The cottaging divide

Vada Voices

There is a story, told to me by an academic, about a Northern miner caught importuning in a public toilet. It was the late 70s/80s, a time when homophobia was rife. The miner was arrested, taken to court and given a fine. As was common then, his case – and name – was reported in the local newspaper. He was not married, but not openly gay either. He was outed in perhaps the most publicly humiliating way possible. No one had been hurt by his actions, but his life was on the brink of ruin. The result could be predicted. Ostracism. Abuse. Maybe worse.

Yet the predictable is not what happened. When he returned to work, his work friends rallied round, even applauded him. Expecting to be stigmatised, as so many others had been, instead this man received support.

It is a small story, a sliver of human history, which is heartwarming, unusual and telling.

Cottaging, which is what he had done, has always divided opinion. In many ways less popular than it was, it has provided us with a barometer of social and moral attitudes to homosexuality. That barometer still exists, but now lies within the gay community.

To understand cottaging we have to understand that its origins were in different, perhaps now unimaginable, times. Public sex – straight and gay – has been a phenomenon since the 17th century. Sodomy and the other offence of attempted  buggery carried the death penalty until 1861. Homosexuality was seen as a perversion, a moral threat to an ordered, heterosexual society. The concept of a homosexual – as opposed to homosexuality – was nascent at best, especially outside the upper or middle classes. New ‘public’ toilets, which arose in the mid to late 19th century, not only offered men the opportunity to meet other men for sex, but they also offered the chance of social transgression. For working class men the idea of private space was unknown. For middle or upper class men public sex and cruising was an opportunity to have sex with those outside their class. Designed to look like quintessential English country homes, public toilets became for some ‘cottages’; ‘cottaging’ a term for looking for sex in a public convenience.

Although a growing activity, it carried the risk of arrest, court and conviction. Prurient newspapers and ‘penny dreadfuls’ reported these arrests with salacious details. This had the perhaps unintended effect of advertising not only that these things happened, but where and how they happened. Soon certain toilets and areas became known for different types of men: Covent Garden for tradesmen, Danvers Place for theatrical types. Post World War II cottages around Brixton became known for black and Afro-Caribbean ‘trade’.


Arrest figures for importuning and soliciting in public toilets are uneven, with peaks and troughs across the decades, matching changing public concerns around moral issues and homosexuality. Perhaps the most prominent peak occurred in the early 1950s – with a Cold War panic at a supposed link between communism and homosexuality. The then Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, spoke of homosexuals as ‘a plague over England’.

Perhaps the biggest ‘scandal’ was the 1952 arrest of the actor John Gielgud in a cottage in West London. Then near the height of his fame Gielgud appeared before the magistrate at Bow Street, where, despite giving a false name and profession, he was identified by a court reporter and found himself exposed by the press. It almost ended his career, but public reaction was mixed; the theatre at which he was rehearsing was scrawled with graffiti calling him a call ‘dirty queer’, but he also received standing ovations from some audiences. Gielgud was merely a visible victim of an offence which caught tens of thousands of men; yet there is little doubt that his case led indirectly to the formation of the Wolfenden Committee, which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

Wolfenden was not a watershed in changed attitudes to homosexuality, nor did the ensuing 1967 decriminalisation receive universal welcome from the ‘gay’ community. Peter Wildeblood, a journalist and campaigner who had given evidence to the committee, wanted his lifestyle choice as a homosexual to be governed by the same rules as a heterosexual. But the playwright Joe Orton, himself someone who cottaged zealously, gives the 1967 legislation a dismissive and cursory mention in his journal. Wolfenden laid bare a divide.

In the decade after decriminalisation there was a doubling of arrests for indecency. Wolfenden had not solved the ‘problem’. Cottaging may once have been an act of necessity, a symptom of heterosexual persecution, but sex in public toilets became a choice for some – not just for the married, the marginalised, the repressed. Men who cottaged did not always fit the public stereotype. Many also frequented gay bars and clubs. A lot were open, semi-open or happy about their sexuality. Some had partners. Graffiti, glory-holes, cottaging ‘rituals’, such as the tapping of a foot to show interest, all added to the ‘excitement’ of cottaging. Unspoken, unwritten rules prevailed. These dark, smelly public sex venues were a meeting place of necessity and choice. Perhaps, as we have done with language, toilets were ‘reclaimed’.

Yes, there is an eroticism to risk, an appeal to easy, consequence-free sex, but cottaging also offered a sense of adventure into the unknown.

When I began researching a documentary into the subject I had only a small understanding of the totality of its importance to gay history. We see history as the interplay of great men and big events, but this is not that kind of history. It is a history of sometimes unimportant, nameless men, some of whom suffered ignominy and tragedy, and some who didn’t. It is a democratic – and queer – history.

I received dozens of emails from gay and bisexual men who in earlier years had cottaged; some now felt marginalised by a narrow gay scene or sanitised online cruising, such as offered by Gaydar or Grindr.

It is for me the small details which stick in the mind. One older gay man said to me that he didn’t used to care if he only had fifty pence in his pocket so long as he could cottage; another, a former merchant seaman, had cottaged all over the world but said (with pride) that our public toilets were the best for sex. Perhaps they were being nostalgic. Perhaps they had been inculcated as repressed perverts by heterosexual orthodoxy. Perhaps they were just human.

As my colleagues and I interviewed academics, activists and journalists, I became increasingly fascinated by the strange decline of cottaging – and yes, it is only with hindsight that you can say it was inevitable. The internet, now a mainstay of gay cruising culture, played a part, but so did the gay rights movement. It is not that cottaging is not necessary – for some it still is –  it is, that it is unacceptable.

In the 1980s gay and bisexual men faced the trauma of the AIDS/HIV crisis, and then the introduction of Section 28 in 1988. Progress towards tolerance could not be taken for granted. The establishment of the day enforced a policy of state-sanctioned homophobia. Groups like Outrage, who stood up against police homophobia and their tactics of entrapment against gay men cruising in public toilets, were sidelined by more mainstream groups like Stonewall. The result has been the equalisation of the age of consent, civil partnerships and equal marriage.  Slowly our queer consciousness turned against cottaging.

It is the Wildeblood/Orton divide which makes the issue of cottaging so contentious; the difference between those who regretted the passing and those who now only look on it with distaste. Wildeblood and Orton stood for two divergent views of sexuality and identity. Wildeblood wanted to live his life like anyone else; Orton was a cottager and cruiser. Murdered in 1967 he never came out. Once an iconic figure to gay men as someone unafraid and unashamed of his sexuality, now he is the more historical figure. It is Wildebood who really won.

In times before most people knew anyone who was openly gay cottaging was one of the most visible aspects of homosexuality to heterosexual society. Now our views of cottaging say more about our own opinions of ourselves.

I wonder what our miner would have made of it.

Graham Kirby is currently filming a documentary, The Strange Decline of the English Cottage. You can follow him on Twitter @grakirby.

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