Sexual Underworlds in Interwar Scotland

Charlie Lynch reviews Queer TradesSex & Society: Male Prostitution and the War on Homosexuality in Interwar Scotland by Jeffrey Meek (2023, Routledge).

Who were the Whitehats? Towards the end of his account of a one-time notorious group of male sex workers in 1920s Glasgow, Jeffrey Meek asks whether we can really know, given that surviving sources allow no access to their attitudes, emotions or motivations. We cannot learn whether their involvement in transactional sex was driven by a longing for companionship or a desire to escape poverty, or both. They may even have been heterosexual men affected by poverty who had little choice but to engage in sex work. Not only this, but the difficulty in identifying these men runs deeper. Interpreting the Whitehats as historical subjects with a shared connection to contemporary queer men, Meek points out, ignores the reality that they were not only purveyors of commercial sex but that they were also engaged in blackmail and intimidation of queer men, violence and various other crimes. It is difficult to position them as ‘victims’ and therefore they sit uncomfortably within a literature which centralises victimhood and stigma as the primary cultural forces that shaped queer experience. More broadly, their lives were shaped by the social and economic forces of the times in which they lived. This book, in common with other scholarly accounts of working-class men who engaged in sex with other men for money before the 1960s, has to deal with fragmentary and source material largely derived from criminal prosecutions. It must also contend with behaviours and attitudes which seem alien to modern eyes, and which cannot easily be claimed as antecedents.

Queer Trades is the first scholarly work which examines the history of male prostitution in twentieth century Scotland. Meek’s focus is the inter-war period, between the imposition of Victorian era legislation and the emergence of new social, legal and political framings after the Second World War. Meek examines how Scottish society and governance perceived sexual ‘immorality’ and gender performances considered inappropriate and non-respectable. His setting is the proletarian streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Writer Edwin Muir experienced Glasgow as a place of alarming squalor, and Edinburgh as a geography divided between the gentility of the New Town and the less salubrious and near derelict environs of the Port of Leith. Meek surveys what can be discovered about the extent and practice of men selling sex to men, an endeavour which is complicated by a tendency of legal statistics to fail to distinguish between acts involving consenting adults and sexual offences against minors. He shows how certain urban spaces emerge from prosecutions as cruising grounds during this period, including Kelvingrove Park and Calton Hill, and what is known of the activities and culture of queer male sex workers, who made picture houses, theatres and railway stations their haunts.  Sexual opportunity was advertised by their appearance and demeanour, often advertised by the wearing of make up and clothes which suggested a level of effeminacy. The legal mechanisms under which men were prosecuted are examined, and the legal difficulties that Scots police were faced with in securing convictions explained.

William Merrilees, Chief Constable of Lothian and Peebles, was once arguably Scotland’s most famous policeman. A minor celebrity whose later outings included an appearance on ‘This is Your Life’, Merrilees was a violent homophobe who launched a personal ‘war on homosexuality’ in Edinburgh in the 1930s. He celebrated this in an autobiography, which while pejorative and replete with exaggerations, gives Meek a view of those he arrested, and often intimidated, coerced or physically attacked, while the policeman also took copious notes during his ‘investigations’ into Edinburgh’s homosexual underworld. Meek contextualises Merrilees’ fanatical and obsessive homophobia in terms of widespread male anxieties over a perceived degeneration of masculinity in the decades following the First World War. Amongst his targets were the ‘Rosebery Boys’, a group of sex workers who operated out of the Rosebery Private Hotel in Haymarket, and who closely resembled the ‘striking and flamboyant’ effeminate ‘quean’ of the interwar years whose biological maleness seemed to sit at odds with psychological femininity. Queer sex workers of this kind, Meek argues, not only occupied the same space as female prostitutes (quite literally, in this case, in that they inhabited the same building) but presented in a similar manner. Thanks to material collected by Merrilees, including seized personal correspondence, Meek gains a much greater insight into their self-conceptions, their emotions and their aspirations for love and romance. Tracing others targeted by the policeman allows Meek to explore other aspects of queer ‘trade’, including different social types: the older man of some social status who engaged in transactional relationships, and the ‘kept’ men and youths with whom he associated. Harry Mitchell Lawrence, a legal official, pursued young men and teenage boys not just in Edinburgh, but also elsewhere including in St Andrews and Braemar, and was sentenced to two years in prison for his trouble. Finally, attention turns to another group of Edinburgh men targeted by the law. A group of businessmen regularly paid soldiers from the city’s Redford Barracks for sex. Peter Allan Ogg, the owner of a dancehall, was pursued by Merrilees, and his arrest and trial, and that of an associate, led to the unravelling of an extended network of queer men which stretched into northern England. The availability of soldiers for paid sexual adventures with wealthier men was, Meek argues, likely to have been a consistent feature of queer life in Edinburgh in the late 1930s. The ostensibly heterosexual soldier who supplemented their earnings with financial rewards from  same-sex intimate encounters was a staple of urban geographies in Britain, and Ireland, before the sixties.

Charlie Lynch is a social historian at Ulster University, Belfast, researching Queer Northern Ireland before Liberation. He is co-author of The Humanist Movement in Modern Britain and is working on a book about heterosexuality and religion in Post-War Scotland.