Last edited 18 Dec 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Pride of Place: queer heritage

[edit] Equalities legislation, courageous curators and changing social attitudes have led to more openness around LGBTQ+ histories in heritage since the mid-2010s.

Shibden Hall.jpg
Shibden Hall, near Halifax. The lesbianism of its most prominent owner, Anne Lister, has increasingly been flagged up. (Photo: Alison Oram).

Ten years ago, in the early 2010s, only a handful of historic sites acknowledged their LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) histories. These included Sissinghurst in Kent, whose famous garden was made between the 1930s and 1960 by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Both were widely known – on the basis of letters, diaries and biographies – to have had numerous same-sex relationships alongside their successful marriage. Another well-known site, Charleston in East Sussex, the country home of some of the Bloomsbury Group, including painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, acknowledged its queer bohemian histories in its guidebook and guided tours. These historic houses had courageous curators who were committed to telling the full history of their earlier inhabitants.

Many more places, even where there was a large amount of published material about their queer past, continued to ignore such histories in their interpretation. Horace Walpole’s amazing gothic fantasy home, Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, for example, obscured its queer roots until very recently. The silence around LGBTQ+ heritage had many causes: the anxieties of curators, local homophobia, the idea that heritage sites (especially country houses) should provide a ‘nice day out’ with nothing to trouble their middle-class visitors, and the deep-rooted connection of heritage to ideas of national identity.

Heritage is often seen as the last bastion of an imagined British nation, where social hierarchies of class and race, patriarchal family structures and heterosexuality are assumed to be natural and enduring features that should not be disturbed or questioned – especially in the recurrent conservative ‘culture wars’ around imperial histories and heterosexual norms. As soon as historians begin to interrogate these places and their pasts, however, this conventional facade is revealed to be skin-deep. All citizens need to see their pasts reflected in our national story. We have seen a welcome shift towards openness around LGBTQ+ histories in heritage since the mid-2010s, aided by changing social attitudes, equalities legislation, and the actions of individual curators and some national institutions.

From the beginning of the 2000s, New Labour governments encouraged the cultural sector to address the issue of social inclusion. Some organisations took the opportunity to include LGBT people and histories among those which had been under-represented. This process was encouraged by the equalities legislation of 1997–2010, especially the Civil Partnership Act 2004, culminating in the Equality Act 2010, which directed public bodies to actively promote the equality of groups of people with various characteristics, including ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender reassignment’. The heritage sector remained very cautious, however, and it was the actions of two major national bodies, the government agency for the historic environment Historic England and the voluntary sector National Trust that helped to change practices from 2015–16.

Between 2015–16 I led the special project ‘Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ+ heritage’, commissioned by Historic England with a team of social historians, urban planners and architectural historians. With a focus on public engagement and social media, one of Historic England’s aims was to ‘create a permanent record of buildings associated with LGBTQ+ history which will be accessible to the heritage sector and the public as a whole’. The main achievements of Pride of Place continue to be available online to the public and heritage practitioners. They include new and amended list descriptions (that is, national heritage designation) for selected LGBTQ+-related sites, and a crowd-sourced interactive online map which identifies queer buildings and places across England. There is also an extensive, 35-page online exhibition on LGBTQ+ history and heritage, teachers’ resources for secondary schools and a DIY guide for the public on how to go about researching and protecting queer places at a local level.

For Pride of Place we defined ‘queer heritage’ as incorporating homes and public places where people acted on their same-sex love and desire for each other; places where they crossed gender to pass as the opposite sex; buildings where courageous individuals organised politically to change homophobic laws; and sites of commemoration of same-sex love. We included elite buildings and everyday places, those recognisable as conventional heritage sites, and others relevant to LGBTQ+ history in popular memory, including places that were no longer extant.

In this way, Pride of Place emphasised the materiality of place as a repository of queer heritage. In our roadshow talks with the public, I talked about how the queer past lies all around us, soaked in the pavements we walk on, the bricks and mortar of the locations we visit, and the buildings that stood on these sites earlier. We didn’t forget the open spaces, either – those gardens laid out with a queer eye, the heaths and parks that were and are cruising grounds, and the places where crowds have congregated to demand legal and social change. One example of the last is Albert Square in central Manchester, where LGBTQ+ people and their allies gathered in 1988 for a huge demonstration against Section 28. Pride of Place – as can be seen in the online exhibition – valued people’s everyday queer heritage, not only the classic sites preserved as elite heritage.

We emphasised that the architecture and design of buildings and places could be queer in itself, that a thread of queer sensibility links many sites, for example in the use of camp and artifice or the reworking of historic styles. Strawberry Hill House is one such place, where Horace Walpole deployed the neo-gothic, creating ‘a little plaything house… the prettiest bauble you ever saw’. After Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby eloped from Ireland in 1778 and set up home as a couple at Plas Newydd in Llangollen, they too promoted this queer fashion, extending their library to include three pointed gothic-style windows and a coloured glass lantern embedded in the door.

