The Carpenter Club, named after Edward Carpenter a hugely influential socialist, critic, writer, poet, thinker, vegetarian, and mystic, was born in premises located in Long Lane, Belfast; an area which has now disappeared after the redevelopment of Cathedral Quarter, which meant Long Lane disappeared under Writers Square.
On 10 April 1981 Jeff Dudgeon and Richard Hodgson purchased the vacant warehouse property at 8/10 Long Lane. At some stage in its past, it had been two separate premises which had then been converted into a single building and used as a plumber’s warehouse. The building had been vacant for some time and parts needed repair. Once possession was obtained, Richard and Jeff set about converting and renovating the premises into a social and recreation centre. they engaged architects and contractors and had the benefit of much voluntary help from members of the gay community. The ground floor was converted to provide a coffee bar and lounge, large disco, toilets, and storage. Extensive fire prevention regulations were complied with. It had been their original intention to renovate the whole building, but due to higher costs than anticipated, work was restricted to the ground floor.
However, that partnership was ended at a meeting held on 8th January 1984 when a member’s club was formed. The club members became the owners of club profits from that date and later owned the building itself and the replacement premises in Hill Street (more to follow on this site later in the year). NIGRA transferred its investment to the members club under the same terms as with the partnership.
The first floor was developed and opened in 1984 with a second disco and coffee bar.
[Long Lane was an entry running from North Street to Church Street. When this photo was taken all the buildings had been demolished, for the construction of the new Tourist Board offices, and the lane existed in name only. 110 years earlier it contained “One House, remainder stores”. The Art College (before reconstruction) J3374 : The Art College, Belfast is at middle left while St Anne’s Cathedral J3374 : New spire, St Anne’s, Belfast had still to acquire its “knitting needle”. – https://www.geograph.ie/photo/1000880]
Arrow shows Long Lane 1887 highlighted in purple
The Carpenter Club, whose proprietors where Richard Hodson, Jeff Dudgeon and NIGRA in a limited partnership, was an extensive, unlicensed disco and coffee bar on two floors operating from the early to mid-1980s. Cara Friend had offices upstairs, and there was also a large meeting room which was used by various groups for their meetings, including NIGRA. There was also a small room which had been turned into a library and repository of items of interest e.g. such as banners, placards, leaflets, badges etc.
But what was important for those frequenting the Carpenter Club, was that it was a safe area from police entrapment, or indeed sometimes homophobia. Thomas Ward, a researcher at Queens University in ‘queer history’, said
… “Prosecutions for cottaging, such as gross indecency and lewd behaviour, rose substantially following the 1967 Act. The police became better at entrapment, leading to the ‘pretty policeman’ phenomenon whereby the police would attempt to solicit men they believed to be cottaging or anyone who presented outside masculine norms, and arrest them for gross indecency. This itself led to a number of moral panics around gay sex in public toilets throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.” These anxieties led to the closing down of public toilets and other council spaces, often in the face of public expenditure cuts…
What people also have to remember is that during this time the Carpenter Club was located in the middle of Belfast during the ‘troubles’.
This meant that you had to go through security checkpoints/gates to get to the club, and basically as little else was open in that area, all the security personnel knew where you were heading. Most of the squaddies (British Soldiers) just laughed and made jokes with us, but unfortunately some of the UDR and some of the police were not that kind.
The Albert Clock, Belfast, was not far from the Carpenter Club and North Street, and in its past was once infamous for being frequented by prostitutes plying their trade with visiting sailor[s]
However, the history of Long Lane began long before the Carpenter Club. According to the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society it had two previous names Bigart’s Lane or Back Rampart’s Lane (from the nearby town ramparts) and running from North Street to Great Patrick Street with Long Lane being bisected when Donegall Street was laid out in the mid-18c.
During this time there was the wonderfully named bar ‘The Monkey Shaving the Goat’ doings its trade in Long Lane
In November 1981, the A Centre was established as an alternative cultural space in Belfast city centre. It ran on Saturday afternoons and was organised by the Belfast Anarchist Collective. It used the Carpenter premises [on loan] was soon became ‘a den of delight and subversion by the exhibition of numerous agitprop posters of the day; and was always under observation by the RUC [Special Branch] of the day. Please see the video from Northern Visions on the A Centre
Part of the ongoing history of the Carpenter Club was the number of events that originated in the meeting room, e.g.
