Let us, dear readers, take a walk on the wild side … a trip through the seamier side of Medway’s history. We are talking about low dives, iniquitous inns, tawdry taverns and pubs that your mother warned you about.
Before readers suggest I am being insulting and unfair, please note: the Brook in Chatham — around which the Medway towns’ vice trade centred — was in many ways a fine place to grow up. Some of the houses were large, if humble, and many correspondents attest that their parents and grandparents said life was tough but respectable.
Let us face facts, however: the Brook and the High Street were filled also with slums and brothels. A book, The Chatham Scandal, has been written about it.
Chatham in the 1860s to 1880s was a riotous and unlawful place that was policed only sporadically. Soldiers, sailors, whores, drink and crime: a lethal cocktail throughout time.
Eventually Chatham’s bad reputation led to the introduction of the Contagious Disease Acts, which amounted to government supervision of prostitution in garrison towns. The idea was to lock away the women to protect the servicemen from disease. That, you will have gathered, didn’t work.
Many of the women hawked their trade in pubs, so police retaliated by trying to have pub licences revoked. In 1864 Superintendent Radley of the city police tried to shut down seven pubs: the Lord Nelson in Chatham High Street, the Bear and Staff in Chatham Intra (the place where Rochester and Chatham merge); the Five Bells on St Margaret’s Banks; the Flushing in Horsewash Lane and the Homeward Bound near Gas House Lane (both towards Rochester Bridge); the Duke of Gloucester in Strood and the Maidstone Arms in Crow Lane, Rochester.
That didn’t work, either. Magistrates refused his plea. So the vice continued — and it stayed until sailors left with the dockyard. (It still exists — as anyone who has spotted the whey-faced Eastern European girls gathered on one main thoroughfare will bear witness.)
In the 1960s and early 1970s the towns were still thriving as was the oldest profession. So — scandalously then, in those less enlightened days — was the gay scene.
A memories correspondent, whom we shall call Luton Jack, writes: “The two well-known gay pubs were the Ship and the Fountain. From time to time there’s been other more, shall we say, specialist locations. For example the City Arms in Victoria Street, Rochester, was famous for its drag nights and associated queens. By recollection, not by use, I recall The Rose and Crown in Chatham High Street opposite Gray’s was a gay pub in its last days. I’m almost certain that there was a similar bar in Luton but can’t remember the name.”
Interesting, Jack: the Rose and Crown was a Chatham News lunchtime pub and I never knew that. This must have been after the Grant-Smart family ran it. The Ship was always well-known — now, in these more enlightened times, it is listed in a gay pub directory.
A greengrocer queening it in the red light district
As to the City Arms — thereby hangs a tale. A lovely old chap who was a greengrocer near where I lived had a double life. Fruit and veg in the daytime, drag in the evening. I remember how I found out. But that’s another story that I shall tell when I discover that all participants are beyond this mortal coil (and I am out of reach of their lawyers).
Jack continues his 1970s recollections: “Of the three I drank in most regularly, the Old George in Medway Street, the Prince of Wales in Railway Street and the Cabin, in the cellar of what is now Churchills, the Cabin was easily the roughest. It was, shall we say, a meeting point for locals, Navy and Army. Whenever there was trouble they must have had a hotline to the police station as about 10 coppers would come in to sort matters out. The Prince of Wales used to have discos in the cellar bar called, I think, the Bierkeller, which was a little lively at times and was shut in the 1970s because of this.
“For guaranteed, set-piece brawling you were far better going to the Jack Knife club which was a skinhead, Army and Navy place that I used to avoid. I used to go to the Central Hotel on the A2 in Gillingham. This was a guaranteed underage drinking spot with all the concomitant risks entailed — I don’t think I need to elaborate…
“Often it turned into a battlefield, memorably when Gillingham played Millwall in the last game of the season and announced at the game that the Player of the Year dance would be there that night and a load of Millwall scum unsurprisingly turned up to join the merriment.”
Luvverly. The joys of being a football supporter, Jack.
He continues: “The most notorious place in Chatham in my teens was The Steamboat in the High Street. This place was always trouble and I never went there but it was closed down because of prostitution, drugs, fighting and any other vice that you can recall. Of course, in more recent years, there was the Van Damme Bar in the Pentagon, complete with lunchtime strippers, very definitely on my lunchtime list in the 1970s!”
Yes, I recall that hotbed was known by its initials. (Initials — geddit? Oh, please yourself.)
Thanks, Jack. I should mention, on a legal note, that no slur is intended on any current pubs in Chatham, all of which are models of propriety.
* The Chatham Scandal by Brian Joyce is well worth buying. Try Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester High Street.