The 200-year-old diary that’s rewriting gay history
A diary written by a Yorkshire farmer more than 200 years ago is being hailed as providing remarkable evidence of tolerance towards homosexuality in Britain much earlier than previously imagined.
Historians from Oxford University have been taken aback to discover that Matthew Tomlinson’s diary from 1810 contains such open-minded views about same-sex attraction being a “natural” human tendency.
The diary challenges preconceptions about what “ordinary people” thought about homosexuality – showing there was a debate about whether someone really should be discriminated against for their sexuality.
“In this exciting new discovery, we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that shouldn’t be punished by death,” says Oxford researcher Eamonn O’Keeffe.
The historian had been examining Tomlinson’s handwritten diaries, which have been stored in Wakefield Library since the 1950s.
The thousands of pages of the private journals have never been transcribed and were previously used by researchers interested in Tomlinson’s eye-witness accounts of elections in Yorkshire and the Luddites smashing up machinery.
But O’Keeffe came across what seemed, for the era of George III, to be a rather startling set of arguments about same-sex relationships.
Tomlinson had been prompted by what had been a big sex scandal of the day – in which a well-respected naval surgeon had been found to be engaging in homosexual acts.
A court martial had ordered him to be hanged – but Tomlinson seemed unconvinced by the decision, questioning whether what the papers called an “unnatural act” was really that unnatural.
Tomlinson argued, from a religious perspective, that punishing someone for how they were created was equivalent to saying that there was something wrong with the Creator.
“It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should make a being with such a nature, or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whom he had formed, should at any time follow the dictates of that Nature, with which he was formed, he should be punished with death,” he wrote on 14 January 1810.
If there was an “inclination and propensity” for someone to be homosexual from an early age, he wrote, “it must then be considered as natural, otherwise as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature; it seems cruel to punish that defect with death”.
The diarist makes reference to being informed by others that homosexuality is apparent from an early age – suggesting that Tomlinson and his social circle had been talking about this case and discussing something that was not unknown to them.
Around this time, and also in West Yorkshire, a local landowner, Anne Lister, was writing a coded diary about her lesbian relationships – with her story told in the television series, Gentleman Jack.
But knowing what “ordinary people” really thought about such behaviour is always difficult – not least because the loudest surviving voices are usually the wealthy and powerful.
What has excited academics is the chance to eavesdrop on an everyday farmer thinking aloud in his diary.
“What’s striking is that he’s an ordinary guy, he’s not a member of the bohemian circles or an intellectual,” says O’Keeffe, a doctoral student in Oxford’s history faculty.
An acceptance of homosexuality might have been expressed privately in aristocratic or philosophically radical circles – but this was being discussed by a rural worker.
“It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think,” says O’Keeffe.
“Even though this was a time of persecution and intolerance towards same-sex relationships, here’s an ordinary person who is swimming against the current and sees what he reads in the paper and questions those assumptions.”
Claire Pickering, library manager in Wakefield, says she imagines the single-minded Tomlinson speaking the words with a Yorkshire accent.
He was a man with a “hungry mind”, she says, someone who listened to a lot of people’s opinions before forming his own conclusions.
The diary, presumably compiled after a hard day’s work, was his way of being a writer and commentator when otherwise “that wasn’t his station in life”, she says.
O’Keeffe says it shows ideas were “percolating through British society much earlier and more widely than we’d expect” – with the diary working through the debates that Tomlinson might have been having with his neighbours.
But these were still far from modern liberal views – and O’Keeffe says they can be extremely “jarring” arguments.
If someone was homosexual by choice, rather than by nature, Tomlinson was ready to consider that they should still be punished – proposing castration as a more moderate option than the death penalty.
O’Keeffe says discovering evidence of these kinds of debate has both “enriched and complicated” what we know about public opinion in this pre-Victorian era.
The diary is raising international interest.
Prof Fara Dabhoiwala, from Princeton University in the US, an expert in the history of attitudes towards sexuality, describes it as “vivid proof” that “historical attitudes to same-sex behaviour could be more sympathetic than is usually presumed”.
Instead of seeing homosexuality as a “horrible perversion”, Prof Dabholwala says the record showed a farmer in 1810 could see it as a “natural, divinely ordained human quality”.
Rictor Norton, an expert in gay history, said there had been earlier arguments defending homosexuality as natural – but these were more likely to be from philosophers than farmers.
