International Lesbian Day
International Lesbian Day was celebrated on 8 October. It is an annual day celebrating lesbian culture that originated in New Zealand and Australia, but is now celebrated internationally.
How a camp masquerade ball nearly 150 years ago in Salford paved the way for Manchester’s “drag explosion”
Seeing a drag queen waltz down the cobblestones of Manchester’s Gay Village is thankfully a common occurrence in 2021. But, it wasn’t really that long ago when the very art of drag was still considered to be a criminal offence.
While Manchester is often regarded by many as one of the most LGBT+ friendly cities in the world these days, it has not always been so welcoming.
In October 1874, three men dressed in female attire were brought out in front of a judge at Salford Borough Police Court.
Francis Mack, a professional dancer from Manchester, Joseph Hallas, a weaver from Stockport and Robert Fox, a jeweller’s apprentice from Hulme, had all been arrested while in a taxi.
Clutching invitations to a glitzy “masquerade ball”, the three men had paid one shilling and six pence each for a ticket to the elusive “Queen of Camp” event in Greengate, Salford.
The men never made their show-stopping arrival at the ball. They instead spent the night in a jail cell after being arrested under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. The men’s first appearance before the judge became a must-see event, with hundreds of locals queuing up for a prime seat in the courtroom. It was a spectacle like no other.
“People came to the court and saw this as a form of entertainment,” Dr Jacob Bloomfield, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Konstanz in Germany said. “Instead of being shocked and appalled at this case, there was lots of laughter and joking in the courtroom.
In one instance, the judge asked one of the defendants “what character were you to take?” to which they replied “a lady, as you can see me” and there was laughter from the crowds. Then the judge asks prisoner Hallas, who looked like he was in his fifties, how old he was, and he said he was 38, to which the courtroom again erupted in laughter.”
Dr Bloomfield, originally from Brooklyn, conducted his PhD at the University of Manchester. He believes the Manchester Evening News’ coverage of the court case on 22 October 1874 was the first published mention of ‘camp’ in Britain, a word now long-associated with the art of drag.
While the failed taxi ride to the “Queen of Camp” is unlikely to have been Manchester’s debut foray into drag performance, it was certainly one of its most high-profile ventures.
Four years later, in 1880, a patrol of police cars pulled up outside the Temperance Hall in Hulme to investigate why the Pawnbroker’s Assistant’s Association annual ball was taking place with the blinds drawn and windows covered.
When officers walked into the hall, the expected group of assistants was nowhere to be found. Instead, officers were met with a large number of men dressed head to toe in drag.
A total of 47 men, almost half of whom were in women’s clothing, were arrested that evening and charged with “having solicited and incited each other to commit an unnameable offence”.
It’s these early stories that Dr Bloomfield, who wrote a thesis on “Male Cross-Dressing Performance in Britain, 1918-1970”, says are evidence of a centuries-long relationship with drag in Manchester.
Despite the seriousness of the arrests and court cases, drag has since become a form of entertainment at the centre of popular culture.
“Drag has always been an intrinsic part of British popular culture,” Jacob explains. “There were various quarters who didn’t necessarily like drag performance, or they only liked drag in specific cases like comedy, but overall drag performers were consistently popular with the mainstream public. They were also some of the biggest entertainers of their time.”
Artists like Cheshire drag king Hetty King were able to make a successful living out of drag in the early 1900s. A regular performer in music halls across the UK, Hetty was even able to break records during a successful run abroad at the New York Theatre.
In 1917, Les Rouges et Noirs, a group made up of British Army soldiers in the First World War, would regularly entertain troops in the trenches of France and Belgium by dressing up as women. The troupe later appeared in the 1930 film Splinters, one of the very first feature-length British ‘talkies’, where they recreated their “Beauty Chorus” routine of sketches, songs and dances.
Whether it was the Hollywood success of Some Like It Hot in 1959, or the rising star of Danny La Rue in the 70s, drag continued to find its way into the spotlight.
Over the years, drag has continued to evolve from its early roots and has, subconsciously or not, become embedded into aspects of mainstream culture.
The final word from Cheddar Gorgeous:
“The future of drag is impossible to predict but drag will always wander wherever the hell it pleases. And there’s nothing I nor anyone else can do about it.”
This Is Us
We know that life doesn’t stop at 50 – so where are all our pictures?
This Is Us is a photography project conceptualised by Brighton and Hove LGBT Switchboard aiming to tackle the lack of representation for older LGBT+ people, and to show the full breadth of our experience, our love, our joy, our reality. Where cliché and ageism has failed us – these portraits hope to act as an antidote to misrepresentation.
Photography by Keith Burnstein. Copyright © 2021 Brighton & Hove LGBT Switchboard and Keith Burnstein.