News | Friday, 25th February 2011

Manchester's secret history

New archive of sexual persecution

THE secret history of Manchester’s gay Victorians is being unearthed in a new study.

Doctoral student Jeff Evans is looking at attitudes to homosexuality during the last 150 years.

Working with the University’s Centre for Regional History, Jeff is charting Manchester’s origin as Britain’s gay capital after a painstaking trawl through thousands of records.

He has spent the last two years sifting through 70,000 criminal records to shed light on sexual orientation.

Oscar Wilde

He said: “It is a very new area of history. There are very few regional studies. You could be forgiven for thinking same-sex relationships didn’t happen outside of London.

“But there were very few prosecutions before the 19th century because people’s sexual choices were seen as being a private matter. In the Victorian period the state started policing people’s bedrooms so the only area where there are any real records is the courtroom.”

The history researcher has analysed thousands of court papers from Manchester, Salford, Chester, Cumbria, Carlisle, and Liverpool between 1850 and the 1970s, pinpointing hundreds of cases against men under the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act – the law that was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde.

Among the most prominent cases was a police raid on a so-called ‘drag ball’ in Hulme in 1880, which caused a national outrage. More than 38 men wearing women’s clothes were arrested, leading to national headlines.

Barbaric treatment

Jeff adds: “It really put the city on the map. People thought such things only happened in London. It was reported in the national press for days. Ironically the case collapsed because so many middle-class men were arrested and they all brought barristers with them.”

Another famous case was the 1952 trial of maths genius Alan Turing. Instead of prison the academic was subjected to a horrific cocktail of drugs to kill sex drive – so-called ‘chemical castration’.

He said: “Most moving are the cases where men are being sent to mental institutions. Two 17-year-olds are arrested in 1946, both were servicemen, and were sent to Wythenshawe for a year’s mental assessment and teaching.

“One was released after two years but I’ve not been able to find any record of the other being released.”

The historian has been speaking at a number of events as part of the Outing The Past project, which encourages gay and lesbian people to record their experiences of homophobia.

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