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On the Emptiness of the Glory Hole, and Other non-Problems


This essay interrogates our impulse to make the modern sexual. Focusing on two stories, told in the decades after the Great War by the British confidence trickster and crime writer Netley Lucas, I explore what happens when we take the notion of sexuality out of modernity. In so doing, I tease out the intellectual possibilities of thinking queer about a particular historical subject and moment. The fragmentary stories Lucas told—about desires, bodies, and encounters—might ostensibly invite us to read through and around the archival traces to seek the “truth” of identity. Here, however, I take my cue from Lucas’s refusal to fix himself as a particular kind of subject. Accepting the indeterminacies and emptiness of his storytelling on its own terms opens up new ways of understanding both individual lives and British culture in the 1920s and 1930s.

Successive generations of historians have become increasingly attuned to the distance of the sexual past. The idea that the notions of gender and sexuality within which individuals made sense of their desires and behaviors are time- and place-specific, and cannot be collapsed into contemporary identity categories, is an historiographical commonplace. The argument I want to make from Lucas’s stories is different, however. Laura Doan has noted how both earlier LGBT histories and more recent queer histories share an understanding of “-as-being.” Despite a distinct shift in our conceptual apparatus and language, much historical work is still constrained within binary notions of sexual difference and normality. Crucially, it retains the assumption that our subjects had a “sexuality” or “sexual identity” that can be isolated and apprehended—however different that sexual past might be from the present. In thinking queer about Lucas’s lives, I elaborate what Doan calls “ as method.”[1] That his stories exemplified the limited purchase of notions of sexuality after the Great War should prompt us to acknowledge the historicity of the category itself, and question its analytic usefulness. What happens when we follow Sharon Marcus and “ask what social formations swim into focus once we abandon the preconception of strict divisions between men and women, homosexuality and heterosexuality, same-sex bonds and those of family and marriage?” What can we see when we take the sexuality out of modernity?[2]

The stories on which I focus were told a decade apart about an incident that took place towards the end of the Great War. In his confessional reminiscences The Autobiography of a Crook (1924) and My Selves (1934) Lucas recounted how he absconded from his prestigious school when he was around fourteen. Following the well-trodden path of wealthy slummers, he made his way to the dockside neighborhoods of London’s East End. In this drama of downward social mobility, the public schoolboy found himself working as a stevedore unloading Union Castle Line ships, sleeping at the Sailor’s Home on Well Street, and exploring the cosmopolitan pleasures of docklands life. A desire for adventure, Lucas claimed, prompted him to sign on as a pantryman on the Kenilworth Castle, a liner plying the dangerous route from London to Cape Town, carrying the soldiers of Empire to and from war.[3]

Lucas wove the voyage to Cape Town into a story of adventurous mobility, but was troubled by an enigmatic incident en route. The Autobiography observed only,  “upon mature consideration, that the ‘glory hole’ of a large liner is about the most vicious and immoral place I have ever had to live in, and that is saying a great deal.” Below decks and far removed from the purifying air of the open seas; overflowing with smells, sounds, meanings; crowded with bodies, bunks, gas pipes; notoriously airless, dirty, and fetid, the glory hole was a strangely empty space. Lucas was no privileged ingenue: by 1924 he had spent time in prison and borstal, lived in dockside lodging houses, and slept rough on London’s streets. Prone to boast when describing his dalliances with women, Lucas’s unusual hesitancy made the Kenilworth Castle’s immorality more acute (Autobiography, 35–36).

Ten years later, My Selves revisited the “glory hole.” This account was more detailed—perhaps Lucas wanted to shock readers—but still did not explain what had happened. In hotels and upscale outfitters his good looks allowed the charming gentleman crook to cultivate the desire of those he seduced. Desire had to be managed carefully, however. In the confines of a ship the young man found that task impossible:

The Chief Pantryman was a swine, for realising my callow youth, innocent

appearance, and clean boyishness, he made a suggestion to me upon the second day

out at sea which caused me in fury to flash my fist quickly toward his face. (My Selves, 13)

An unnamed “suggestion” warranted a “furious” response. Resistance brought only more attention. As the voyage continued the man “did his best to make my life a real hell.” Senior and physically stronger, the pantryman was in a “position to achieve his object with ease, and the more I resisted his foul intentions the more he bullied me” (13). The “ease” with which he enforced those “foul intentions” belied Lucas’s claims to resistance. Now he could only rely on his “equanimity of mind” to survive. Honed at sea (and later in prison), this quality meant that “no matter what I am called upon to endure a queer fatalistic and stoic streak in me has always made it possible for me to keep my chin up.” While this might have allowed Lucas to present himself as an innocent victim, My Selves suggested he could derive pleasure from experiences others might “endure”—finding a “perverted enjoyment of the very sordidness of the situation” (14). Voyaging to the Cape, Lucas “passed” his “first test into the realm of sophisticated manner”:

