What do you think about catalogues in which users are encouraged to 'tag' documents that they find? How else might mainstream institutions discover their own LGBTI histories that have not yet been uncovered?
Click 'read more' to read all of Orme, Betab and Brook's paper and comment on their insights.
LGBTI history at The National Archives of the United Kingdom
Jenni Orme, Parveen Betab and Beth Brook
The National Archives (TNA) holds the records of government from over 1000 years of history, from the heavy handwritten volumes of the Domesday Book to digital records created in the last 30 years. All in all, the collection of over 11 million historical government and public records is one of the largest in the world. A wealth of diverse histories, including LGBTI lies within the records, sometimes well hidden within the paperwork.
As an official government archive, we find ourselves in a unique position with a collection giving insight into how government interacted with and viewed the LGBTI community through the ages. As the archive of government, we do not build our collection in the traditional sense. The National Archives collection is selected by originating government departments, and while TNA provide advice and guidance on selection and diversity, our staff work to make the collection we accrue as accessible and searchable as possible for all, once it is accessioned. Within these limitations come opportunities. TNA has, for example, a wide audience, both onsite and online, through which we can advertise our records; we also have strong networks across government and other archives and collections who we provide advice and support to, but who we also have much to learn from, particularly providing context to what is essentially a very one-sided historical narrative.
This paper considers some of the experiences and outcomes of research into LGBTI history at The National Archives to date. It also discusses some of the information this work has uncovered and the challenges we continue to face as we work to encourage and enable LGBTI history research. The National Archives as an organisation is a relative newcomer to this area of research, and is looking to learn and help move LGBTI history, along with other minority histories, into the mainstream of historical research and debate within our work. Like many other organisations, we currently rely on the enthusiasm and commitment of individual researchers and the expertise and initiatives of other organisations and projects to inform our knowledge of LGBTI records in our collection. As we move forward, we aim to follow the inspiring good practice leads of other committed individuals such as Jan Pimblett at the London Metropolitan Archives and Sue Donnelly at the Hall-Carpenter Archives and work to bring our LGBTI collection to the surface.
This paper will largely deal with LGB history, with only minor reference to TI history, as this is the current position of the research carried out to date. Further expansion into TI history is one of many plans we have for the future.
For the largest proportion of modern British history, homosexual people have been treated by the state as either criminals or as having psychiatric disorders, but always as a danger to a perceived ‘normal’ society.# The state played a major role in repressing, controlling and censoring the lives of gay men and women and paradoxically, these attempts at suppression have generated potentially rich evidence of gay and lesbian experiences and official attitudes towards homosexuality which are reflected in the documents held by The National Archives.# It is with this knowledge that we approach the research of LGB history at The National Archives of the United Kingdom, tracing the history of people who were often ‘hidden’ from the mainstream for fear of being punished.
The realisation of the value of the records held by The National Archives for LGBTI history initially came to light several years ago through the research of Matt Houlbrook - an academic in the field - and staff members. This resulted in the development of an in-depth Gay and Lesbian research guide and sowed the seeds for the ARCHUS LGBT history project.# This project is made up of a group of volunteers from across the archives, the Civil Service Rainbow Network and elsewhere, who came together to continue the research into LGBTI resources in the archives, raising the profile and discoverability of the documents. The group began by exploring areas of the collection which were more likely to have relevant material in them. Their research began by considering the main points of contact between the British government and LGBT issues over time, such as where legislation was passed, policy was developed or reviewed or official discussion took place in reaction to major events or news at the time. For example, there are numerous files on the work of the Wolfenden Commission, its subsequent report in the 1950s, which declared for the first time that male homosexuality should not be illegal between two consenting adults over the age of 21, and the passing of Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Since then, their research remit has expanded further and further across subject areas, beginning to dig into less obvious areas of the varied collection and finding evidence of LGBTI history sometimes in the most unexpected places.
