Community News

Leather, Love and the Sussex Lancers

Alf Le Flohic July 1, 2020

Historian Alf Le Flohic has been using his time in lockdown to video interview people who used to be members of the Sussex Lancers – the Brighton-based gay leather motorbike club, 1980-2001. Here is his feature from the June issue of Gscene.

Once upon a time there were some very naughty boys… Phil Green and Ken Burton were tailors and partners, known to their friends as Aunt Rose and Aunt Esmé. They ran a fashion business at 31 Bond Street in Brighton, called Filk’n Casuals (say that carefully). Some of their clothing was considered rather daring and attracted a certain type of gentleman. Opening in 1960, it was soon considered ‘the most notorious outfitters outside of London’ (British Queer History, Brian Lewis). ‘It was said that if you went to buy a tie they’d measure your inside leg. Rose and Esmé really were very, very naughty’ (Daring Hearts, Brighton Ourstory).

They were initially very successful and their clientele included ‘all sorts of very famous people… people like Bette Davis’ (Nigel Wilkins, Sussex Lancers). Ken developed a discreet sideline creating leather and rubber wear for a more specialist crowd. However, it seems that they were rather flash with their cash and within five years the shop went bust. They moved from a fancy apartment at Albert Mansions, Hove, to Lancing near Ken‘s parents.

In the 1970s, Ken and fellow gay leather enthusiasts were hanging out with straight biker gangs, mixing at seafront bars in Brighton. Meeting like-minded men to dress up in leather and play with each other was difficult, and a Motor Sports Club provided good cover for their activities, so they decided to form their own group: the Sussex Lancers.

In 1980 they began meeting at the 42 Club on King’s Road, a gay club since the 1950s, now the Brighton Rock Shop. It wasn’t quite how we think of clubs these days, as Nigel describes: ‘You used to go up the stairs and there was a hairpin bend… there was an enormous big bolt you could hear drawing back and then you’d walk into the club. It was a long room with a bar down one side, a bay window at the end… it used to go on until 10.30pm’ (Nigel Wilkins, Sussex Lancers).

The Lancers were there for four years before moving to the Villagers, a bar with a basement club at the Kemptown end of St James’ Street, currently the Black Dove. Oh if those basement walls could talk… the passion, the discos, the raffles. Having a city-centre base for almost a decade helped the club thrive and it reached 150 members at its peak. In the late 1980s it was a familiar sight to see groups of leathermen, and guys in uniform and rubber, strolling between bars in what is now ‘the gay village’.

The Lancers were, of course, just one of a network of clubs in the UK, known as the Federation of UK Clubs – FUKC. They were expected to stage events that other clubs could attend, and a long weekend of sauce was organised: Brighton Bound. It included bike rides through the Sussex countryside, intimate ‘games’ on secluded parts of the beach and, of course, private parties.

While officially a non-political organisation, the Lancers rose to the challenge when times got tough. They joined marches in London, for Gay Pride, against Section 28, and supported ‘the Sussex AIDS Helpline and Gay Switchboard who need our time and money’ (Sussex Lancer newsletter, May 1987).

The first person in Brighton to die from AIDS was in 1984. By the end of the 1980s the HIV infection rate in Brighton was 12 times the national average and the highest per capita in Europe (Local turns, Matt Cook). AIDS had a huge impact on the Lancers as committee member Alan Spink remembers: ‘I used to keep lists of people that had died. I stopped when there were 72 names on it.’

In the early days of the AIDS pandemic there were no drug treatments, and unless you were very lucky it was likely to be a death sentence. In 1988, Father Marcus Riggs, the Reverend at St Peter’s Church in Brighton, set up Open Door from his home to provide support and care for those with HIV/AIDS. It was groundbreaking work and much needed, especially when the two local hospitals began turning infected people away. Father Marcus’ boyfriend, Keith, was a Sussex Lancer, and the club did a lot of fundraising for Open Door and Ward Six (HIV ward) in Hove. Whenever someone died, Open Door lit a candle in their window. For most of the early 1990s that candle was alight.

Brighton Pride in 1991 grew out of a response to Section 28 and the Lancers set up their first Pride stall in Preston Park in 1992.

The impact of HIV/AIDS, and the development of a commercial fetish scene, saw Lancer membership dwindle from the mid-1990s, and the club hung up its boots in 2001. Despite their beginnings as a secret boys’ club, the Lancers proved themselves to be socially conscious, and a part of the Brighton queer scene that is now pretty much gone. Gone but not forgotten – bless their little leather socks.

Image credits – Brighton Bound poster from 1988, Alan Spink; Brighton Bound poster from 1990, Anthony and Gregory.