LGBTQ+ spaces in the post-war Black Country

By Dr Simon Briercliffe, Researcher, BCLM

As part of LGBT+ History Month, this blog looks at the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in the Black Country after the Second World War. This was a tough time to be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. The struggle for equality for LGBTQ+ people was in its infancy in the 1960s, and homophobia was rife across society. This prejudice took many years to be tackled, and while many institutions have recently apologised for past bias and prejudice, LGBTQ+ people still encounter personal and systemic discrimination today.

Despite all this, the Black Country was home to a queer community throughout the twentieth century: this blog focuses on some of the spaces where they could safely meet in the 1950s and 1960s, and draws on archival documents from the Albany Trust, and newspaper reports from local journalists.

Until 1967, male homosexual activity was a criminal offence in Britain. There were several high-profile prosecutions (including the scientist Alan Turing and the actor Sir John Gielgud) and public attitudes towards homosexuality were still very negative. Although the Wolfenden Commission (which included Walsall MP William Wells) had recommended decriminalising homosexual acts in 1957, this was not enacted until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. This atmosphere meant that gay social life was forced underground. As a large city with a substantial LGBTQ+ community, Birmingham had several gay pubs but sometimes crossing the boundary into a separate police jurisdiction could be much safer. That is certainly the case for two of the most important meeting places for gay men and women in the West Midlands of the 1960s: Auntie’s Bar in Walsall, and the Flamingo Club in Wolverhampton. 

Auntie’s Bar

Auntie’s Bar was actually the Fountain Inn in Bott Lane, Walsall. It was a typical Black Country pub: a small, plain beerhouse that had served locals since the 1850s. “Auntie” was its landlady, Alice Cronin. Born Alice Brown in Walsall in 1889, she had been a music hall star in Edwardian London, performing with her husband Richard and a troupe of performing dogs. After Richard’s death, she moved back to Walsall with her young son Edward and took on the pub her father ran. In 1940 she moved to the Fountain.  

The Fountain Inn, Walsall. A historic black and white photograph of a pub.
The Fountain Inn, Bott Lane, Walsall (A.H. Price, Walsall Archives)

From this point, Auntie’s became a safe space for gay men and women to meet. Visitors came from all over the region, particularly using the Midland Red bus service, which specialised in routes crossing between local transport jurisdictions, bringing visitors from Birmingham and beyond. Auntie’s remained an unfussy, quiet Black Country pub, but many of the customers were gay men or “lesbians dressed in suits” and remember it as a “real fun place.” Typically, personal details were kept to a minimum and regulars were only known by first name or nickname. One of the reasons we know some of the details about this understated meeting place is the investigation following the tragic murder of one of these patrons, David Palmer (or “Welsh Wendy”) in Birmingham in 1964. Alice Cronin spoke fondly of her clients at the inquest: “They were good class boys,” she said; “they were quiet, and I never saw them with any girl friends. I would sooner have their type of customers than the ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’. They caused us no trouble.” Police raided Birmingham’s gay venues in the weeks following the murder, causing many in the community to avoid the established city centre venues completely.

Auntie’s closed when Cronin retired in 1967. She died aged 80 in 1969, and the pub was demolished to make way for new housing that same year. It had been one of the most important safe spaces for the West Midlands’ LGBTQ+ community for many years.  

Flamingo Club 

The gap left by Auntie’s was filled by another Black Country club. George Smith (born in 1901 in Nottinghamshire) purchased the Cresta Social and Sports Club, an “asbestos roofed tin hut” on Cross Street North, Wolverhampton, in 1965, with £1,500 of his life savings. Despite his lack of experience in running clubs, it soon became a popular venue for the LGBTQ+ community in Wolverhampton and further afield. It was raided by police on multiple occasions, including in February 1967 when an anonymous tip-off led the West Midlands Constabulary to seal off the street and search visitors. Members complained of police aggression. One, Peter Bentley (a bus conductor and former town councillor) even threatened to raise the issue with the Home Secretary. George Smith remained sanguine and hinted at the male-dominated clientele at the Cresta: “I don’t think for a moment this was one of our chaps,” he noted. 

In July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act became law, decriminalising male homosexuality within tight boundaries including an age of consent of 21 (compared to 16 for heterosexual couples). In January 1968, the Express & Starnewspaper interviewed John Holland about a new organisation he had just co-founded in the town with his lesbian colleague Liz Cooke: the Male and Female Homosexual Association of Britain, or MANDFHAB. The 19-year-old Holland celebrated the passing of the 1967 Act: “there was a time when you never dared admit you were homosexual,” he noted; “now we need not be so ashamed.” He also recognised that prejudice across society still alienated gay people and caused intense loneliness, but for Holland this was alleviated in Wolverhampton by the presence of the Flamingo, the new name for the Cresta: “the best social club in Europe with 550 members drawn from all over the country.”  

The publicity around the article may have prompted the police to raid the Flamingo on 12 April 1968. Police saw “about 250 people there, including five women. Men were dancing with men and behaving with excessive familiarity. Some men were dressed as women.” George Smith was fined £500 (nearly £10,000 in today’s money) for keeping a disorderly house: the prosecutor claimed that the Flamingo was home to “an orgy of disgusting revelries comparable to what must have existed in Sodom and Gomorrah.” In fact, most of the fine was for allowing out-of-hours drinking. Supporters noted that only the police seemed to have been concerned by the Flamingo – there had been no public complaints or outcry prompting the raid. In fact, the Flamingo’s members rallied around George Smith, including those like Clifford Smith from Streetly, who testified at the trial that he had been a member of the club for 15 months without seeing anything untoward.

LGBTQ+ spaces in the Black Country

Neither MANDFHAB nor the Flamingo lasted beyond 1968, despite their publicity. John Holland went on to found a Wolverhampton branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, which became one of the country’s major gay liberation organisations in the 1970s and 1980s. The Flamingo closed later that year, its premises taken over by the Emerald Irish Club. But the need for a safe social space for Wolverhampton’s queer community was clear, and other venues (such as the Silver Web in the Lighthouse Building in Stafford Street) soon sprung up to meet the need. 

Britain in the 1960s was a homophobic place. But as Auntie’s and the Flamingo show, there were already spaces where the queer community could meet, socialise and enjoy themselves, away from society’s prejudice and the attentions of the police. Venues in the Black Country became important meeting points for the LGBTQ+ community from across the Midlands, and Alice Cronin and George Smith – though probably not queer themselves – became allies to this stigmatised portion of the population.

Can you help us learn more about Auntie’s and the Flamingo Club?

Can you help us learn more about Auntie’s and the Flamingo Club? The oppression of LGBTQ+ people has often meant that their histories have been suppressed or hidden, and that the only sources we can use to uncover those histories are by those responsible for its suppression, such as the police or the media.

We would like to learn more about what these queer-friendly spaces as part of our commitment to ensure the history of the Black Country that we tell is broad and comprehensive. If you remember using Auntie’s Bar, or can remember the events of 1967-68 at the Flamingo, please get in touch at: 

  • Email: [email protected]
  • Leave a telephone message with our team on 0121 521 5600 
  • By post: Interpretation & Research Team, Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4SQ 

Want to find out more?