Whilst on my work experience placement here at the WSHC, I was informed that BoBs (Best of Both) Youth Group wanted to know if there was any evidence in the archives of LGBT people living in Wiltshire in the past. My job was to lay some groundwork for the group, in order that they might then come to the History Centre and follow up the leads I had uncovered that they found most interesting. I jumped at the chance – this is a relatively untouched area of hidden history, especially in this county, and I was eager to see what could discover. However, I soon realised that this was going to be a much more difficult task than previously anticipated; they don’t call it ‘hidden history’ for nothing.
What has become evident over the course of my research is the unfortunate fact that the easiest place to find evidence of LGBT people pre-1967, when homosexual acts were made legal, is in court records. My first port of call when beginning this exploration was the Court of Quarter Sessions Calendars of Prisoners, dating back as far as 1854. One of the things to remember when searching for ‘crimes’ such as these at this period in history is that the language used to describe homosexual activity is very different to what might be used today and may be shocking to the modern reader; some of the more common terms include ‘unnatural offence,’ ‘abominable offence,’ and offences ‘against the order of nature.’ It is a stark reminder of the overriding attitudes towards homosexuality, especially during the 19th century, and the kind of labels that would have been applied to these people that they may not have been able to escape for the rest of their lives.