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The Story of LGBTQ+ Activism in Lancaster and Morecambe

The towns of Lancaster and Morecambe have been forerunners in LGBTQ+ activism and recreation in the North of England since the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, both Lancaster and Morecambe have had flourishing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning, Plus (LGBTQ+) communities. The thriving social scene and activism that has taken place in the area contributes significantly to the movement towards equality for LGBTQ+ people in Britain.

The research and content detailed in this blog are taken from the Morecambe and Lancaster LGBTQ+ trail. The trail tells the local story of LGBTQ+ history through the spaces and places people met to express their identity and sexuality, network, and raise awareness and funds for social action.

For a few years the Lancaster branch of the Gay Liberation Front became the most confrontational opposition to homophobia.

A member of Lancaster’s LGBTQ+ community in the 1970s.

The project was researched and developed by local contributors who gave personal accounts, stretching the last 50 years. The support given by these activists to those affected by the AIDs virus, as well as their contribution to women’s rights and women escaping domestic violence was considerable.

Lancaster Castle and the Isaac Hitchen’s House case

Georgian gentlemen at their club. G. M. Woodward © Wellcome Images.

In 1806, a raid took place at Isaac Hitchen’s house in Great Sankey, near Warrington, twenty-four men were arrested. Isaac’s house was what was then referred to as a ‘molly house’ or meeting place for homosexual men. At the time sex between men was criminalised and punishable by death and five of the men, including Hitchen himself, were sentenced to death by hanging at Lancaster Castle.

On an internal wall in the John O’Gaunt gatehouse, there is a rare example of graffiti from the 18th century. It was carved into the wall by John Bailey, who was arrested for homosexual practices. The graffiti is written in Georgian gay slang describing how he had been “committed for kissing”. He was arrested by Brindle, who was a member of the ‘The Reformation Society’. During the 18th and early 19th centuries this group took it upon themselves to try and stamp out drinking, gambling, prostitution and homosexuality.

Listen to a folk song about the Isaac Hitchen’s house raid

Morecambe Pier

Central Pier, Morecambe. Walter Scott Collection © Historic England Archive

The Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) held its first national conference on Central Pier in Morecambe in 1973. The event was not without some local controversy; CHE records and correspondence in the local newspapers indicate that Morecambe town council initially blocked the conference booking. While the conference did eventually go ahead, attendees were met with homophobic protestors who demonstrated outside the conference venue every day.

We had to run the gauntlet through a whole lot of evangelical Christians holding banners, telling us we were all going to hell.

Bill Fuge LGBTQ+ campaigner on the CHE conference at Morecambe Pier in 1973

Listen to an interview with Bill Fuge discussing the CHE Conference in Morecambe and his memories of the 70s nightlife.

Lancaster University

CHE © Robin Bloxsidge Collection

In 1964, Lancaster University was founded. From its early days, it became a significant focus for LGBTQ+ activism in the area as many students and staff embraced the emerging liberation movement of the period. Hundreds of students came out as gay and lesbian, creating positive awareness campaigns, political protests against homophobia and a defiant same-sex social scene. As a result, Lancaster had a reputation in the 1970s as the ‘Queer University’. The university’s Gay Society (now LGBTQ+ Forum) held regular meetings on campus and discos in the Chaplaincy Centre. Some students were also involved in the radical organisation, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

In Lancaster in the 70s, I was coming to terms with being gay, and having come to that realisation I wanted to do something about it. Lancaster University was seen as a pretty radical place.

LGBTQ+ activist living in Lancaster since early 1970s

In 1972, the GLF staged a successful protest at a Cliff Richard concert in the university’s Great Hall, organised by the Nationwide Festival of Light, a Christian movement campaigning against the development of the so called ‘permissive society’.

In 1976 the Lancaster Gay Group and Gay Society jointly hosted a conference of the Northwest Gay Activists Alliance, a group formed at the time of the blasphemy court case by Mary Whitehouse against Gay News.

LGBTQ+ activists protesting the sacking of a gay BHS Lancaster employee, 1976 © Global Link

Listen to a local activist’s account of Lancaster during the 1970s.

West Road Gay Collective

West Road, Lancaster, © Global Link

In 1971, a group of Lancaster University students, made up of two lesbians and two gay men decided to live as a collective in a house in West Road, Lancaster. The house became known throughout the 1970s as the West Road Gay Collective. The slogan “the personal is political” inspired the students, and they pursued a practice of total equality between the genders in their domestic and political lives.

We were young radicals challenging homophobia, sexism, racism, fascism and capitalism our house became a political hub for meetings to organise activist activities and interventions.

A founder member of the West Road Gay Collective

The house was a hub for organising lesbian and gay campaigns, and other political campaigns – and they formed Lancaster Gay Action Group, which became the Lancaster Gay Liberation Front in 1971. The West Road Collective also became a significant place for transgender people at the time.

Listen to one of the members recount their memories of the collective.

Lesbian and Gay Switchboard at the Single Step Cooperative

Single Step Cooperative, Lancaster © Single Step Cooperative

In 1976, the Lancaster CHE group set up the Lancaster Gay Switchboard (the first LGBTQ+ helpline in the Northwest), and relaunched it in 1991 as Lancaster Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, which ran until 2007. It was operated from the Single Step Cooperative, a radical bookshop that also sold dried wholefoods. Staffed by volunteers and open two nights a week, the Switchboard aimed to provide support and information to LGBTQ+ people locally and throughout the region.

