LGBTQ History at Gloucestershire Archives
Welcome to our online exhibition.
This is the final stage of a project to explore the histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (as well as anyone who identifies with this group but doesn't use these labels) in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire.
Gloucestershire Archives is the recognised repository for both geographical areas, for what was the historic county of Gloucestershire. During this project we have been exploring material in our existing collections, as well as capturing new stories and memories from across this diverse region.
The exhibition is presented by geographical district. The first part of each page is specifically linked to the district but also contains material from across the two counties, so please do visit all of the sections while you're here. When you're finished exploring, the Historic County section offers concluding thoughts and an opportunity to download a list of references for the material that inspired each theme.
We hope you enjoy the exhibition!
A night at the races?
Photo by Andy Dolman, via WikiCommons
One of Cheltenham's most well-known landmarks played host to LGBTQ social events during the 1990s, but the monthly Racecourse Disco certainly wasn't the only 'gay event' in the area. There were a range of pubs and clubs across the region that catered to LGBTQ audiences, either permanently or as mainstream venues that held 'gay evenings'.
Cheltenham's Phoenix and Leckhampton Inn were specifically 'gay pubs' but by the 1990s that didn't necessarily mean the clientele would only be gay men. Jenny remembers there usually being more women than men in the Leckhampton Inn and that "the room with the pool table was almost always filled exclusively with women" [D13414]. Gloucester's pubs and clubs were also popular for those trying to find a local 'gay scene', including the weekly Crackers disco and both the Coach and Horses and the New Pilot Inn. The Lock-keeper's Inn in Stroud also appears to have been a regular haunt for some LGBTQ residents.
In 2014, possibly as a result of recession and improved transport links to venues in places like Bristol and Birmingham, Gloucestershire's 'scene' is far smaller. Gloucester's Westgate appears to be the only dedicated LGBTQ venue in the county, with occasional evenings/events in Cheltenham. Is this a sign that LGBTQ people feel more comfortable in mainstream venues?
For many LGBTQ people being part of this diverse community is about more than going out with friends and taking part in Pride marches. As well as socialising, they work with organisations to improve services, access and support for other members of the community. Collaboration happens in lots of different ways, and can be formal or informal.
Examples from our collections include members of LGBTQ community organisations working in partnership with Gloucestershire Police to tackle hate crime, and with health professionals and charities as part of the Gloucestershire Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Forum during the 1990s. Informally, individuals and groups also respond to public consultations, requests for information and even projects like ours, to help organisations and service providers better understand the ways in which their work can affect LGBTQ lives.
The south-west corner of the Cotswold district has the oldest example of LGBTQ history we've found in our collections so far - local residents offering their own brand of public punishment in Westonbirt, 1716.
Based on a series of uncatalogued papers held at the Archives, David Rollinson's article describes the charge of sodomy against an unpopular local tenant and a visiting farm labourer from Gloucester, and the very public humiliation designed by the local community to punish what they felt was inappropriate behaviour. Rollinson doesn't speculate about whether the accusations were true, but he does note that the rumours of the offence - at the time punishable by death - spread rapidly to neighbouring parishes where George Andrews, the tenant, already had something of a bad reputation.
It wasn't long before local communities had convinced themselves of George's guilt. To punish him and the labourer Walter Lingsey for what they felt was an offence against normal behaviour in their society, they set about creating an elaborate piece of street theatre (called a 'Mock Groaning', a type of ritual humiliation or Rough Music). This performance, described in some detail by the estate's Steward, involved dressing Walter in women's clothing and arranging for a villager to pretend to be a midwife so he could 'give birth' to a straw baby. Another villager then took the role of priest and 'baptised' the straw child who they named George, after his 'father'. While this was happening there would have been lots of music, people drinking and laughing and a general party atmosphere, while the two men were being mocked by the large crowds. Rollinson suggests that over 100 people from more than 5 other parishes were taking part in this event - over a quarter of the local population.
