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Pride of Place: 10 Buildings with a Queer Past

There are many untold queer histories of buildings and places that people have lived alongside for generations.

There are many untold queer histories of buildings and places that people have lived alongside for generations.

From the private houses of trailblazing individuals to the much loved local gay bar, the first venue in town to host equal marriage and everything in between. Here, we take a look at 10 places.

1. Shibden Hall, Halifax, West Yorkshire

General view of the south elevation of Shibden Hall, taken from the south-west
Shibden Hall, Listers Road, Halifax. Photo © Historic England Archive (DP087802)

Shibden Hall in Yorkshire was once home to the famed lesbian diarist Anne Lister, born in 1791. Her masculine appearance and sometimes eccentric behaviour earned her the nickname of “Gentleman Jack.”

Anne kept a diary throughout her life where she devised a code to record her innermost thoughts without fear of discovery, including her intimate feelings towards women.

2. Millthorpe, Derbyshire

Black and white photograph of Edward Carpenter and friends at his cottage in Millthorpe, Derbyshiree
Edward Carpenter and friends at his cottage, Millthorpe, Derbyshire. Photo © Sheffield Archives.

Edward Carpenter was the founding father of gay rights in Britain, living openly with his partner George Merrill at a time when hundreds of men were prosecuted for homosexuality.

Millthorpe was a place of pilgrimage for many, including the writers E M Forster and Siegfried Sassoon, and other less well-known women and men questioning their sexuality, including soldiers during the First World War.

3. Smallhythe Place, Tenterden, Kent

Smallhythe Place, Kent
Smallhythe Place, Kent. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Smallhythe Place was bought by the renowned Victorian actress Ellen Terry. After her death, her daughter Edy Craig, an early pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement and theatre director, continued to live there.

Craig lived at Smallhythe in a ménage à trois with the dramatist Chris St John (Christabel Marshall) and the artist Tony (Clare) Atwood until her death in 1947.

4. Reading Gaol, Berkshire

Fountain with Reading Gaol in background
Fountain with Reading Gaol in background.

Reading Gaol is where the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde spent eighteen months of his two-year sentence of hard labour for ‘gross indecency’.

Wilde later immortalised the institution, and his experiences, in his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897).

In 2017 Wilde, along with tens of thousands of other men, was posthumously pardoned for acts no longer considered a crime, under the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (also known as Alan Turing law).

5. Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, London

Walpole House, First Floor, Library, View From South East. (Colour).
Strawberry Hill, Waldegrave Road, Strawberry Hill, Richmond Upon Thames, London. Photo © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive.

Completed in 1776, Strawberry Hill was extensively remodelled by its most famous owner, writer Horace Walpole.

Walpole was one a group of four male friends who called themselves the ‘Committee of Taste’ and advised each other on architecture and interiors. There is no evidence Walpole had any sexual relationships with men, but he had a number of close friendships with other bachelors. He was described as an effeminate man by contemporaries and the decorative style of Strawberry Hill is often described as ‘queer gothic’.

On his death in 1797, Walpole left Strawberry Hill House to his niece, the lesbian sculptor Anne Damer, who lived there until 1811.

6. Carlton House, St James’, London

Fencing match between Chevalier de Saint-Georges and ‘La chevalière D’Eon‘ on April 9, 1787 in Carlton House. Painting by Charles Jean Robineau. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although demolished in 1825, Carlton House is best known as the London residence of the Prince Regent (later George IV) and location of a noted fencing match in 1787 between the gender-crossing Chevalier d’Eon and the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Having lost a French pension with the onset of the French Revolution, d’Eon’s prowess at fencing and appearance in women’s clothing proved a lucrative spectacle at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and other locations across the country.

7. Temperance Hall, Hulme, Manchester

The Illustrated Police News. Image © The British Library Board.

The Temperance Hall in Manchester was the site of an infamous cross-dressing ball in 1880, raided by police.

Police secured entry by giving the password ‘sister’ to the ‘nun’ guarding the door. Detective Sergeant Caminada reported seeing 47 men in ‘most fantastic fashion’, including 22 in ladies’ wear. Detective Caminada and his officers rounded up the men and took them to Manchester town hall for questioning. Several cab-loads of clothing were taken as evidence.

All were arrested and charged the following day with having ‘solicited and incited each other to commit an unnameable offense’.