[This] in the greasy sordidness of the third class pantry, the object of perverted attentions from most of my shipmates, was the most enjoyable trip I have made. This may sound very strange, but in those early days life was very new and rather exciting and I welcomed each new experience, each new sensation, with the eagerness of youth. (14)

In Lucas’s teasingly enigmatic account, “perverted attentions” brought sensations analogous to the pleasures of crime and beautiful women on which he lingered elsewhere in his writing.

Lucas’s life-stories left the glory hole of the Kenilworth Castle empty, however. This prolific and often sensational storyteller resisted any attempt to fix the “truth” of his sexual practices and character. Of course, there are things that we might do to address these absences. The archival diligence of the social historian might give the glory hole a substance patterned on what we know of other spaces through which Lucas moved around 1917, or of what other men did in those close quarters below the deck of an oceangoing ship.[4] What do I mean? After signing off from his voyage on the Kenilworth Castle, Lucas found himself down and out in London. When he had money he spent the night at the Union Jack Club, a hostel on Waterloo Road. For several weeks over winter 1917-18 Lucas eked out a “bare existence” in the streets and arches around Villiers Street. Running alongside Charing Cross Station from the Strand down to the Embankment, this was a notorious red-light district—Lucas called it the “worst street in the Metropolis”—haunt of pleasure-seekers, prostitutes, and cruising men, site of rough pubs, and hotels and lodging houses that let rooms by the hour, and a gathering point for London’s homeless. Living a “free vagabond existence” among the “petty crooks and down and outs” sometimes “I had to ‘do a starry’ and sleep out on the Embankment, or under the Adelphi Arches, for want of the price of a bed.” In all these public spaces men cruised, cottaged, and fucked (My Selves, 31).

A flash in the archive: in January 1918, Lucas was arrested for begging, convicted, and sentenced to twelve months on the Training Ship Cornwall. Anchored in the River Thames, the Cornwall was an ageing naval vessel now dedicated to preparing delinquent boys for a career at sea.[5] This was not a story that Lucas told—his own accounts of this period of confinement were dominated by the tensions of class and the traumatic experience of becoming lousy — but we know from the official reports compiled by the Ministry of Health that sex between the boys, and the predatory advances of older men in authority, was common on the Cornwall around this time. Approaching the glory hole sideways, then, might give it the illusion of substance.[6]

Another moment: in June 1923 two young men met in the cells at Westminster Police Court and “an important event” took place: they fell in love. Netley Lucas and the man he called Dick were “instinctively attracted.” Both faced trial on charges of false pretenses, but the transformative recognition of their affinities went deeper.

In future it will be necessary for our names to be coupled together, for ever since that time Dick has been by my side as my pal and partner, sharing all my ups and downs, my successes and failures, my happinesses and sadnesses. (My Selves, 147, 165)

This was probably the most vital relationship of Lucas’s adult life. Two lives now entwined; an enduring emotional bond sustained the men through all their “ups and downs.” They were “inseparable,” intimate, pals and partners, “coupled together” or simply a couple. Lucas recalled “a bond which neither time nor hardship has since severed.” This queer moment unfolded in the language of companionate marriage. Lucas disavowed this when he described how their closeness ran “to the extent of marrying two sisters, so that we became brothers-in-law,” but even then their “friendship” was “the one redeeming feature of both our lives” (147, 165). For over a decade Lucas and Dick were pals and partners. Pals: inseparable friends, unswervingly loyal, confidantes. Partners: roommates and traveling companions; living, loving, and working; partners in crimes of confidence and a burgeoning literary career. Yet Lucas’s account of Dick and their lives together is also strangely empty. All we really learn is that he was a “young public schoolboy” and ex-crook (147).[7]

Ninety years later, Great Uncle Dick lives on in a family’s memories, sharing a Westminster flat with the man they call “his companion.”[8]

