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Duration 49:41

George Ives: queer lives and the family

Cultural historian Matt Cook delves into the diary of George Ives, the early homosexual law reformer, and considers the issue of family, a pertinent and recurrent theme within Ives’ diary.

Transcription

When I was invited to do this talk in February it was no coincidence because it’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender history month and I was asked to talk about work that was based on archival research. So what I’m going to talk about today is a guy called George Ives.

His diary is in Texas, it’s not in The National Archives. It’s at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre in Austin. But it’s an absolutely astonishing document. It’s about three million words long, most of them illegible, and it runs from 1886 to 1950. It’s a more or less daily record of his campaigning life, his home life, his friendships with Oscar Wilde, Laurence Housman and various other luminaries [including] his meeting with Radclyffe Hall, who he disliked.

And so it’s an absolutely astonishing document and more or less everything I say today is based on my work on that diary, and what I’ve done is peppered, fairly liberally, my talk with quotations from the diary.

What Ives also did, which is absolutely fascinating, in another archive – unfortunately not in Texas but at the Beinecke library on the East Coast – is his scrapbook which he kept alongside [his diary]. So there’s about 30 or 40 volumes of scrapbook which he compiled over the same period and this is a scrapbook of newspaper articles, about homosexual prosecutions, about female cross dressing, about cricket, which was one of his obsessions.

And it’s a real shame that these two collections are in different archives because what would be great would be to have [the] two volumes side by side. But what’s very interesting is that the scrap books were only purchased by the Beinecke relatively recently and the Harry Ransom centre turned them down on the basis that they were ephemera. And so what you start to see is how different collections policies can really affect the way that archives are consumed and the ways they can be used.

Now, rather than just describe to you what’s in these diaries, I also want to make an argument which is about family and to marshal George Ives’ material to think about ideas of the relationship and association of gay life, queer life and family.

So in 1917, George Ives, the well heeled early campaigner for homosexual law reform, gave a roll call of his family home, a large suburban villa in Adelaide Road, just north of London’s Primrose Hill. Using his co-residents pet names he wrote ‘Kit has been with me some 35 years, his wife over 20, Wappy, Pug, nine or ten and the Kit girls (that was the Goddards), Kit and his wife’s daughters, all their lives’.

‘That’, he concluded, ‘is my little circle in the world’. These words were written as he was grieving for his half brother, Victor, who died in the Great War. ‘I loved Victor’, he wrote and he had no secrets from him at all. Cecil, his other half brother, died in 1923. He was for Ives, ‘just the child I should like’.

Victor and Cecil came from Ives’ father’s marriage to Amy Pullen in 1880 when George was 13. His own mother never publicly acknowledged her illegitimate son and he was brought up by his paternal grandmother, the honourable Emma Ives, at the family home at Bentworth Hall in Hampshire and the Villa Ives in Nice. This was a fairly well to do family.

He refers to his grandmother throughout his extensive diary, which covers the period from 1886 to 1950, as mother. Elsewhere in that diary he talks of his own urge to father a child and writes too of his feelings of brotherhood for fellow members of the Order of the Chaeronea, the support and pressure group for homosexual men he formed in the early 1890s.

When Ives died in 1950 he was still living in Adelaide Road with Pug who had moved there in 1908. The pub across the road still stored the tankard he used on his visits there. It carried the Ives family crest.

So there is barely a page of Ives’ diary which does not mention family in one form or another and as he ponders his desire to become a father, his birth family, his household and the Order of the Chaeronea we see him negotiating different rhetoric, ideas and experiences of family.

Ives, I want to argue, imaginatively reworked family to meet the contradictory demands of his life and through this reworking he found ways of shaping and asserting his masculinity and his sexual identity, a framework for his campaigning work and a means of finding intimacy and companionship. Though family was the cause of considerable angst for Ives it was something he valued, not in spite of his homosexuality but at least partly because of it.

Ives’ complex and contradictory ideas and lived experiences of family are absolutely central to understanding who he was and how he related to others and yet the pervasive notion of a separation of family from homosexuality has tended to inform historical approaches to queer lives.