As historians we wanted to use the term ‘queer’ to try to explain that our identity categories today (lesbian, gay, trans etc) are historically specific and it is usually anachronistic to apply them to the past. Queer signals the varying historical meanings around gender and sexuality, some of them named, others ambiguous and unknowable. We included sites marking early modern sworn friendship or sworn brotherhood (discussed by Alan Bray) in which two men (or two women) pledge their affection, creating kinship in a Christian context, and may be buried together, as are the 17th-century men Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines in a joint tomb in the chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge. It memorialises, in Finch’s words, ‘the beautiful and unbroken marriage of souls, a companionship undivided during 36 complete years’. More prosaically, we also used the term ‘queer’ alongside LGBTQ+ in Pride of Place in order to be widely inclusive of all non-normative sexual and gender identities past and present, as well as for its convenience as an umbrella term.

With Pride of Place, Historic England led the way for the heritage sector to positively celebrate LGBTQ+ histories. This was reinforced in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of sex between men, when the National Trust launched Prejudice and Pride as its theme for that year. The trust identified a dozen of its properties as having significant queer histories (clearly there are many more) and organised special interpretative strategies for them, as well as a new LGBTQ+ guidebook. One of these places was Kingston Lacy in Dorset. Its owner, William Bankes, had to flee the country in 1841 after being arrested for indecency with a soldier – which at the time could be a capital offence – but continued from his exile to have his house spectacularly renovated. In 2017 this aspect of the LGBTQ+ past was remembered in a powerful installation at Kingston Lacy of 51 knotted ropes suspended in the hallway, marking the lives of the 51 men who were hanged for sodomy during Bankes’ lifetime.

Shibden Hall, near Halifax in West Yorkshire, exemplifies the development of queer heritage. Anne Lister (1791–1840), its most prominent owner, was an unmarried, socially ambitious and entrepreneurial woman, who inherited the estate from her uncle in 1826. From her teenage years onwards she had numerous same-sex relationships, eventually settling down in the 1830s with an heiress from a neighbouring estate, Ann Walker. Anne Lister’s sexuality came into public view through the work of the local historian Helena Whitbread, who first decoded and published extracts from Lister’s diaries in 1988. Owned and managed by the local authority since the 1930s, Shibden Hall is promoted as a public park and house museum. Anne Lister’s lesbianism has increasingly been flagged up since the 1990s.

Anne Lister reconfigured the house and estate in the 1830s to assert her social status, bringing romantic landscaping to the grounds and building a fashionable rustic hut where she could pursue her courtship of Ann Walker in privacy. She refashioned the fairly modest manor house by installing a new Victorian, mock-Tudor fireplace and panelling in the main room. She invoked the gothic style by adding a gallery, creating the effect of an open medieval manor hall. This use of the gothic was echoed in a Norman tower for her library and the addition of Lister lions — the family symbol — carved in stone and wood. Anne Lister’s use of the neo-gothic and the recycling of other historical architectural forms means that Shibden can be placed into the queer architectural lineage of 18th and 19th century Britain, these styles often being associated with same-sex desires.

A Shibden pamphlet dating from the 1970s described Anne Lister as ‘the most outstanding and remarkable member of her family’. At this point her sexuality was still obscured, although a few clues were available: ‘At a very early age she decided that she would not marry’. Like many historic houses, Shibden was promoted as a historic ‘family home’ offering a family day out. What the site actually does, however, is to reflect the history of the rather queer and non-normative Lister family. It was not only Anne who pursued an atypical sexual and emotional life. The generations above and below her also married rarely or had few children. So Shibden demonstrates the fragility of the heterosexual family and points to the diverse family patterns of the past.

This is particularly appropriate in a locality which includes the nearby towns of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, both well known as having a high proportion of lesbian and gay couples and families since the 1980s. Shibden Hall now has an international queer following, too. The BBC TV hit drama Gentleman Jack, now in its second series, has made Shibden Hall and Halifax an astonishingly popular new site of queer pilgrimage, where visitors can follow in the footsteps of Anne Lister and visualise her queer past, no longer half hidden but a central part of local heritage tourism.

This article originally appeared as ‘Pride of Place: queer heritage’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 173, published in September 2022. It was written by Alison Oram, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London and professor emerita at Leeds Beckett University. She has published widely on 20th century queer British history and on the representation of LGBTQ+ histories in heritage, especially historic houses. She led ‘Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ+ heritage’ for Historic England in 2015–16. Her books include Her Husband Was a Woman! Women’s gender-crossing and modern British popular culture (2007) and, with Matt Cook, Queer Beyond London (2022).

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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