Known Homosexuals - Lesbian History In The Archives

By Anna Kisby | 12 February 2007
photo shows two women wearing edwardian mens clothes

Vera Holmes in drag as an actress with friend. Courtesy of the Women's Library

Anna Kisby presents a guide to researching lesbian heritage in Britain's museums, galleries, libraries and archives.

It’s hard to think of more than one or two museum displays that tell stories of lesbians in history. This doesn’t mean that the stories aren’t there – but they remain largely buried in archives, or in displays on quite different subjects. Public awareness of lesbian lives in history often doesn’t extend much beyond Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall.

Hence if you want to find out much about lesbian lives in Britain you will still need to go and hew your own exhibition from the raw rock face of history. This article describes some of the most promising places to start digging, and some of the finds that have already been made – stories of resourceful women who lived independent lives in restrictive times.

What will I find in the archives?

Material on the late 20th and early 21st century is relatively easy to find, compared to older material. In recent times, lesbian groups have been concerned to preserve the history of lesbian lives and many archives are actively collecting in this area. But because it's such recent history, much material remains in private hands. This means that what you locate will mainly be published material based around campaigns - such as pamphlets, periodicals and zines or artifacts such as badges and T-shirts.

photo shows red tshirt with image of axe

A t-shirt made by Hackney Lesbians. It's now held by the Lesbian Archive And Information Centre, Glasgow, which is reopening in 2008

What’s perhaps less common is collecting that doesn’t directly relate to political organising. The Museum of Croydon is an exception, with objects in its collection ranging from a 70s pregnancy dress belonging to a woman in a gay relationship, or the drill used by Meg Williams in her work as a carpenter.

photo shows 1970s patterned pregnancy dress

Sara Holmes pregnancy dress. Courtesy of the Museum of Croydon

photo shows close up of spidery writing

A close up from Anne Lister's diary - showing a mixture of words and coded text. Courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service

Lesbian relationships in earlier centuries, particularly the 18th-early 20th century are documented in personal papers – diaries, correspondence, photographs – and in official records. They also give an insight into public attitudes of the period.

While many pre-20th century records are oblique and discreet, Anne Lister’s diary is an exception. She lived from 1791-1840 at Shibden Hall near Halifax. Her diaries are in code, so it wasn’t until the 1980s that her astonishingly frank account of her affairs with women were rediscovered and published as I Know My Own Heart.

Noting who she went to bed with, and how many orgasms they had, this is one early record where the writer’s orientation is completely explicit.

Her original diaries are today held at West Yorkshire Archive Service.

How will I identify relevant records in the archives?

Records of lesbian relationships – particularly older historical accounts – are notoriously difficult to track down. Unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism was never criminalised. Invisible in law, it was not officially, and largely not publicly, recognised. Historical accounts are therefore harder to identify than those describing male homosexuality.

There is also the stumbling block of terminology. The terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexual’ weren’t current until the early 20th century, ‘gay’ not popular until the late 20th century. Searching for relevant material in the archives requires some background knowledge, patience and ingenuity.

photo shows a pride march with bubbles and rainbow flag in the foreground

Birmingham Pride. Courtesy of Birmingham Archives Photo: Brigitte Winsor

Researching recent history

Using keywords ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexuality’ will help you find records within specialist and local government archive repositories. It may take some work to pick out information relating specifically to lesbian experience within archives or files broadly about gay rights.

One tip is to broaden your search beyond records specifically relating to gay campaigning. Researching the archives of Second Wave Feminism – campaigning movements such as the Greenham Common Women, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Campaign Against Pornography – may be fruitful.

Researching pre mid-20th century history - personal papers

First-hand historical accounts of lesbian lives certainly exist in the archives. But many of these will be ‘hidden’ stories. In a different historical context, women we may label ‘lesbian’ would not have identified themselves as such. Researchers must judge when to ‘read between the lines’ of personal papers such as diaries and letters.

Often lesbian content in original documents isn’t explicitly flagged up in archive catalogues. Because lesbian relationships are usually only suggested or implied, the content may have been overlooked in the description of the archive.

Some archives feel that it is not historically appropriate to identify pre-20th century material in terms of lesbianism when it’s so difficult to prove the nature of many past relationships.

