South London Gays
South London Gays (SLG) is a social group that holds meetings once a month in Clapham with guest speakers, and social events around South London. Speakers have included local MPs, gay writers, religious representatives, journalists, and members of lesbian and gay political groups. This has been supplemented by a wide of social activities - between 8 and 10 per month. Although primarily a social group, SLG has also been involved in various letter-writing campaigns on gay issues over many years and is involved in joint events with other gay groups in London and Surrey.
Membership of the group is about 80 and it costs £7 per year (£5 unwaged) to join (it is not obligatory to live in South London).
On 12 November 1994 the 21st birthday party of the Wimbledon Area Gay Society (WAGS) was held in the King’s Head pub in Colliers Wood. The party itself was highly successful, attended by almost 100 people, both existing and former WAGS members. However it was becoming increasingly clear that the group was in a state of steady decline.
The main focus of WAGS had been its weekly Wednesday meetings in the William Morris Hall, Wimbledon, but attendances had been falling for some time. The Hall itself was uninviting; visitors were confronted with old lino flooring, uncomfortable canvass and metal chairs and a drab room in need of decoration. It was difficult to sustain a high interest programme. The task of arranging an event there every week was putting a strain on the committee (of only four people) and the group was failing to attract or retain new members. Indeed, membership of WAGS had fallen to just over 20.
Financially, the group was also facing a potential problem. The meeting room was costing £10 to hire each week and this (together with the cost of a contact phone line) had been financed over several years by a grant of £650 per annum, which WAGS received from Merton Council - Conservative controlled and reputedly one of the most right wing in the country! After the Labour Party won control of the Council in 1994, they initiated a grants review, which resulted in advice to WAGS that its grant would cease. (Ironically much of the grant had in fact been going indirectly to Merton Labour Party since they owned the William Morris Hall.) The group was therefore faced with an imminent shortage of funding.
This decline in the fortunes of the group prompted a major review by the WAGS committee of its organisation and direction, since it was clear that the group was heading for eventual extinction - which has been the fate of many other local gay groups throughout the country. Fortunately for the group, it was abetted by a stroke of good fortune.
It had always been very difficult to find reasonably priced and comfortable meeting rooms but WAGS certainly needed a change from William Morris Hall. Out of the blue, the committee were approached by the owners of a new gay pub in Clapham, who were keen to attract gay community groups. The WAGS Committee visited the Clockhouse pub in Clapham Park Road in August 1995 and it was just what they were looking for. The paint was hardly dry in the upstairs meeting room - newly decorated, spacious and light - it was ideal venue to re-launch the group, especially having a bar downstairs. Also, it was completely free, as the pub made no charge for any non profit making gay group. It was also decided to get away from the onus of weekly meetings. One meeting at the Clockhouse would take place each month (with a major emphasis of having a visiting speaker) and this would be supplemented by a varied programme of events, such as days out, theatre and cinema visits, meals out and events in members’ homes and also badminton and tennis matches. (It was originally envisaged that members would develop informal networks for those with common interests, who could arrange meetings and events among themselves. However this did not develop and all activities were centrally organised by the committee.)
Communication with members would also be streamlined. Instead of the time-consuming production of a booklet every two months containing events, articles and photos, the group decided to keep it simple - a double sided bulletin containing the programme for the month with a few brief items of extra news or information. On the other hand more effort was put into publicity by way of leaflets and information placed on community notice boards and sent to local newspapers and the gay press.
The final task in the re-launch of the group was to find a new name. Several options were considered but the one which stood out was South London Gays. It was concise and reflected the catchment area more accurately than “Wimbledon Area” (although SLG has since attracted members from all over London, Surrey, Essex, Kent and beyond!!)
With everything in place, the official launch of South London Gays took place on Wednesday 13 September 1995 at its first monthly meeting at the Clockhouse pub. The speaker at the meeting was Terry Sanderson, who addressed issues covered in his then recently published book Media Watch. He was soon followed in November by Peter Tatchell who opened a discussion on the theme “Equal rights are not enough; assimilation versus emancipation”. At the same time, a social programme quickly developed starting with a coach trip to Eton College, followed by a visit to Bloolips at the Drill Hall Theatre. Cinema visits, pub evenings and events in members’ homes soon followed and a badminton group was also established. Membership steadily grew to a viable number to sustain a lively and attractive group.
Although there have been several changes of venue for the monthly meetings, the basic format for South London Gays has remained the same since around 1994.