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Why not catch some proper criminals?

I was sitting in Fitzroy Square recently having a sandwich and playing a memory game. The square, located near to Regents Park has always been the home of some of London’s great and good and I was trying to recall who lived where. Sir Charles Eastlake, first director of the National Gallery, painter James McNeill Whistler, Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, writers George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Wolf lived in the same house, but not at the same time and at number twenty Five lived Bobby Britt.

Sir Charles Eastlake

James McNeill Whistler

Lord Salisbury

Duncan Grant

George Bernard Shaw

Virginia Wolf

Bobby Britt

There’s possibly one name on that list that may not be at all familiar, any guesses? Let me set the scene. It’s 1927, a cold and foggy January evening and the row of gas lamps along the western side of the square are casting a a dull puddle of yellow light onto the pavement below. Had you been living in the western terrace and had found the time to look from the front windows during the day and well into the night, you would possibly have noticed a man standing beside one of the lamps. A man wearing a trilby hat and overcoat, collar turned up against the cold, regularly smoking a cigarette. Possibly at intervals of a couple of hours you may have seen another man approach and the two enter into a brief conversation before swapping places. You might have again glanced over the square as you made your way to bed and seen the same shadowy figure and if you have returned home in the small hours of the following morning you would certainly have passed this lone sentinel. Around one O’clock in the morning the man under the lamp threw down the butt of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel, turning to face the northern end of the square he removed his hat and waved it briefly to and fro as a signal. Thirty seconds later he was joined by about twenty five uniformed and plain clothes police officers.

Bobby Britt was a born and bred Londoner hailing from Camberwell, south of the river. He had been born at the turn of the century and was 26 years old. Bobby was gainfully employed in the West End and was currently appearing in what was probably the hottest show in town at the time. He was part of the chorus in Lady be good! the first Broadway musical written by George and Ira Gershwin which had recently opened at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square and starred the brother and sister team of Fred and Adele Astaire. He had been living in the basement flat of number twenty five for nearly a year.

Adele & Fred Astaire

And it was to the door of number twenty five that the squad of police made their way. The man who had given the signal was Police Sergeant Arthur Spencer and he ushered another man, Superintendent George Collins to the head of the posse and it was he that knocked smartly on the basement door. After a brief pause the door was opened by a woman called Constance Carre who was told by Collins in official tones that there was a warrant to arrest all of the occupants of the flat. Carre responded disappointedly, “But Mr Britt was going to give us a Salome dance!“, she had barely finished the sentence before she was bundled aside and the massed ranks of coppers flat footed it into the confines of the small apartment.

Bobby Britt and friends

Inside the rather ornately decorated flat they found a number of men lounging around on floor cushions. As a later report described, “Mr Britt was wearing a thin black transparent skirt, with gilt trimming round the edge and a red sash tied round his loins. He wore ladys (sic) shoes and was naked from the loins upwards.” a heinous crime I’m sure! The actual indictment on the warrant stated “keeping a disorderly house“

The intrusion into a private residence on the pretext and what the police actually found is taken by todays standards quite unsettling, but this pales into insignificance given the level of manpower and time that the police invested in bringing this poor man into custody. It emerged that the police had been staking out number twenty five for a month or so. Sergeant Spencer and a Police Constable Gavin of “D” division had both spent several nights in December 1926 and nearly a week in January 1927 peering into the basement flat from both the front and rear of the property, noting down the comings and goings and spying on the people who entered the flat.

No. 25 basement window (L)

Spencer noted “At 11.45pm I saw two men, who I saw enter at 11.30pm leave, they were undoubtedly men of the “Nancy type”. They walked cuddling one another to Tottenham Court Road, where they stood waiting for a bus. I stood close to them and saw their faces were powdered and painted and their appearance and manner strongly suggested them to be importuners of men.” Constable Gavin reported, “I saw from a roof into a bedroom in the basement, where two men enter the bedroom, they both undressed and got into bed and the light was put out. I heard them laugh and scream in very effeminate voices.“

During the raid a number of illicit letters were found, written between men; some were love letters, others letters between gay friends, talking about their love lives with friends in America.

Bobby appeared at the Central Criminal Court, on 8 February 1927. The individuals present, including Bobby, were accused of “tippling, whoring, using obscene language, indecently exposing their private naked parts and behaving in a lewd obscene and disorderly and riotous manner.” All the defendants pleaded not guilty. Bobby was charged with “keeping a disorderly house“, and received the most serious sentence of 15 months hard labour, four other men received six months without hard labour, Constance Carre who it transpired actually owned the flat was acquitted.

Bobby was released in 1928 and records show that he sailed to America in 1929.

Bobby went on to dance in many shows on Broadway in New York, working with Cecil Beaton, Frederick Ashton and Noel Coward. He returned to the UK and under the stage name Robert Linden continued his career in the West End. He also danced at the initial BBC television trials at Alexander Palace in 1936 and he performed for the Royal family at Windsor Castle. He surfaces again in the1939 register living in Paddington and is listed as a Dancer. Britt eventually moved to West Sussex and became a proficient painter in his eighties and he died at the age of 100 in the year 2000.

For a significant period of Bobby’s later life, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act would have been in force, which decriminalised private homosexual acts. Hopefully this enabled Bobby to live his life more openly.

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