An illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler
Reading lists

How books are revealing a new queer history of the UK

British history is bustling with the ordinary pleasures of queer lives. Here Kate Wyver recommends some offering a fresh - and joyful - perspective on our LGBTQ+ history.

Take a walk around Piccadilly on a Thursday evening in 1792, and you’ll be at the heart of it all. If a woman pushes past without apologising, let her go. She’s late for the weekly lesbian whipping club on Jermyn Street. When you cross the road and round the corner, mind out for the dishevelled young man discreetly pulling up his breeches. He’s just left the molly-house, having discarded his shepherdess costume at the whisper of police roaming nearby. 

British history is teeming with queer life and love. In the media, LGBTQ+ history is often told through the loud moments: the protests, the punishments, the legal changes. But when we look through the growing genre of queer history books, we go far beyond the headlines. With these, we see how Britain has always bustled with the ordinary pleasures of queer lives: found families, intimate networks, secret affairs, quiet romances and happy marriages, long before the law allowed. 

In his extraordinary book Queer City (2017), Peter Ackroyd traces 2,000 years of gay London, telling stories of gladiators, pirates, servants and kings. We learn how, in the 13th century, two men would engage in a ceremony to become “wedded brethren”, in the 16th, playhouses were sites for lust and scandal, and in the 18th, women carried ivory dildos disguised as dolls.

'Sexuality was a fluid, infinitely malleable and indefinite condition. It permeated the streets of London like the smell of pies and sweetmeats.'

Finding queer history in the archives can sometimes be a process of speculation. “Sexuality was a fluid, infinitely malleable and indefinite condition,” Ackroyd writes. “It permeated the streets of London like the smell of pies and sweetmeats.” He muses on a case from Roman London: two women in their mid-twenties buried together, each corpse curled into the other. Sisters or lovers? I know which story I prefer.

With trans history, it can be even harder to speak with certainty. “Labelling figures from antiquity with modern terms like ‘transgender’ is a dangerous thing,” says Christine Burns, editor of Trans Britain (2018). “People living hundreds of years ago couldn’t have ‘identified’ with such a term because it didn’t exist,” she writes. “What we can look for [... is] evidence for people living life in ways that apparently departed from a simple binary man-woman model of life.”

We can admire those who refused to bow to societal expectations, such as one of the subjects of Ackroyd’s study, the riotous John/Eleanor Rykener. A sex worker and seamstress who you’d bump into in the mid 1300s, Rykener went by the name Eleanor, wore women’s clothes, slept with priests and nuns, and once, after having stolen a gown from a randy rector, shouted that they shouldn’t be messed with, as they were the wife of a man with influence.

Sarah Ponsonby ran away with her lesbian lover Eleanor Butler, both escaping the men their families wanted them to marry. They wore top hats and riding habits and reportedly had a string of dogs named Sappho

Rykener’s bawdy confidence is refreshing when so much of queer history is mapped by tales of judgement and fear. “I found myself looking for examples of gay men who were happily coupled,” writes Paul Flynn in Good As You (2017), a charting of the last 30 years of British gay life and how it intertwines with pop culture. Unable to find queer people in his immediate surroundings when growing up in Manchester, Flynn turned to fiction, but quickly realised that depictions of gay relationships tended to result in “death, doom or disaster.” This can feel familiar when reading non-fiction too; I want to be able to look at a queer couple in history and know that, as far as society allowed, they were happy. 

One rousing example can be found if we leap to Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1778. If you look closely, you might get a glimpse of a woman climbing out of a window. Dressed in a man’s riding breeches, she’s holding a pistol and a tiny dog. This is Sarah Ponsonby, who ran away with her lesbian lover Eleanor Butler, both escaping the men their families wanted them to marry. Finding peace in a quiet village in North Wales, they wore top hats and riding habits, installed stained glass windows in their gothic cottage, and reportedly had a string of dogs named Sappho. The couple lived together for half a century, and their housekeeper said she believed “no two people ever lived more happily.”

Several decades later, in 1822, the pair were visited by a stern and heartbroken young woman called Anne Lister. Butler, then 80, was too ill to receive her, but Ponsonby spent the evening with the young landowner, talking of books and nature. When Lister left, Ponsonby pressed into her hand a single rose, which the young woman dried and kept. 

Find out more

The journals of the Halifax-based Lister, of BBC's Gentleman Jack fame, are published and contextualised in Helena Whitbread’s The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (2010). They amount to four million words, with margins and gaps densely packed with scribbles, and a private code detailing her intense feelings for women. “I love and only love the fairer sex,” Lister wrote. “My heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

Most people don’t leave so many details behind. Lots of queer lives are memorialised only by an outraged newspaper clipping or notes from a curious court case. But in Trans Britain, it’s suggested a lack of archival information isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes hidden histories can be indicative of the avoidance of scandal.

If you do a little digging, you can find the 19th-century inquests of the young actor Eliza Edwards (1833), labourer Harry Stoke (1859), and surgeon James Barry (1865). Only after their deaths did doctors realise these individuals were what we might now understand as transgender. That they all seemed to avoid the intolerant public gaze until death suggests they had a chance to live as their rightful gender. At Edwards’ inquest, a 17-year-old called Maria, Eliza’s surrogate sister, said they had lived together for a decade, and she always believed her to be a woman. This 19th-century girl’s acceptance of and love for Eliza is a lesson many 21st century feminists could learn from.

'The largest gap in well-documented queer British history is race, with the majority of the queer Black activists we learn about being American'

The largest gap in well-documented queer British history is race, with the majority of the queer Black activists we learn about being American. “At one point,” says Ben Hunte in Gay Britannia (2019), a radio collection commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, “I was worried that I was the only gay Black man in existence.” There are still so few history books that tell the stories of people such as artist Patrick Nelson, choreographer Berto Pasuka, civil servant Ivor Cummings and activist Ted Brown, and remember spaces like The Shim Sham Club in the 1920s and the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre in the Eighties. As Stephen K. Amos says in his interview with Hunte: “We still have a long way to go.” 

Queer history is still being uncovered, researched, and newly made. In Trans Britain, Burns talks about living through the changes to trans legislation over the last few decades. “It was exhausting but exhilarating and life affirming,” she writes, speaking for much of the study of LGBTQ+ history. “And it wasn’t the end of the story by far.” 

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more