One of the largest collections the group began with were criminal files. Homosexual acts between men were a crime from the sixteenth century up until the 1960s in the UK, and thus public records held at The National Archives contain detailed files, documenting both aspects of gay male history and official attitudes towards homosexuality. By prohibiting them under the criminal law, the state sought to discourage such acts or relationships through the threat of arrest and further punishment.# The National Archives holds numerous details of prosecutions which are vitally important to the story of LGBTI history. For example, we hold records of the accusation, trial and conviction of famous LGB figures such as Oscar Wilde. We also hold the stories of many men who were tried for “indecent acts” or “gross indecency” and subjected to humiliating trials and punishments prior to the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the 1960s, each one an essential part of building an understanding of gay history in the public records.#
As the researchers searched beyond files such as Wolfenden that are more clearly connected to LGB issues, the difficulties facing those using archival records for this purpose quickly became apparent. The challenges range from the sheer number of records that exist, especially in institutions with larger collections – whether catalogued or not – and the effects on research time, to the language associated with those records that have been catalogued in more detail, amongst many others. Some of these key questions are discussed below.
The idea of language in our catalogue is one of the key challenges we face as we look to the future of LGBTI history at The National Archives. As archivists, we must remain true to the documents and histories we preserve in our cataloguing of material. As Barbara Reed states, “language as the expression of concepts is culturally bound and culturally sensitive. For recordkeeping purposes, we need to be able to reconstruct the language used, while connecting to current usage … Over time this use of language places records and their descriptions within a social and cultural context important to their meaning.”# The National Archives have endeavored to ask our users how we should use language in cataloguing, and the overwhelming response has been that we should let the record ‘speak for itself’.# It is not our place to pass judgment on history, instead, it is our role to preserve and facilitate that history for others to interpret. While we can suggest modern-day language as editors, such as tagging documents with the word “homosexuality”, ultimately, it is contemporary phrases that we use to describe our documents. For example, the “indecent acts” or “gross indecency” mentioned previously. Ultimately, just as “gross indecency” was acceptable to describe homosexuality in 1900, who is to say that words we use today will be acceptable in 2100?
The key tool at The National Archives for beginning research is the online catalogue. However, searching for the word ‘homosexual’, for example, returns only 145 results out of thousands of possibilities.# The collection is catalogued using descriptions as true to the vocabulary used in the documents as possible, in order to provide an accurate and objective picture of the contents of the record. The language used in cataloguing reflects different eras, attitudes and consequently outmoded terminology. In order to discover what they are looking for, it is essential that researchers are aware of the historical attitudes and language associated with LGB history. Words such as “importuning”, “indecency”, “unnatural” or “sodomite” bring up a very different set of results.
For example, files in The National Archives on the developments of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) not only indicate that gay women were present in the service, but also offer a unique insight into how senior officials in the force responded to this presence. These are an invaluable resource about homosexual female relations in the armed forces during the 1940s and 1950s, however the files are described from the period as dealing with ‘unnatural relations between women’, and therefore, before cataloguers added in key words such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexuality’, they had to be searched for under the original language in order for them to be uncovered.# Once one file such as this is found, a new area of LGB history surfaces, key words can be added to make them more discoverable, and further research into similar files can follow.
As well as the problems of assisting researchers in identifying information that may be of use to them, this issue of language presents a key problem for us and we welcome discussion and advice from those with similar experiences. Firstly, by using language that is outdated, and now considered homophobic, are we in danger of continuing and promoting these attitudes into the present day? And what are our alternatives? In the world of the global search engine, our online catalogue can deliver results out of context to users without the knowledge or understanding of what they are looking at, and can, quite rightly, cause offense. We suffer the same problem with issues of race and disability within the catalogue where again, those that may be historically accurate terms, such as “coolie” or “cripple” are not acceptable today.
As researchers using twentieth century records of a personal or controversial nature will know, the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts are important components of the research process.# While the Freedom of Information Act has opened many files previously closed to public access, the Data Protection Act means that many others will remain closed to protect individuals, often leaving historians of twentieth century history with an as yet incomplete picture. This affects LGBTI research as many records concerning male homosexuality in particular exist as a result of the enforcement of legislation.