By looking at different aspects of Ives’ engagement with family in the first half of the 20th Century I want to question this divorce and so complicate some of the ’50s and post 1950s rhetoric which has been rolled back in our historical imagination and blinkered our view of what could constitute home and family in earlier decades.

This rhetoric of family has given us what the sociologist Jane Stacey describes as a particularly distorted impression of the normality and timelessness of the modern nuclear family system, a system against which we have supposedly only recently reacted. This rhetoric has tended to blind us to the historical complexity of family life and so also to the ways in which queer men have interacted and created families in the past.

I actually put an image up here of a kind of fantasy ’50s nuclear family with this idea that it consisted of two children and the parents and so on. This idea became so consolidated in the 1950s that I think we started imagining that’s how family had always been. What I particularly like about this image is that they’re not gathered around a television but they’re gathered around an outboard motor which I think is peculiarly queer actually.

Yet concepts of home and family are as mutable as those of sexuality and sexual identity. The historian Eileen Cleere, for example, has found that family in the 19th and 20th Centuries had a flexibility in terms of who it might immediately accommodate, even if the parameters of the ideal and the presumed shape of the family unit were relatively narrowly set.

In ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’, Dinah Craik’s 1857 hugely popular novel, which modelled an espoused, domestic, familial and middle class propriety, for example, the conjugal couple Ursula and John watch over their growing family with a third live-in adult, the eponymous heroes’ lifelong invalid friend Phineas. Such an arrangement effectively with three parents for these children was clearly conceptually compatible with developing ideals of middle class home and family for Craik and is emblematic of what Cleere describes as a more broadly based topography of kinship in the past than we tend to assume.

It is these potentialities of family that I want to tease out in relation to Ives in the rest of this talk by looking in turn at Ives’ attitude towards having children, towards his birth family or blood family, towards his household and towards his political comrades, his brothers in arms.

Whilst the modern queer family has become overtly politicised however, Ives rarely saw his creativity in this arena as part of his radicalism. Indeed however unusual his set up it was often sustained to an unthinking adherence to gender and class bound norms and power dynamics. Acknowledging this will I hope help us see the dissonances as well as the resonances between contemporary and past queer family arrangements.

OK, so the first section, making babies. The conjunction of fatherhood, marriage and also a self consciously queer life was certainly imaginable to Ives as he settled in London in the late 1880s. He knew and/or was strongly influenced by a number of men who saw themselves as inverts or homosexuals and yet also married and sometimes had children.

These men wove these parts of their lives together with varying degrees of openness and candour and Ives, generally quick to judge, makes no adverse comment on these arrangements. He was close, for example, to Janet Ashby who not only knew about her husband Charles’ male lovers but was also active in his homophile guild of handicraft in London’s East End and then in Chipping Norton.

The classicist John Addington Symonds famously had the understanding of his wife and daughters in his passionate friendships and relationships with other men. Symonds set up home not only with his wife in England but also in Venice with his lover Angelo Fusato, Fusato’s wife and their two children. Symonds had encouraged Fusato to marry and so do his duty by the children. The couples’ housekeeping role for Symonds gave them a home and an income in a set up which presaged Ives’ domestic arrangements from 1901 back in London.

Symond’s near contemporary Reginald Brett, the second Lord Esher, kept a room for his former boyfriend Charles Williamson in the house he shared with his wife and four children. Brett himself talks to that boyfriend of Eleanor’s understanding and her affection for his various lovers.

Oscar Wilde, most notoriously of all, was married and had two children and also ‘feasted with panthers’ in London’s West End in a much more widely comprehended pattern of upper middle class sexual philandering. Of course, Wilde was considered an unsuitable influence on his children after the trial and the playwright was also seen to have desecrated the sacred space of the family home by taking his lovers there. It’s also clear though by contemporary standards Wilde, like Symonds and Brett, had worked to form close bonds with his children and took his parental role extremely seriously.

Fatherhood and queer desires were not at this point seen to be incompatible by the men themselves or by their intimates. This was as I have suggested all aided by more diffuse understandings of desire and identity. As the historian Sean Brady has argued these men and others, secured not so much their heterosexuality by marrying and having children but rather their masculinity and social status, something rather different. Though they struggled in their different ways with their queer desires and identities they were not necessarily impossible for men especially to accommodate within the domestic sphere.

