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Queer lives in West London


Words by Bertie Russell

Meeting some of the LGBTQ men and women who found homes in the neighbourhoods of RBKC and beyond

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the neighbourhoods of West London were home to many major figures from the arts. This included several LGBTQ men and women, who often kept their sexuality hidden due to the social expectations of the period. To mark Pride month, we learn about some members of the queer community whose London lives are now commemorated with blue plaques.

Henry James (1843 – 1916)

34 De Vere Gardens, Kensington

The novelist, critic and playwright Henry James belonged to a wealthy family of American intellectuals. As a young man he moved to Europe, eventually settling in London. In 1886 he moved to 34 De Vere Gardens, living there until 1898, and finally giving up the lease in 1902. In a letter to his aunt, he compared the bright rooms to a photographer’s studio, claiming that ‘my new quarters work beautifully and haven’t a flaw.’

James was the author of the much-loved ghost story, The Turn of the Screw (1898), as well as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which has been called the greatest novel in English. A lifelong bachelor, biographical research increasingly suggests that he was a closeted gay man, which influenced his veiled and allusive literary style. James’s last years were spent in Cheyne Walk, where a memorial now stands in Chelsea Old Church.

34 De Vere Gardens

Radclyffe Hall (1880 – 1943)

37 Holland Street, Kensington

Marguerite Radclyffe Hall was a poet and author who wrote The Well of Loneliness (1928). This largely autobiographical novel caused a scandal for describing romantic relationships between women, and was banned soon after its publication. However, it is now considered a classic of lesbian literature.

Hall inherited a fortune as a young woman, which enabled her to live as she pleased without marrying or working. She dressed in the men’s fashions of the Edwardian era – monocles, trousers and hats – and went by the name of ‘John’. Although her address often changed, between 1924 and 1929 she lived on Holland Street with her partner, the sculptor Una Troubridge. Soon after her novel was banned, the two women moved to the countryside together.

37 Holland Street

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

23 Campden Hill Square, Holland Park

Siegfried Sassoon was one of the leading poets of the First World War. Despite winning the Military Cross for courage, his poems revealed all the horrors of fighting in the trenches. After the war he became a literary journalist in London, living first in Westminster, and later at 23 Campden Hill Square between 1925 and 1932.

Sassoon had affairs with several well-known figures, including Prince Philip of Hesse and Ivor Novello. While lodging at Campden Hill, he began a relationship with Stephen Tenant – the eccentric socialite and famed member of the ‘Bright Young Things’. Their relationship lasted six years, until Tenant abruptly ended things by letter. In the aftermath, Sassoon married Hester Gatty and moved to Wiltshire.

23 Campden Hill Square

23 Campden Hill Square

Vita Sackville West (1892 – 1962)

182 Ebury Street, Belgravia

Novelist, journalist, and poet Vita Sackville West is perhaps best known for designing the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Before acquiring the castle, she lived at 182 Ebury Street with her husband, the diplomat, politician and author Harold Nicholson. Their house was renovated by the well-known architect Edwin Lutyens.

The Nicholsons marriage was open and both had affairs with members of their own sex. Vita’s most well-known relationship was with the novelist Virginia Woolf: she even inspired the principal character of Woolf’s novel, Orlando, about a time-travelling, gender-changing aristocrat who has affairs with men and women. Woolf herself was born at nearby 22 Hyde Park Gate, but later lived in Bloomsbury, Richmond and Sussex.

Ebury Street

Kenneth Williams (1926 – 1988)

Farley Court, Allsop Place, Marylebone

Actor and comedian Kenneth Williams was a much-loved member of the cast for the Carry On films. Williams’s father owned a barber’s shop at Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, where he lived from 1935 to 1956. Once his acting career was established, Wiliams continued to rent flats in the neighbourhood, wanting to be close to his mother. Between 1963 and 1970, he lived at Farley Court in Marylebone.

Williams was known for his camp persona, at a time when public views towards homosexuality were changing (homosexual acts were legalised in Britain in 1967). During his life, he refused to discuss his sexuality, but the diaries published after Williams’s death reveal his attraction to other men – although few of these romances resulted in lasting relationships.


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