A final archival trace: a drawling accent and immaculate appearance were Lucas’s stock-in-trade in securing the trust of shopkeepers and socialites. Yet the respect he claimed was his due as London’s “toff crook” was tenuous. In the West End gentility elicited deference. In a working-class milieu governed by different codes of masculinity, these were pretensions worth derision (Autobiography, 86). The gentlemanly trickster monitored the details of a suit’s color and cut to cultivate confidence. While a faultless appearance was necessary to crimes of confidence, careful grooming was associated with the feminine world of fashion. Differences of class and Lucas’s flamboyant sartorial choices—his light grey suits and lemon gloves—could be read as transgressions of gender. Interviewed by a police officer in Brixton Prison, William Cook “recall[ed] the person you mentioned who does writing and has written a book . . . he speaks more like a ‘Queenie’ or ‘Nancy Boy.’” Refined poise elicited suspicion not deference; a “cultured” accent marked Lucas as effete not educated. The plausible gentleman was also a “Nancy Boy.”[9]

Who was Netley Lucas?

Was he?

Interweaving deep archival research with what Scott Herring calls a “hermeneutics of sexual suspicion” provides a way of filling the emptiness of the glory hole. Treating the gaps in Lucas’s storytelling as a problem to overcome prompts the kind of historical project that secures the sexuality of a recognizably modern subject. Just as Herring mobilizes a “suspicion of sexual hermeneutics,” however, so we should also take seriously the uncertain boundaries between sexual transgression and normality that characterized Lucas’s storytelling (Herring, Queering the Underworld, 13). Lucas married twice; his infidelities were implicated in two separate divorce cases.[10] My Selves was a repeated refrain on insatiable desire and sexual excess. Priapic and boastful, Lucas described how he had “made love by telephone, by cable and wireless.” Reflecting on a secretive “violent ‘affair’” in Borstal he commented: “I have made love in many queer places during my lifetime, including an Imperial Airways air liner 2000 feet up flying from Brussels to Cologne, but I think that this chicken house was by far the most uncomfortable” (My Selves, 103, 77). The “only time I slept alone was during my periods in prison.” Disavowing the rich sexual opportunities of this all-male world, Lucas implicitly established the limits of his otherwise rapacious desires: sleeping alone was perhaps as much a story of what he did not do in prison (17).

The impulse to categorize historical subjects is a sexological one, animated by the genealogy of a modernizing project that—we are often told—took shape in Britain around the time Lucas was on the Kenilworth Castle. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s ways of seeing and being we assume were then becoming hegemonic in fact had little purchase.[11] In attributing blame for the collapse of his first marriage to his “inverted character,” Lucas left a trap for the historian (191). Reminiscent of the language and typologies of the sexologist Havelock Ellis, the comment ostensibly gestured towards an essentialized sexual “inversion”—a notion of sexuality as a discrete domain of personhood, and a category predicated upon the innateness, exclusivity, and orientation of desire.[12] Lucas was never an orderly sexological subject, however. “My marriage was a failure solely because I was, and am, a failure,” he argued: “a failure as a man, a human being, an individual, a citizen and finally as a husband.” The emotional rewards of companionate marriage were impossible “because my inverted character is so soaked in selfishness and deceit, that I have no right to have the happiness of any woman placed in my hands” (My Selves, 191–92). While Lucas taunts the contemporary reader with the possibility of a sexual modernity, it was within his refusal of conventional moral codes and the narcissism that frustrated his personal relationships that he located his “inverted character.”[13]

Just as Lucas betrayed no impulse to fix the “truth” of what happened on the Kenilworth Castle, so I am more interested in what happens when we leave the glory hole empty. What are the intellectual pay-offs of making this non-move? In the first instance, treating emptiness as a non-problem compels us to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge of the past. Lucas was a calculating storyteller. Elusive and hard to find, a man prone to deceive, he changed names and stories depending on when and where he asked others to consider the demands on their confidence. Telling tales was the substance of his lives, not something he hid behind. Rather than trying to reveal his “deceptions,” we might instead focus on the conditions that made Lucas’s storytelling possible, the resonances of his stories, and the social or psychological work they might have done. Scrutinizing the competing accounts created by or about a compulsive storyteller brings its own pleasures, but doing so in search of biographical “truth” shuts down rather than opens productive lines of enquiry. Rather than a mask, storytelling made mirrors in which we might see reflected the postwar society and culture through which Lucas moved.[14]

To leave the glory hole empty is also to acknowledge the radical of the past—to see the early twentieth century not just as a period in which sexual categories and identities were different, but one in which notions of sexuality were themselves absent from everyday ways of seeing and being in the world. Called into being at a very particular historical moment, the indeterminacies and silences of Lucas’s storytelling provide a limit case for both the absence of fixed boundaries between difference and normality and the ways in which processes of self-fashioning effaced any understanding of sexuality as a discrete realm of selfhood. The narrator of Autobiography of a Crook and My Selves repeatedly dwelt on desires, bodies, and encounters. In rendering these publicly intelligible, however, he moved across multiple registers that had little to do with sexuality. Class difference and social mobility, the inversion of dominant moral codes, emerging psychological notions of the self within, embodied pleasures and sensations, the generic conventions of the confessional memoir—these were the practices that, Lucas suggested, animated his lives and provided the framework within which to make sense of them. All of this we miss if we look into the glory hole for the revealing traces of sexuality. The emptiness of sexual modernity is a productive space.