As the Bloomsbury group subsequently attested there was a conceptual space for those who could afford it to live in squares and love in triangles. Though individuals were certainly hedged in by a whole range of familial expectations and constraints, sexual identity and self definition were not as explicitly part of that restrictive mix as they were later to be.

In terms of working class lives Matt Houlbrook has demonstrated how the supposedly opposing hetero- and homosexual passions were often accommodated comfortably in working class communities and families in the first half of the 20th Century and during the Second World War John Beardsmore in an old history interview recalls many servicemen having affairs with each other and then marrying post war, sometimes becoming godfather to each others’ children. This gave them a particular and specified role which integrated same sex intimacy into the family story these men might tell.

James Goddard who was Ives’ working class lover in the 1890s married, had two children, but also lived with Ives until his death in the 1930s. Several of Ives’ other lovers also became housemates and then married. They appear to have moved with relative ease between these positions, something Ives appears to both expect and, with some sadness, accepts. So Ives actually becomes quite close with a lot of his ex-boyfriends’ wives and families, so they sort of become an extended family in turn.

Though Ives recognised a mutability in desire and indeed had affairs with women himself  he also saw himself clearly as a homosexual and envisaged this marking him out as different from and in some ways better than other men, he was a bit of an elitist.

Family in various permutations nevertheless remained practically and conceptually central to his world. He did not see his life as necessarily or automatically anti-familial despite the limited current of contemporary commentary which suggested just that. Neither conversely did he see normal men as necessarily the fittest parents. On a train from Redhill to London in 1942, for example, Ives encountered a soldier, a sailor, a coarse animal with a wife and four children who opened the carriage door and pissed out of it. Ives wrote: ‘I could not help thinking that whilst this low common creature has had children, Edward Carpenter, the homosexual romantic socialist, has had none.’

Earlier when he notes that young Somerset is engaged to be married he adds that the young man affords one more instance of homosexuals leaving flourishing families. Ives, influenced strongly by eugenic thinking, clearly saw more danger in the reproduction of the coarse working class creature than the middle class or aristocratic homosexual. He also counters the suggestion from sexology that homosexuals could not produce flourishing heterosexuals and he indeed considers having children of his own.

The desire for a child was for Ives intimately related to his urge to continue the family name and to pass on something of himself to the next generation. ‘The joy of passing on my personality’ he wrote in 1935, ‘of course, one would love it’. This was not only idle conjecture in old age. In 1920 he described how he had often considered having children and had ‘even talked the matter over with a certain girl who attracted me physically, not the romantic love, no girl can win that from me’. She said she wanted a baby but only under married conditions. I said that ‘with marriage as it is now, I would get married on no condition and in any possible circumstances’, so there was nothing doing.

Later he described his concerns that he may have conceived a child with someone and we get a clearer sense of why he thought it would have been a bad idea, not so much because of his homosexuality, that he didn’t see as a specific bar, but because of the state of the world in general, his own financial situation and his refusal to enter into a domestic arrangement with mother and child.

‘I might have had a child by X’, he wrote in 1936.

(He uses this really infuriating code so you never know who he’s talking about.)

‘I might have had a child by X’, he wrote in 1936, ‘which we have always guarded strictly against, but then I could simply have not retained my home and have done my duty towards the kid and its mother. Apart from X I have never risked begetting any unfortunate creature into this sorrowful world’.

In 1928 during his affair with this woman he observes he is well used to sleeping on volcanoes but that in heterosexual affairs ‘I see more than ever the whole problem is economic and a most difficult one’. It nevertheless plays on his mind as something he half wants to do. ‘Oh the vanity of wishing to breed, I cannot afford to attempt it, it would be absolute ruin and bourgeois in present and probable circumstances’. He’s very humourless in this style, he’s quite po-faced, somewhat pompous sometimes but you kind of fall for Ives as you read through it.

