As you might have heard, the RVT is now a listed building – the first ever in the UK to be recognised for its LGBTQ heritage!
Yep – it’s listed! According to Historic England’s case report, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern:
- “stands out nationally for its longstanding historic role as a symbol of tolerance and alternative entertainment and as a cultural hub of high significance to the LGBTQ community”;
- has “a national and international reputation”;
- “has claims to be the oldest and perhaps most inclusive LGBTQ venue in the country”;
- following the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 became “a flagship for the gay community and a site of resistance to homophobia during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s”;
- and is “an important drag and cabaret venue, building on the reputation for Bohemian and alternative entertainment which had been characteristic of the area, and particularly of Vauxhall Gardens since its inception in the 1660s”.
- “The building therefore possesses strong historic interest for its association with C20 LGBTQ cultural history.”
You can read the full case report here.
But we know lots of people have questions about the whole subject so we wanted to provide a few answers.
How did the listing come about?
Last year, the Royal Vauxhall was bought by international property developers Immovate. When Immovate refused to reveal their plans for the site or engage with the RVT community, concerned performers, promoters and punters formed RVT Future, a group dedicated to ensuring the Tavern continues as a site of LGBTQ community and culture.
We quickly got Asset of Community Value status for the pub, which protects it from a sudden change of use and allows us to bid for it if it comes up for sale. We also decided to apply to make it a listed building, so it would be harder to knock down or drastically redevelop.
Historic England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) were persuaded by our application, so the RVT is now a listed building!
Can I read your application?
Yes, you can. It’s at this page here. But it’s 30,000 words long so you might want to make a cuppa.
Ah. In a nutshell, why was the RVT listed?
Basically, for its combination of historic significance to the LGBTQ community and architectural quality.
According to Historic England’s case report, four factors informed the decision:
“Historic interest: the building has historic and cultural significance as one of the best known and longstanding LGBTQ venues in the capital, a role it has played particularly in the second half of the C20. It has become an enduring symbol of the confidence of the gay community in London for which it possesses strong historic interest above many other similar venues nationally;
“Architectural interest: it also possesses architectural interest in the handsome and well-designed mid Victorian curved facade, with a parade of arcades terminating in pedimented bays, which has a strong architectural presence despite alterations at ground floor level;
“Historic associations: built on the site of the England’s best known place of pleasure for more than two centuries, Vauxhall Gardens; and this building’s specifically acknowledged association, since the late C19/early C20, with alternative culture and performance;
“Interior interest: the structural decorative cast iron columns survive although the later 1980s fittings are excluded from the listing; there are original fixtures at the upper floors.”
Why is listing such a good thing?
Firstly, the listing affirms the RVT’s unique status as an irreplaceable national institution representing generations’ worth of LGBTQ heritage housed within a distinctive and charming building.
Secondly, the listing makes it much harder for Immovate to pursue redevelopment schemes involving demolishing or significantly altering the Tavern.
Thirdly, this is the first ever building listed because of its significance to LGBTQ heritage. This recognises that our history is just as valid a part of the national story as anyone else’s, and it opens the door to further listings of key LGBTQ sites.
So we might see more gay pubs being listed because of this?
Yes – gay pubs and other sites that can demonstrate a significant role in LGBTQ history and heritage – as long as they meet a certain standard of architectural interest too. Separately from the RVT listing process, Historic England recently launched a project dedicated to LGBTQ spaces, Pride of Place, which they say “is expected to lead to some new designations” (ie listings).
It’s one of several steps English Heritage has taken lately to acknowledge that history doesn’t only belong to dead white males who could afford top architects. Their RVT case report draws parallels with “other modest buildings that have come to possess significance for the way they bear witness to remarkable cultural phenomena or movements in our national history”.
For instance, Brixton Markets have been listed because of their place in Afro-Caribbean community history and Millicent Fawcett Hall has been listed for its role in the fight for women’s equality.
