Through A Glass Queerly

Victoria Yates – Sociology Department (UCLan) with Dr James Hopkins and Dr Megan Todd

Through A Glass Queerly: Recouping LGBT+ Heritage from the Archives

Breaking out of the borders is like choosing to go outside, into the margins, to argue or expose that which no one will risk […] It means traversing new territories and disciplines, mapping fresh terrains […]

(Pérez, 1999: iii)

Archives provide one way in which we can seek to understand the past. They are sources that are partial and subject to the collecting decisions of individuals and groups that have prioritised the retention of some parts of our documented past and not others. As such, the existence – or non-existence – of archival sources relating to the LGBT+ past in archives immediately tells us something of whether the documented lives of such peoples in the past were deemed to be worth saving.

University archives, such as those at The University of Manchester and The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston, seek to be institutional repositories that enable us to glimpse at those institutions and their communities in the past. As such, they have the potential to enable us to better understand the lives of LGBT+ staff and students in the past. Equally, the silences in the archives of groups such as LGBT+ people tell us something of the challenges these groups faced in the past and, arguably, the challenges they face now, both through the lack of resources that exist on the lives of LGBT+ people in universities in the past but also the fact that we are talking about a community who frequently wished to avoid the eyes of the authorities – it is very difficult to ‘fix’ or ‘capture’ hidden lives . Often, the paperwork that does exist, such as minutes from committees and official publications, doesn’t present a rich account of these lives. Also, in many cases, past collecting strategies did not give the lives of such groups, for example their activism and societies, priority. This is something which we can rectify today.

Our ongoing project explores how universities have recorded their LGBT+ pasts; recording is part of a complex tale of histories, memories and identities. We have thus far concluded that such archives could be chronicled, organised and utilised in such a way as to better highlight the queer lives they document. In doing so, universities could legitimately demonstrate their inclusivity by recouping this queer history and legacy for the benefit of current, future and past students, and the wider community.

Our research began with a keyword search, using historic and contemporary concepts, within the archives of The University of Manchester which revealed several avenues of interest regarding records of LGBT+ lives. One such examination revealed a detailed resource pertaining to the early struggle for the acknowledgement of a student LGBT+ society dating back to the early 1970’s, known then as the ‘homophile society’ and later by the more informal name of the ‘gay society’. The archives stored at the University Library contain years’ worth of correspondence between students and the powers that be, within the institutional hierarchies and bureaucracy, which chart the disputed need for such an organisation to be both formalised and promoted for LGB students. Such letters and memos concerning the recognition and promotion of a university society as represented in the archives, serve as a testament to LGBT+ students’ struggle for equality and visibility within the institution of higher education to which they ‘belong’, and as evidence of the rocky foundations on which today’s LGBT+ student community has been built.

Disputed Gay Society poster [L] ;
Correspondence re. denial of a student gay society, c.1975 [R]

Photos by Victoria Yates (2019), courtesy of University of Manchester

But what we also wish to highlight – and briefly introduce here – is our deeper delving into the archives, especially those housed within the imposing late-Victorian architecture of the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Here is a veritable queer treasure trove – boxes and folders of photos, personal letters, press cuttings and so forth – which reveal significant insights into the lives and loves of historical Manchester women in the early 20th century, an important but under-explored queer moment in both the archives and the public imagination. These finds, however, were not solely generated in our archival search for queer lives; currently, they are often not archived as queer materials per se. Rather, they are the result of internet and academic searches regarding the people most prominently honoured in these archives. This, we argue, is reflective of the fact that contemporary archives inherit the cataloguing of the past, a time when queer lives might not have been viewed in the same way as today. This, therefore, affords an exciting moment for university archives to re-angle the mirror onto the past and bring queer lives into sharper focus.

The John Rylands opened as a public library in 1900, at a time when many of the women who feature in the archives were also making their mark on the landscape of the city of Manchester, in ways at once grand, historic and decidedly queer.

Photograph of Annie Horniman marking the receiving of her honorary MA in 1910; note the handwritten comment ‘The new MA sends greetings […]’
Photo by Victoria Yates (2019), courtesy of University of Manchester

Queer relationships such as those between prominent Manchester theatre-owner Annie Horniman (1860-1937) and Mina Bergson, social justice campaigners and Rusholme inhabitants Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, and suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Ethel Smyth, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney are not, currently, as evident or visible within the archives, as they could be. Whilst these women’s lives and histories are contained in the archives, their queerness is not acknowledged in the materials and they have instead been subject to a ‘straight wash’. Thus, there is an exciting opportunity for the synopsis of the archival holdings to draw attention to their queer lives.

Preserved as partial insights and records of renowned owner of Manchester’s repertory theatre ‘The Gaiety’, The Annie Horniman Papers can be viewed by appointment. These archives hold personal letters and records of her recognition by the University of Manchester with an Honorary MA in 1910. But these papers fail to celebrate Horniman in all her glorious queerness and her defying of compulsory heteronormative femininity. There is no mention of her short hair and wearing of trousers, or her penchant for riding ‘men’s’ bicycles and holding court at The Midland Hotel; Horniman seemingly personified the reviled ‘New Woman’ of the later nineteenth century. Nor, significantly, is there any reference made to her friendship and subsequent ‘romantic relationship’ with Mina Bergson [1]. It is a missed opportunity – one of many – to celebrate the Victorian and Edwardian queer, feminist, trailblazing figures of Manchester, not only for the inclusion of LGBT+ heritage and the community, but for the education and benefit of all in understanding the rich and diverse history of Manchester.

