LGBT History in Wiltshire
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.
For one more well known example of someone from Wiltshire being convicted of homosexual activity, we must look back to 1540, when Walter Hungerford, 1st Baron Heytesbury became the first person in the country to be executed under the new Buggery Act of 1533, passed by King Henry VIII making all male-male sexual activity punishable by death. However, Hungerford was also under charges of treason – it is more likely that he was executed primarily for this, and the charge of ‘unnatural offences’ was simply a way of further soiling his reputation. There was little change in the laws surrounding sexual activity between men until 1861, when the death penalty for such activity was removed; from this point on until 1967 sentences varied in severity, with some perpetrators imprisoned whilst others escaped with merely a fine. It is interesting to note that homosexual acts between women were never made illegal in this country – consequently it has so far proven impossible to locate any archive evidence of the lives of homosexual women in Wiltshire.
My investigations into this area of hidden history continue, and I hope to broaden my search into areas concerned not just with criminal activity. I am uncertain how far I will realistically get, but it has certainly so far been an interesting venture.
MA Heritage Management student, Bath Spa University