Towards the end of 2010, following a generous bequest from a former member, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) commissioned Peter Scott-Presland, left, founder of the Homo Promos theatre company, to produce an official history of the organisation. It turned out to be a much larger task than they had anticipated, eventually expanding to three volumes, the first of which was published on Valentine’s day this year.
Peter Scott-Presland points out that there has been very little previous effort to document the history of CHE as compared with, say, the much shorter-lived Gay Liberation Front. Hence he is working on untilled ground. His principal sources are interviews and archives, the flesh and the bones.
Sadly the flesh is mortal. By the time he began interviewing, many key players in the history of CHE were already dead – some long ago, such as Roger Baker (1993) and Jackie Forster (1998); others just recently, including Antony Grey and Griff Vaughan Williams (both 2010). Several of those he did have the chance to interview were gone by the time the first volume was published, including Allan Horsfall, Ian Buist (both 2012), Michael Brown, Meg Elizabeth Atkins, Ray Gosling (all 2013), and Michael Schofield (2014). So the conception of the book was timely, although a little later than ideal. Over 30 people have contributed interview material.
The “bones” come primarily from the Hall-Carpenter Archives, a resource originally established by CHE itself in the early 1980s and now housed at various locations in London. It holds the archives of CHE and many related people and organisations, as well as runs of journals like Gay News and an extensive collection of press cuttings. Despite ever-growing public online access to historical records in this Internet age thanks to digitisation projects like the Internet Archive and Google Books, only the catalogue, not the content, of the Hall-Carpenter Archives is presently available online.
So Peter Scott-Presland has had to do his research in the tedious traditional way, by visiting the physical collections. Fortunately he lives not far away.
The first volume covers the period 1954 to 1973. Why 1954, ten years before Allan Horsfall co-founded the North Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee (NWHLRC), which later became CHE? Possibly because 1954 was a watershed year in UK gay history. A year of high-profile trials and growing pressure for an inquiry, leading to the appointment of the Wolfenden Committee. It’s perhaps no coincidence that it was during the first half of this year that Alan Turing made a will and took his own life. The first of the book’s six substantial chapters deals with this pre-history up to the long-delayed publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the subsequent formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS), a predecessor of the NWHLRC, the following year.
Chapter 2 charts the growing tension between the HLRS, seen as pussyfooting middle-class southerners afraid even to use their real names, and the radical working-class northerner Allan Horsfall, confident enough to publish his home address and be prepared to take the consequences. The difference led to the formation of the breakaway NWHLRC in the Manchester area in 1964. This chapter covers the law reform campaign up to the partial reform implemented by the Sexual Offences Act in July 1967.
In the following years Allan Horsfall and colleagues focused their energies on a project to set up gay social clubs, known as Esquire Clubs. The HLRS and its associated counselling charity, the Albany Trust, opposed the idea. As Chapter 3 recounts, the project was ultimately unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, a younger generation were coming to the helm. Paul Temperton and Martin Stafford were both teenagers when they joined the NWHLRC. Paul went on to be secretary, later becoming the first full-time paid general secretary when the organisation was reconstituted as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in 1971. Martin, his partner, was particularly active in the promotion of local groups across the country. This is the main theme of Chapter 4, which goes into some detail on early developments in the West Midlands, Liverpool and the Chilterns, supported by interview material from Peter Norman, Robin Bloxsidge and Alan Swerdlow (early leaders of Liverpool CHE) and Roy Saich and George Broadhead (co-founders of Chilterns CHE, the first rural group).
Much of CHE’s early expansion occurred in London, not surprisingly given the capital’s high concentration of gay population. The last two chapters – more than a third of the main body of the book – are devoted to the burgeoning activities of the London groups that sprang up from 1970 onwards. They include the magazine Lunch, the annual Winter Fairs, the CHE London Information Centre, and the counselling wing Friend, which later developed into a separate national network (which I was involved in for many years).
Although CHE declined greatly in its later years, its legacy is surprisingly broad. Some spin-off bodies continue to thrive. The Croydon Area Gay Society, for example, is a direct descendant of the “London 7” CHE group formed in 1971. The Gay Authors Workshop, publisher of Amiable Warriors under the imprint Paradise Press, was originally set up by CHE members. The Gay Sunday Walking Group started as the CHE Walking Group in 1972 and the Gay Outdoor Club came from CHE. The Allegro Music Group began as the CHE Music Group in 1972.
Peter Scott-Presland frets in his preface about not being a “proper” historian or academic. But he needn’t worry. This is a solid book, with a full apparatus of source references, and free of the opaque jargon that some “proper” academics seem to favour. I did, however, find the index somewhat awkward to use because of the way it’s structured. For example, the names of local groups aren’t in their proper alphabetical place but listed under a series of “local groups” subheadings below the headword “CHE” – hardly the obvious place to look in a book almost entirely about CHE. Also not everyone mentioned in the book appears in the index.
Chronologically, the first volume ends just before the first national CHE annual conference, held in Morecambe in April 1973. This marked CHE’s debut as a nationally coherent organisation. As the author says in his closing sentence, the conference “was the moment CHE itself came of age”. The second volume, due next year, is to be entitled Fifty Grades of CHE – a whimsical spoonerism based on the pronunciation of CHE as “chay” or “shay”. For many readers this will be simply a continuation of the story but for me, at least, the second volume should be even more interesting than the first because the transition roughly coincides with my coming out – I expect it then to be more like a remembrance of things past than just plain history.
• Amiable Warriors: A history of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and its times. Volume One: A Space to Breathe, 1954–1973. By Peter Scott-Presland (Paradise Press, 2015, hardback, 640 pages, £35). For more information on the book see the website www.amiable-warriors.uk. For video of CHE members in the early 1970s, see Speak for Yourself (London Weekend Television, 21 July 1974), available on YouTube.