Likewise, it is interesting to note that Alice Margaret Cooke, who was employed by Mrs. Enriqueta Rylands to catalogue the archives at the Library opened in honour of her deceased husband, never married and in her retirement lived with ‘companion’ Lena Ward for many years in Cambridge [2]. Cooke defied convention in becoming the first woman to receive an MA degree from Owens College at the University of Manchester and went on to have a successful career lecturing in history at the College, alongside her research. The archives also contain information relating to other women who were able to take advantage of emerging educational opportunities at this time, for instance, Manchester alumni and suffragette heroes Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper. Yet, the archives do not allude to their lives together nor their love for each other. The couple, who are buried together in Hampstead, have long been the subject of ‘straightwashing’ and erasure of their queer lives by male historians, such as their biographer Gifford Lewis [3] who purported to ‘find not a trace of perverted sexuality’ in the undertaking of his research. One should, of course, be cautious about critiquing the cataloguing of the past, with a present-minded attitude: ideas, priorities and resources are all subject to change, and there are shifts in archival paradigms that need to be acknowledged. There is, therefore, an opportunity here for the inclusion of new keywords and information to be included in the synopsis of the archival holdings.

By contrast to the undocumented queer lives of the aforementioned women, Edward Carpenter’s (1844-1929) legacy as a social campaigner for many causes, including gay rights, is very much evident in the John Rylands archive documenting his life. As such, our findings raise and add questions to ongoing discussion about the historical invisibility of lesbianism and presumed heterosexuality versus male, albeit illegal, more visible, ‘homosexuality’ (though this is, of course, also a debate about class and ethnicity). All of these historical women defy heteronormative conventions of gender expression. They challenged the perceived limitations and opportunities assigned to their sex by society, leading the way in women’s education, political activism and personal agency, particularly when it came to matters of romance – a queer defiance indeed!

In the much less extensive, and more modestly housed, archives of UCLan, we found a very brief record of Preston’s famous female footballer and LGBT+ (and working class) hero Lily Parr (1905-1978), the six-foot tall top goal-scorer of Dick Kerr’s ladies in the early 20th century, whose contribution to the game is now celebrated in Manchester’s National Football Museum ‘Hall of Fame’.

Dick Kerr Ladies, “The World’s Champions, 1917-1923”, Image from [website no longer available], accessed July 2019 [L] ;
Lily Parr and opponent (Wikipedia) [R]

Likewise, we discovered a 1985 newspaper clipping reporting the banning of books from a gay man’s publishing press by the University bookshop, and various limited references to the efforts of the political and proud polytechnic student union regarding LGBT+ representation and activism from the late 70’s onwards.

Gay book ban, 1985.
Image from [website no longer available], accessed July 2019.

Such a gap in the archives may well be indicative of past prejudices on the part of archivists and a reluctance to accession LGBT+-related materials, or it may simply be the result of normative archival practices. Nevertheless, despite the lack of current visibility of gay lives in Preston’s archives, there is much scope for a re-organising and archiving that emphasises the hidden history of LGBT+ heritage in Preston.

There has long existed an ambivalence and disingenuity regarding the charting and naming of prominent women’s lesbian lives, loves and identities in history. The trailblazing women of British history may have been celebrated for their achievements in relation to education, their defying of social norms in their attire, demeanour and career ambitions, their political activism for the causes of socialism and suffrage, or their contributions to literature, but concurrent to these rememberings exists a hidden history of romantic and sexual relationships and partnerships between women. This is especially true for the women of Manchester circa 1900, despite the city’s proud contemporary legacy of queer history and ongoing contributions to LGBT+ lives.

Universities are often the custodians of rich sources documenting the lives of their staff and students, both past and present, and charting their engagement with local communities. Such archives offer an opportunity through which we can better understand the lives of LGBT+ staff and students in the past. Our ongoing research aims to use archival resources and autobiography pertaining to the lives and loves of historical Manchester and Preston women and men in the early 20th century, to reveal rich LGBT+ histories shows that there are opportunities to better narrate the sexuality of key figures in the archive and to use keywords more effectively to enable researchers to identify sources that relate to the LGBT+ past. Debates about queering the archives are not new but such discussions in relation to UK university archives are arguably in their infancy. Our aim is that the silence, denial or erasure of queer lives is reversed a little, through a rethinking of how we archive them. A queering of our history enables those on the margins to come into focus. Our archivists are stewards of intersecting histories and have a difficult task to perform. Practices change, reflecting shifts in storytelling and historical perspectives. However, if our universities are seen to be celebrating and documenting such lives, that can only be a good thing, both for local communities and for our staff and students, past, present and future.


[1] Goodie, Sheila (2013) Annie Horniman: A Pioneer in the Theatre, Albert Bridge Books.

[2] Kirby, Joan (2008) ‘Alice M. Cooke and the Beginnings of Medieval History in the University of Leeds, 1907–1921’, Northern History, 45 (2): 351-359.

[3] Lewis, Gifford (1988) Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper: A Biography, Rivers Oram Press.

[4] Pérez, Emma (1999) The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Victoria’s paper was one of several submissions we accepted from our Call For Participation at the start of the 2019-20 academic year. We received some fantastic responses for both seminars/sessions and blog posts – keep an eye out for these across the rest of the year! And, if you would like to put forward an idea, keep an eye out for future Calls For Participation or email us directly:

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