Britains Queer Trailblazers: Pearl Alcock

Born Pearlina Smith in Kingston, Jamaica, 1934, Pearl would go on to lead many lives, as an artist, a business owner, and an integral part of the Brixton queer community. 

 After a short marriage to a French-Canadian husband in Jamaica, Pearl moved to the UK at 25 years of age to start afresh.  Initially she worked as a maid and in the factories in Leeds, but little by little she saved what she could and by the 1970s, she had £1000 to open a dress shop in Brixton, London.  

For some years that’s all it was, an unassuming bridal dress shop on Railton Road, but by the mid 70’s, she was hiding a secret underneath the shop floor.  

She created an underground haven for the black, queer community of London. In the basement underneath her shop, she opened a shebeen (an unlicensed bar) called Pearl’s.  

It was the only gay bar in Brixton and mostly black, queer patrons from all over London made the pilgrimage to Pearl’s to enjoy themselves. Inside those walls, they were safe from the homophobia and racism that were all too common in other pubs and clubs.  It was a place where they could let their guards down, and revel in their community - flirting, dancing or playing cards without the cloud of cis white judgement hanging over them.  

A proud bisexual herself, Pearl was a crucial part of the Brixton queer community. Her no nonsense attitude was suited to her role as landlady. The drinks were cheap and there was never any fighting - just good music and a laid-back atmosphere. Pearl herself spent the evenings playing records, smoking and laughing with her customers and friends. 

Unfortunately, the good times would not continue forever. The end of the seventies saw growing moral panic around “traditional moral values” and following Thatcher’s election, the police started to clamp down on shebeens. To protect her customers from a police raid and harassment, she stopped selling alcohol and eventuallyclosed her shebeen and opened a cafe. There wasn’t another gay bar in the area for a number of years, and her patrons dispersed to other spots around the city. 

It was around this time she discovered her artistic talent, drawing or painting on any scrap of paper she found including receipt paper from her cafe till.  She made an impressive birthday card for a friend out of some old paper and when she saw how much people liked it, she saw an opportunity. What started with making bookmarks  and selling them for £1 became much more. Soon, friends and members of the community were buying her paintings and paying for supplies so she could continue to follow her passion.  

Pearl Alcock (1934 – 2006) Untitled (procession), undated, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

She continued drawing and painting all her life, sadly only receiving mainstream attention in 2005 when her art was featured in the Tate Britain the year before her death. Her art was colourful, spiritual and inspired by her Carribean culture. Outsider artists are artists who are not classically trained at school or some other institution. Though this was true about Pearl, there was no lack of self-training, as she created a wealth of works over the years.  

Pearl Alcock (1934 – 2006) ‘Celebration of the Night,’ (1987), The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

She will be remembered as someone who didn’t get the artistic credit she deserved in her lifetime, but also as someone who enriched the lives of so many in the queer community in Brixton. 

Got someone you would like to recommend as one of Britains Queer Trailblazers? Let us know in the comments!

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