in this article are the author’s own, and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation nor of EILE Magazine.