As mentioned previously, files regarding male homosexuality remain as part of the historic record linking innocent individuals with ‘crimes’ that would not be considered as such today. Many of these records are, quite understandably, closed for periods of time to protect those involved in the cases, however titles of files still remain on the catalogue. They are arguably one of the richest areas of a history often so poorly documented, providing us with valuable insight in to the perception of homosexuality within the government and the difficulties faced by those accused. Yet at the same time they are potentially a source of pain to many involved and thus an area of contention and debate. A pressing question is, how should we handle information such as this? Should it be hidden, or ‘removed’ from the record to right the injustice suffered? Or should it remain untouched? It is a complicated debate, as these records, largely found within court and police files, although negative and often painful, can also be interpreted as evidence of people living their lives, of resisting oppression and ultimately fighting a cause that informs us of what has been achieved to date.
An excellent example of this is the files relating to the case of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was tried and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1895. As the trial was held in the Central Criminal Court, the majority of records are held by The National Archives. Within these documents, as well as the official proceedings, there is also a wealth of material providing information on the personal Wilde, including a letter from his wife, Constance, requesting to see him and a list of books requested by him while in jail.# The preservation of material such as this has assisted in marking Wilde as an icon within LGB history, documenting the struggles he went through. These struggles have only been documented however because he was accused of a crime. If Wilde were born 100 years later, these files would not exist due to the change in legislation and therefore the argument could be made that they should be removed, or re-defined accordingly. However, the counter argument would surely cry that should this happen, Wilde’s death, premature due to illness while in prison, would have been in vain.
The criminal records we hold on male homosexuality are by no means the only ones, there are examples of gay relationships and men having sex with men in many other parts of the archive, as researchers have uncovered. For example, in inspection reports of boys’ boarding schools, comments such as “acts of indecency” and “unsocial outlets for their energies” occur fairly frequently as concerns about pupils’ “moral welfare” are raised.# However, not only due to methods of searching, they are often much more difficult to identify due again to language and its ambiguity in modern interpretation. To illustrate this more fully, it is useful to use a case of a lesbian relationship in the records.
In contrast to gay men, homosexuality between women has never been a crime and therefore the levels of readily available research areas within the public records are fewer.# Successful research into lesbian relationships and women having sex with women is currently less discoverable within The National Archives collection, often simply due to the difficulties in identifying material accurately. For example, Sylvia Townsend Warner was a novelist who for over 30 years was in a relationship with the English modernist poet Valentine Ackland.# The Security Service kept the pair under scrutiny throughout the Second World War and beyond as active members of the Communist Party. A detailed file was therefore kept containing information, observations and private details of the two women and is held at The National Archives.# In the file, they are described as "sharing a house" and nothing more, it is only through prior knowledge of the couple that their relationship would be known. Clearly not all examples of women "sharing a house" within the records are lesbian relationships, but at the same time, without interpreting these records through an LGB lens, examples such as this would be missed.
Examples of the same problem exist throughout the historical records. Two men sharing a bed in a Victorian workhouse caused the overseers much discomfort, but we are not clear whether this discomfort stems from the issue of potential gay sex or that there aren't enough beds to go round.# Or, looking back to the Early Modern period, are outpourings of love and 'close friendships' within the letters of literate women to their female friends, more than what they seem?
Interestingly, in the documents of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force), just such a debate appears in one of the files themselves. Although female homosexuality was not an offence in law, including under the Armed Forces Act, dismissal or at least re-mustering following significant enough suspicion, was preferred to avoid the “vice” and its effect on “young impressionable women”.# It was very hard to prove that a woman was a lesbian however, as one officer remarks:
“It should … be remembered that affectionate friendships between women are not only natural but are an essential part of a well balanced and happy life... To distinguish between healthy affection and lesbianism is often exceedingly difficult and the greatest care should be taken not to suspect evil where no evil exists. On the other hand, it is wise to keep a weather eye open in a female community.”