8. The Gateways, Chelsea, London

Black and white photograph of Gina Ware.
Gina Ware was the proprietor of the legendary Gateways club at 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street, Chelsea.

Opened in the 1930s by a retired colonel, the Gateways club was the longest-running lesbian nightclub of the 20th century.

Lesbian-friendly since the 1940s, in the 1950s and 1960s the Gateways became an almost exclusively lesbian club, under the management of Gina Ware, and an American ex-airforce woman, Smithy, who was herself a lesbian.

The club became internationally famous and celebrated after it featured in the film The Killing of Sister George in 1968 – the extras in the club scenes were genuine Gateways members. It closed in 1985.

9. The Jacaranda Ladies Club, Hove, East Sussex

General view of adelaide terrace in Hove. East Sussex

The Jacaranda Ladies Club was set up in the early 1960s by Kay Morley.

According to an entry in ‘Daring Hearts: Lesbian and Gay Lives of 1950s and 1960s Brighton’ the club was shut down soon after a police raid. Today, very little is known about the club.

10. Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, Bedford

Bletchley Park Mansion, east elevation, view from east north east
Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. In 2013 Alan Turing was granted a posthumous pardon and Gordon Brown, who was Prime Minister at the time, gave an official apology for the “appalling way” he was treated. Photo © Historic England Archive.

During the Second World War, Alan Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking centre. Turing was instrumental in cracking intercepted coded messages that helped the Allies to defeat the Nazis.

In 1952, Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts. Rather than serving a prison sentence, he was chemically castrated, and just two years later died of cyanide poisoning, suspected to be suicide.

Further reading:

7 comments on “Pride of Place: 10 Buildings with a Queer Past

  1. RobWales

    I think you’ve over-stepped the mark with this. Is “queer” an acceptable way of describing gay people these days? It’s more commonly used in the tacky headlines of the cheap tabloid press, but Historic England……?

    • Hello Rob

      Thanks for your comment. We are using the word “queer” in the positive sense that is used by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people today, and we were advised to use it by our steering group made up of LGBTQ historians and community organisers. “Queerness” is a very useful concept when describing historical lives which do not fit neatly into modern lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender categories, and is also a term which is popular with many younger people who we want to reach.

      We are of course aware that it has been used in the past as a derogatory term, and we have a statement explaining our usage of on on our website. You can read the full article here but the relevant bit is:

      Pride of Place uses the term ‘queer’ both in its historical context and also as an inclusive term to indicate the complex experiences of sexuality and gender diversity across history. In the past, ‘queer’ has been used both as a term of derision and also of self-identification. Many others, scholars and community members alike, have reclaimed the term today, but use it differently: to capture the complexity of gender and sexuality not otherwise addressed by LGBT – it is also with this in mind we use the acronym LGBTQ.

      Hope this is helpful, please do come back to us with any more questions.

      • I self-describe as queer and yes, I don’t see the term as offensive. Like gay and dyke it’s been reclaimed, it’s also more of an umbrella term, and embraces the people who don’t completely fit within LGBT, also it has a more political aspect. Glad you used it.

    • I raised this as well Rob… As a gay man, if some one called me queer or described something i did as queer i’d take great offence and probably smack them.

      The problem is, what is acceptable now for usage when to some its a reclaimed word, some its an offensive word and to some its a descriptive word for gender-queer. Personally i’d have stuck with LGBTQ in the title and avoided the usage of “queer” as its treading on egg shells.

  2. Really interesting problem all this, for the concept now is in history space, so what was queer at any of these previous times may mean whatever you like. The reference to Carlton House is even more queer, for it involves Fred, Prince of Wales (for now he is dead); William Kent, about which there is a queeries bibliography; into which we can insert Burlington, Boyle, and thus Chiswick. The English Garden as a queer space opens up a whole knew volume.

  3. Caroline

    How could they get away with prosecuting someone for “an unnameable offence”?

  4. Number Nine. Kay Morley’s Jacaranda Club was raided and closed – despite much careful planning and high hopes – by the police at the private party held to celebrate its opening.

    A better Brighton choice would have been the St James’s Street Tavern: for many many years THE Lesbian bar in town. The pub and its fittings are still there. It deserves listing as a Place of National LGBTQ+ interest.

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