Art and hidden histories
Hi, James here. I am currently taking my PhD at the University of Liverpool, where I focus on gender-nonconformity in pagan Anglo-Saxon England, which was much more prevalent and respected than you would imagine, but that’s another question for another time. I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to this wonderful project, as the histories of LGBTQ+ people from the Stone Age to the 20th century absolutely have been hidden and there is a great pleasure in uncovering them.
To my part in the project. I spent a day in Warwickshire County Record Office aided by the wonderful archivist Carolyn. My task was to comb through various records from the 19th century, looking for any hints of LGBTQ+ history waiting there to be uncovered. If you have watched any of Channel 4’s Time Team, you will have an idea of the nature of this project, a tight time frame in which to search for as much history as can be found. Luckily for me I was poring through documents rather than a trench in a field, but I’m going to stick to my comparison.
A day of two halves
The first half of the day I spent looking through the admissions records and the patient notes from Warwickshire’s County Lunatic Asylum from c.1830 – c.1880. I started the search here as it is an unpleasant reality that in the 19th century gender nonconformity was viewed by the powers that be as a problem within an individual’s psyche, as well as their moral constitution. This was further inspired by research being carried out at the University of Sydney, where a PhD researcher has used asylum records to find gender-nonconforming individuals in 19th century Australia. Using these reports as a jumping off point, they then traced the histories of the people involved and created biographies for each one, preceding and following their incarceration. Unfortunately in a day I wasn’t able to carry out such in depth research, and in the admissions slips and patient records I could go through I didn’t find any examples of gender nonconformity in the asylum. I barely scratched the surface of the available records however, I am convinced that with time instances of people being committed for gender-nonconformity could be found, providing information for further research into the biographies of gender nonconforming individuals in 19th century Warwickshire.
More luck was found in the second half of the day, which was spent examining the reports for the quarterly court sessions from c.1820-1830. Here it was important to know that authorities at this time used a huge number of euphemisms to refer to offences based on sexuality.
The disorderly house
In 1829 for example, William Smart was sentenced to three months’ incarceration and hard labour following a conviction in that year’s Michaelmas court session for having a “common, ill-governed, disorderly house” – each of these adjectives understood at the time to relate to sexually deviant behaviour – so we can read into this not only that homosexuality amongst men was punishable by hard labour, but that one would not even be safe in your own house.
Defiance or bad luck?
One John Taylor was the most interesting character found in the day. In the same 1829 session as mentioned above, he was sentenced to twelve months of hard labour following a string of LGBTQ+ crimes. John was charged with, on the 16th of September, encouraging a William Snape the younger to “indecent exposure of his person” and indecently exposing his own person; on the 18th of September of having “incited, aided and assisted” Thomas Cole the younger in indecent exposure of his person; and on the 20th of September of a second account of indecent exposure in connection with a certain Charles Barnett.
While I was unable to find any more evidence of John’s activities in the time I had, he brought a very human element to this project and I could not help but try to imagine what he was like. Was he a proto LGBTQ+ rights activist, refusing to be curtailed by unjust laws, allowing himself to be caught and charged as an act of protest? Did he simply not take the consequences of being caught seriously? Or was he perhaps simply really unlucky to have been caught on so many occasions? While I know that John’s story, and many others’, can be unravelled with more research, it is a powerful feeling to be shown a story where the human spirit is true to itself in the face of opposition, and to imagine the person behind these records.