It is likely that most dismissal cases were based on observations of a woman’s behaviour and relations to other women. This meant that other reasons and justifications for discharge and discipline had to be developed in a number of policies and procedures in order for the dismissal to take place, which form the subject of files in the archives. Despite the lack of any clear legislation or regulation against gay women or instances of lesbianism in the forces, it was clear that it would not be tolerated, and attitudes and beliefs of the time stated quite plainly: “A discharge even on good evidence, if questioned, might be difficult to justify; and accordingly a fictitious cause for discharge might be the only (though unsatisfactory) course. I doubt the value of disciplinary action as such individuals are psychopaths.”
As with perceived ambiguous behaviour amongst the WAAF women, ambiguous language without the clear accusations of criminal cases for example, can make it impossible to ever be truly certain about what we are looking at, and what dangers does this pose for misinterpretation of the historical record?
In his chapter, ‘The Textuality of the Archive’, Andrew Prescott sums up this relationship between the past, the present and text:
“Elton was too good a historian to think that history was simply the recovery of events. He defined history as ‘not the study of the past but the study of present traces of the past’ (Elton 1969, 20). Insofar as those traces are overwhelmingly textual, our relationship with the past is constantly mediated by the limitation and uncertainties of the texts which survive. Our investigation of the past is an exploration of those very uncertainties and ambiguities.
Despite some the issues discussed above, from the initial ‘dark corners’ of criminality, the research carried out by the ARCHUS LGBT research group has now spread far and wide through The National Archives collection thanks to dedicated perseverance. By beginning with areas of government intervention, developing knowledge of contemporary terminologies and the various filing systems of government, the research group have been able to cast their net progressively wider and have uncovered many LGBTI ‘diamonds’ previously hidden behind outmoded language or a lack of cataloguing.
For example, Dr. Louise Chambers's research unexpectedly revealed Ministry of Pensions files from the 1950s documenting a sudden influx of requests by individuals to change their gender status on their employment and pension records which she went on to discuss in detail in a public talk delivered at The National Archives and later podcasted on our website.# Dr. Chambers has also carried out extensive research into discussions surrounding censorship within the records, illuminating an area rich in otherwise rare lesbian history. In early twentieth century files, she investigated the banning of novels whose narratives featured same sex relations between women, such as ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall and ‘Extraordinary Women’ by Compton Mackenzie. The discussions within the files of the Home Office and Director of Public Prosecutions reveal attitudes towards homosexual female relationships as there was no specific statute that defined what was or was not ‘obscene’ and thus it required interpretation and debate.#
In the same vein, one of the most interesting areas that has developed thanks to the work carried out by another member of the research group, Beth Brook, is knowledge of the developments in government policies towards LGBTI groups and individuals within the Civil Service itself.
As a government department, the opportunity for The National Archives to highlight an area of its own ‘hidden histories’ is a rare and welcome one. Research in this area is an excellent example of the diverse corners of the collection LGBTI history can be found in, and records of official attitudes recorded. For example, concerns were raised in the 1950s over the conduct of civil servants and whether the security of the state should be in the hands of men and women prone to ‘failings’. The Statement on the Finding of the Conference of Privy Councillors on Security included the following paragraph:
39. The positive vetting system is of great value in this matter. But experience has shown that no Department can afford to be without current information of failings (such as drunkenness, addiction to drugs, homosexuality or other forms of loose living) which may seriously affect a man’s reliability.#Along with alcoholism, homosexuality amongst Civil Servants was explicitly considered as a potential opportunity for blackmail and thus a threat to security. This policy was therefore incorporated into the Manual of Personnel Security Measures and meant that those known to be homosexual were kept in more junior roles, away from classified material and ultimately damaging their career prospects.
The ARCHUS LGBT group have used research such as this to produce an annual magazine, ‘Past2Present’, edited by Chris Park and published during LGBT History Month in February every year. Now published online, articles within it draw on a range of sources including many at The National Archives with the aim of “claiming our history, celebrating our present, creating our future”, widening the online resources available from the archival collection.These articles have been used in various other publications and continue to attract a wide and diverse audience and inspire further research. This process has also informed The National Archives as we develop our official research guidance in the area and look to mainstream LGBTI history in the future.