Does the listing mean the RVT has to stay exactly as it is forever?
No. A listing does not mean that nothing can be changed. It only applies to certain parts of the building, and even these can be changed if those changes are deemed to be in keeping with the site’s historic interest.
So what exactly does the RVT listing protect?
The building’s exterior – because who doesn’t love a rusticated pilaster, scrolled bracket or horned sash? – plus the iron columns in the main bar, doorways and several features upstairs, including the curved staircase and a number of fittings and fireplaces. Other than the columns, the ground-floor bar and cabaret space is not protected.
So could Immovate, the property-developer owners, tear out the pub and turn it into a shop or café if they don’t touch the columns?
In theory, yes – a listing alone wouldn’t offer protection against something like that. However, Asset of Community Value status, which RVT Future has already secured for the pub, does protect against any change of use. So the combination of ACV and a listing makes such changes very, very hard.
Haven’t Immovate said a listing would be bad for business?
Yes, they have. They’ve claimed that a listing would incur additional expenses so large the pub would have to close. Yet when we asked for details about these supposed expenses, they clammed up. We think it’s scaremongering.
Historic England don’t buy it either. Their case report says: “Those opposing listing have suggested that listing would damage the economic viability of the building which is not a view we share, as many listed pubs continue to thrive.” Examples in London include the Holly Bush (Hampstead), the Flask (Highgate), the King’s Head (Wandsworth), the Spread Eagle (Wandsworth) and the Grapes (Limehouse).
Funnily enough, since the designation was confirmed, Immovate have entirely dropped that line of argument and are now suddenly saying the listing will scupper specific plans they had to redevelop the site as a performance venue. This is the first anyone has heard of such plans, despite us asking for a year about the company’s intentions for the site. Yet again no details are given about how a listing would actually obstruct these supposed plans in practice.
The basic message that Immovate are trying to push is that the RVT is completely commercially unviable – something that just doesn’t make sense given how much business the venue actually generates. Remember, RVT Future includes many regular RVT promoters and performers. We aren’t ignorant outsiders. We know first-hand that the Tavern is viable.
Historic England rightly point out that a listing assessment “cannot take into account issues of economic viability of a building”. But anyone interested in running a successful LGBTQ pub should be over the moon at becoming the country’s first ever building listed for its significance to that very community – if only because such a listing is a huge publicity coup.
Do Immovate agree with RVT Future, Historic England and DCMS that the RVT is a special place?
Apparently not. Historic England’s case report shows that Immovate recruited a consultant to lobby against the listing. They claimed that the RVT “does not have the special architectural and historic interest that is key to statutory listing” and “questioned the claim made for its unique role as the epicentre of the LGBTQ community”.
They also told Historic England “that the RVT is not the oldest LGBTQ venue; it is not thriving (rather considered to be outdated and does not attract young gay people anymore); and that it has been losing money for the last 10 years”.
These are all claims that would surprise those who actually use the pub on a regular basis – or indeed anyone consulting public records that show the RVT turned a profit in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Does this listing mean the RVT’s future as a space of LGBTQ community and culture is now secure?
Sadly not. The listing is a huge step forward in protecting the RVT we know and love but we’re still a long way from securing its future. Listing recognises and protects the historic and architectural significance of a building, not the use to which is it currently put. Historic England point out that a listing cannot “secure the future use of a building’s current function, which should also be noted, particularly in light of the strong affection for which many of the supporters hold the venue”.
And while ACV status does offer some protection in this area, in theory the site’s owners could still choose to close it.
Still, now that the listing decision is made, we hope Immovate will finally come to the table so we can all work together to keep the RVT thriving for generations to come.
If they really don’t think they can make the Tavern work as a listed pub, we invite them to open discussions about a community buy-out. We have the means to do this and some exciting ideas about how the RVT could be improved for everybody.
Meanwhile, we invite everyone who cherishes the Tavern to sign up to RVT Future to stay informed – and join us at the bar to celebrate this fantastic news!