So looking up 'female companionship' could be a more promising line of research, especially where the relationship is described as ‘intimate’ or ‘lifelong’.

Engaging in ‘was she or wasn’t she’ debates about women of previous eras may be a fruitless activity. But the researcher will certainly find examples of women who stepped outside societal norms – who favoured close relationships with women and who rejected conventional feminine appearance and activities.

When searching for and reading documents it’s therefore useful to be aware of alternative historical labels and slang used to describe or imply lesbianism: ‘tribade’ (19th century); ‘sapphist’ (18th-19th century – also applied to promiscuous women); ‘tabbies’, ‘toms’ (19th and early 20th century).

photo shows woman with short hair and cravat

Irish novelist Mary O'Brien whose 1930s books touch on lesbian themes, and who is now acknowleged as gay. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery - you can see this photo on display on the first floor of the gallery, alongside photos of Radclyffe Hall

Another indicator of lesbian identity in earlier periods is masculine dress – though some lesbians involved in political movements, especially around women’s rights, will have avoided this.

Suffragettes were encouraged to look feminine – and anti-suffragist literature tried to defuse women’s equality campaigns by depicting them as ugly, hectoring, assertive and lesbian.

drawing shows sufragettes waving brollies in front of the houses of parliament

An anti-suffragette postcard: note the 'mannish' tie of the woman at the front. Courtesy of the Museum of London, which has extensive material on the suffragette movement.

Guidelines produced by The National Archives suggest that public sector records are a greatly untapped resource for research into lesbian history.

Records of same-sex institutions - such as schools, prisons and the military services - often documented anxieties about lesbianism in coded language. Be on the lookout for ‘medical’ labels: ‘deviant’, ‘delinquent’, ‘degenerate’, ‘pervert’, ‘neurotic’.

These terms were used to describe lesbianism as well as other aspects of female sexuality that were seen as problematic. Try searching official records using these terms as keywords.

photo shows three women in uniform

Vera Holme with Evelina Haverfield and colleague, in uniform, c.1916. Courtesy of the Women's Library

Where do I look?

Exploring lesbian history isn’t all about searching for a needle in a haystack. There are some archives that specialise in women’s history and/or gay history.

The Women’s Library, London holds archives that document women’s lives from the 19th century to the present day. Here the researcher will find campaigning material relating to Second Wave Feminism.

The Women’s Library is also a rich source of first-hand accounts of female relationships in the 19th and 20th centuries, including personal correspondence and diaries.

Holdings include the archive of Vera Holme, whose diaries, photographs and papers tell the story of her bohemian life - as a cross-dressing actress, suffragette chauffeur to the Pankhursts and servicewoman overseas during the First World War – and her romantic relationships with women.

photo shows picture of nurse walking dog embroidered on a bag

Bag depicting Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson or Dr Flora Murray,embroidered by a soldier patient, c.1917. Courtesy of the Women's Library

Louisa Garrett Anderson was a physician and suffragette who established a military hospital in London – her papers are also held at The Women’s Library. Although not clearly identified as a lesbian, Anderson shared her life with fellow doctor Flora Murray: their tombstone bears the words ‘We have been gloriously happy’.

Feminist Archive South (Bristol) and Feminist Archive North (Leeds) hold material on Second Wave Feminism (1960-present). Within these records the researcher will find material that specifically relates to lesbian relationships and campaigns.

The holdings of the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre, Glasgow, re-opening in 2008, include T-shirts, banners and placards from Pride and Lesbian Strength marches

They also have copies of Arena 3, the first British magazine for gay and bisexual women, launched in the 1960s.

photo shows a magazine cover

A copy of Arena 3 - courtesy of Lesbian Archive And Information Centre, Glasgow

The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive in North London has carefully preserved over 200,000 press cuttings from the ‘straight’ press – wherever there are references to gay experience.

Older material often contains public moral outrage, stories of shame and arrest among men – and a smattering of stories of women disguising themselves as men in order to either live with or even marry their female partners.

photo shows newspaper headline saying the truth about lesbians we dont want to be cured

This is the headline of an article published in 'Titbits' on August 2 1969. It tells us in a tone of slightly horrified relish that this is "the final part of our investigation into these misfits in the twilight of a hostile world". It claims "there are more than a million lesbians in Britain today, and the number is growing."