One of the most important research tools at The National Archives thus far is a research guide aimed at those starting out in the field of Gay and Lesbian history research.# In it, researchers are introduced to the problems discussed in this paper, and guided through the relevant points in LGB history in Britain in terms of relations with the state and thus where to begin research within the records. Crucially, the research guide includes a comprehensive list of terminology, gathered from a wide collection of sources, and expanded as the ARCHUS LGBT research group have come across them in the documents. Simply through the suggestion of approaching such research from different angles encourages nets to be cast further and widens the possibilities of new areas in the collection being included in any catch.
Even more recently, public talks and podcasts relating to the research carried out within The National Archives documents have been delivered and recorded and are available to researchers through The National Archives website.# As mentioned, Dr Louise Chambers has delivered two on the topics discussed above, relating to the censorship of lesbian literature and the issue of gender in the Ministry of Pensions in the 1950s; Dr Matt Cook has discussed the lives of Joe Orton and George Ives while Charles Tattersall explored the documents relating to the case of Oscar Wilde in great detail. Each talk opens up new areas of the collection and examines what can be found within if researchers persist in their work.
As discussed at the beginning of this paper, it is currently due to the commitment of individuals such as these that LGBTI research continues to grow at The National Archives. As all cultural organisations face an uncertain future of austerity, there will be an increasing reliance on, and need for, voluntary work in projects such as research and cataloguing. While TNA looks to expand and develop LGBTI work in the future, by harnessing the work of independent researchers alongside this, the collection will become richer and more discoverable every day. As Prescott suggests: “The idea that the archivist should not wholly control a catalogue, that users should be invited to comment and contribute on it and should not be locked out of the dialogue which surrounds the record, is a concept which springs directly from the discussion by figures like Barthes, Foucault and Derrida of the relations between text, author and reader.”
The National Archives is currently developing its new catalogue, ‘Discovery’, which will allow users to ‘tag’ documents in appropriate categories. With careful management, this tool has the potential to greatly widen the discoverability of LGBTI history in the future, empowering independent researchers to share their discoveries with others and ensuring any small piece of information is brought to the surface.
The future of LGBTI history at The National Archives is now well founded and ripe for further research. The organisation owes a huge debt to the researchers who have dedicated time and energy to the work thus far, and we hope to be able to work with them in future to publicise and expand the work being done much further. Although many of the hidden histories being uncovered are of a negative nature due to the attempts at repression and attitudes held by the state, through work such as this at public sector organisations for example, greater understanding is developing of the diverse and passionate history of LGBTI people and groups. It can be hoped that this will only increase as we move forward and finally become part of the mainstream histories known and taught by future generations. However, this will only be possible with the full acknowledgment and support of the organisations themselves of the importance of the subject and the necessary resources dedicated to it.
Brook, B., 2010, The Naked Civil Servants. In: Past2Present [Ministry of Justice LGBT magazine], 3, pp. 40-41.
Hansard., 1921, Commons Amendment: Acts of indecency by females [Online]. Available at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1921/aug/15/commons-amendment-2. [Accessed 29 May 2012].
National Archives, The., 2010, Gay and Lesbian History [Online Research guide] Kew, Surrey: The National Archives. Available at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/gay-lesbian.htm. [Accessed 29 May 2012].
National Archives, The., June 2010. Research enewsletter [Online newsletter] Kew, Surrey: The National Archives. Available at: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/research-enews-june-2010.pdf. [Accessed 29 May 2012].
National Archives, The., 2012, Freedom of Information [Online]. Available at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/foi/default.htm [Accessed 29 May 2012].
Park, Chris., 2012. LGBT History Project (Past2Present), [LGBT Blog]. Available at: http://libweb.anglia.ac.uk/referencing/harvard.htm [Accessed 29 May 2012].
