Why we must save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern

It’s the latest in a depressingly long line of historic London venues to face an uncertain future. But it’s not too late for the UK’s oldest LGBT bar, argues campaigner Rob Holley

Royal Vauxhall Tavern is the oldest continually operating LGBTQ community venue in the UK, built around 1860. Photo: RVT Future
Royal Vauxhall Tavern is the oldest continually operating LGBTQ community venue in the UK, built around 1860. Photo: RVT Future

I’ve never heard of it. Why should I care?

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is around 150 years old. It was a haven for the LGBTQ community before decriminalisation, a crucial hub during the AIDS crisis, and is a thriving site of culture and community today. It’s the last vestige of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where modern leisure culture was born. It’s where a police raid provoked Lily Savage to start a riot. And it’s where Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett brought Princess Diana for a night out – dressed as a boy.

It’s also the UK’s oldest LGBTQ pub – arguably busier than it’s ever been, and plays host to a broad family of punters, performers and promotors, all of whom cherish the pub as: a place where we’ve made friends, a business we want to see thrive, and an institution whose future we want to safeguard.

‘A generous haven for all sorts of people at all sorts of times.’ Photo: RVT Future
Aside from the epically important social history and priceless, current community use, there’s the architectural value of the building itself. Vauxhall’s not the prettiest of locations, and with the tide of glass and chrome offices, luxury flats and Pret A Mangers encroaching further and further south, we need to protect the rare splendour of the London that we already have.

One of the best descriptions of the ‘old girl’ that we’ve encountered during the campaign can be attributed to Nigel Coates: “An island of dignity in the whirling indifferent interchange that is Vauxhall, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a poignant reminder of the architectural elegance that characterised much of 19th century London.”.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is beautiful, living history. We want to protect her.

So what on earth has happened?

Rob Holley has run a club night at the RVT for five years. Photo: Twitter
Rob Holley has run a club night at the RVT for five years. Photo: Twitter
In October 2014 the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was sold to an Austrian property development firm. Immovate (based in Vienna) kept on one of the ex-owners (local business man, James Lindsay) as the RVT’s “Chief Executive” who started talking about developing the venue, with vague mumblings about a first floor champagne bar (that hasn’t yet come to fruition) or a change of use. One look at Immovate’s website and you’ll see that they specialise in taking handsome old buildings, and turning them in to lucrative luxury accommodation and hotels.

It was around this time that our campaign group, RVT Future, was formed.

RVT Future is a group of 20 or so local residents, Tavern regulars, club night promoters and performers, who are working to ensure that the Royal Vauxhall Tavern stays where it’s been for the last 150 years: at the heart of the local community. We are within our right to want to know what the new owners have in store for our historic and much loved building.

Some of us on the RVT Future committee are performers and promoters who work at the venue, which has put us in a ridiculously awkward situation.

I should probably point out at this point that I’ve been a punter at the Tavern for over a decade, and for the last five years I’ve been running a pop and performance club night there called Push The Button, which itself has become a community within a community like so many of the other nights hosted at the Tavern.

As is the case for so many people who cherish the venue, it’s been a constant in my life. We’ve made friends, met partners, celebrated milestones, fought together in unison, danced, laughed, cried, kissed, and also got very, very pissed – all at this handsome Victorian public house that has been a generous haven for all sorts of people at all sorts of times.

‘We’ve made friends, met partners, celebrated milestones.’ Photo: RVT Future
I want to to see a busy, healthy business, that continues to serve the community that supports it.We’re working hard to make sure that the Tavern is profitable by successfully ensuring that thousands of people visit our shows and dance at our nights on a monthly basis, and yet we’ve not been told what the owners have in store for the venue that we all love.

Finding out the intentions of Immovate has been impossible, and multiple attempts at generating a meaningful dialogue with Immovate have proved fruitless.

Despite Immovate’s reluctance to talk to RVT Future, they’ve been keen to send out press releases and statements about how they’re engaging with the local community, and yet, funnily enough, literally no one has able to come forward and say that they’ve been approached.

One such statement from Immovate reads: “We teamed up with James to help find a solution to secure the future of the RVT as an LGBTQ icon in Vauxhall. Immovate seek to bring value to the projects we work on and the communities we operate in. We have a track record of dealing with sensitive buildings and giving genuine consideration to the views of local communities.”

Call us cynical, but international property development companies don’t tend to pop over from Vienna because they’re concerned about the rights and welfare of a local community based in a Victorian pub situated on the edge of a grotty gyratory system in South London. Immovate are playing their cards very close the their chest, but we think it’s fair to assume that an international property development company miiiiiight be quite keen to, well… develop the property.

What next?

One of dozens of high profile performers who've played the Tavern: Scottee
One of dozens of high profile performers who’ve played the Tavern: Scottee
Immovate are unwilling (or unable) to divulge their long term intentions, so we have decided to implement our own three step plan for protecting the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

We have already secured an Asset of Community Value status for the building. This grants some level of protection should Immovate decide to change the use of or sell the building. Though as we’ve seen from the Black Cap (whose demise can be read here), it isn’t protective enough.

We have submitted a 30,000 word strong Historic England application to have the building listed based on its architectural merit and importance in social history.

The application has been supported by Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) and performers, authors, producers, local residents, charities, architects, historians and politicians. In the long term, if Immovate are not interested in securing the RVT’s future as an LGBTQ pub and performance space, we would seek community ownership of the venue. We have the means to do this.

So what can I do?

Firstly, and this is SO important: continue drinking there. The best way you can secure the Tavern’s future is to keep going, to keep putting your money behind the bar, and to keep caring about its future.

Secondly (equally as important as drinking): remaining aware of the situation is vital. If the Historic England application is successful it won’t be the end of the battle. Immovate have already made some pretty ominous observations about how a listing would mean that the Tavern would have to shut down immediately – we need to be ready if they follow through on this threat.

We’re running a website with all the latest information about the campaign where you can sign up to our newsletter and find out about the latest goings-ons. And finally, take a look at this:

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The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is open daily, 372 Kennington Lane SE11. Do you care enough to get involved? RVT Future need practical support from volunteers who have database skills, can speak German, have a background in law, or a few hours a week spare to help with admin (hello@rvt.community). Follow Rob on @robagain or RVT Future on @RVTfuture

  • Show Comments

  • Clair Woodward

    Great piece. I wish Immovate would just stop lying.

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