Piers and Queers
  • By Kat Pope
  • |
  • 27th May 2013
  • |
  • ★★★★★

"Ah dear Brighton. Piers, queers and racketeers," said Noel Coward of the LGBT capital of Britain.

Ric explains things clearly and concisely, putting faces to names with his little blue book, and is more than willing to answer questions, although there's only two of us gobby gits on this particular tour of seven people.

Blue Badged guide Ric Morris is our relaxed and informative host for this 80 minute linear walk along Brighton seafront from pier to pier, discovering as we go the queer history of the city.

And by and large it's a history of transient visits to hotels, often to escape an unbearable existence elsewhere, or to bury oneself in the anonymity of Brighton only to emerge, butterfly-like, as a completely different person.

Firstly, Ric fills us in on the theories as to why Brighton in particular became such a gay-friendly place. I knew, of course, about the Regency era and Beau Brummel (a man who had no recorded relationships with women), but I didn't realise that the town housed a large garrison of soldiers in the Napoleonic era: the population of Brighton in the 1790s was only about 5,000 while the number of soldiers topped 15,000! Going with a soldier was known as 'getting a bit of scarlet' and the very first mention of any homosexual activity in the town was in 1823 when George Wilson was arrested for doing that very thing.

We then take a pleasant stroll along the seafront, running through the lives of nine LGBT people, including a woman who changed her gender in order to be able to get through the then male-only medical school and become a doctor, and Valerie Arkell-Smith who left Climping one day, only to surface at the Grand Hotel as Colonel Victor Barker, raconteur, singer, and pretend army officer, the next.

It did made me think. I was hearing about the people who's identities were discovered (usually by accident). How many other people fled to Brighton to change their identity and often their sex and got away with it all their lives? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?

Wilde of course gets a mention along with Dear Bosie, and then we're off down Middle Street, the gay destination of the 1950s, where the workers headed to the back bar of the Spotted Dog with it's eccentric pianist Dolly, while the well-to-do opted for cocktails in the Argyle Hotel.

We stand in front of the crumbling Hippodrome, trying to imagine it in its heyday (and it had a very long heyday), when everyone from Vesta Tilley to Dusty Springfield played there.

Ric explains things clearly and concisely, putting faces to names with his little blue book, and is more than willing to answer questions, although there's only two of us gobby gits on this particular tour of seven people.

He quite obviously has a real passion for what he's talking about, and has researched extensively into the backgrounds of his subjects. When I ask where the house is that Wilde and Bosie shared after they left the Metropole, he shakes his head regretfully: "I don't know, and believe me, I have tried to find out."

Reviews by Kat Pope

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The Blurb

Long before it was known as the ‘Gay Capital of Europe’, Brighton has attracted people with alternative sexualities and gender identities. This walking tour looks at some of the stories from Brighton’s past, focusing on the astonishing personalities of LGBT interest and their tales of achievement, challenge, bravery and infamy. ***** "Awesome tour. Highly recommended" (Love Fringe)

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