Though Ives ultimately decides against having a child, he does at least consider and seriously consider having a child without marrying. Aside from the potential arrangement with his friend he is also interested in news from Australia in 1945 of a woman who advocates that childless spinsters should be allowed to have children by insemination. ‘The method’, he wrote, ‘opens new possibilities, one of which is that children may be produced like fish without personal involvement on the part of the parents’. (I’m not sure quite what the fish have got to do with it.)

Though Ives follows a line against marriage rehearsed in radical late 19th and early 20th Century journals like The Freewoman and The Adult, this does not preclude parenthood for him. Having children deliberately beyond the conjugal couple was something Ives could imagine and consider a deliberate version perhaps of his own accidental conception outside marriage.

Ives then does not measure his fitness for fatherhood in the light of his queer desires, but rather considers it in terms of his ability to financially sustain any parenting arrangement and also his radical objection to bourgeois marriage. In the way he describes potentially being a father meanwhile we see ideas which resonate with those of his own father.

He imagines being removed emotionally and physically during the child’s early years but doing the honourable thing financially. In this he keys into a late Victorian and Edwardian middle class tradition of brittle masculinity and distant fathering.

His thoughts also reflect the new significance accorded to mothers during this period, which the historian Lynn Jamieson suggests had the effect of marginalising men in parenting. In this respect it is perhaps not surprising that Ives does not seem to register that there is much less at stake for him than his female friend in having an illegitimate child in the 1920’s. It is the state of his finances and, given his interest in eugenics, the quality of his sperm that worries him more than the practicalities of hands on child rearing.

Having a child would confirm Ives’ class and masculine status as well as his commitment to the Ives family line. What is noticeable in all his pontificating though, is that the sexuality question, which so obsesses current commentary on fit parenting, is markedly absent.

While historians Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff convincingly describe the rise in the 18th and 19th Centuries of the middle class domestic family unit headed by the male breadwinner and the conjugal couple at its core, they also show that the boundaries of such families were porous and extended outward.

The tight parent-child unity was a marker of civilised society, respectability and stability for the Victorians, but as we saw with the fictional Halifax family in Mrs Crake’s novel that did not preclude additional members like Phineas. The law extended ties and responsibilities beyond the nuclear unit, to grandparents, for example under the Poor Law. And social and cultural changes, the development of the transport infrastructure and postal services, for example, nurtured extended family relationships and encouraged horizontal bonds to develop between siblings and between cousins as surely as the hierarchical affiliations between parent and child.

Early death also meant that the conjugal couple might be an ideal but was often not a reality. In the United States in 1900, one in four children under the age of fifteen had lost one parent one in sixty two had lost both. The picture was surely not so different in Britain and may indeed have looked worse after the Great War.

In the reckoning of many children in both the 19th and 20th Centuries, historian Carolyn Steedman writes ‘Their households were often those of a single female parent, sometimes because of the passivity of the fathers’ presence, sometimes because of his physical absence’. In other words lone parenting was as common in the 19th Century at it is today if for slightly different reasons. So we have this ideal of the Victorian family but the reality was often very different.

In Ives’ case it was not death but illegitimacy that skewed his relationship with his birth parents and they seem never to have considered forming together the core of a traditional household. This added to his senses of difference and isolation for sure but in being without two co-habiting parents his situation was not so very different from many of his contemporaries. What is interesting though is the investment Ives had in his birth family and in sustaining and shaping his familial bonds.

Ives was cared for initially by a nurse in Croydon, South London, but was brought up from around the age of five by his paternal grandmother. [Image shows him] Writing poignantly of ‘how she loved me more than anyone else ever has’.

Ives met his birth mother twice, once as a child and once in 1933 after years of trying to trace her and a period when they exchanged their work with each other. She was aloof and mysterious in correspondence, clearly anxious that her youthful indiscretion might be exposed and yet at some level yearning for some form of relationship with her only child. Ives is often mystified but sanguine and respectful about her decision and conduct.

He knew his father much better. Although there is a distance between them, which though Ives regrets, seemed also to accept on its own terms, perhaps partly because this sort of undemonstrative fatherhood was very typical.