The accounts of the Steward and other senior figures on the estate don't seem certain that George Andrews was guilty of the alleged crime, and the local landowner lived in London so would only have known about events through the letters these employees sent him. Interestingly, the Lord of the Manor appears to have been more concerned for his reputation than about the offence itself. He was particularly bothered by the Mock Groaning, believing that the 'rioting' and blasphemy it contained challenged his authority, and attacked the power of the Church. It's impossible to know exactly what happened between George Andrews and Walter Lingsey, as we only have others' interpretation to help us piece the story together. We will never be sure what motivated the villagers to contrive this peculiar punishment for these two men, but it's clear that residents were not at all happy with such behaviour.
Accounts like these remind us that most of the LGBTQ lives captured in older historical documents are allegations and reports about criminal activities by gay men, written by lawmakers and their representatives, for official purposes - in this case records of the Westonbirt estate. These kinds of records only tell us a small part of any story. There are also dangers in judging history with modern eyes - we must be careful that our own experiences don't influence how we understand and explain the past. But examples like this also remind us how far both the law and social acceptance have come, in recognising and supporting LGBTQ lives and relationships.
Forest of Dean
And the Award goes to...
Music was the theme for LGBT History Month 2014, so it's fitting that we have a pioneering music producer and songwriter as our main entry for the Forest of Dean.
Photo by Robert Thursfield, via WikiCommons
Joe Meek - born Robert George Meek in Newent in 1929 - had a lifelong interest in electronics and performance. Moving to London in the 1950s he became known for his use of innovative recording techniques. He worked with Tom Jones and Rod Stewart at the beginning of their careers, as well as with skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan, but his most famous production was "Telstar" by The Tornados. This 1962 hit became the first record by a British group to reach No. 1 on the US charts and the song that earned Joe his nickname: "The Telstar Man". Sadly, like many men of his generation, Joe had been convicted of offences relating to his sexuality before homosexuality was decriminalised. Commentators have suggested that blackmail, as well as career pressure, rising debt and depression were the causes of his suicide in 1967.
But Joe isn't Gloucestershire's only musical connection.
Ivor Novello (born David Ivor Davies in Wales in 1893) was an actor, composer and performer, and one of the most popular entertainers in the first half of the twentieth century. His mother wanted him to be an opera composer, so as a boy he was sent to study counterpoint and harmony at Gloucester Cathedral, but he is perhaps best known for his wartime songs. "Keep the home fires burning" was a hit at the start of the First World War, and "We'll gather lilacs (in the spring again)" was written for troops during the Second World War. He died aged 58, in 1951, a few hours after performing his musical "King's Rhapsody" for the 814th time!
There is one other connection between these two men, of course. An award for songwriting and composing was dedicated to Ivor Novello in 1955 and has been presented to talented people every year since. Joe Meek won the Ivor Novello Award in 1962 - can you guess what for?
When we think about LGBTQ communities it's easy to imagine groups of young people, possibly in a pub or club, or on a Pride march, enjoying time with their friends. Of course not all LGBTQ people are young, fit, party-animals, and getting older brings its own set of challenges.
Paul and his partner Eric have been together for more than 50 years. Both over 70, they recently moved from their own house on the outskirts of Bristol to an extra-care housing complex in South Gloucestershire. Paul reflects on how much attitudes have changed:
When we were interviewed to come here the [people from the council and company who run the housing] came to visit us at home. And we were obviously a gay couple, an established gay couple, and they wanted us to come here, they made that clear and that's an enormous change. There's a temptation to think that we might be a token couple - there's one black woman here, and one gay couple here - but I don't know...[The company's] publicity is going to have pictures of same-sex couples and the like, and they're encouraging present tenants, to get input from them. That sort of thing, again, is an enormous change for the positive [D13414].
The law was changed to ensure equal access to goods and services in 2007. It can take a little time for attitudes and behaviours to catch up with legal developments, and sometimes generations before real progress is made. The only resident to have made any kind of comment about there being a gay couple in the complex, Paul explained, was in his 90s. "I can sympathise, in a way," Paul went on to say, "because I know what it was like then" [D13414].
