Thursday, June 18, 2020

Hidden Histories: Uncovering 200 Years of LGBTQ History in Sheffield

Like many other highlights on the social calendar, Sheffield Pride has been postponed this year owing to Covid-19.  To mark Pride Month 2020 we’re taking a trip through the archives to uncover the history of LGBTQ experience in Sheffield over the last two centuries.
Extract from Parish Register in the archives, 1817

We start by going back just over 200 years.  In 1817 it appears that two women were married at Sheffield Parish Church. It is recorded in the marriage register that ‘Henry / Henrietta’ Stoake married Ann Hants on 14th Jan 1817. As was usual practice the man signed his name first.  In this case the first name recorded is Harriet which was crossed out and replaced by Henry.  At the entry for the bride’s name the vicar wrote Harriet but crossed it out and replaced it with Ann.  The case only came to light many years later.  Reports in The Times and The Guardian in April 1838 refer to a case of a married couple at Manchester falling out over housekeeping money with the case going before a solicitor.  At this point the woman accused her husband of being a woman.  A medical examination at the police office confirmed ‘in the most distinct and unqualified manner’ that the husband was indeed a ‘woman’.  She had been in the habit of wearing men’s clothes and had a successful business as a master bricklayer.  During examination by the solicitor and magistrate the woman confirmed she has been married ‘many years earlier’ in Sheffield.  The story is expanded here:

Sheffield Mercury, 5 Apr 1834
Many references in the archives to homosexuality reflect the establishment view that such lifestyles were not acceptable.  With legislation outlawing gay sex, records from the police and the courts record prosecutions, which together with newspaper reports, build up a picture of individuals’ lives and society’s reaction.  An early case is that of Thomas Rodgers, a 32-year old Sheffield labourer who was executed in 1834 for committing an ‘unnatural act’ with a work colleague.  Apparently Rodgers admitted what he had done to his employer and it was this admission that led to his trial at York Assizes. He was found guilty and condemned to death.  He was hanged outside York Gaol, along with two other prisoners, in front a crowd of about 6,000 onlookers.

Left: Edward Carpenter and George Merrill;
Right: sandals made as part of artistic project by
Yuen Fong Ling using Carpenter archive.
Ten short years later, Edward Carpenter was born and his story marks a positive shift in attitude.  Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was an early advocate of equality for a variety of groups in society. He campaigned throughout his life on many issues of social concern, ranging from women's suffrage to the protection of the environment, from sexual emancipation to the formation of trade unions. For over forty years he formed a strong bond with the people of Sheffield, living openly as a gay man in Millthorpe, Derbyshire only a few miles away. His writings and example laid the foundation for the gay liberation movement of the twentieth century. Through his many friendships, Edward Carpenter cut across the divisions of class, gender, sexuality, race and creed.  Men and women from across the world and from all walks of life came into connection with each other through him and his connections with Sheffield and home at Millthorpe.  Carpenter left a comprehensive archive and library. Thousands of his letters to friends and colleagues are preserved at Sheffield Archives, as well as copies of many of his published works and his own library.  His extensive correspondence includes letters from E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon, Ramsay MacDonald and many others.

Sheffield Telegraph, 22 July 1967 
In 1967 the Government passed the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Bill which permitted same sex relationships between men aged 21 and over.  Newspapers of the period include letters and reports on the passage of the Bill.  The Sheffield Telegraph wrote that the passing of the Bill marked the ‘end of a monstrous road’.

Gay's The Word bookshop in London which
received support from Sheffield Libraries
following 'Operation Tiger' in the 1980s
In April 1984, Customs and Excise officers raided the London bookshop, Gay’s The Word, and seized all their imported books. This was the start of ‘Operation Tiger’ which sought to seize ‘obscene’ material. Support for Gay’s The Word came from a wide range of individuals and organisations who saw this as an attack on civil rights and freedom of expression.  In Sheffield, the minutes of the Council’s Libraries Committee show that Sheffield Libraries came out in support of the bookshop.  At a meeting held on 9 Jul 1986 reference was made to the proposed legal proceedings by H.M. Customs and Excise against London bookshop Gay's The Word relating to the possession of allegedly 'indecent' and 'obscene' publications.  It was reported that the Director of Libraries and Information Services, Patricia Coleman, had submitted a letter on behalf of Senior Librarians expressing concern at the possibility of increasing censorship.  The charges were eventually dropped.

Council minutes and newspapers provide an
interesting window on debate during the 1980s,
particularly in light of Section 28
In 1988 the Local Government Act contained a clause (known as Section 28) which stated that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. There was great hostility to the clause and some local authorities (including Sheffield) opposed it.  A search of Sheffield Council committee minutes, notably the Policy Committee for 1988, reveals reports and deliberations on how the Council felt Section 28 could affect all manner of services.  Of particular interest is a report from the Head of the Administration and Legal Department to the Policy Committee meeting in September 1988, outlining the effects Section 28 would have on Council service provision and 'reaffirming its opposition to the clause'. Section 28 was repealed in 2003.

The collections at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library come right up to the present day and include policy documents, flyers, posters, leaflets and photographs from individuals and organisations.  If you have any material you’d like to add to the city collections, get in touch:

For more information on the sources at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library see our Research Guide:

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