Towards a Queer History of Wigan … Bury Pride … You Speak Radio … My LGBT+ History Month


Thanks to Arthur Martland for researching and writing the following article:

Towards a Queer* History of Wigan

Wigan has a long queer history, as do most other places in the UK.  But where is it? And why is it not more widely known? At present all that has been identified would seem to be a few stray events, which are all in need of much further research. Not only is the paucity of historical records a problem, but also the fact that what has often been recorded has been penned by those who despise their queer brethren. Moreover, that which has been recorded is predominantly concerning queer men, where is the history of queer women, or of those who identify otherwise?

With regard to earlier records, there is a preponderance of criminal trials, usually accompanied by moralising cant and disparaging language. Few records produced by queer people themselves in Wigan have come to light so far, but, fingers crossed, there are some awaiting discovery.

The purpose of this article is to set out what little I have gleaned to date, which I hope, I and others are able to expand upon through further research and discoveries that will deliver a more comprehensive queer history of our borough, than is currently available.

The earliest record that has come to light is an indictment from 1760, wherein Ralph Harrison was accused of ‘that most detestable horrid and Sodomitical crime called buggery’ at Wigan. At that time, a guilty verdict meant a death sentence would be imposed; to date, however, Harrison’s fate remains unknown.

In 1806 Isaac Hitchin’s house at Great Sankey was raided by the authorities on suspicion of it being a ‘molly house’ (a term used at that time, and much earlier, to denote a house where queer men could meet others like them). A group of men were arrested, but many also escaped capture. Of those who did escape, records suggest that one was the scion of a local Wigan area landowning family. Of those arrested, all from lower class backgrounds, five were subsequently convicted at the Lancaster Assizes and hanged. The two magistrates whose evangelical zeal had fired their drive to root out Sodomites in Great Sankey wanted to continue their inquiries into several well-placed ‘gentlemen’ who lived locally, however local nobility lobbied the Home Office and the magistrates’ enquiries were swiftly curtailed.  

At the Lancaster Assize the following year, 1807, a man was convicted of attempting to ‘commit an unnatural crime’ at Wigan. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment and to stand on the pillory. For details regarding what cruelty pillorying entailed, I would refer the reader to research the punishment meted out to the queer men who met in Vere Street in London in 1810.

The persecution of those suspected of being queer in the Wigan area continued throughout the 19th century, with specific cases being identified in 1813, 1821 and 1847 (2 cases).

In addition to the prosecution of queer men in the 19th century, there were people in the Wigan area who came to the notice of the authorities as they chose to live, at least part, if not all, of their adult lives as members of the opposite sex. In 1860 the press reported a ‘Singular Case of concealment of Sex’ in its reporting of the life of John Murphy, who, whilst living his life as a man, was said to have been born a female by the name of Betty Lavin. And whilst the sensationally reported cases of Boulton and Park in London received daily national coverage when it was revealed that the two men had dressed as women and had paraded themselves across the capital, allegedly inviting other men to ‘conspire to commit sodomy’, similar cases of men attired as women for the suspected purpose of soliciting sexual contacts from other men were also reported in Tyldesley (1871) and in Wigan (1872).

In addition to the specific laws against buggery and sodomy, in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1886, a new offence of ‘gross indecency’ was formulated that criminalised virtually any sexual contacts between men whether in private or otherwise. This law was used to prosecute queer men in Wigan right up to the 1960s. One particular case however, in 1929, was against a local rugby player, who had played for both Leigh and Wigan clubs and who had even represented England in the English International Rugby Team of 1910. His prosecution was widely reported and destroyed his career and reputation.  On conviction he was sent to prison for 8 months with hard labour and he seems never to have recovered from the trauma.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe

Arresting queer men for alleged acts of gross indecency, intensified after the Second World War, most notably during the 1950s thanks to the encouragement of a particularly homophobic Conservative Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, and the widespread use of police entrapment. Incidentally, whilst Fyfe appointed the Wolfenden Committee, he did so in the belief that the committee would support the continued criminalisation of queer people. Thankfully, the committee after considering the laws against male homosexual activity, recommended that acts between consenting adults be decriminalised. Some politicians from both the Labour and Conservative Parties did not accept the committee’s proposals and continued to oppose reform, however, support for change was given by the, then, MP for Wigan, Alan Fitch.

Alan Horsfall

In 1958, local Atherton gay rights hero, Alan Horsfall helped to set up the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which subsequently became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) and, in 1974, at a meeting in Pemberton, the Wigan CHE local group was founded.