Social change takes time and sometimes needs a helping hand. LGBTQ residents have been involved in campaigning at international, national and local level for many years, and LGBTQ groups and organisations work in partnership with others to improve understanding, support, and service provision to LGBTQ communities across the region.
From high-profile national and international campaigns for equality under human rights laws, an equal age of consent and the repeal of Section 28, LGBTQ residents individually and collectively have made significant headway in the last 45 years. More locally, challenges to funding of community services in the 1980s and 1990s required coordinated action from LGBTQ communities. Campaigns to get LGBTQ community literature and newspapers into public libraries in South Gloucestershire, in the days before the internet, were also successful.
Beyond responding to particular issues, much work is done on a daily basis by individuals, groups, organisations and allies, to help others to learn more about supporting LGBTQ people. The award-winning charity Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) works with schools, youth groups and organisations to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying. Through training and learning activities they help those whose job it is to help others be better prepared to support LGBTQ communities across Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire. One area of their current work is helping teachers to understand and find ways to tackle children's use of the word 'gay' as an insult, in schools.
Growing up (and 'coming out')
Working out who you are and how you fit into the the world around you is rarely straightforward, but for young LGBTQ people this can be particularly difficult.
Mark grew up in Gloucestershire and went to school in Stroud in the 1970s. He describes realising he was gay in his teens:
I was a small skinny kid at the best of times which didn't help, so I was subject to bullying and that kind of thing anyway. And realising when I was 14 or 15 that I was attracted to men, I realised pretty quickly that this wasn't something I wanted to broadcast. It was something to hide...all the terms of abuse - poof, queer, etcetera - and I thought, you know, this was definitely dangerous...something I had to keep to myself. [D12678]
For others like John, the process of learning the words to describe their feelings helped to dispel fears they were not alone:
[At] about 13 or 14 I came across, in a newspaper, the word homosexual and I thought 'I wonder what that word means'...I looked it up and I though 'my goodness, that really describes me. There are other people who feel the same'.[D12678]
The process of 'coming out' - telling other people about your sexual orientation - can be very difficult, and for those doing so in the 1970s there were still many barriers to acceptance, as one contributor explains:
When I was a teenager it was only just legal to be gay. It was decriminalised in 1967...Even then the age of consent was 21, for consenting males in private...Gay people were portrayed in the media as grotesques, something to be laughed at, outrageous, camp, that sort of thing. No wonder many of us felt the need to hide our true natures from the world, and even from ourselves.[D12678]
Help lines and youth groups have existed across Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire for many years, to help support LGBTQ people though these kinds of transitions in their lives. Programmes to help schools understand the need for environments that promote diversity remain very important for young LGBTQ residents, and their families.
Image used with kind permission of Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH)
In 1326 Hugh Despenser (known as Hugh Despenser the Younger because Hugh was also his father's name) was sentenced by the Queen to be hanged as a thief, then drawn and quartered as a traitor. Because of the manner of his death little of his body was returned to his family, but the few bones that were sent back to his widow are now buried in Tewkesbury Abbey. But why, you may be asking, has this nobleman been included in this exhibition?
Illumination from the "Founders' and benefectors' book" of Tewkesbury Abbey, Bodleian Library (Oxford), via WikiCommons
Hugh Despenser the Younger was a 'favourite' of King Edward II (whose tomb lies in Gloucester Cathedral). Some historians believe that the married Edward also had relationships with men - first the Gascon Knight Piers Gaveston and then, later, Hugh Despenser the Younger - but just as many would argue that these men were more like adopted brothers to the King. We know that Edward's young Queen, Isabella of France, was greatly troubled by her husband's relationships with both Gaveston and Despenser, but it is likely this was as much for political as personal reasons. We may never know for certain if Hugh Despenser was the target of Isabella's animosity because of his relationship with Edward, or as a result of the political alliances he and his father made earlier in Edward's reign. Edward was allegedly murdered at Berkeley Castle but we may never be sure what bearing, if any, the King's relationships with these men had on the manner, timing or place of his death.