Prescott, A., 2008. The Textuality of the Archive. In L. Craven, ed, 2008. What are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives. Hampshire: Ashgate, pp. 31-52.
Reed, B., 2005., Records. In: S. McKemmish, M. Piggott, B. Reed and F. Upward, eds. 2005. Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, NSW: Centre for Information Studies, p.114.
Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive, The., , Sylvia Townsend Warner: Biography [Online]. Available at: http://www.sylviatownsendwarner.com/stw_biography.html [Accessed 29 May 2012].
AIR 2/13859 Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF): treatment of immorality; policies and procedures regarding lesbianism/homosexuality; cases of homosexuality between members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). Includes lecture on 'unnatural relationships between airwomen' given to the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF), 1945-1968.
AIR 2/18644, Moral welfare: unnatural friendships (homosexual practices), 1970-1973.
CAB 129/80, 51-100, 1956 Feb 29 - Apr 17.
CO 295/393/60: Sends Mr Browne's explanation with reports on irregular payments from Mayaro Savings Bank to a 'coolie' [indentured labourer] named Padarat. No. 338, folios 413, 6 October 1899.
CRIM 1/41/6, Defendant: QUEENSBERRY, John Sholto Douglas, Marquis of Charge: Libel., March 1895.
CRIM 1/2900, Defendant: BRESLIN, Thomas and another Charge: Gross indecency., 18th February 1958.
CRIM 1/3273, Defendant: LAMBIE, William Charge: Gross indecency., November 17th 1959.
CRIM 1/3603, Defendant: BERINGER, Paul Charge: Gross indecency., March 1st 1961.
HO 45/24514, LIST OF CRIMINAL CASES: WILDE, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills, convicted at Central Criminal Court on 20 May 1895 of gross indecency and sentenced to 2 years' penal servitude with hard labour: medical reports and petitions; enquiries, requests and petitions from members of the public during period of sentence, June 1895 – May 1897.
HO 291/123, General notes on homosexual offences and prostitution, parliamentary questions, consultations, MP's views, House of Commons debate, 1957-1958.
HO 291/125, Leo Abse's bill to amend the law re homosexual offences, public and press reaction, Morale Welfare Council, Homosexual Law Reform Society, parliamentary questions, blackmail of homosexuals., 1960-1964.
KV 2/2338, Sylvia TOWNSEND-WARNER: British. The file contains extensive material on Valentine Ackland with whom TOWNSEND-WARNER shared a house. Both were well known in Communist intellectual circles before and immediately after the Second World War, 1937-1955.
MH 102/71, St Josephs Boys School, Manchester: memorandum on number of boys committed to senior schools while on licence; correspondence on indecent acts within the school; proposed move to other premises, 1937-1938.
MH 12/9534/128, Folio 169. Draft letter from the Poor Law Board, to John Kirkland, Clerk to the Guardians of the Southwell Union, to ask if the guardianshave adopted the house committee's report, and to point out the Poor Law Board's continuing disapproval of 2 men sleeping in the same bed., February 1st 1868.
PCOM 8/432, WILDE, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills, at Central Criminal Court (CCC) on 20 May 1895 convicted of gross indecency, sentenced to 2 years hard labour: enquiries and requests to visit during sentence. See also HO 45/24513-24516 & 25894, April-October 1895.
PCOM 8/433, WILDE, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills, at Central Criminal Court (CCC) on 20 May 1895 convicted of gross indecency, sentenced to 2 years hard labour: enquiries and requests to visit during sentence. See also HO 45/24513-24516 & 25894, 1895.
PIN 43/595, Change of sex cases: Earnings Related Contributions; disclosure of information; change of sex on birth certificates; Alex Carlile's Private Member's Bill on Gender Identity (Registration and Status) 1996, 1975-1996.
PIN 61/27, Change of sex. Includes details of discussions amongt officials relating to transsexuals pension age, 1958-1971.
PROB 4/4736, Wildes [Wild], George, of Rotherhithe, Surrey, mariner, a poor cripple and pensioner, 24th May 1683.