Revisiting the outrageous ‘poppers raid’ that saw police arrest 11 – including Lily Savage

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the left and Lily Savage accepting an award on the right

Author Adam Zmith revisits the shocking time police raided a London gay bar over a box of poppers

On 7 December, 1986, the Sunday Telegraph ran a story that characterised poppers as a “danger drug” that was “as easy to buy as crisps”.

That article pushed many harmful myths about amyl nitrite, or poppers, the substance that had become so popular among queer men. Poppers are, of course, commonly sniffed by queer men to help relax the body in preparation for anal sex, but they’re also used for fun – on nights out, with friends, etc.

By 1986, poppers had become a mainstay within the queer community – and then AIDS came along. Everybody was looking for answers, but nobody had any. It didn’t take long for doctors to notice that many of the young men dying from AIDS had also, at one point or another, sniffed poppers. Just like that, a link was established – and the war on poppers entered an alarming new phase.

In its article, the Sunday Telegraph name checked the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – a popular London gay bar – as one of the sites were poppers were being bought. Crucially, the article ended with the salacious claim, at that stage already debunked, that poppers can make “users more vulnerable to the killer AIDS virus.”

The article may seem harmless in theory – but its effects were wide-reaching, according to a fascinating new book by Adam Zmith. In Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures, Zmith delves into the historic police raids that took place in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in the weeks and months after that article was published.

Police wore rubber gloves when they raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern over their fear of HIV

The first of those raids occurred on 17 December, 1986. That night, seven police officers stormed into the gay bar with a search warrant. They seized poppers from behind the bar and Breda and Pat McConnon, the landlady and landlord, were arrested alongside three of the bar’s staff.

But this was merely an “opening act”, Zmith writes. On 23 January, Paul O’Grady’s drag alter ego Lily Savage was performing on stage when 35 police officers stormed into the bar wearing rubber gloves. Savage famously told the crowd to riot, and she was arrested alongside Pat McConnon, staff members and other revellers. One man later told a BBC documentary that he was arrested for being drunk, despite the fact that he had had just two pints.

Much was made of the fact that police wore rubber gloves while raiding the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. On 2 February, junior minister Douglas Hogg said in response to a parliamentary question that the gloves were worn to protect police from “infection by hepatitis B or AIDS as a result of accidental injury from any drugs paraphernalia”, according to Zmith’s book.

That same day, police stormed an address in Rochester, Kent, and seized what they said was £40,000 worth of poppers and other substances. The operation went ahead despite the fact that poppers were actually not illegal in the UK at that time. Pat McConnon, barman Paul Blackburn and three others associated with that address were charged with conspiracy to administer a noxious substance with intent to injure under Section 24 of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, Zmith writes.

The people associated with the Kent address were dogged by those charges for the next couple of years. In the background, some gay bars stopped selling poppers altogether, apparently terrified of facing repercussions from police. The trial finally kicked off in March 1989 after numerous delays – and the case immediately crumbled.

The judge was “so unimpressed” by the prosecution’s case that he ordered the jury to return a verdict of not guilty, Zmith writes. 

Speaking to PinkNews, Zmith says it’s important to contextualise the Royal Vauxhall Tavern raids and subsequent persecution within a historical framework. The entire fiasco links back to the emergence of HIV and AIDS, which “emboldened” police to take an even more aggressive, heavy-handed approach towards queer people.

“To put it in the historical context, gay men – or men having sex with men – have been the target of police actions in the UK for decades and decades,” Zmith explains. “After the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 the number of arrests made of men having sex with men actually went up, and that was to do with the laws that had not changed, like gross indecency and importuning, and so many men in that period – the ‘60s, ‘70s and ’80s – were having sex in the only way they could, and it was to do it in public toilets or it was to go to bars and hook up.”

In those decades, police relentlessly persecuted those gay men by arresting them, entrapping them, charging them and fining them, Zmith says. In short, they destroyed many queer lives completely.

“So many people died by suicide because of that. So many people have criminal records which last to this day because of that, and so that’s the broader context – that was increasing after ’67. And then of course came HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s when the police had even more reason and sex moralists had even more reason for wanting to clamp down on this sex that people were having, because they saw it associated with disease, illness and death. 

“So I think that many police forces felt more empowered, actually, to enforce those laws around importuning and gross indecency because there was a public health crisis.”

That culture of moralism and fear was compounded by the tabloid obsession with high-profile cases of poppers misuse, Zmith explains.

“These things all smashed together and gave extra concern and created waves of paranoia,” he says. “And I think all of that led into the police walking into the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in December 1986 and taking away the poppers and intimidating everyone and arresting the staff – because it’s on this wave of attention towards people that are just trying to live their lives and make their own free decisions about their own bodies.”

Lily Savage had the best response when police stormed into the gay bar

The infamous police raids on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern have gone down in queer history – but they aren’t always well remembered. One of the people who has worked tirelessly to make sure the raids aren’t forgotten is Lily Savage, the audacious drag queen most people will know by the name Paul O’Grady.

The raids happened during O’Grady’s eight-year residency at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and he has spoken on a number of occasions about what it was like to experience the raids from the inside.

Writing on Instagram in January, O’Grady said: “It was 34 years ago when the cops raided the Vauxhall. I was doing the late show and within seconds the place was heaving with coppers, all wearing rubber globes. I remember saying something like, ‘Well, well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.’

“They made many arrests but we were a stoic lot and it was business as usual the next night. I was in quite a few police raids all over the country at the time. I was beginning to think it was me – in fact the South London Press in an extremely homophobic article called Lily ‘a lascivious act’ which I was very proud of.”

Almost 35 years on, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is still going strong. In 2015, it became a Grade II listed building, making it the first ever building in the UK to be listed for its importance to the LGBT+ community. The raids of the late ’80s, while shocking, only helped to cement the hugely popular gay bar as a site of resistance and empowerment for a community that had faced more than its fair share of persecution.