Paul O’Grady’s historic Lily Savage arrest: Late star was handcuffed in homophobic police raid

Lily Savage

In 1987, the late Paul O’Grady was arrested in full drag, as Lily Savage, while performing at the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

Paul O’Grady died unexpectedly on Tuesday (28 March) aged 67.

Among tributes, many are remembering his legacy as the acid-tongued drag queen Lily Savage, and the famous arrest that became part of London’s LGBTQ+ history.

O’Grady had an eight-year residency at the famous London gay club as the inimitable Lily Savage, his catty drag persona with sky-high boots and towering blonde hair.

He was on stage in full drag the evening of 24 January, 1987, when a troop of 35 policemen raided the venue and carted customers into waiting vans outside. It being the height of the AIDS crisis, they wore rubber gloves to ensure they didn’t touch those they arrested.

This was the club’s second raid that winter, based on the flimsy excuse of “customers being drunk on licensed premises”, though few saw it as anything but an attempt to intimidate the LGBTQ+ community.

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Unfortunately for police it only galvanised the community further and became part of London’s LGBT!+ lore.

O’Grady recalled the raid in 2021, as he commented on a Royal Vauxhall Tavern Instagram post.

“It was 34 years ago when the cops raided the Vauxhall,” he wrote. “I was doing the late show and within seconds the place was heaving with coppers, all wearing rubber gloves. 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,” he continued.

“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.”

Lily Savage with comedian Mark Thomas in Soho, London, 1993. (Martyn Goodacre/Getty)

Lily Savage’s role in the “rubber gloves raid” became legendary, from her quick-thinking wit when the police stormed the stage to her flippant attitude after she was arrested.

When ordered to give a name to the desk sergeant, she told him simply: “Lily Savage”. The officer pressed for a ‘real’ name. “Lily Veronica Mae Savage,” came the reply.

All those arrested were eventually released without charge, but the incident marked a turning point for London’s LGBTQ+ community and the negative press it generated contributed to a slow shift in policing.

The symbolic status of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was eventually recognised in 2015, when the club was made a Grade II listed building – the first ever building in the UK to be listed for its importance to the LGBT+ community.

“I consider the venue to be my very own school of dramatic art,” Paul O’Grady said as he backed the campaign. “With listing I know the community will rally round and ensure it remains an important venue for many decades to come.”