Not the Marrying Kind…

August 4, 20208:07 amLeave a Comment

My parents both worked from time to time in the theatre and as a child our house was full of lively and rather colourful characters, some of whom stayed for a few days and others (as my mother put it) came for the season – particularly the panto season over Christmas!

The actor Dirk Bogarde: Sadly, not one of my 'Uncles'! (Cobblestone House sale particulars SHC ref SP/4080)

The actor Dirk Bogarde: Sadly, not one of my ‘Uncles’! (Cobblestone House sale particulars SHC ref SP/4080).

All adults to me were honorary Uncles and Aunts and my two favourite ‘Uncles’ were Uncle Maurice and Uncle George.  Uncle Maurice was a ‘hoofer’ and while Uncle George didn’t seem to do very much of anything, he always seemed to be around at the same time as Uncle Maurice.  He was also a skilled hairdresser and generally the household looked a lot better after he’d been to visit!  They both spoiled me to bits and never arrived without sweets, books, comics and on one glorious occasion presented me with a 10 shilling note when they left!

I once asked my mother if the Uncles were married and had children of their own and the response was always ‘No dear, they’re not the marrying kind’.

It seemed that my parents had quite a few acquaintances who were ‘not the marrying kind’ but sadly most passed out of our lives and we lost touch over the years.

Of course now I realise that quite a few of these men who were ‘not the marrying kind’ were actually gay and it was always both a surprise and a matter of pride to me that my deeply conservative and devoutly Roman Catholic father accepted their relationships and valued their friendships in the same way as he did with everyone.

Quite recently in my family history research, I discovered someone who was gay and lived a long and happy life with his partner, who he met just before the Second World War.  He had actually been married for a few years but after adopting two children, the couple amicably divorced and the children divided their time between both parents, spending happy school holidays with their father and his partner, who they both adored.

Hang on a minute!  Wasn’t this the ‘old’ days, when people hated homosexuals, transvestites or anyone who they deemed ‘sexual deviants’?  Unfortunately, with male homosexuality being a criminal offence until 1967, prejudice and discrimination was commonplace, and for every story of acceptance and tolerance you will find 20 more examples of tragic stories of those whose simple crime was to fall in love with someone of the same sex or know that they had been born to the wrong gender.

Image of Alan Turing, aged 16, from WikiMedia

Alan Turing, aged 16, from WikiMedia

Perhaps the best known of these is Alan Turing who was vilified and persecuted for his sexuality leading to his eventual suicide in 1954.  Although he received an official UK government apology in 2009 he wasn’t fully pardoned for his ‘crimes’ until 2013, nearly 60 years after his suicide.  It took until 2017 for a posthumous pardon to be issued to other men who were cautioned or convicted under the previous archaic gross indecency laws and the Sexual Offences Acts.  You can see a page on the Exploring Surrey’s Past website on the Sexual Offences Act and one on historical LGBTQ+ crime and punishment cases in Surrey.

So, how would we know whether or not someone in our family tree was gay?  Well, odds are you wouldn’t unless like my example, you hear first-hand evidence of those closest to them.  You might well find that a lady lived with a ‘companion’ for many years or that two men would share lodgings, but until 1967 any same-sex couple in a relationship who lived together would have to have been so discreet that probably no-one would ever know, or if they suspected anything, it wasn’t mentioned.

Often we only see hints as to a homosexual relationships in reportage in newspapers.  These tend to be frankly negative reports following court prosecutions, and they rarely make informed unbiased reading.  The court records themselves are heartbreaking to read and make you long to know the ‘whole’ story and to read between the lines of the formulaic accusations and barbaric sentences.

Of course in the more flamboyant and bohemian world of the arts and theatre, this might be different but again, until homosexuality was legalised, it was still a dangerous and risky business to ‘come out’ event to your supposed friends and family.

Harry Daley in uniform, 1940s. (From This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir (London, 1987))

Harry Daley in uniform, 1940s.
(From This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir (London, 1987))

Many men, however, refused to conform to societal pressure and whilst some may have lived in fear of prosecution others continued with their lives. Beverley Nichols, the write and broadcaster who lived in Ashtead with his long term partner, was adored by thousands who read and listened to his witty narratives about his beloved cats and gardens;  J R Ackerley , the poet and author who fought with the East Surrey’s in the First World War, wrote his play The Prisoner of War (1925) based on his early experiences as a gay man and in the 1940s spoke out about the deplorable treatment of gay men. And we have Ackerley to thank for encouraging Harry Daley of Dorking, who was gay and a Metropolitan policeman, to write his frank, funny and inspiring memoir, which we hold as a manuscript and published book, This Small Cloud (1987), in the archive (SHC ref 7832). You can view our Pride podcast about Harry’s extraordinary life here

Progressive Pride flag

Progressive Pride flag

So can we identify anyone gay in our family trees ?  Does it matter?  Well, avid family historians are keen to explore and record all other events in our ancestors’ lives no matter how trivial and this would seem to me to be a fairly important fact to record.  I was recently chatting to a lady at a family history show about recording people on family trees and she told me how her grandson was in the process of undergoing gender reassignment and while it seemed quite trivial in the light of all the challenges that he was experiencing, despite the love and encouragement of his family, how should she record him on her family tree package?   As a man or a woman?  As yet, I am not aware of any family history software that has addressed this issue but I’d love to hear from anyone if they know different.  I said that the best thing would be to ask her grandson but perhaps the most important fact to record was that it was obvious that his immediate family were positively supporting his decision.

The Pride in Surrey events of 2020 have necessarily been curtailed or cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak.  However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a moment to look into our own family trees to salute the bravery and courage of those in different times whose love could not be made known.

Keep safe and well everyone and Happy Researching!

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Written by Jane Lewis - Modified by ESP Admin

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