Do we think Hugh, Edward and Piers were bisexual? The words bisexual and homosexual weren't coined until the 19th Century, over 500 years after their deaths, and while the word 'gay' did exist in the late 14th Century it wasn't used to describe men who have relationships with other men until the 20th Century. Technically then the answer has to be no, because the words we would use today to describe relationships between people of the same sex simply did not exist when these men were alive. Both Hugh and Edward are included in this exhibition of LGBTQ lives because stories about these relationships persist, and talking about them helps us to show just how difficult it can be to search for and find evidence of LGBTQ lives in historical records.
Mary Blathwayt was born in 1879 into a prominent family from South Gloucestershire. She was an active member of the "Votes for Women" campaign in the South West of England, often having lunch with Mrs Pankhurst and other notable suffragettes of the time, and kept diaries between 1894 and 1943 detailing her activities and engagements. Academics who have read Mary's diaries have described passages they believe are talking about sexual relationships between some of the suffragettes. Others disagree, and have questioned this interpretation of Mary's diary entries. We know that how we use language changes over time - think about how people older and younger than you use the same words in very different ways. We can't always be sure that the meaning when the author wrote the word or phrase is the same as the one we know today.
But were there lesbian suffragettes? The chances of there being lesbian or bisexual women in the ranks of the Movement, or even in the large crowds who attended their rallies, is quite high. Are there lesbians in Mary Blathwayt's diaries? We'll leave that for you to decide.
In August 1994, the Chairman of the Gloucestershire Gay Community (GCC) group wrote an article in their newsletter titled "In the year 2014?" It read:
If we had a crystal ball, what would we see the next two decades bringing the Gay Community? Is our European Parliament the way gay men and lesbians finally achieve equality in all aspects of our lives. Funding for HIV/AIDS is already dwindling. How can we hope for a medical breakthrough unless we fight now for these facilities...Education, laws and attitudes must be altered. Without it, nothing will change...The GGC group has been here for 20 years offering help and support. The work we have put in gives the younger people the confidence to 'come out'. Let's hope in another 20 years there will no longer be a 'closet' they have to come out of [D12678]
Much has certainly changed for LGBTQ people in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire, as we've seen in this exhibition. Changes in the law have helped to influence changes in attitudes over the last 45 years, while campaigns and collaboration have helped service providers better understand how to support LGBTQ residents, both young and old. We've seen the value of supportive networks and communities for LGBTQ residents, and the importance of celebrations for the community as a whole. We've also explored some of the challenges of identifying LGBTQ people and stories, within historic records.
Twenty years on, Gloucestershire Gay and Lesbian Community (the GGLC, as they became in 1997) made their first donation of material to Gloucestershire Archives. In the late-Autumn 2009 edition of their newsletter, a member of the committee reflected on the changes their organisation has seen:
The noughties has seen the biggest change and put us ahead of the USA: the reduction of the age of consent in line with heterosexuals, civil partnerships are available throughout the UK and we have diversity legislation to protect gay men and women in the work place. So now it's cool to be gay, there's a new freedom, pride and security. A new generation who can have as much unworried fun as anyone. But for all we have gained we have lost something... Those of us that remember the old days of fear and social danger, those that could only come to groups like the GGLC, will concede that the camaraderie and mutual protection has disappeared from the modern scene. That danger bred strength and kindness and a togetherness of a club. We respected each other, gave support and helped with self affirmation. Today the young gay generation is targeted as a market...We now have a generation buying into hedonism and materialistic consumerism without understanding the sacrifices of gay men and women in the past or having an eye on the future to see where this is all heading [D12678]
What more will we have learned about the challenges and successes of LGBTQ lives in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire in another 20 years?
What will we be able to say about changes in social attitudes, legal rights, and the evolution of the 'scene' itself in 2034?
If you are interested in finding out, Gloucestershire Archives will be happy to help!
We hope you've enjoyed exploring what we know so far about the LGBTQ history of Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire. If you are interested in helping us explore our existing collections, collect new material, or add to this exhibition please contact us.
If you would like to know more about the material that inspired these pages, a list of references for all Gloucestershire Archives' material referenced in this online exhibition is available to download.