As highlighted earlier, up to the 1950s, the most widely available historical records concerning queer Wiganers have come from Police and court records; this presents obvious difficulties for the historian having to rely often only on the records kept by those who abhorred and detested queer people. Actual records from Queer Wiganers are virtually unknown until recent times, but some self-written records have come to light. In 1986 Kenneth Barrow set up the National Lesbian and Gay Survey to collect autobiographical reports from the community and the anonymous survey correspondent no 532, was a born Wiganer who reported their experience of growing up gay in the Wigan of the 1950s and 1960s. The current ‘Legacy of ’67 Project’ run by Mancunian artist, Jez Dolan and his partner, David Martin, are collecting oral histories of queer people and have included at least one recording from Wigan and hopefully more will follow.

The latter end of the 20th century saw great improvements in the legal and social position of queer people, but the struggle for basic rights was by no means easy, with many setback, especially following the introduction of Section 28 by the Conservative Government in 1988 (the notorious Section 28 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” nor “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This Section remained in place in England until 2003. Whilst the section revealed to some the true nature of the ‘nasty party’, Labour politicians too were split on their support for gay rights, as could be shown earlier when, in 1982, Wigan councillors voted to prevent information about gay support services from being distributed in their area. Thankfully times and minds did change and now we have full council support for both the Leigh and Wigan Pride events.

Hopefully you can see that there are some important starting points emerging for a queer history of the borough, which, with further research, will give a fuller picture of our shared lives.

© Arthur Martland

(*) Footnote:

The word ‘queer’ which in the late 19th and 20th centuries was widely used as a derogatory term for a gay man, has in recent decades begun to be reclaimed from its former pejorative use to become a positive self-identifier by LGBTQI people. ‘Queer’ is widely employed by artists and academics as an umbrella term to refer to all things non-heteronormative. Thus, ‘queer’ is often used to describe any sexual orientation or gender identity that is not heterosexual nor cisgender. For example, people who are lesbian, gay, asexual, or transgender may identify as queer.

Bury Pride

Join us for Bury Pride – celebrating love and diversity!

Bury Pride is the first Pride of the season and you can attend not only to have the most amazing time but to show your support to a cause that matters.

The event runs from 10.00am to 6.00pm on Saturday 29 April 2023.

This is a ticket only event. You will need to present your ticket to gain entry. Tickets are free – reserve a spot here.

Further information here.

You Speak Radio

With these podcasts students have been paired with LGBT+ activists such as Helen Zia, Bamby Salcedo, Phill Willson, and more.

In episode one, youth interviewer Cassidy All talks to journalist Helen Zia about her career in journalism and activism. After finding out about Cassidy’s interest in journalism, Helen Zia tells Cassidy what it was like to break into the journalism industry in the 1980s. Zia shares stories of her early struggles as a young journalist and talks about the role that integrity and perseverance has played in her career. Combining journalism and activism, Helen Zia speaks about how she fought to represent the groups and issues she cares about, and the necessity of paving the way for others.

Listen to all episodes here.

My LGBT+ History Month

LGBT+ History Month has been a busy month comprising:

  • Four Out In The City meetings
  • Out In The City trips:
    • Robinson’s brewery tour
    • Lowry Theatre
    • “(Un)Defining Queer” exhibition at Whitworth Art Gallery
    • Oldham Art Gallery
  • Out In The City Art Showcase launch at LGBT Foundation
  • OUTing the Past Festival at People’s History Museum
  • Contact Theatre:
    • “House of Suarez Presents: The Vogue Ball”
    • “Lady Bushra: Robbed”
    • “Ginny Lemon and Sister Sister”
  • Forever Manchester’s Annual Birthday Party – Out In The City awarded “Community Group of the Year”
  • LGBTQ+ History Month Literary Salon at Portico Library
  • Bi Film Fest – “Kajillionaire”, “Cicada” and 4 short films
  • “Journey to Dungeness” short film at Manchester Art Gallery
  • Love is Love: LGBTQ+ History Month Film Night – “Beautiful Thing” at Manchester Central Library
  • Vigil in memory of Brianna Ghey
  • Section 28 Handling Session in Manchester Central Library
  • Private view of launch of “Legacy of ’67” exhibition
  • Meet the Volunteer Manager Pizza Party at LGBT Foundation
  • Mindfulness Workshop at LGBT Foundation
  • “Section 28 – 35 Years On in Manchester” at Manchester Central Library
  • Pride in Ageing Advisory Group at LGBT Foundation
  • Community Session: Survivors Manchester at The Proud Place
  • “Hidden Voices: Hidden Histories” at Bury Met
  • Sophie Labelle – The Transgender Agenda
  • Manchester Cares Documentary Club – “A Secret Love”

Two events were cancelled due to strikes:

  • Vocal Cancer Workshop
  • LGBTQ+ Lecture “Love, Sex and the City: A LGBT+ History for Belfast”

Listen to some little known songs to celebrate LGBT+ History Month – the annual month-long observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history and the history of the gay rights movement. I hope you will enjoy. Press here.

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