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Peter Scott-Fleeman aka Ada Letter 1983

June 1983

This 'interview' is a letter sent to the 'Voice' newsletter by Peter Scott-Fleeman, aka 'Ada' on Saturday 4th June 1983. The letter is in response to a call for memories of the gay scene in Birmingham before the Nightingale came about. Peter was one of the founding members of the Nightingale Club

Dear " Talk Back ",
Re, "Stirring The Grey Matter" from M. Dunn and his request for, " more memories please".

I remember the two clubs, "Dead Ernests" and "The Television Club" but clubs ( as distinct from pubs ) where gay people could gather were in those days few and far between. A little way down the street that was Snow Hill, on the right hand side, was a barbers shop and if you were in the know, you could go there after the pubs closed at ten. Outwardly the place would be in darkness having closed say about 5.30 pm. but a discrete knock gained admittance, and at the far end of the shop part of the counter was hinged back disclosing a steep flight of steps into what I believe was part of an old sewer. A brick tunnel, maybe 35ft in length, a more recent flat brick wall at one end, a flat floor of wooden boards with a sort of "hollow " feeling, roughly 14ft across. It was known as "The Jungle" It was oppressively hot, so smoky you could barely see from one end to the other, music came from a big record player, and one drank mostly coffee (Espresso) or the weakest of shandy's. The company was mixed, but tolerant.

I wonder how many would remember a wonderful little pub, also in Snow Hill, but not as far down as the Jungle, It's correct name was, "Howard's Bar" but known generally as, "Robbies" after the warm-hearted landlady who kept it. There were only two rooms, one at street level very rough and ready with an atmosphere of a country pub even to sawdust spread all over the floor, but upstairs was a quiet lounge, dark green carpet, white walls, and a lot of dark brown wood furniture. At mid-day you could get one of the best meals in Birmingham up there, but in the evenings for a couple of years it was the place to be. Sadly Robbie left, and without her personality, the magic went out of the place, her clientele dispersed.
Opposite "Robbies" was Snow Hill station. Round the station was a cast-iron railing. Right on the corner of Snow Hill there was a gate in the railing and a few steps led down into a bar underneath the main station building. It did'nt advertise itself as a bar, just a grimy door half below street level, most people could walk past without even realising it was there. It was one of the few places I've ever come across with only a five and a half day license, it did not open on Saturday evening or Sunday.

Beyond the Art Gallery, in what was Summer Row, and on the left hand side, (the exact spot being under the dual carriage-way, opposite Fleet Street) was a coffee-bar called the "Caves". A number of rooms and alcoves were lined with artificial rock, it was dimly lit, and quite effective in its way. Rather mixed, it enjoyed a short vogue of a few months, but not to be compared to, "El Torro" This stood on the corner of Ethel St. and Stephenson St. and occupied the ground floor of a building standing, between Ethel St. and the now disappeared, Columnade Passage. This was to one side of the old Theatre Royal, and disappeared with the building of Woolworths. El Torro was small, pseudo-Spanish decor, and had a diminutive annex, if eight people got in there it was full. It was just a place to go to prolong an evening rather than catch the last bus home.

If instead of a talking end to an evening, a more steamy (or should that be seamy) end was envisaged then one sauntered down to Platform 1 of old New St. station. Here was another coffee bar, open all night, with a curious floating clientele. Considering there wasn't all that many night trains one wondered where all the travelers (mostly male) came from. Only snag to having a late night coffee here was that if one needed to answer nature's call, one had to leave the small pool of light outside the coffee bar, and proceed down the platform into an ever deepening stygian gloom to find the usual offices.

Of course the Birmingham of thirty years ago, was, as far as anyone gay was concerned, a talking scene. If you couldn't talk, couldn't be witty and intelligent above average, you were just ignored. Discos did not exist and dancing was not a skill particularly cultivated, so it was very much a pub society.
When-the ring road and other building schemes ripped the centre out of the old Brum a lot of old hostelries had to go. At the lower end of-the narrow alley still known as New Meeting St. where it joined Moor St. stood a tall Georgian inn, dating from about 1750, and mentioned in one of Dickens novels, that was "Dingly's" The stone flagged entrance hall, with a bar to the left and a lounge to the right, contained a beautiful oak staircase and a grandfather clock. A small enclosed garden at the back was open, weather permitting, and you could take a drink under the only mulberry tree in the city centre.

In direct contact to the quiet of " Dingly's the bustle of "The Cabin" in Union Passage off Lower Bull Street, with it's oval beaten copper counter in the middle of a large room. On Saturdays at mid-day there was an appetising smell of onion in vinegar from the bowls on the counter, for if you bought bread and cheese, you could help yourself to the onion free. The "Cabin" was built above and to one side of the tunnel of the G.W.R between Moor St. and Snow Hill, the toilets being in a lower sub-basement. There was an iron grille in a wall, into this tunnel, and it was quite an experience to be down there when an express thundered through. The noise was deafening, and clouds of acrid smoke and steam bellowed in through the grille.
Union Passage led into Martineau St. which contained Birmingham's first espresso coffee bar, the daddy of them all. Street level and basement. Decor, well vaguely African, tribal masks, raffia, and bamboo. Martineau St. had another narrow passageway leading off it, proper name, Crooked Lane, and this contained, "Suffield's" Very Victorian, alot of dark green velvet, polished mahogany, and
frosted and etched glass panels. Not strictly speaking a gay pub, it was used by a few people, usually as a convenient meeting place for a pre-theatre drink. Also Crooked Lane continued on into Union St. where stood the, "Corner Cupboard" which I would put in the same category as "Suffield's".
Being a pub society, gay people tended to wander, Criss-crossing the city centre several times on an evening out. It cannot be said that any pub was 100% gay, some more than others. The "Clarrendon" on the corner of Upper Temple St. and Temple Row has now disappeared, so has the "Old Royal" the "Lamp" and the "Old Nelson" also in Temple Row.

Returning to New St. I wonder if the "St.James" will ring a bell with anyone. Underground, entrance roughly opposite Cannon St. and colloquially known as " Jimmy's Bar " very popular once upon a time.
Not so far from the Clubs present premises, in the Horsefair, on the right hand side going out of town, was another coffee-bar, fondly remembered, " El Sombrero ".
Well Michael when you asked for, " more memories please " it was like opening Pandora's Box, Iv'e only mentioned places which no longer exist, and the list is by no means exhausted. There was the, " Woodman " " The Hope and Anchor " ( Ma Fletcher with her seven rows of pearls all present and correct and the Kardomah, and the Co-op all part of the gay folklore of Birmingham.

If you went outside of Brum, I bet you could write a few lines on the, Miners Arms at Sedgley, " Aunty's (The Fountain Inn ) at Walsall, and the Dirty Duck in Stratford.

Happy days, honestly they don't realise they have it on a plate now,


PS. I wonder if it was more fun then, than it is now, just because it was illegal and slightly risqué.