- NI Aids Helpline was set up after a conference in the club
- 3rd All Ireland Lesbian & Gay man’s Conference (Belfast)
- Developed an outline module for LGBTQ+ Studies to Ulster University
Tom Hulme, Queen’s University Belfast, wrote in his article ‘Out of the Shadows: 100 Years of LGBT Life in Northern Ireland’.
…’ Belfast has been home to a male cruising culture since at least the 1880s. Busy streets, dark alleyways, public toilets, and sprawling parks; all provided opportunities for men seeking other men, from the dockworker to the diplomat (as Roger Casement’s diaries confirm)!..
Also, Tom wrote in his article, ‘Queer Belfast during the First World War; masculinity and same-sex desire in the Irish city’…
‘the extraordinary cases of two ordinary men. Edgar John Milligen, twenty-nine years old and from just outside Lisburn, County Antrim, was arrested in November 1916 for committing ‘acts of gross indecency with another male person’. The son of a wealthy Scottish-born Ulster industrialist, Milligen had allegedly been meeting adolescent newsboys on the streets of Belfast and paying them for sex in ice cream parlours, hotels and his country house in the village of Lambeg, About a year later, Vincent Cassidy, a twenty-five-year-old from Armagh, was arrested for a similar crime. Not long back in Ulster after a two-year stay in the United States, he had been living in a hotel in the centre of Belfast and holding all-male parties in his rooms; soldiers and civilians alike danced, drank cocktails and shared the one bed.
… however, that homosexual interactions could take place against the backdrop of ostensibly ‘heterosexual space’. Sheehan described how he and Cassidy made frequent visits to music halls and supper saloons where they consumed meat, fish, oysters and wine…
They also made use of local hotels in York Street, Donegall Place as examples, something that was almost impossible in the 1970s and 1980s.
In Jan 2022 Mark Thompson on Twitter (@MarkThompStuff) wrote
…Long Lane, Belfast C1940. There had been a “Burns Tavern” there, where a Burns Supper, attended by Robert Burns jnr, was held in August 1844, following a major Burns Festival that had been held in Ayr… (pic from the FB Group “Images and Memories of old Northern Ireland)
- Wikipedia – Gay Star and Upstart – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay_Star_and_Upstart
- Web Archive – upstart Publishing – https://web.archive.org/web/20140407081943/http://upstartpublishing.com/about
- In The Archives: A Journey Through LGBTQ+ Records – https://collabarchive.org/projects/in-the-archives-a-journey-through-lgbtq-records
- The A Centre or the Lost Tribe of Long Lane – https://vimeo.com/14859971
- Mapping 100 Years Of Belfast Gay Life – http://www.thevacuum.org.uk/issues/issues0120/issue11/is11arthunyea.html
- A timeline of LGBTQ communities in the UK – https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/lgbtq-timeline
- List of venues that the LGBT community went to during the later 1970s and 1980s
- A brief history of the public toilet as a political battleground – https://www.dazeddigital.com/politics/article/56499/1/uk-single-sex-public-toilets-compulsory-new-building-trans-rights
- Irish Historical Studies – Queer Belfast during the First World War: masculinity and same-sex desire in the Irish city – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/irish-historical-studies/article/queer-belfast-during-the-first-world-war-masculinity-and-samesex-desire-in-the-irish-city/0E0073BA37296DD7B824ED16B7206685
- Wikipedia – Edward Carpenter – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Carpenter
- The Edward Carpenter Community –https://www.edwardcarpentercommunity.org.uk/about-us/edward-carpenter
- Jeff Dudgeon, MBE –https://jeffdudgeon.com/
- Tom Hulme –https://pure.qub.ac.uk/en/persons/tom-hulme
- 1991 A Belfast Pride to be remembered! – https://bit.ly/3Y4NRfX