He was though very close to his half-siblings and also formed a close bond with his fathers’ second wife, Millicent, puzzling with her over how to respond to his mothers strange letters, for example. Millicent thought him mad at first and a dangerous influence. He was the time they met already closely involved in homosexual law reform. But Ives wrote that he won her over to be an affectionate friend.

Ives never really lived with any of these people apart from his grandmother, but what becomes clear in his diary is the way he worked hard to form relationships with them and relationships that endured

The circumstances of his birth meant none of them were obvious or automatic relationships. They each required definition and redefinition, his grandmother becoming his mother, his half-brother imagined as a son and so on. In working out this family he gained a sense of belonging which he sought possibly partly because of the sense of isolation that came with his illegitimacy and his homosexuality.

Because it was he who worked on these relationships he was also able to dictate the terms. He refused to hide his homosexuality, for example, and although Colonel Ives is not at all happy when he finds his son in bed with Goddard at The Albany in Piccadilly, there was little he could do. He exercised little authority over his eldest son.

Ives coupled a strong sense of biological kinship with a careful negotiation of the individual relationships themselves. His sense of loyalty related partly to his pride in the Ives family name and also to his deep affection for the individuals involved. His illegitimacy, birth position as the much older brother and his homosexuality nevertheless each modulated the ways in which he inter-reacted with and valued his family.

His physical separation from the conjugal unit formed by Colonel and Mrs Ives gave him a sense of alienation but also a certain latitude in defining the terms of his family relationships, more for example than his half siblings had. What this fostered for Ives was a sense of independence which he cherished partly because he considered his mission to be challenging sexual taboos and jaded norms and conventions. Standing at one removed from his family, however close he was to them, permitted an analytical distance and a lifestyle which, he implied, was indeed often at odds with conventions of domestic and family life.

This distance became especially clear when Ives moved from his grandmothers London home near Regents Park into bachelor chambers at Albany in Piccadilly in order that he could taste independence and, in his own words in an aesthetic manner, get a glimpse now and then of the beauty still in life.

It was a normal part of Victorian respectability for upper middle class men to have had rooms and habits of life that were separate from and not to be questioned by his household and family. For those with the class status and the money this allowed access to a homo-social world and a queerer culture. It might in these terms have been have been part of what John Tosh has described as a flight from domesticity, which by the 1880s and 1890s was for some more of a straitjacket than a comfort and reassurance.

The homo-social institutions and living arrangements around Piccadilly potentially gave Ives not merely a refuge from domesticity but also an alternative emotional resource with the other men that lived there. By the time he and Goddard, his lover, moved again this time to Adelaide Road in Primrose Hill in 1901, the latter had married and had two daughters, all of whom also lived in the new household. If a West End bachelor’s chambers had served Ives in his twenties, thereafter he seeks in some ways a more conventional upper middle class domesticity.

So whilst the Goddards keep house for Ives and in this sense fitted into a relatively familiar though rapidly diminishing tradition of live in domestic service, they along with a number of largely working class men who also came to live in the house are seen by Ives to be part of his family, a family connected by co-residence rather than by blood ties.

Mr and Mrs Goddard remain with Ives until their deaths in the 1930s. Their daughters remain until the 1940s when they leave to open a shop using money Ives had settled on their father. They nevertheless continued to visit Ives at Adelaide Road regularly and when one of them, Theresa, comes to visit in 1944 she is described by Ives as the youngest of my adopted family and she is 47. This is another kind of arena of family. Apart from the blood ties here we’ve got a kind of family based on household.

Whilst Ives’ friend the romantic socialist Edward Carpenter was framing his actual idealised living arrangements in his politics Ives rarely described his living arrangements in these terms. He preferred the by now familiar language of domestic sentiment which had developed over the 19th Century and which tended to place the male provider top and centre.

The Registrar General had announced in his introduction to the census that the Englishman’s home throws a sharp well defined circle around his family and hearth, the shrine of his sorrows, joys and meditations. At Adelaide Road Ives actively engaged with this role of paterfamilias and embraced the sentimentalised centrality of this figure.

He refers to his flatmates affectionately but patronisingly with infantilising nicknames, Cubby, Pug, Kit, Elephant. Theresa is Chookie and also very frequently he refers to them as his children. He meanwhile is their Old Bird and they tease him to his face for being a stingy old bugger. ‘My children all laugh at me’, he complains, ‘but they have not the responsibility of running a house with six or eight people in it, all to be milked for’.

Ives was founder of and provider for this home and family and yet was also its attentive mother figure, fretting over his children’s welfare, late nights, arguments, lack of consideration and happiness. ‘Have my boys been a success to themselves I wonder’ he mused in 1921. ‘They have never done much, they are much liked and they are really loveable souls.’

When Pug and Harry get work for a while away from London he wishes his sons might return to find work nearer home whilst a late night for Pug left Ives feeling pretty sure he had arranged to stay with a girl. He observed that a wise parent does not ask too many questions even though usually we have no secrets between us. Ives is always happiest when the whole family are present at home

Ives keenly observed any attachment between his household family and his blood family. Each perhaps became more substantial and real to him if they were affirmed by the other, thus when Cecil dies (this is Ives’ half brother) Ives watches the reaction of his co-residents very carefully. Pugs’ face, he says, clouded over with visible melancholy. This is a great loss to the family.

He had nicknames for his blood siblings similar to those for his housemates. Victor, for example, is Sheep and there is a sense that together they form his brood. He has, he says at one point, so may children. His sense of responsibility extended also to the blood families of his co-residents. He visited Pug’s mother during the Great War to share news for example and calls on Goddard’s mother near The Bentworth Estate. He carefully weaves and maintains an effective web between these different people and groups of people, crossing and re-crossing class and conventional family boundaries as he does so.

Though Ives’ relationship with the other men at Adelaide Road probably started sexually they appear quickly to have become platonic even though he continued to sleep with one or other of them. When Pug and Harry are both away he wrote in his diary: ‘I feel sad, I love those two deeply, tenderly. Love’s quite different from passion. To sleep side by side with one’s comrade is beyond all words, beautiful. Not exciting but such a protection and sympathy, of healing to the hearts many wounds.’

When Harry failed to return home to join him in bed on another evening Ives couldn’t sleep. The men that shifted from lovers to sons and in bed to comrades. Ives didn’t seem to have any expectation that his sons or comrades wouldn’t marry and he did not cement and think about his acknowledged love for these men in terms of sex and couple-dom. He rather negotiated and experienced that intimacy by taking on a role that they, Ives and the rest of the household, considered to be maternal. He was, remember, their Old Bird and mother hen.

The historian Michael Roper has observed the language of care and mothering in letters between men on the Western Front in The Great War. He shows how this language was used as a way of describing and understanding intimacies between men which might otherwise be unpalatable or suspect. Such language between men in the domestic setting could serve a similar function and alerts us to less rigid gender divisions at this time than have often been assumed These have rarely been as clear cut as was suggested in contemporary literature, journalism and other writing, or indeed in more inflexible historical analyses of patriarchy.

As Ives was mothering his family at Adelaide Road, for example, Toynbee Hall in the East End was running classes in household and caring skills, specifically aimed at working class men. From 1919 meanwhile the ‘father craft’ movement began to encourage men to be more actively involved in caring for their children. By caring for his children Ives took on a similar role to the one of his widowed grandmother had in his childhood, whilst also maintaining elements of the paterfamilias. The latter role was essential to a man’s good standing and crucially helped him to preserve a particular version of middle class masculinity.

There was a conjugal heterosexual couple in the Adelaide Road household, the Goddards, who might theoretically have displaced Ives in these maternal or paternal roles, they could have been the kind of central couple. But Ives’ class and money prevent this and these factors stood before sex and desire in the make-up of the household allowing for this particular hierarchy to be established and sustained.

The household set up was not, of course, cemented by any immediately comprehensible blood ties and as a result the various relationships could have been understood in a number of ways. We have no substantive sense of how the others in the household conceived of what Ives saw as his family and the bonds were possibly conceptualised much more loosely by the others. It seems certain, for example, that if he saw the various working class men as his sons, they did not see each other as each others’ brothers.

The Goddards were clearly very attached to Ives but did they see themselves more as staff than family or more family than staff? In this uncertainty co-residence is markedly different from kin.

Michael Gilding observes that the inclusion of servants in definitions of the family was based upon the overlap of co-residence and dependence on the head of household. However blurred the servant/master dynamic in the Albany and then in Adelaide Road, and Ives never refers to the Goddards in this way, this dynamic is surely present. It was far easier for an employer to make these inclusive gestures than it was for those who didn’t have either the cash or the class standing.

From the outside it’s likely that the presence of Mrs Goddard and her daughters allowed the Adelaide Road house to appear relatively conformist, embodying a particular organisation of gendered and class service. It is only after Mrs Goddard dies and her daughters leave that we can find comments about the eccentricity and queerness of the household. With no woman ‘to do’ Ives employed a cleaner. ‘Ives’ she said ‘was very nice, very quiet, always sticking things into his black and gold books’ (this is his scrapbooks). ‘He was queer and lived with two men. I think he kept them both.’

Asked about his eccentricity this cleaner observed that he had a passion for melons. He kept them everywhere. The whole house used to stink of melons. Here was a homosexual and two kept men languishing in a house of rotting fruit. The respectable household had become decidedly queer without the presence of a woman.

There was less romantic socialist idealism and more pragmatism and conformity in the ways in which Ives constituted his adopted family. He wanted domestic intimacy and he secured it through his independent means and deep seated loyalty to the people he lived with.

Shortly after Pug returned from the trenches he wrote that ‘nothing is more contemptible in a diary than to chronicle one’s dealings with the great and to leave out all one’s intimacies with people who constituted one’s life’. These were not blood ties but he worked hard to sustain them as he did with his biological kin. In this he might be said to be doing family very self consciously and in ways which allowed him to be open about his desires and sexual behaviour.

The set up nevertheless neatly adhered to convention in many ways and though impressed by the romantic socialists Carpenter and Ashby he does not explicitly link his homosexual politics into his domestic arrangements. He instead carried over vertical relations mirroring in his home what he experienced in his birth family as a much older brother, Cecil, his half brother was the son he had never had remember, so he carried these over into the way he structured his household in Adelaide Road.

Ives’ political commitment to the cause was for him beyond the home, in a more conservative and by this time relatively conventional separation of male politics and an elite male politics, from the household.

If Ives’ adopted family was separated from his politics however, his politics was certainly not separated from the rhetoric of family. Whilst it was vertical structures of sentiment and intimacy that wove through his household and birth family, it was brotherhood and the horizontal that he embedded in the Order of the Chaeronea in his relations with his fellow middle and upper middle class champions of the cause.

In this he followed an established radical tradition of fraternity identifiable in French revolutionary rhetoric and the British Labour movement. Here though it was a more immediate and intimate idea of political fraternity, associated with the romantic socialism of Walt Whitman and Carpenter. Though Ives was at the centre of the Order in terms of its foundation he also specifically structured it non-hierarchically, without Presidents. Vice presidents, committees and sub committees.

The ritual for joining the Order emphasised mutual responsibility, duty, loyalty and endurance. Such rhetoric is familiar in other modes of political organising but by being ritualised along almost Masonic lines Ives inculcated a sense of un-conditionality and permanence, which also brushed closely against notions of family. It helped to suggest less a voluntary allegiance but rather a pre existing bond of sexuality, a homosexual elite which Ives saw the ritual acknowledging rather than creating. It was, moreover an elite family with a heroic lineage stretching back to the Theban Bands, whose battle at Chaeronea in 338BC Ives commemorated in the name he selected for it. It was a family with historical depth and one which commanded his allegiance as surely as his other families, his household, his birth family and so on.

When he is debating having a child he observed the clash, not just with his own domestic set up but with his broader goals and politics. ‘I have my mission to think of’, he wrote somewhat grandly. ‘One must not grudge the burdens of one’s embassy. Have I not my own people?’

Here Ives envisaged a form of family bond, apart from the biological and the domestic, one cemented specifically by sexual difference and an associated politics. He nevertheless conceived of the Order in ways which strike a chord with the traditional demand that a family community is committed to its history and honour, though the Orders ritual stresses the importance of individual self expression, the bond between the men was meant to be inviolable. Ives was scathing in his diary of those who did not take the commitment seriously.

