Hampshire’s LGBT History


The month of June has become the traditional Pride month and many parades and events are taking place across the UK. Its origins date back to the early 1970s when a number of gay men and women decided to protest in public against the discrimination and criminalisation of same-sex activity. Although lesbian acts were never illegal, gay women faced discrimination in other areas including employment and childcare (they could not adopt for example). Following partial decriminalisation in 1967, gay men could have sex but only if both men were over 21.

The first march called Gay Pride was held in 1972 in London and attracted between 70 and 200 people. Unfortunately, this figure has been hugely inflated by some people on the internet and even the BBC quoted it as 2,000 last year despite my best efforts to correct them! There is evidence from a TV documentary film that the Winchester Gay Group marched at Gay Pride in London in 1979.

The fact that gay sex was illegal until 1967 for all men means that in terms of records, we know quite a lot about gay and bisexual men who were prosecuted either for having sex or attempting to meet same-sex partners in public places. The most famous prosecution in Hampshire is that of Edward Lord Montagu in 1954 at the Great Hall in Winchester. Montagu and two co-defendants were found guilty of consenting sexual activity with two RAF men. Montagu was sent to prison for 12 months.

Where men tried to get other men to engage in sexual activity, particularly around men’s toilets and other public places, they risked arrest and being charged with offences, such as soliciting for immoral purposes and importuning. Newspapers, many of which can be accessed with an online account with the British Newspaper Archive, are a main source for details. However, reports often refer vaguely to immoral, improper, or indecent acts without detailing exactly what the offence was. Therefore we do not always know if these offences were homosexual acts, bestiality (much less common), or indecent exposure. Court records less than 100 years old are usually closed to public examination and researchers face an arduous process if they want to access them. Many files, particularly for matters dealt with in magistrates courts, were destroyed and what survives is sometimes by chance.

Portsmouth was notorious for homosexual offences in the post Second World War era. The Wolfenden Report on Homosexuality and Prostitution, published in 1957, cites the city as being third after London and Birmingham in terms of the most recorded homosexual offences. Mr John Scott Henderson QC Recorder of Portsmouth reported to the Wolfenden Committee that the majority of the cases were of visitors coming to find young sailors (TNA, HO 345/7).

LGBT history has grown in recent years to encompass gay men’s history, about which we know most, as well as the history of lesbianism, bisexuality and transgender issues (transexual and transvestite are the terms used up until recently). Increasingly in the 2000s the abbreviation LGBT was used and in more recent years some have expanded that to LGBTQ+ or even LGBTQIA+ (the more letters added the less in common identities in the grouping are). The Q stands for queer, a term many older people still find offensive. Universities even offer Queer Studies and Queer History courses now. In 2019 I published a booklet entitled A Queer A-Z of Hampshire. Both the 1st and 2nd edition are now out of print although there may be a few copies for sale in Andover Museum. Hampshire Record Office (HRO) have a reference copy.

There is information on the early campaigning and socialising of Hampshire gay men and women during  the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in various archives. The material is predominantly in London, but in the case of reform campaigner George Ives (1867-1950), most of his material is in Texas, USA. Ives, who grew up in Bentworth, near Alton, campaigned for law reform and was a friend of Oscar Wilde. His grave is in Bentworth, along with his lifelong friend James Goddard. Records featuring Goddard at school can be found in the HRO.

The Hall Carpenter Archives (HCA) are housed in the London School of Economics Women’s Library. There you can examine documents which were kept by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) which had branches in Southampton, Winchester, and Portsmouth. The Southampton branch was always the most active thanks to people like David Porter. A set of Gay Solent Newsletters (HCA/CHE/7/54 and 55 and CHE2/7/16) is particularly useful in seeing what activity was occurring on the south coast.

In 1976 CHE held its Annual National Conference in Southampton. They even chartered a train from Waterloo for delegates and the HCA have one of the rail tickets.

The first events called Pride held in Hampshire were in 1992. The festival in Southampton was called Solent Pride and ran for two weeks. Solent Pride existed for another two years and then seems to have folded. Portsmouth Pride, a new Southampton Pride, and Winchester Pride came later during the twenty-first century.

Regarding transgender history in Hampshire, there is little documentary evidence. The term transgender is very new (it first appears in the UK in the late 1990s). Transgender history includes the early surgery for people who had gender reassignment surgery. This includes operations carried out by Harold Gillies in Hampshire: the first phalloplasty surgery in Britain was on Laura Dillon who became Michael Dillon (1915-1962), and the first known male-to-female surgery was on Robert Cowell, who became Roberta Cowell (1918-2011). Forty years ago, the front page of the Portsmouth News (5 November 1983) reported on male-to-female transition by 55-year-old Diane Horscroft.

In respect of cross-dressing (transvestism) a hotel in Southampton was where the first UK meeting of the Beaumont Society took place in 1966. The Society started as the UK Chapter of the secret American organisation Full Personality Expression. It catered for male transvestites but in recent years has expanded its provision to transgender people. No one knows which hotel hosted that meeting. The only survivor of that meeting, Alice, cannot recall where it was held. I do not think we will ever know. The Beaumont Society features in a 1985 video recording held in the Wessex Film and Sound Archives (AV1066/ARCH 1587/v2).

Oral interviews conducted by Southampton student Sebastian Buckle with 18 gay men (mostly undergraduates) are held in the Southampton Record Office. Oral history interviews by members of the Y Services LGBT youth groups conducted in 2018 are held in the HRO.

For earlier history we can refer to the excellent research by Rictor Norton whose website contains much information about men associated with Hampshire such as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. A. L. Rowse, in Shakespeare the Elizabethan, says that the 3rd Earl had homosexual relations with Sir Henry Danvers, and possibly also with the Earl of Rutland. The Dictionary of National Biography quotes a document in the British Library: “Southampton slept in a tent with his brother officer, Piers Edmondes, and ‘the earle Sowthamton would cole and huge [embrace and hug] him in his armes and play wantonly w[ith] him’ ‘’(BL, MS M/485/41). The 3rd Earl’s magnificent tomb is in Titchfield Church. The Earls of Southampton have also been the subject of a HAT blog by Cheryl Butler.

In Portsmouth, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, once an intimate friend and possible lover of James I, was murdered in 1628. The magnificent monument in Portsmouth Cathedral to Villiers also contains his heart and brain. The rest of the body was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Occasionally there is an interesting entry to be found in old registers. The Odiham Marriage register of 1748 records Charles Hambleton married to Mary Seamel (47M81/PR3). Later someone has written in red ink after Charles’ name: ‘afterwards proved to be a woman’. It seems the two women lovers were so keen to marry one pretended to be a man. The younger generation and future generations may need to be reminded that same-sex marriage in the UK is legally a very recent thing (legislation was passed as recently as 2013).

What needs to be recognised in doing any LGBT history is that terminology changes and the history cannot be separated from wider trends in society. Who knows what terms might be used in the future and how future historians will interpret the extraordinary and complex variation in the ways LGBT peoples are manifested today? For the diversity of those people who might identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans is so varied that it is a common mistake to talk of an LGBT community.  We must also recognise that many issues are hotly contested particularly around gender identity and sexual identity.


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Author: Dr Clifford Williams

Bio: Dr Clifford Williams is a historian and retired police officer. He has published books and articles on history and criminology. After studying at the Universities of London (SOAS), Cambridge and Bradford (where he did his PhD), he joined the police service. A History of Women policing Hampshire and the Isle of Wight 1915-2016 (HCHS) was published in 2016. His most recent book Courage to Be (The Book Guild Ltd) (2021) examines the history of the early gay and lesbian youth groups in England.

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