Monday, May 16, 2011

Gateways Club

Former Gateways Club
Gateways Club

Location: 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street, Chelsea, London, England

Opened: 1930, became "members only" club in 1936. Some have suggested it wasn't actually a "lesbian club" till around 1945.

Closed: September 21, 1985, after some years of only being open a few hours each weekend

The Gateways club was arguably the longest-surviving lesbian nightclub of the twentieth century.

It was started by a retired colonel, who ran it as something of a "middle class Bohemian club" for a "gentle and sedate" clientele of artists, actors, and writers. Then in 1943, the Gateways Club was acquired by Ted Ware, who presumably won it in a card game. (Actually, this has been disputed. His daughter later claimed that he actually won it in a boxing match.)

The years of the Second World War had an enormous impact on London's bar culture, and women's place within that culture. Many women were away from home for the first time, either working in the women’s armed services or in other wartime employment. As Rebecca Jennings in A Lesbian History of Britain (2007) has said, "Distanced from their families and local communities, and with a new disposable income gained from their war work, these women experienced a new freedom and independence." Jennings goes on to observe the following:

In London, and other towns and cities around the UK, women took part in a vibrant emerging bar scene alongside male homosexuals and visiting servicemen and women. Pat James remembers the wartime years as a period of great excitement at the Gateways club in Chelsea: ‘When I went to the Gateways [in 1944], the atmosphere was fantastic. For a start we had women from overseas coming in, because they were stationed here, so you had all sorts of different people. Very interesting, very crowded, very packed. You got sightseers, of course, coming to look at all these people. People danced, especially during that war period when they were extra-enjoying themselves’. 

Some have said that the Gateways Club included gay men as well as lesbians during the war years. Others have claimed it was almost entirely women:

It became more or less exclusively lesbian during the war when the anonymity and proximity provided by the khaki or blue uniformed women who came to work in London, suddenly meant that a far greater number of women, of a certain persuasion, needed somewhere to go they could call their own.

It has also been claimed that the Gateways was frequented by black Caribbean people and members of other minority groups that were discriminated against elsewhere, which would have been unusual for the time. Indeed, as Jill Gardiner has observed of the years right after the war, "In a conformist era, the Gateways was a haven for those marginalised by society. Frequented in the afternoons by a mixed, arty Chelsea crowd, its evening clientele was mainly lesbian, at a time when these women felt that the Gateways was the only place they were welcome."

At any rate, "The Gates" somehow became one of the few places in the U.K. where lesbians could meet openly during the 1940s--and later into the 1950s and 60s.

In 1967, Ted Ware's wife (and former actress) Gina Cerrato, who had been managing the club since the late 1950s, made the club "officially" women-only. "Smithy," who first arrived at the Gateways in 1959, also worked as a co-manager with Gina. Smithy was a butch lesbian who was originally from California. She originally came to the U.K. as a member of the U.S. Air Force and was posted at the base in Ruislip, London. She decided that she wanted to stay in London with Gina and Ted. So she underwent an arranged marriage in 1962, which enabled her to stay in the United Kingdom till the end of her life. (It was never known whether Gina and Smithy were a couple--Ted eventually died in 1979--but many suspected they were. By contrast, Gina's daughter thought they were not a couple "in the romantic sense," but simply very close friends. Gina died in 2001.)

An anonymous blogger has offered the following observations about the Club itself during the 1960s:

The membership fee during the sixties was just ten shillings (50p) and no guests were admitted after ten o’clock to discourage people who had spent their money elsewhere. Maureen Duffy explained that ‘rowdies or troublemakers’ were often banned immediately. To be excluded, at the time, was more than just embarrassing, it was unbelievably inconvenient -- the nearest alternative lesbian club would have been in Brighton, travelling to which would have made a social life far too expensive to afford.

Dining out with a girlfriend, even in the sixties, would have also cost too much for most women (who would have usually been earning far less than men for even comparable jobs in those days). It’s difficult to believe now but women wearing trousers were often still banned from most restaurants at the time, while pubs were still risky places for women to visit unaccompanied by men. For a lot of women, the Gateways Club was the only relaxing and affordable place they had to go.

After entering an unmarked green door on Bramerton Street, there was a steep set of steps leading down to the cloakroom (which was usually presided over by Gina) and the entrance to the club. The smokey windowless cellar-like room was just 35 ft. long (and 18 ft. wide) and featured a bar at one end which was usually managed by Smithy. Entertainment was a fruit-machine by a pillar in the centre and a jukebox opposite the bar. Toilets and a cloakroom were at the other end of the room. Local artists had painted the walls, so they were filled with murals which depicted the Gateway's members and other scenes from the club.

Ted Ware's portrait was also hung on the wall. There's a story about a woman who tried to turn it to the wall, on the grounds that she didn't want a man looking at her. It seems she got a rather fiery reaction from Gina, who always acknowledged how much Ted had taught her about the licensed trade.

In the heyday of the swinging 60s, the Gateways was very popular with artists and celebrities such as the actresses Joan Collins and  Diana Dors, and singer Dusty Springfield.

Maggi Hambling has described the club as being "All sweat and sway of so many people dancing in a small space, that was part of the excitement. It was the electric atmosphere created by a lot of lusty women that made the club so special, not the surroundings."

The Gateways Club appeared in the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George starring Beryl Reid, Susannah York, and Coral Browne, which was one of the earliest mainstream movies to feature lesbians. Filming in the club took place over seven days from the June 9 -16, 1968. Much has been written about this film, which I won't elaborate on here. But the filming not only included the club itself, but Gina, Smithy, and many of the club's members as extras. See this clip here.

During the mid 1960s, many lesbians in the club stopped emulating male and female roles. However, the club was still a haven for butch/femme lesbian couples during the lesbian feminist era of the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s. The bar owners were determined to keep lesbian politics out of the bar and Gina asked them to take their debates elsewhere.

During the 1970s, as many gay and lesbian people became more politically motivated, members of the Gay Liberation Front staged a protest at the bar. This action did not make Gina happy:  

Though supportive of social acceptance for lesbians, and keen to create a lively venue where they could enjoy themselves, Ware was never involved in political campaigning. When her club was the target of direct action by the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, who pulled the plug on the juke-box and urged the horrified Gateways women to come out of the closet, Ware called the police, and had the demonstrators thrown out.

Many of the GLF members were arrested and charged with obstruction. Not surprisingly, the Gateways wasn't popular with many radical feminists either, because they believed it wasn't political enough. Political activists were tolerated at the Gateways, though, "as long as their politics were left at the door on the way in."

During the 1980s, many new gay and lesbian venues began opening up in central London and the fashion was for large gay discos. The Gateways became very quiet during weekday evenings and was only busy on Fridays and Saturdays. The neighbourhood around Chelsea went very upmarket and, in 1985, the club lost its late licence due to complaints of loud music.

"Not long afterwards the famous green door was subsequently closed for ever."

Photo: Gateways Club in 2007, with the famous green door now painted blue

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