“It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalisation,” says Dr Norton.
Canal Street: The history of Manchester’s iconic ‘gay village’
Many cities have a ‘gay village’ – an area with bars and clubs where LGBT+ people can feel safe to express their identity. Manchester’s is called Canal Street. It’s recognised as one of the UK’s liveliest LGBT+ hubs.
The beginnings of Canal Street
In the 19th century, the area surrounding Canal Street was thriving – not with bars and clubs but with the cotton trade. Manchester had become Cottonopolis – at its peak producing 30% of the worlds cotton. At the heart of Cottonopolis was the network of canals that kept the cotton trade moving through the city.
Booms are typically followed by bust, and when canals were replaced by other transport methods and the cotton industry stalled, the areas around the canals became deserted. This vacuum created a red light district, attracting prostitutes and gay men to the area.
On the corner of Canal Street today stands a pub called the New Union. It was built in 1865, and in the 1950s became a place for lesbians and gay men to meet up.
It looks like a normal pub, but when you take a closer look you can see the windows are filled with clouded glass – anyone on the outside can’t see in. This meant that those in the bar wouldn’t be spotted by anyone walking past.
Decriminalisation and the raids
In 1967 homosexuality was partially decriminalised – gay men could have sex as long as it was in private, was only between two men and both were over 21. For many people it still didn’t feel safe to be openly homosexual, and for years there were still laws that could be used against LGBT+ Mancunians.
Long-time Manchester resident and LGBT+ campaigner Paul Fairweather recalls: “In 1978 the police raided Napoleon’s under ancient by law called Licentious Dancing, which prevented two men or two women dancing together and this clearly was an attempt to get the club shut down, which failed.”
During the 1970s and 80s these raids continued: “From the mid-1980s the police used to regularly raid Clone Zone. James Anderton, Chief Constable made a famous statement about gay men ‘swirling in a cesspit of their own making’. It was clearly very, very hostile to the lesbian and gay community,” says Paul.
Manchester’s first Pride and Manto
But despite that hostile environment from the police, the LGBT+ community in Manchester began to flourish, launching its first gay Pride in 1985. It started on a small scale – as a charity event for those with HIV and AIDS. Today it’s an internationally renowned event, attracting huge acts and thousands of visitors.
In 1990 there was another turning point: the opening of a club called Manto. With huge glass windows, you went there to be seen, not to hide.
Club manager Steph was there from the opening night: “Manto was an absolute game changer. Manto was the first venue that was visible.”
Canal Street goes Mainstream
By the end of the 90s Canal Street had grown and was ready for the mainstream. On 23 February 1999, three and a half million people tuned into Channel 4 to watch Queer as Folk. The series showed Canal Street to be full of great parties and an amazing atmosphere.
The success of the series made Canal Street internationally famous, and it meant that Canal Street now wasn’t just popular with an LGBT+ crowd. This was great for the businesses on the street, but for some it meant that the street lost some of its identity.
What some would argue was Canal Street’s loss is the rest of Manchester’s gain. As the new Millennium progressed, it became more normal for the bars and clubs of the city to fill with visitors who feel able to hold hands, find a partner, kiss, be themselves – something that were once only able to do on Canal Street.
Canal Street is still a popular destination today and continues to be somewhere for LGBT+ people to feel safe and express themselves.
The Chair of the Liaison Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has written to Jacob Rees-Mogg on legislation awaiting time in the Government’s legislative programme. This includes urging them to bring forward legislation to ban the practice of LGBT conversion therapy.
The Petitions Committee has continued to receive petitions on this issue and the Government has made repeated commitments in response. A petition “Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK” attracted 256,392 signatures. The petition is now closed.
Stonewall and the LGBT Foundation are jointly calling out to people with experience of conversion therapy:
“We have a real opportunity this year to push the Government to introduce an effective ban on conversion therapy. But we need to collect and share people’s experiences of conversion therapy to help us show the wide range of ways the practice is happening and the long-lasting impact it has on people.
A group of LGBT+ faith and health organisations are working together on the campaign, and Stonewall is coordinating how we gather people’s stories.
If you have experience of conversion therapy and would be interested in sharing your story (could be anonymously) please fill in this short form: https://stonewall.typeform.com/to/Sp8cfHZv
We will then contact people for a full story where their stories fit with the diversity of stories we want to tell.”