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Michael Dunn Letter 1983

May 1983

This letter appeared in the Nightingale Club magazine, , in 1983 and requested memories of gay Birmingham from club members, it was written by Michael Dunn a founder member of the club.

The Nightingale Club, the conception (or how the egg was cracked)

Birmingham as I recall, as far back as 1957, was a gay wilderness, in so much as the new comer to town only made inroads on the scene, if he was known by someone who had already made it. This was because of the very strict laws and the taboo of being gay in the respect of jobs etc., and also the queer bashing.

The first gay pub I went to was the ‘Black Swan’ in Bromsgrove Street, I was taken by an old school chum of mine, and it took me quite a long time before I made was then the big time, or perhaps I should say ‘the in set’.

This was a very close knit clique of people, who at that point in time was organised by a person known as ‘La Williams’ and if your face did not fit you did not get in. ‘La’ did all the organising of gay parties at his own house, and everybody else’s house as well. He did all of the invitations of what he considered ‘the’ in people.

The city started to open up a little, by slow infiltration of pubs by the gay set, in rough order of importance they were :- The Imperial Hotel lounge bar, across the road The Troc(adero), Jimmy’s Bar, The Exchange basement bar (a nice drop of Cape Ales was just the ticket), The Black Swan, The Brook Vaults, Eli Fletchers Pub (nicknamed ‘the snake pit’, Paul Smith could tell you a few tales about that place), Howards Bar, The Woodman. The Brook Vaults was where I saw my first drag show, wow dangerous stuff this.

‘in’ parties were held at La’s house, Syd and Brian’s at Selly Oak and eventually at my house, 382 Coventry Road, “I’ve made it at last”

Coffee bars were the ‘El Sombero’, one at the top of Worcester Street (now demolished) and the Ceylon Tea Centre in the Old Square (mostly Saturday afternoons only) this was very upmarket.

Clubs, there wasn’t any in Brum, Manchester was a regular trip every other weekend or London if you were flush with money. Then came the Gay Flamingo (sic. means Pink Flamingo) at Wolverhampton, the stories of this one are legend, remind me to tell the one of the firemen??? Back to Brum, ‘La’ who I said was ‘queen bee’ and did all the organising started us on a round of straight clubs, who he had talked into letting us use a room. The first of these was the ‘Sescilo’ at five ways, then came the ‘Ridgeway Georgian’ at Soho Road, ‘what a con job this was’ then there was a Greek club on Broad Street which I can never remember the name, and last but not least came the ‘Queen Victoria’ this to my mind was the most infamous of the lot.

At this point in time I must take full responsibility for turning the ‘Vic’ pub in station street gay, and that came about simply by some pals of mine and myself using it as a meeting place at my instigation before we started on a pub crawl around the straight pubs in the city, before we hit the gay spots at the latter stages of the night and it all snowballed from that (sorry Vic and M&B)

After the ‘Queen Victoria’ closed, there was a barren period in Birmingham in respect of club life. ‘La’ approached me one night in the Imperial Bar (incidentally digressing a little) there was two old biddies behind the bar, one was Molly a charmer and the other was known as Vinegar Tits (Eadie) she was a right bitch, if you kept treating her to Gins you were the greatest, but otherwise she had the tongue of a viper. Anyway ‘La’ told me he had found a backer who wanted to put up the cash to start a gay members club, he had £600.00 pounds to help get it off the ground, they had their eyes on an Indian restaurant come club called the ‘Nightingale’ in Camp Hill, owned by one Isaac Butt, who was the owner of the first club we used to use in five ways, and he was going bankrupt. ‘La’ asked me to get my crowd of mates to come and help get the place cleaned and ready for our use.

I was introduced to ‘Derek Pemberton’ who I had seen at the Queen Victoria, he was the backer with the £600.00. A great deal of hard work was done by what I can only call a ‘gallant team of people’ who gave all their evenings mostly straight from their day jobs to come and clean and repair the rooms at Camp Hill, most nights we worked right through and only just made it to the Bulls Head pub opposite for a couple of pints before going home.

From 1970 ‘The Gale’ at Camp Hill was a success from the very start, packed every weekend and good attendance mid week, run on the same basis as we are now (1983). The original membership came from the people who had helped prepare the club being 42 in number; all these stalwarts are to my mind as important as each other and should share the credit if any is due, for without their hard work and support it would never have happened. Purely for the ‘Midland Link’ member’s information, approx 3 months after the ‘Gale’ was in full swing Paul Smith and the present secretary, Charles Sewell, came in on the scene became members and got themselves much involved in the affairs of running the club.

There was an attempt to misappropriate funds by three persons who were officers of the club, for obvious reasons I cannot name individuals, needless to say two of them had second thoughts and came and told me what was going on and I called a meeting of the general committee, and as a result the third person who was the ring leader was banned from the club by the committee. (Queen Bee was gone, the hive was safe)

During the time the club was at Camp Hill Derek Pemberton was paid back his £600.00 with interest and had about £16,000 (approx) in the bank, and because the City Corporation wanted to pull down Camp Hill for road extensions (which still have’nt been made c1983) The club purchased the premises in Witton Lane, which was not ideally situated, but it was all we could afford, “in the time we had to get out of the Camp Hill premises”

To bring this narrative to a close, can I state that this has been only my own personal recollections of the events as I remember them. I have only dealt in facts as they happened, I have skipped some of the details but not the important ones.

In conclusion may I say I think a debt of gratitude is owed to ‘Derek Pemberton’ who’s only reason for putting up that original £600.00 was to start a gay members club where we would not get ripped off, as we were being ripped off by all of the other clubs mentioned in the opening part of this document, and it can only be assumed that a certain person (Laurie Williams) was getting a rake off these places we were conned into going to, but they did serve a purpose for bringing the gay set together.

The grateful thanks to all those who, over the years, have had the foresight to renew and keep up their memberships to the newer members, support your club, while there is a ‘nightingale’ there is a thorn in the sides of the proprietary clubs, take away that thorn, and they will run riot over you and charge you the earth and bleed you dry. Greater things are to come if you support your club and choose and back your committees with care. Only your interest and caring of the running of the ‘gale’ will keep it growing/

‘Thorpe Street’ next, and I hope and believe our best yet

I sincerely hope this chapter and verse will be of interest to your readers

Yours Sincerely
Michael Dunn
Ex Doorman
Ex Assistant Manager
Ex Manager
Ex Chairman