Tales of the Tavern: 1963 – a tale of two doors

RVT Future’s brilliant comic series by Baz continues with a glimpse of the double life of the pub in the 1960s

You can read the comic here, but if you’re curious about the real-life history behind it, then read on…

The RVT has a strong claim to being London’s oldest surviving gay pub, with a history of queer use dating back to the 1950s if not earlier. But it’s hard to know exactly how this came about – as with so many aspects of LGBTQ history before decriminalisation, solid evidence is thin on the ground.

Some say drag at the Tavern was established after the war, when acts developed by the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) to entertain the troops were revived to amuse the lorry drivers and market traders who used the pub. Gay punters then supposedly began flocking to the Tavern, attracted by the drag shows – or indeed the lorry drivers and market traders.

Whether it happened like that or another way, the RVT became known as a place where gays could meet and the secret queer language of Polari could be heard. “In the 1940s and 50s, pubs like the RVT are social hubs,” says historian Matt Houlbrook. “They create a sense of solidarity or community in a world that is often quite hostile, offering something that approximates privacy and security. They almost fill the role of the family home.”

That doesn’t mean such venues were necessarily exclusively gay, however. During the postwar decades, the RVT had a very different layout from today, with a large central bar serving three areas separated by internal walls, with separate entrances. The performer Bette Bourne, who visited the Tavern as a 17-year-old in the 1950s, remembers its various different areas. “The biggest part was the gay part because it was packed and that was the part that made the money.”

For some users of the straight bar, the Tavern was simply a place for a pint. For others, the proximity to the queer space was the whole point. The bars shared a toilet, after all, and if you were to make someone’s acquaintance in there and agree to meet 10 minutes later at the bus stop down the road, no one would be any the wiser…

See Baz’s comic about 1963 – and the rest of our Tales from the Tavern – here.

And read more about the RVT’s unique history here.