Posted by ChrisB  |  April 21, 2022

Walter Ough Copp, a cook and steward, stood in the dock in Auckland's Police Court in 1927. The presiding magistrate wondered what sort of man Copp was, and he sought the view of Senior Sergeant McCarthy: ‘He’s a “queenie”, your Worship, whatever that means’. ‘That’s what I wanted to know’, the magistrate replied, his curiosity satisfied.

The English-born twenty-four-year-old was up on a charge of committing a ‘grossly indecent act’ after he propositioned a young quarry-hand named Meikle on Auckland’s waterfront. Meikle told the court he had been sitting on a seat at the Ferry Buildings the night before when the steward took the spot next to him. Copp opened the conversation with a comment about the weather and added: ‘You are a nice boy, aren’t you?’ Meikle handed over a bottle of whisky and Copp drank from it. Copp suggested a walk to Princes Wharf, the pair moved on and, according to the Auckland Star, Copp tried to kiss Meikle before committing a ‘grossly indecent act’ that the paper did not describe in any further detail. (According to the Police Offences Act, a man who committed a grossly indecent act 'wilfully and obscenely' exposed his penis in public.) Meikle complained to a nearby constable and Copp, a bit drunk, was hauled off to the station; the next day the magistrate handed down a sentence of one month in jail. Police claimed Copp had an ‘unsavoury reputation’ in the city, and they probably kept an eye on the area around the Ferry Building. By the early twentieth century this was a place for men to pick up youths and other men for sex, sometimes in exchange for money.

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Auckland's Queen Street during the late 1920s – the Imperial Hotel is the building with the curved corner.

As police insinuated, this was not the first time Copp wound up on the wrong side of the law. He caused a scene at the Imperial Hotel in Queen Street a year earlier, refusing to leave when the proprietor tried to eject him: ‘Some sort of horse-play was being indulged in, of which Copp was at the centre’. According to the scandal-loving Truth newspaper, Copp became ‘the butt of crude jokes’ at the Imperial, and he fired back at the other patrons: ‘you are very rude fellows. I shall slap you if you do not leave me alone’. There was no let up, so Copp ‘took the offensive by picking up a soda siphon and going for his tormentors’. Truth called him a ‘pale-faced, effeminate-looking individual’ with a ‘maidenly voice and attitude’ that ‘caused a loud titter to run round the court’, but Copp defended himself as he recalled events at the hotel. ‘I think it was cowardly. They were trying to humiliate me, and this is a further attempt to humiliate me’. A fine of £1 compounded the indignity. Copp eyed those assembled in the courtroom with evident disdain before maneouvring his way past the ‘“wough fellows” to the open air’.

In 1928, Walter Copp stood in front of a police photographer. The resulting images appear in the Police Gazette, and written notes record Copp’s height of 5 foot  nine inches, his ‘fresh’ complexion, grey eyes and dark hair. In the photos he looks simultaneously discombobulated and defiant; he wears a neat twill coat and a bow tie, but his hair is tousled. His attire spoke of its time. Smart, urban young men of the 1920s, whom New Zealand’s papers variously called ‘boy flappers’, ‘jazz boys’ and ‘cissy boys’, wore vibrant waistcoats, handkerchiefs and socks, and their ties sported ‘flaming stripes, checks or spots’.

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Walter Copp, photographed in 1928.

A second pair of photos dates from 1932, the year Copp found himself embroiled in a ‘friendly quarrel’ with Charles Blethyn Hulton, a Māori musician three years his junior, in Karangahape Road. Both men stumbled out of a nearby party somewhat the worse for wear and, as they bickered, Copp slipped and fell through a plate glass window. Copp and Hulton appeared in the Police Court, and each was fined £5 for intentionally damaging the shopfront. This time the photographer caught them in their party get-up. Copp’s wavy hair is slicked down in the latest style, and the work of a cosmetic pencil is evident on his eyebrows – but his facial expression is harder and more resolute than in the first photo. Hulton paid close attention to his own eyebrows, and his hair is done up in finger waves. Bette Davis and Josephine Baker, the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Siren of the Tropics, popularised this movie star look.

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Copp after a party, 1932.

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Charles Blethyn Hulton, Copp's frenemy, in 1932.

Queens had a distinct appearance and a sexual repertoire. Court testimonies of the 1930s tell of ‘queeny looking men’, and a witness told police about a queen’s erotic interests: ‘You can either kiss him, jerk him off or fuck him’. We have very few photos of New Zealand’s queens from this period, so Copp and Hulton stand out as notable exceptions who took their place in a wider world of sexuality and style. In her 1938 novel Nor the Years Condemn, Robin Hyde wrote of youths with ‘flaring painted cheeks and limpid eyes hanging about the Ferry Buildings’, a type common in Sydney but ostensibly new to Auckland. Police seized upon queens' makeup as evidence of same-sex activity. In Britain, as historian Matt Houlbrook suggests, cosmetics were cheap and widespread by the 1920s, and the powder puff became a powerful symbol of sexual deviance in the courtrooms and ‘the minds of the reading public’.

In 1936 Copp went to prison for two years and six months, sentenced for indecent assault after he picked up another young Auckland man for sex – and police found a powder puff, rouge, and various other types of makeup among his possessions. The Police Gazette tells us he served his sentence at New Plymouth Jail, the institution to which most men convicted of sex with other males were sent between 1917 and 1952. The prison regime included concerts, cold shower baths, physical culture classes and hard labour in the quarry.

Copp reinvented himself after his release from New Plymouth, telling a judge in 1941 he was a railway labourer working in the small settlement of Otira, on the western side of the Southern Alps. On that occasion he was forced to explain his actions after swearing at Christchurch police during a fracas outside the Shades Hotel in Hereford Street. He still liked to drink and cause a commotion. Later that year, inebriated once again, he kicked in the groin a man named Bacon who found Copp annoying and told him to push off.

It is hard to know whether Walter Copp stopped getting into trouble. By 1943 he had moved to Wellington and worked as a factory hand. His first house at 7 Arthur Street miraculously survives, perched on the side of the inner-city bypass and surrounded by light industrial premises.

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7 Arthur Street in 2022

Electoral rolls show Copp as a labourer, paint filler and cleaner who lived at various addresses in Te Aro and Newtown. He died at the age of 74 in 1977, back in Auckland. His former sparring partner Charles Hulton also lived into old age, having moved to Sydney during the 1940s. Hulton worked in a series of hotels, lived in terrace houses in the inner-city suburbs of Redfern, Surry Hills and Paddington, and died at 78.

Sources

Newspapers: Auckland Star, 25 October 1927; NZ Herald, 22 March 1932; 22 October 1936; NZ Truth, 20 June 1925; 5 August 1926; Sun, 25 October 1927; Press, 7 February 1941; 20 September 1941.

Brickell, C. (2008) Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, ch.2.

Houlbrook, M. (2007) ‘“The Man with the Powder Puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal, 50, 1, p. 147.

Hyde, R. (1995 [1938]) Nor the Years Condemn, p. 178.

Ancestry.com and electoral rolls [with thanks to Rachel Sonius]

New Zealand Police Gazettes

New Zealand Gazette, 1941

Police Offences Act 1927