The service meant a lot. There were switchboards in larger towns, but there were large parts of the country that weren’t covered. We did get people calling from quite remote places – Southern Lakes is an obvious example… who felt they had nobody else to talk to.

Alistair, a volunteer at the Lancaster Gay Switchboard

In 1979 the Switchboard, supported by the CHE, took a complaint to the Press Council concerning a piece written by John Junor in the Sunday Express, about the Lancaster Gay Switchboard. He suggested it promoted ‘discrimination in favour of queers’. Junor’s article galvanised a strong response from various gay groups in Lancaster, and the Press Council upheld their complaint.

Switchboard LGBT+ logo

Another helpline that operated from Single Step was Aidsline, which was set up in 1987, with the support of the Lancashire Health Authority, and ran until 1995. Aidsline was open one night a week, providing support and information for anyone affected by HIV. The helpline did a lot of work in awareness-raising and training around HIV. The Lesbian Line feminist group held their meetings at Single Step in the 1990s, and women’s discos were regularly held in the basement and upstairs.

Listen to Alistair’s account of working on the switchboard.

The Plough Pub

Lancaster Women’s Refuge

Women’s Centre, Lancaster, © Global Link

In the 1970s, the Plough pub opened as a refuge for women and their children escaping domestic violence. A group of feminists and lesbians set up the refuge, and volunteers and paid workers ran it. It was linked to the national Women’s Aid organisation, the national coordinating group for the feminist-initiated refuges. The Plough later functioned as a women-only information and meeting space. Early discussions for Greenham Common women’s peace camp took place there, in the early 1980s.

In the early 1990s, a group of women from Lancaster worked with the North British Housing Association (now People for Places) to set up Lancaster and District Women’s Aid (LDWA, now Empowerment). LDWA was formally challenged by the local authority, who voiced their reservations about setting up a place of safety for women, who may subsequently need to be housed in Lancaster. Undaunted, LDWA continued campaigning, petitioning on the streets of Lancaster. LDWA finally established a new women’s refuge (present location confidential), which offers safety for women seeking refuge from domestic violence.

The Friend’s Meeting House

A local love story about Sarah and her girlfriend, who had their civil partnership ceremony at the Friend’s Meeting House in Lancaster © Global Link

In 1988, the Quakers held an event to discuss attitudes towards homosexuality, which several people from the Lancaster LGBTQ+ community attended. The Friends Meeting House now holds meetings for commitment and celebration for civil partnership ceremonies.

We knew it was the right place to be, for the first time in our lives being lesbians was not unusual or extraordinary. Sarah joined the Quakers and she was part of a faith community who accepted our sexuality, rather than pass judgement on it.

Taken from ‘A Love Story for Lancaster’.

Ashton Memorial

Since the Civil Partnerships Act in 2004 and later the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013, the Ashton Memorial has been a venue for same-sex civil partnership and wedding ceremonies.

The Gregson Centre

SALLIES, Lancaster, © THE SALLIES

During the 2000s, The Lunettes, a local lesbian network held meetings at The Gregson Centre. The Lunettes began small, meeting once a month, face-to-face get-togethers grew, and at its height, the mailing list included over 100 women from Cumbria, Lancaster and south to Preston.

It is the late 80s and the coming of WILD – Women in the Lancaster District – with its own long running newsletter, which gave birth to Lavender Lounge and Dancing Divas, (still going strong!) Friday nights once a month Upstairs at the Yorkie.

Taken from A brief history of lesbian Lancaster in six nights out

For several years, the Lunettes were important in helping local lesbians have a social life. As time went on, a new group called SALLIES (South Cumbria and Lancaster Lesbians) was established, SALLIES became the leading social network in Lancaster.

Lancaster Parish Church

In 2014, Reverend Chris Newlands, the former Vicar of Lancaster Parish Church, created the first liturgy in England for a transgender person.

This affirmation service was developed especially for a young man who had transitioned from female to male, so he could renew his baptismal vows with his new name.

Reverend Newlands was appointed to the Anglican Church’s General Synod in 2015, and planned to make this transgender affirmation service available whenever required throughout the Anglican Church.

Looking to the future with Morecambe Winter Gardens

Morecambe Winter Gardens © Historic England Archive

The Winter Gardens opened in 1878 as the People’s Palace and included baths, entertainment and an aquarium. The building later became a ballroom. In 1887 it doubled in size with the construction of the Victoria Pavilion alongside it. The two buildings were known as the Victoria Pavilion and the Oriental Ballroom.

The Winter Gardens were very popular throughout the 20th century, and in the 1930s were extensively refurbished. However in the late 1960s and 70s they fell into decline, and the whole complex was closed in 1977. In 1982 the Ballroom was demolished, leaving only the theatre.

The beautiful building languished for several years on the heritage at risk register, and happily in 2019 the venue’s preservation society received funding to carry out extensive renovations. The venue is set to re-open in Easter 2022 with a performance of adult pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens, which features several contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In the words of RuPaul, all that remains to be said is:

Morecambe Winter Gardens, Shantay, you stay!


Visit Documenting Dissent to learn more about Morecambe and Lancaster’s important LGBTQ+ history.

Credits

Thank you to Global Link staff and volunteers for the photographs.

The Documenting Dissent Project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and provided by Global Link.

Further reading

Morecambe Winter Gardens

1 comment on “The Story of LGBTQ+ Activism in Lancaster and Morecambe

  1. Phil Johnson

    Just to put this correct the first photo is the CHE Liverpool City group on our first canal cruise in Cheshire .I am the chairpers in the big hat Phil Johnson
    then in Wirral.. on

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