[1] Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War, 1914-18 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013), viii, 90. This approach also characterizes Scott Herring, Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007); Regina Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008); Martha Umphrey, “The Trouble with Harry Thaw,” Radical History Review 62 (1995): 9–23, 19, 12. My own earlier work might stand as an example of an ostensibly “queer” history which remains constrained in the ways sketched out by Doan. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[2] Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 13. I tease out this argument in more detail in Matt Houlbrook, “Thinking Queer: The Social and the Sexual in Interwar Britain,” in Brian Lewis, ed., British Queer History: New Approaches and Perspectives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 134–64.

[3] This account draws on “Whirled into Crime,” Hawera and Normanby Star, August 31, 1923, 6; Netley Lucas, “Story of Netley Lucas,” World’s Pictorial News, July 8, 1922, 12. Netley Lucas, The Autobiography of a Crook (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924), 31–36; Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham, My Selves (London, Arthur Barron, 1934), 10–15; Stanley Scott, The Human Side of Crook and Convict Life (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1924), 123; LMA, PS/IJ/W1/8, Westminster Juvenile Court, Registers, December 11 and 18, 1917. I follow Lucas across the world in Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[4] See Paul Baker and Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea (London: Routledge, 2003).

[5] LMA, PS/BOW/A/01/68: Bow Street Police Register, January 11 and 18, 1918; LMA, LCC/CH/D/PEN/1, July 1917–June 1918, 468; LMA, LCC/CH/PEN/7, October 1917–March 1918, 159; LMA, PS/IJ/W1/8, December 11 and 18, 1917; January 18, 22, and 29, 1918; February 5, 1918; and March 12, 1918. On the Cornwall, see Gordon Brown, Mate of the Caprice (London: Seafarer Books, 1995), chapter 1; Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon, Forbidden Britain: Our Secret Past, 1900-1960 (London: BBC Books, 1994), 29–35. Lucas described his time on the ship in Autobiography, 91–95; see also, Lucas and Graham, My Selves, 39–40.

[6] TNA, MH/102/161: Training Ship Cornwall, “Case of Indecency by the Headmaster (1923)”; TNA, MH/102/163: Training Ship Cornwall, “Dismissal of Teacher Accused of Indecent Conduct with the Boys (1927)”; TNA, MH/102/170: Training Ship Cornwall, “Indecency among Boys (1932).”

[7] On Dick, see for example, TNA, MEPO/3/441: “Josephine O’Dare, William Davis and Others: sentenced for forgery, larceny, fraud (June 18, 1926)”; Eustace Jervis, “Criminals All,” Detective, February 13, 1925, 618.

[8] Email from Len Liggins to Matt Houlbrook, November 9, 2015.

[9] TNA, MEPO/3/441: “Theresa Agnes Skyrme, alias Josephine O’Dare and others: forgery and uttering will of William Docker,” Minute 4BV: William Cook to Commissioner of Police, January 15, 1927.

[10] See for example, TNA, J/77/3698/9814, “Divorce Court Hearing, Cedric Hill vs. Dorothy Hill,” 1936; TNA, J/77/3711/3087, “Divorce Court Hearing, Elsie Lucas vs. Netley Lucas,” 1936.

[11] See Doan, Disturbing Practices.

[12] See Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1901).

[13] On this mode of knowledge see Chris Waters, “Sexology,” in H. G. Cocks and Matt Houlbrook, eds., Palgrave Advances in the Modern History of Sexuality (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005); Lucy Bland and Laura Doan, eds., Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires (London: Polity, 1998).

[14] This approach draws on Joan Scott, “Storytelling,” History and Theory 50, no. 2 (2011): 203–09, 205; Kali Israel, Names and Stories: Emilia Dilke and Victorian Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Stephanie Newell, The Forger’s Tale: The Search for Odeziaku (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006). I tease out these arguments in Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters.