[00:00:08] Talks from The National Archives. This talk, presented by Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, is called Hidden Love: LGBTQ+ Lives in the Archives. It was recorded on Thursday, the 20th of February 2020 at The National Archives, Kew.
Jenny Orme [00:00:36] Good evening, everyone. Welcome to The National Archives. Thank you so much for joining us here this evening. My name is Jenny Orme. I’m Head of our Collections department here at the Archives. And it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce the event this evening. This event is part of the With Love Season. For those of you who are less familiar with us, The National Archives is the archive of UK government covering England and Wales. We’re home to some of the most significant documents in the nation’s history, from the Domesday Book to Shakespeare’s Will to tweets from 10 Downing Street. However, tonight we will be hearing about some of our documents that have traditionally been less well known but are vitally important. Our speaker tonight is Vicky Iglikowski-Broad. She’s our National Archives principle specialist in diverse histories. Vicky is truly blazing a trail through her work to ensure that history such as these are surfaced from the archives, learnt from and remembered. She will be offering an insight into our LGBTQ collections and discussing how the government interacted with and viewed these communities through our records relating to queer history. And without further ado, I’ll hand over to Vicky.
Vicky Iglikowski-Broad [00:02:03] Hello and welcome, everyone. It’s lovely to have you all here. So today I’m going to be talking about ‘Hidden Love? LGBTQ lives in the Archives’.
[00:02:13] So The National Archives, as Jenny essentially said, is not maybe the first place that you would think of when you think of LGBTQ history. However, our records give a valuable insight into how the government interacted with and viewed LGBT communities in the past. And state, as I’m sure you’re probably aware, has had a complex and largely negative over the thousand years of our collections relationship with sexuality and gender identity. But paradoxically, this has left us with amazing records, really incredible records that give an insight that we don’t really get from other places into the lives of LGBTQ people in the past. So today, I’m going to focus a little bit on the negative history, but hopefully also highlight some of the surprising stories of defiance, acceptance and day to day normality for LGBTQ people in the past.
[00:03:07] Today, I’m going to take you through a kind of journey of some records that we have. This is really just the tip of the iceberg because there are so many potential records that we could look at. So hopefully you’ll see through this that we focus in our collections … we have a range of material on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer histories.
[00:03:26] So first, I’m going to start with some context, which is particularly important for this kind of history. We’re going to look at the language and why we have records here relating to these kind of histories. And then I’m going to take you through six principal case studies, which will hopefully just highlight some of the kind of stories we have.
[00:03:45] So firstly, for some context, we start with one of my favourite quotes in our collections, and it might be one you’ve come across – various academics have written about it:.
[00:03:55] ‘I’ve only been queer since I came to London. Before then I knew nothing about it.’
[00:03:59] This quote is written by Cyril in a letter from 1934. So there’s a couple of reasons I want to mention this. The first is language. And the second is why we hold what we hold here. So descriptive terms relating to sexuality and gender identity have changed over time, and indeed they’re changing all the time. It’s a very kind of fluid language. For example, the term ‘homosexuality’ was not used within its contemporary meaning until the end of the 19th century, and many terms used in historical records are now considered offensive today. And ‘queer’ is a brilliant example of a word that has been reclaimed but is also very contentious.
[00:04:37] And so our records generally use the language from the time in a catalogue with that language. So I’m going to try and keep to that and refer to the language of the time or the legal criminal offence in some instances. And there’s several reasons for that. Our current terms generally didn’t exist in the past. So it seems wrong to historically impose those terms on people that would never have been able to choose to use them. And that includes terms like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘straight’ as well, like we shouldn’t necessarily put those on the past. Historical terms also are important to researching these histories. Particularly negative terms tell us a lot about the barriers faced by LGBTQ people in the past. And that’s an important part of the history that we don’t want to wash over.
[00:05:20] Most importantly, in the vast majority of cases, we don’t know how someone would identify in their own language and own terms. What pronouns they might use. So, Cyril here is a brilliant example of someone saying in his own words, ‘I call myself queer’, and that it’s very, very rare in our records.
[00:05:38] The second part of this letter goes on to say:
[00:05:42] ‘I am married and have a little girl two years of age and I still like girls occasionally. There were very few boys with whom I went to have an affair with.’
[00:05:50] So Cyril is also saying that he’s attracted to more than one gender. Open declarations of bisexuality are also very, very rare. We often get such a small snapshot into someone’s life, particularly through criminal records. We don’t know if they have relationships with women as well, for example. So again, this is very unique. So bisexuality is often very hidden in our records.
[00:06:11] So essentially in this talk I’ll use ‘LGBTQ’ as an umbrella term, especially when I’m talking across time periods, but where possible, I’ll use the specific language at the time, particularly where we know people use that language themselves.
[00:06:24] So secondly, why to use Cyril’s quotes here. Well, these quotes come from an amazing letter that we have between Cyril and William Reynolds, Billy here. And this letter is maybe not the kind of thing that you would associate with a government archive. It’s a personal letter between two men from 1934. So we have this record because it was found in association with a raid on the Caravan Club. And the Caravan Club was a queer club that allowed men to have relationships with other men in relative safety. So we have this amazing letter because it was seized in a police context. And I think this example is a really good way of showing the amazing things that we have in our records that you wouldn’t associate with a government archive.
[00:07:09] So, as Jenny mentioned, we have 11 million records, a thousand years of history here. And there are many, many ways that the state intersects with LGBTQ lives over that period. So often it’s through policing, which leads us to these amazing kinds of records. Sometimes it’s through censorship. But more recent times, it might be through more progressive legislation, positive action in the civil service, key campaigning organisations writing into government. There’s all sorts of reasons that history, this kind of history, is held here that you wouldn’t normally think of.
[00:07:44] So hopefully I’m going to illustrate to you that despite being a national archive, we hold many personal stories and individual items.
[00:07:52] OK, so final bit of context before we go into some of the examples I’ve got. Criminalisation. Ultimately, the context of a lot of the records we hold here is pretty negative. So while it was never illegal to be gay per se, many of the associated practises were criminalised. In the eyes of the law meeting other men could be deemed as soliciting and running a club could be seen as running a brothel, such as with the case of the Caravan Club. In just going about their daily lives in the past, men could be arrested, prosecuted, imprisoned. This criminalisation actually means we have huge amounts of records around gay men’s relationships, but traditionally less around lesbian relationships or trans relationships or trans individuals.
[00:08:37] So what about the rest of the LGBT spectrum? So here we have a brief timeline. I think what’s surprising here is 1921. So while it was never illegal for women to have relationships with other women, it wasn’t socially acceptable. So in 1921, there’s a discussion that we have in our cabinet papers, picked up in our cabinet papers, that talks about an amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment bill, which would make a proposed new offence between women. So gross indecency between women. So this was discussed. But I think what’s interesting is the reason that this didn’t happen, which was essentially a backlash. So they felt there was, there was a fear of criminalising same sex relationships between women because it thought it would lead to greater visibility of lesbians and therefore encourage more lesbians to exist.
[00:09:34] So they didn’t they didn’t criminalise it, which is a great thing. But the reasons were not necessarily the most positive. But it is interesting to note that it is discussed in parliament. Equally it’s never been illegal to be transgender, but the law has made it very difficult at various points. So just on this very, very brief timeline in 2004, you have the Gender Recognition Act. But before that, it was even more difficult to kind of legally change your agenda.
[00:10:03] However, despite this and despite the bias in our collections towards male relationships with other men, what I’m going to try and show you today is there are amazing items relating to lesbians and individuals we might now consider to be trans. And I’d say, if anything, bisexuality is the thing that kind of remains the most hidden, in some ways.
[00:10:23] So I am going to start our examples. So here we have Chevalier d’Eon. He was born in 1782. So this is one of the earliest known examples in our collections of Gender Non-Conformity. D’Eon you might have heard of; he was a French diplomat, spy and soldier who fought in the Seven Year War in the 18th century. Due to their diplomatic interactions with government, there are multiple items in our collection relating to d’Eon. After their role in the Seven Year War they published scandalous secret correspondence that revealed French ministerial corruption. To silence d’Eon Louis XVI offered them an official pension, but on a very unusual condition: that they should henceforth dress as a woman. So we have this wonderful portrait that is from the National Portrait Gallery. Sadly, not in our collections. But you’ve got an illustration there from 1792.
[00:11:21] And before this moment and this unusual demand from the king, there were already rumours about d’Eon’s gender, and apparently they played up to this. They seem to be quite a character. I think as illustrated there. In 1777 our state papers note that they are to be introduced to the king in women’s clothes. So our records actually tell quite a lot about the story.
[00:11:51] D’Eon lived in London from 1762 to 1777, seemingly as a man. And from 1786 to 1810 as a woman. In 1794, we have their calling card. So you can see that on the right there. And the name is signed, Mademoiselle d’Eon. And that’s while they were living at 38 Brewer Street in London’s Soho. The gender d’Eon identified with has long been debated. Were they forced to live as a woman, or was it choice?
[00:12:18] So it’s a really interesting, interesting issue, but definitely one that reveals a lot about gender identity in a period we don’t necessarily associate with. In the later years of d’Eon’s life, they caused a spectacle, as a very successful fencer dressed in women’s clothing. What is interesting is that we have these records not because of the gender identity or the policing of it, but because of d’Eon’s role working as a diplomat. So it kind of just naturally intersects with our records. And so these are Foreign Office and state paper records.
[00:12:53] So my next example is about Anne Lister. So hopefully you’ll have heard of Anne Lister.
[00:13:00] Our next jaunt is to 18th century Halifax. Anne Lister was a prominent landowner and diarist who has been termed the first modern lesbian. She often wore masculine clothes. She proactively ran her own estate. She was a kind of very independent woman in an era that didn’t necessarily encourage that. She’s been particularly well known for her prominent relationships with numerous women in Halifax. And I think this is interesting because it sheds a light on Lister, but also on the circle of women around her who were also having relationships with other women.
[00:13:34] Lister left an estimated five million words documenting her life over many decades in her diaries. So these were from about the age of 15 and they share her kind of earliest sexual experiences and her discovery of her own sexuality. You may know her as well from the popular TV series Gentleman Jack.
[00:13:54] So sadly, we don’t have the diaries here. But what we do have is some other interesting records relating to Anne Lister. In her later life Lister’s lover was Anne Walker. Their relationship moved fast. And just months after meeting, Lister persuaded Anne to join her living in her home at Shibden Hall. So we have a kind of contemporary image of Shibden Hall on screen, which you can visit, and then also just a floor plan from the 19th century.
[00:14:22] Lister and Walker did something very unique to show their commitment to each other. On Easter Sunday, 1834, in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, they took communion together. And this was an act that they both deemed to be constituting marriage. So after this, they considered themselves kind of married in the eyes of the law. 200 years on, the church now bears a plaque acknowledging this as the location of the first lesbian wedding.
[00:14:50] Lister tragically died while the pair were travelling together in Georgia. Anne Walker took the perilous journey back across the continents with Anne Lister’s embalmed body in tow. And now the date that this was meant that they took a long time to do this. So it took seven months travelling with her body.
[00:15:09] The pair both have wills at The National Archives. In an era before, far, far before same sex marriage was made legal, the couple’s options to show you their mutual dedication and love were pretty limited, but they were able to show their dedication through their wills. So Lister bequeathed her substantial estate to her friend, as it’s written in the will, Anne Walker. But an unusual twist stipulated that if Walker should ever marry, she would be disinherited, as if they said Anne Walker should have then departed this life.
[00:15:42] There were many speculated reasons for this. So I feel like you might agree with me in this. I think it’s quite a controlling move, but it’s been speculated that maybe it’s a sign of insecurity in their relationship. Some of my colleagues think it might be a protectiveness. So maybe, maybe because women wouldn’t be able to maintain legal ownership over their estate if they married. So this this absolute possibilities. But this is quite a recent discovery. So I’d be interested to know what you all think.
[00:16:09] So despite this, despite Anne Walker being left Anne Lister’s estate after she died, she wasn’t to stay at Shibden Hall for long. Two years after Lister’s death, she was declared of unsound mind a move to an asylum in York. Unfortunately we don’t know much about Anne Walker. So mainly what we know about her is actually from Anne Lister’s diaries. So after Lister dies, the trail kind of ends. Although we do hold this document certifying her to be of unsound mind. The courts of Chancery often became involved in cases of determining lunacy, where there was a certain amount of money or property involved. And the irony of this is that it also would have deemed Anne Walker’s will to be void, essentially.
[00:16:53] So often the lives of lesbian and bisexual women are difficult to trace through archival records, particularly before the 20th century. So at The National Archives we hold a substantial collection of wills, and we can find occasional traces of women’s relationships with other women through them. So we actually hold over a million wills here through the Prerogative Court of Canterbury before 1858. So I think it’s potentially a really untapped source relating to lesbian relationships in the past.
[00:17:21] So, for example, this is the will of Lady Eleanor Butler, one of the ladies of Llangollen. So these were two upper class Irish women, along with Sarah Ponsonby, whose relationship attracted scandalous attention during the late 18th and early 19th century. And again, we hold both of their wills on which they’re both listed as spinsters. Butler bequeathed everything to her beloved friend, Sarah Ponsonby.
[00:17:45] So wills are clearly legal documents that may appear formulaic and emotionless, but actually often revealing of some of our most intimate feelings and desires. What tells us more about love than whom someone leaves their possessions and wealth to?
[00:18:00] We particularly find love that cannot be expressed in other ways, that’s kind of controversial at the time, for example. So I think wills show that we need to be kind of more open minded in the sources that we use.
[00:18:12] On to our most famous LGBTQ record. This is actually probably the one I know the least about. So, Oscar Wilde. On the screen is a calling card, a very small calling card. This tiny item was in many ways the downfall of Oscar Wilde.
[00:18:29] So Wilde was a brilliant conversationalist, wit, writer, at the height of his fame. But on the 18th of February 1895, the Marquis of Queensberry left his calling card at the Albermarle Club. And it’s believed to be endorsed for Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite. Although the exact words, as you’ll see, are quite difficult to read and it’s been debated amongst historians. Both Wilde and his wife were members of the club. The author of the card was John Sholto Douglas the Marquis of Queensberry. Wilde had been having a relationship with Lord Alfred Boycie Douglas, the son of the Marquis. Queensberry was furious about this and wanted his son to stop seeing Wilde. The card was part of an ongoing campaign. For example, a few days earlier, he had tried to disrupt the opening of Wilde’s new play, The Importance of Being Earnest. On the back of this accusation, Wilde made the fateful decision to privately prosecute against Queensberry for libel, since the note essentially amounted to a public accusation that Wilde had committed the crime at the time of sodomy.
[00:19:33] Essentially, at the centre of the case was the discussion of whether or not Oscar Wilde had engaged in homosexual acts. With Wilde’s eloquent defence, plus evidence from a series of young male witnesses for the prosecution, the trial caused a huge stir at the time. Wilde lost the libel case in March, and after he left the court, a warrant for his arrest was applied for on the charges of sodomy and gross indecency. He was advised to go abroad, but he didn’t or didn’t quickly enough.
[00:20:03] So eventually, on the 25th of May 1895, Wilde was convicted at the Central Criminal Court of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour, which was essentially at the time the maximum sentence. At The National Archives, we have an important collection of records relating to the trials and imprisonment of Wilde, so that’s across our Home Office papers, Central Criminal Court Records and Prison Commission.
[00:20:28] While in prison in 1897, he wrote De Profundis, his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. He asked the governor for it to be sent to Douglas, but the request was refused. On the screen it’s the covering letter for this. So the prison commissioner actually ended up keeping the manuscript and gave it back to Wilde when he left.
[00:20:48] Wilde sent two unsuccessful petitions in November 1896 and April 1897. In the third, he asked for his release date to be brought forward by just four days. And he asked for this because he wanted to avoid unwanted attention from the press.
[00:21:06] So he was eventually released not four days early, but at 6.15 a.m. to try and avoid that. After a brief morning reunion with friends, he caught the night boat to France and was never seen in England again. He spent the rest of his life in Paris living under a false name and died in 1900. So for a celebrity like Wilde, the verdict basically meant the ruin of his career and indeed his life really. Certainly his life as he had lived it. Most significantly, the Wilde trials influenced public attitudes for many years. So it wasn’t just Wilde in a way that was a victim here.
[00:21:40] So now we move on to a different, less well-known libel trial. So as we’ve discussed, it was never illegal for women to have relationships with other women. So how did the dancer Maud Allan end up as part of her own sensational libel trial? Allan was originally born in Canada. In her early 20s she travelled to Europe to escape her dark family history. Her brother had been the culprit behind a shocking double murder in San Francisco. By 1906 she was attracting audiences dancing on the stage in Vienna with a version of Salome based on Oscar Wilde’s controversial play.
[00:22:16] Salome was a biblical figure who was said to have danced before Herod with the head of John the Baptist on a silver plate. Allan quickly became renowned for her seductive interpretation of the famous dance of the seven veils, and her attire on screen is what she would have generally worn on the stage. And just her costume alone was pretty controversial at the time.
[00:22:37] So this made Allan controversial for several reasons. Firstly, she was playing a sexually confident woman onstage. She was dancing as Salome in the context of the wild trials, which still lingered in public memory. So this is around 1917ish at the moment. And there are also strict rules at the time about religious depictions on stage. And this was particularly controversial. Allan’s performances toward Europe and beyond.
[00:23:02] By 1918 she reprised this role for private, unlicensed performance in London. This was a way of escaping the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, who’d banned Oscar Wilde’s works in the aftermath of his trial. An advertisement meant for the performance was printed in the Times, which prompted an initial backlash, including from Noel Pemberton Billing, a notoriously right wing British writer, an MP who had established a newspaper called The Vigilante. In the pages of this paper, the alleged libellous content was published and the paragraph was printed under the sensational headline, The Cult of the Clitoris. He was essentially accusing Allan of being a lesbian, being part of a cult of women who loved other women. Pemberton Billing used his paper to critique Allan’s upcoming performance in Salome. Even more shockingly, Pemberton Billing accused Allan of having an affair with Margaret Asquith, the former prime minister’s wife.
[00:23:57] Pemberton Billing speculated that Allan’s private performance of Salome would attract a number of high profile homosexuals, who he believed were named in a black book. The 47,000 individuals said to be included in this black book were believed to being blackmailed by the German government. This is all in the heightened context of kind of national security around the First World War. These accusations threaten to have a serious effect on Allan’s career. She took Pemberton Billing to court. So much like Wilde, she was the one that took him to court. The trial ran over six days. The National Archives holds the associated court records, Home Office files and correspondence around unlicensed plays in this era. The Times at the time said ‘it is safe to say that no lawsuit of modern times has attracted such universal and painful interest’.
[00:24:46] Pemberton Billing defended himself. He claimed that he did not know what the phrase the ‘cult of the clitoris meant’, although he’d used it as a headline in his magazines. And the fact that Allan did proved her guilt. So just because she knew what the clitoris was. Allan, meanwhile, admitted that she knew little about Salome, but somewhat unwisely told the court that she regarded Wilde as a great artist. Rather than focusing on the libel accusation, the judge seemed more concerned that the uncensored plays had got on stage at all. And despite being the plaintiff, Allan herself was seemingly on trial. Ultimately, the jury found Pemberton Billing not guilty, at which they were said to be cheers in the gallery. In his closing statement, the judge spent a great deal of time detailing how the play was clearly not appropriate for either public or private performances. Salome, Wilde and Allan were publicly scrutinised, while Pemberton Billing had been vilified. Despite Allan’s strenuous denial of the accusations that she was part of the cult of the clitoris, it’s interesting to note that Margaret Asquith paid for her apartment overlooking Regent’s Park until Herbert Asquith’s death in the late 1920s. Furthermore, it was in this apartment that Allan lived with Verna Aldridge, her secretary and lover.
[00:26:02] So I think it says a lot about lesbian relationships, that while it wasn’t illegal for women to have relationships, it was something they could risk a lot for. It could impact their careers. And I think that’s what this example shows. At the heart of this case was an anxiety about lesbian relationships and the profile that this trial might give to such relationships between women. And so this is essentially around 1918 – by 1921 you’re getting that debate in the House of Lords about whether women’s relationships with other women should be criminalised. So it’s very much in that context.
[00:26:36] So next up, we have a much less well-known case about Lady Austen. So just for some context, first. Despite the persistent targeting and surveillance of queer spaces from the kind of point of Maud Allan’s libel trial up to 1967, when we get a change in the law, there was a thriving queer community who were able and willing to socialise despite the risk. Men were able to create both public and private spaces to meet other men, socialise and have relationships. So while we have significant relationships around, for example, cottaging and urinals, we have more surprising spaces that come into our records. So queer social spaces could be found in pubs, restaurants, dance halls, clubs, houses, furnished rooms and Turkish baths. This example, I’m going to rely heavily on exploring the wider social potential available, particularly to gay men, but also women in this era.
[00:27:30] So some of the spaces we have records on. We have records on the Caravan Club, for example, from 1934. Billie’s Club, also from the 1930s. We have records on the Shim Sham and that was more of a queer black space. So kind of radical on multiple levels in terms of police surveillance at the time. We also have records on kind of private houses. So this one’s 1927 in Fitzroy Square. And then we’ve got Lady Malcolm Servants’ Balls. So this was a use of the Royal Albert Hall that was kind of subverted to become a queer space where fancy dress and costumes were used quite a lot.
[00:28:08] And that’s more similar to the example I’m about to give. So despite the fact that these spaces existed, such clubs and spaces were susceptible to police raids. But they can still tell us a huge amount about the queer community at this time. In 1932, the Park House Private Ballroom at 27 Holland Park Avenue was frequently rented out for drag dances by the ostentatious Lady Austin for gatherings of Lady Austin’s Camp Boys. So we have the flyer for the event there on screen, which summed up the drag dance with the compelling phrase ‘live, love and laugh’. Spaces such as Park House were only occasionally rented out for events like this, so they weren’t like a constant space like the Caravan was. These ballroom gatherings in particular were known for their drag dances, where fancy dress costumes and clothing that question traditional gender expression, was encouraged. Lady Austin would greet people at the door of the ballroom with a kiss on the hand.
[00:29:06] Police files describe Lady Austin as male, but wearing exaggerated makeup and an evening dress. Welcoming in undercover police, Austin remarked, ‘Don’t go and get too fruity yet’. Police observations show the ballroom contained around 60 people. And this is the words of the file at the time. One half of them were attired in evening dresses. The other half being dressed in lounge suits. All were male. The setup was explained to the undercover officers. Those wearing dresses were termed Queenies and those in lounge suits were called Kings. Lady Austin explained, ‘We take it in turns’. The officers adopted a role in keeping with their disguise and pretended to be a couple. So this kind of underground policing is a real theme in this era, and it does become quite contentious in terms of the law. So we have really detailed police observations, which give an amazing insight into these spaces.
[00:29:59] So at 11.25, Chief Inspector Smith and others entered the ballroom. He notes, ‘I waited till all the officers had gone around the room. Then I announced that we were police officers. I had the band stopped. Then I shouted, I want Lady Austin and Betty. Austin said, I am her ladyship. But Betty is not here.’ As the premises were raided, Lady Austin defended the dance. And when the police warrant was read out, said, ‘Surely only members of our cult are here. What harm are we doing? You don’t understand our love’. Police enquired what Austin meant by ‘members of our cult’. Why? Lady Austin’s Camp Boys, of course. Austin explained the venue was ‘run for love, not profit. How difficult is it? You don’t understand. We don’t like women. A drag dance is a dance without women and give and take is between ourselves’.
[00:30:48] The police recorded the names of all men dressed as women in their words, and took all those arrested to the police station. In the ballroom and cloakroom, police found powderpuffs, lipstick and ladies knickers and shoes, which were taken as evidence. At the trial, Lady Austin, was one of the foremost individuals to be found guilty, with the principal charges of conspiring to corrupt public morals and keeping a disorderly house.
[00:31:14] In the course of such raids on queer spaces, police collected with witness statements, reports and photographs. And we know the objects were gathered as evidence, but they rarely survive the actual items themselves. Uniquely, in our collection, we have a red lounge suit. And this was worn by the Kings in the dance. So it still uniquely survives in existence in our collections. It wasn’t worn by Lady Austin, who in our records at this point is wearing her costume. But this is thought to be worn by Parker, another defendant. So we have amazing verbatim text from the raids. So at one point, Lady Austin comments, ‘Oh dear. This trouble would be obliviated if they made our love legal’.
[00:31:58] It would take a further 30 years for homosexual acts in private to be decriminalised in England and Wales. It’s also an interesting case because it shows how, while it was never illegal to cross dress essentially, signs of effeminacy were seen as evidence of sexuality essentially in this period.
[00:32:15] In 1957, 20 odd years after this, the Wolfenden report had been published recommending the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Home Office actually wanted to review the laws around sex work as there’d been a rise in London of sex workers after the war. However, it was an opportunity also to look at homosexual law reform, but that was essentially a secondary motivation. It’s interesting to note that the more repressive legislation towards sex workers was implemented within 18 months of the report. While it took 10 years for the recommendations for homosexual law reform to be successfully debated and voted into law. That’s 10 years in which men were still being prosecuted for consensual sexual acts. And we have an interesting record written by Jeremy Corbyn where he describes them as crimes without a victim.
[00:33:06] So ultimately, this was a progressive piece of legislation, but was very limited. So there was a higher age of consent for homosexual acts than heterosexual ones. It only applied to England and Wales. It didn’t apply to the armed forces or merchant navy, and it had this interesting and private clause that kind of made it stand out.
[00:33:28] Indeed, after the act was introduced in 1967, arrests actually went up. So you can kind of see the spike towards the end here. So it’s thought that there was actually a greater understanding and awareness of the law. So that led to actually more arrests despite partial decriminalisation.
[00:33:47] However, to someone like Cyril or Maurice or Oscar Wilde or Lady Austin, it would have made a huge difference to their lives. So in my final case, I’m going to look at is around April Ashley. So there are really interesting ways that trans lives intersect with the state historically. So things in our records will often be catalogued under terms that we’d now consider outdated and offensive, such as ‘sex change’ or ‘change of sex’. And that was reflective of the language used at the time. So we have records relating to trans history in pension records, marriage records, the General Register Office were continually interested in the administration and to some extent, the policing of gender. Gender identity was often in our records in the pas viewed through a legal, medical or sometimes moral lens.
[00:34:36] A standout individual in terms of the history of gender identity is April Ashley. April Ashley was a model and restaurant hostess. She was born in 1935 in Liverpool under the birth name George Davidson. She’s now known as one of the earliest people to have gone through, or at least British people, to have undergone sex reassignment surgery and was a pioneering campaigner for trans rights. If you ever get the chance, I really recommend reading her autobiography, The First Lady.
[00:35:06] So at the young age of 16, in 1951, she joined the merchant navy. And in our collection, we have her seaman’s pouch. Just a year later, In 1952, she was dishonourably discharged and she was essentially sent to Walton Hospital for psychiatric treatment. After leaving hospital, April moved to London in 1955, where at some point she shared a boarding house with the then ship steward, John Prescott, which sounds random but becomes relevant. April moved to Paris in the late 1950s and joined the cast of the drag cabaret at the Carousel Theatre. At the age of 25 April went to Casablanca for sex reassignment surgery, and in this era that was very risky surgery. So yeah, I think it took seven hours. So she had her time in Paris and we’ve got a picture on screen on the right from that. And for some time, April worked very successfully as a model. And we have some brilliant photos of April from that era in our collection.
[00:36:03] However, in 1961, a friend outed her to the press as transgender. And again, we have lots of clippings relating to this moment. A few years later, in 1963, she married Arthur Corbett. In 1967, Corbett had filed for an annulment of their marriage. And other than the merchant navy records, this is why we have so many amazing records around April’s life, because of the divorce files and annulment. The case, Corbett vs. Corbett, that followed set a legal precedent. At the time, the UK did not recognise mutual consent as a reason enough to dissolve a marriage. The centre of the case became whether or not the court legally considered April to be male or female. In the eyes of the court, it could be seen as two men marrying. And that’s why there’s such extensive records on the case.
[00:36:55] There were some really invasive records, these don’t relate to April, but they’re very much about the medical discourse at the time. And it’s nothing like we would now look at kind of preference and choice. But this is not about that. This is about a legal gender and a medical. And that’s very much the way that these records are seen and contextualised.
[00:37:16] The annulment was granted in 1970 on the grounds that the court considered April to be male, even though Arthur Corbett knew about her history when they married. Most significantly, though, this set a legal precedent. It impacted many other people, not just April. Before it was possible, before this ruling, it was possible to unofficially change your sex on your birth certificate or passport. Many people certainly did. But this ruling essentially stopped this. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in July 2002 that a trans person’s inability to change the gender on their birth certificate was a breach of their rights. And this led to UK government legislation. The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 allows people on certain conditions to change their legal gender. It received royal assent on the 1st of July 2004.
[00:38:10] So at this point, Ashley was finally legally recognised as female and issued with a new birth certificate. The then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, helped her out with the forms in the paperwork. So we’d now consider the Gender Recognition Act to be pretty problematic in many ways. It’s slightly outdated. But at the time and in the context of April Ashley, this was a really big deal.
[00:38:33] So to conclude, this talk has touched on just some of our records relating to LGBTQ history. So there’s so much potential here in terms of the records and hopefully I’ve shown enough for you to come back in, to entice your back. Our records are public records. They’re essentially yours. They’re free to view. And you’re very welcome to come in and look at more of them. I’m aware there isn’t an overly celebratory tone to this talk. While there’s been a lot of progressive legislation, there’s still a long way to go. But for people like Cyril who in the very beginning defined himself as queer, life now would be very, very different.
[00:39:08] So just to conclude. On screen, we have images of some of the work we do here to try to reclaim and celebrate this history. So one of the things we did was we recreated the Caravan Club, and that’s the location Cyril went to to meet other men in 1934. Thank you.
[00:39:31] This podcast is copyright The National Archives. All rights reserved. It is available for reuse under the terms of the Open Government Licence.