Classified adverts to club culture – what can archives reveal about queer history?
Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, Principal Records Specialist (Diverse Histories) at The National Archives takes us behind-the-scenes of their Being Human 2019 event, which revealed new aspects to queer histories.
The National Archives hold a wealth of exciting and often untapped material. With 1000 years of history and over 11 million paper records there are constantly new research angles to explore – the area of LGBTQ+ history is no exception.
The National Archives’ records give a valuable insight into how the government interacted with and viewed LGBTQ+ communities in the past. The state’s attempts to suppress and regulate sexuality and gender has paradoxically left us with many potential sources for the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Our collection reflects many of the significant moments and milestones in LGBTQ+ history through police, criminal, policy and legislation records. The resulting records give tantalising insights into what it might have been like to have been gay in the past.
Queer and the State
Back in 2016 The National Archives used some of this extraordinary material to inform our Being Human Queer and the State events. This series of two events in collaboration with the London Metropolitan Archives invited people to delve into previously closed secret police and government files how queer spaces were targeted and spied on, and the resilience of the community’s response. The events led to a recreation of a lost queer space, the Caravan Club – which has subsequently found a new lease of life in Soho in a post-festival project with the National Trust.
Interior of The Caravan Club, Endell Street, London 1934. The National Archives, catalogue reference: DPP 2/224.
Our aim was to target a new, young and diverse audience, aged 16-25. To achieve this we recruited and worked with a small but impactful group of young people. This group met regularly and had a key role in shaping and influencing the events. Over the two events we succeeded in attracting approximately 80 people, the majority of whom were under 25 and first time visitors to the archives. Both events were sold out and full to capacity.
Classified: queer dating ads
‘Queer and the State’ was such a fantastic success, it felt right to do something similar. But where to start? What topic should be highlighted next?
The Link, April 1921. The National Archives, catalogue reference: MEPO 3/283.
In November 2018 I was enjoying some random archive digging, when I came across a fantastic publication called ‘The Link’ – straight away it made me think of modern dating apps and how little and how much has changed in the last 100 years. The Link was a ‘lonely-hearts’ style publication from the early 20th century, which strove to provide connections – for love, lust and companionship. It had been founded in 1915 by Alfred Barrett in response to what he perceived as a crisis of loneliness. People had up to 25 words to describe themselves and what they were seeking.
Young Gent (Bristol), 26, good-looking, would like correspondence with own sex, 18-26. Must be well-educated, of good appearance. Photos appreciated. All letters answered. (940.)
However, the publication wasn’t used entirely as Barrett had planned. In 1920s Britain homosexual acts between men were criminalised. While it was never illegal to be gay, many of the associated practices were criminalised. Through this publication men used the coded and suggestive language of classified adverts to meet other men. This can be inferred from some of the coded language of this publication; “artistic”, “bohemian” and “unconventional”.
Jimmie (Bath), 25, artistic, affectionate, lonely, desires correspondence, own sex, under 35. Same district preferred, but all answered. Photos appreciated. (941.)
This attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police, who investigated the publication and men who had met through The Link.
Ted (London, W.), 26, jolly, affectionate, musical, athletic, would like male chum, same temperament. Cycling, swimming, and week-ends occasionally. Please state age. (951.)
Photograph from archival research event, held at The National Archives on Saturday 12 October.
Performing the archive
Clearly, despite criminalisation of their love, queer people continued to strive to find ways to meet and defy the law; the Link provided them one means of doing that.
This year’s Being Human event, between The National Archives and Bishopsgate Institute, sought to celebrate and reclaim these voices 100 years on. To take these underground, coded classified adverts and make them out, loud and proud in a current prominent queer venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Timberlina and Auntie Maureen brought to life some of these coded, intriguing and sometimes naughty personal ads found in our collections.
Two archival research events also took place to crowd-source the research which fed into the final performance on Saturday 23 November, Classified: A performance of queer dating ads inspired by archives.
100 years on people still instinctively crave ways to meet other people, whether it is through online dating apps or classified advertisements. The stories of people in ‘The Link’ reflect themes that are still current and topical amongst the LGBTQ+ community; the need for queer spaces (physical and written); the loneliness and isolation that comes from a lack of social acceptance; and the instinctive desire to love and be loved.