Also held at LAGNA is an article from the January 1963 issue of The Twentieth Century called 'A Quick Look At The Lesbians'. It portrays public ignorance, a somewhat gloomy and fusty image of lesbianism, and takes Freudian psychology as gospel:

"Lesbianism is vaguely assumed to be essentially an activity of the intelligentsia. Even social workers take this view, sometimes to their cost. "Lesbians?" said a social worker in an East End district... "I don't think we'd have any here." A member of the Church of England's Moral Welfare Staff said, no, they didn't have any information about it. "I suppose we think it's not very nice."

It was reading this piece that persuaded Mary McIntosh and others to form the Minorities Research Group – the first group to openly advocate the position of lesbians in the UK.

You can read many of Mary McIntosh’s papers at the Hall Carpenter Archives now held in the basement of the London School of Economics. You can search their whole collection online before visiting the archive.

There is more material to discover dispersed around the UK in local area record offices and within University Special Collections.

Academic Libraries

Universities hold records of renowned individuals, ‘old girls’ and those with a local connection. It is particularly worth investigating the holdings of former women-only colleges.

For example, the archives at Royal Holloway, University of London include papers of former students that detail close female friendships. They also hold the archive of The Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company, which produced plays by Stella Duffy and Jackie Kay.

photo shows two women on stage in dungarees wearing large badges saying dyke

Jingleball - a gay sweatshop production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1987. All efforts have been made to contact the photographer, Sharon Smullen. This picture is held in the archives of Royal Holloway College

The National Lesbian and Gay Survey - autobiographical reports from gay men and women 1986-present – is held at University of Sussex.

Interviews with lesbians about their life experiences (for the HCA Oral History Project) can be listened to at the British Library National Sound Archive.

The National Library of Wales holds journals and letters of the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’: Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) who eloped together and became the centre of a renowned literary circle. This famous archive is available on microfilm at libraries nationwide.

photo shows old fashioned welsh house in elizabethan style

Plas Newydd, home of the ladies of Llangollen. Courtesy of the museum

photo shows crossed out marriage record

The deleted marriage record of 'John Brown' and Ann Steel. You can read more about their story here

Local record offices and city archive centres

If you’d like to know more about the lesbian history of your local area, traditional records – parish, court and manorial records – are held in local record offices and history centres. These records date back hundreds of years and can contain surprising stories.

Parish records at the Borthwick Institute, York, document a marriage between two women, Ann Steel and Barbara Hill, in 1756. Hill, in the guise of ‘John Brown’, had worked as a stone-cutter, farmer and coach driver before marriage. A curate’s note in the register states that John Brown was ‘discovered to be a woman dressed in man’s apparel and of course separated from the said Ann Steel’.

Their marriage was subsequently crossed out of the record books.

Recent history is easier to find, with some local authorities now carefully archiving material relating to gay rights, gay switchboards and Pride events. One such place is Birmingham City Archives. Their website tells more about some objects relating to gay and lesbian histories in the city archives.

The National Archives, the repository of central government, holds records that can yield information about changing attitudes to same-sex relationships over time. For example, it documents the censorship of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness in the 1920s.

painting shows marguerite radclyffe hall

A painting of Radclyffe Hall now held by the National Portrait Gallery

Look at legal records: libel and slander cases; divorce (where lesbianism may have been cited); those concerning the offence of ‘keeping a disorderly house’ – which may have been used against lesbian social venues; and records of same-sex institutions such as prisons and reform schools.

It is particularly useful to focus on records generated by the Home Office, the Prison Commission and Education department.

The following weblinks could provide further help with your research:

Useful Guides and Portals

Gay and Lesbian History at The National Archives: An Introduction

OUT THERE – pilot portal to LGBT archive resources

Archives Hub - a guide to lesbian and gay collections in UK universities and colleges.

Using the Access to Archives (A2A) database to search for lesbian and gay history sources in archives

Source Guide for the History of Manchester’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community

Sources for women’s history in the UK

Archives in London and the M25 area

ARCHON - contact details for UK archive repositories


Feminist Archive North

Feminist Archive South

Hall Carpenter Archives

Lesbian Archive and Information Centre

Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA)

The Women's Library

  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
Museum Crush digest sign up ad
We are culture24