Though Ives once or twice wishes his housemates lived more according to the credo of the cause the differences in class, gender, wealth and age made this kind of horizontal fraternity difficult for him in the domestic setting. It’s much easier with peers who, like him, had passed through Oxbridge and shared Hellenic Ancient Greek reference points in thinking about their sexual identity. Given that it was only an elite milieu which was conceiving such an exclusive identity at this point it’s hardly surprising that this is the only context in which Ives explicitly connects family rhetoric with homosexuality and homophile intimacy.

Ultimately though, the two spheres, the domestic and the political, are linked by their gender power dynamics and the virtual exclusion of women. The fraternity he envisaged for the Order of the Chaeronea was for brothers, not brothers and sisters, and in his household Mrs Goddard and her two daughters have a particular and marginalised place in the home and his affections.

Ives is unselfconscious about such power dynamics. His politics were, as his friend Lawrence Housman observed, not expansive or imaginative enough to make connections between issues and spheres, to connect gender politics with class politics with homosexual politics for example.

Immersing himself in the potent ethics and language of family and domesticity however gave Ives tools for constituting and sustaining bonds he yearned for, without placing himself controversially in the spotlight. This immersion in family arguably curtailed radical potential, preventing Ives from thinking outside the structures that had become so symbolically and practically central to British moral and sexual governance. That said there were also real benefits for Ives in drawing on family and domestic convention.

The forms of family and domesticity I’ve discussed clearly shaped Ives’ lived experience of his desires. Conversely these desires and the identity he related to them modulated the ways he created and ‘did’ family.

But in the main the interaction goes unexplored and is not overtly politicised by Ives in his diary. It was not to him radical, ideal or inventive but rather a pragmatic muddling through with conceptual and material resources that were available to him.

Self consciously claiming a homosexual identity did not preclude a fulsome engagement with family life and rhetoric, pre-1950, pre Gay Liberation Front and pre Clause 28. Suggesting this is not to reductively start spotting radical families of choice in the past and claiming a direct lineage to the present. Aside from all else the notion of choice functions very differently at different historical moments. Instead I’ve tried to suggest some of the complicated ways in which family and homosexuality intersected in the first half of the 20th Century.

These earlier queer uses of family were often neither radical nor even self conscious. Ives does not explicitly connect his uses of family to his politics in the way the Gay Liberation Front and Stop the Clause activists were later to do (this is a group of squatters in Brixton who talked about themselves as family in the 70’s and very much associated that with an explicit politics). And indeed the fact that Ives does not make this connection suggests the potency of domineering notions of family and domesticity during this earlier period.

Always a political tool in terms of defining and determining national identity and cultural health, for example, it is only more recently that we have seen what Weston marks out as the overt politicisation of kinship. This latter process has enabled many gay men and women to more self consciously constitute family on their own terms, questioning for example the post war presumption that homosexuality and parenthood were incompatible.

Pre 1950s, Ives is less self aware and however apparently different his notions and lived experiences of family, they were also, as we have seen, in many ways deeply conformist.

What is also clear though is that family including the prospect of parenthood had a central significance to Ives and is not incidental to an examination of his homosexuality. Family in its multiple forms is part of Ives’ access to the social and gives him a degree of personal power as well as a feeling of self worth.

All this is not to suggest that there was a straightforward or automatic intersection of queer lives and family before the 1950s. Tensions, anxieties and complexities were certainly present and there was also a sense that queer men like Ives had to negotiate familial roles and responsibilities in rather different ways than some of their normal, in inverted commas, contemporaries.

What becomes clear though is that the rhetoric and experience of family in its many different guises were crucial for him in finding and conceptualising intimacy, love, commitment and responsibility.

2 comments

  1. […] Picture of George Ives, the organizer of the first supportive group for homosexual men in the UK [digital image]. Retrieved on 26 November 2015 from http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/george-ives-queer-lives-and-the-family/ […]

  2. […] Jack Worthing’s address in town is B.4., The Albany, which was also the real-life address of the George Ives, with whom Lord Alfred had spent the night. George Ives was what we would now call a “gay rights […]

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