This London Pub Just Made Gay History—but Can It Be Saved?
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London has just been awarded Grade II listing status for its LGBT past—a first. But its future is still far from secure.
It is surrounded by glass and steel examples of London’s relentless gentrification and property development.
But on Wednesday the future of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in South London, built in 1860-62, appeared a little more secure after it became the first ever building in the U.K. to be given a special “listing” status based on its LGBT history.
The move followed a similar historic designation conferred in June on New York’s Stonewall bar, site of the eponymous 1969 riots.
The RVT, which currently houses the popular Saturday club night Duckie, stands on the site of the old Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and is London’s oldest surviving LGBT venue.
The U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport said in a statement: “The first listing of its kind for a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGB&T) venue, the iconic London location has an international reputation as arguably one of the most inclusive LGB&T venues in England, built on a tradition of hosting alternative, transgender and drag performances.”
Heritage Minister Tracey Crouch said: “I am thrilled to be able to list the Royal Vauxhall Tavern as Grade II—the iconic cultural hub in the heart of London is of huge significance to the LGB&T community. Not only of architectural interest, the venue has a longstanding historic role as a symbol of tolerance and alternative entertainment.
“Residing in Lambeth (the London borough within which the RVT stands) since 1860, the landmark venue has been the springboard for so many of our loved UK entertainers. I am delighted that the listing will preserve the history of this venue for future generations to enjoy—I hope that it continues to be filled with laughter and joy.”
The venue’s future has been in question after it was sold last year to Austrian conglomerate Immovate, which campaigners suspect wants to demolish the RVT and turn it into luxury apartments.
Uncertainty over the RVT’s future came amid a wave of closures of other much-loved LGBT bars in and outside London.
A campaign group, RVT Future, was formed, seeking to safeguard not only the building but its use as an LGBT space.
First the group was successful in securing Asset of Community Value status, which means the use of the building cannot be suddenly changed and allows campaigners to bid for it should it come up for sale.
The Grade II listed status accorded this week to the RVT by the DCMS on the advice of Historic England makes it harder to demolish or radically remodel the venue.
Besides its LGBT history, the building has a mid-Victorian curved façade, cast-iron columns, and other original fixtures.
“This is the oldest gay pub in London and has been at the heart of London’s gay scene since the 1940s,” Amy Lamé, chair of RVT Future and co-founder of Duckie, told The Daily Beast. “It’s spit-and-sawdust, and snogging strangers who are full of beer. It’s an old boozer with bags full of atmosphere. It has red velvet curtains, and sticky floors. It looks like it needs a bit of a scrub, but wherever you come from—London, or visiting from another part of the world—you feel like family when you’re here.”
Duckie is one of London’s most distinctive and cherished LGBT club nights, attracting a diverse, mixed-gendered crowd who dance and drink to a deliciously anarchic song list—ranging from The Smiths to Barry Manilow.
Lamé joked that the RVT’s customers—or “punters”—could come to the RVT and see a brilliant act perform on its stage, or one that would make them want to hurry outside for a cigarette: that was the beauty of the place.
“The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is an enduring and important venue for the LGB&T community,” said Roger Bowdler, director of listing at Historic England. “Built on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, it carries on the tradition of alternative and bohemian entertainment which is bound up in this part of London’s history and identity.”
The campaign to save and safeguard the RVT has attracted the support of London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, as well as celebrities including Sir Ian McKellen and TV star Paul O’Grady, who honed his legendary, brilliantly foul-mouthed drag queen creation, Lily Savage, at the RVT.
Should Immovate now want to sell the building—fed up of the “uppity gays” obstructing it—RVT Future or a community group would form to buy the building and turn it into an LGBT center, with the pub still on the ground floor and meeting rooms upstairs for groups, as well as a space given over to London’s LGBT history, Lamé said.
She disputed Immovate’s contention, contained in a letter sent to RVT Future in June, that the venue had lost money in six of of the last 10 years.
Immovate had also called on the group to cease its campaign of trying to get the venue listed, because should such a campaign prove successful, the building’s insurance costs would rise by 50 percent overnight.
If the building was listed, the business would be forced to close, Immovate warned—which would then, said the company, be the fault of the campaigners trying to save it.
The group dismissed Immovate’s claims. Lamé told The Daily Beast that official documents showed the RVT had turned a profit in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
There was about £8,000 ($12,288) taken across the bar on Duckie’s weekly nights, she added. “Have they been here?” Lamé said. “It’s packed. They have no clue.”
In a stinging return letter, the campaigners told Immovate that “hundreds of London pubs and businesses operate successfully out of listed buildings.” The group would not capitulate to Immovate’s “bullying and blackmail,” it added.
Lamé told The Daily Beast that the listing success was a “victory for people kicking against the pricks with their millions trying to take this city, and cities like New York, away from the people who live in them, turning them into places with expensive, unoccupied homes.”
James Lindsay, chief executive of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, who runs the venue for Immovate, having sold the pub to the company in 2014, was disappointed by the listing decision.
In a statement, he wrote: “Historic England have accepted the building probably should not be listed on its architectural merit alone, but more because of its use.
“The use of a building can change, and gay venues across the UK have recently been closing at an alarming rate and there is a good reason for this.
“This listing attacks the commercial viability of the RVT and the future of this fantastic gay performance venue has now been put in doubt. We need a period of time to reflect and study the listing report in detail.”
As for Lamé, she told The Daily Beast she was heading to the RVT for “lots of drinks” with friends and supporters.
“I want to celebrate,” she said. “This has been a long time coming.”