brighton's history

A History of Lesbian & Gay Brighton

Chapter 1: Improper Characters, the 1800s

Our knowledge of Brighton's early lesbian and gay history is fragmentary but it seems likely that today's community can claim a tradition which goes all the way back to the beginning of Brighton as a pleasure resort, in the first years of the 1800s. Despite harsh legal penalties (the last man to be executed for buggery was hanged in 1835), evidence suggests that a floating population of holiday-makers and good transport links with London (followed by the coming of the railway in 1841), together provided the ideal conditions for the 'unmentionable crimes' practised by the 'improper characters in the habit of coming to Brighton'.

One of the town's first attractions might well have been the enormous numbers of soldiers garrisoned here during the Napoleonic Wars. Soldier prostitution was widespread and a matter of tradition in some regiments. In August 1822, George Wilson, a servant from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was accused by a guardsman he had met in the Duke of Wellington public house in Pool Valley of having offered him a sovereign and two shillings to go with him onto the beach to commit an unnatural crime.

Also in August of that year, a tradesman in Shoreham was compelled to abscond following the discovery of a 'most unaccountable propensity'. His outraged neighbours assembled, burnt the fugitive in effigy and were with difficulty prevented by his wife from pulling his house down. In May 1836, Stanley Stokes, a London solicitor who had been making sexual approaches to a groom at the New Ship Hotel, was mobbed and tarred and cut his own throat in East Street, dying two days later. Brighton Vestry records show that in January 1837, a man who had 'made a proposition of a disgusting nature' to a Grenadier Guard on sentry duty at the Royal Pavilion was allowed to escape by the arresting officers (who were perhaps mindful of the Stokes case the year before).

In happier circumstances, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, a bachelor, apparently enjoyed an unusually close friendship with his butler, who for twenty-five years occupied a small house connected to the rear of the Duke's Kemp Town home.

In the absence of the legal records which are such a fruitful source for accounts of men caught with their trousers down, the early history of lesbianism must be cobbled together from conjecture and scraps of rumour. During the 1800s, two spinsters might set up house and spend much of their lives together without exciting any comment. Philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), spent part of each year on holiday at the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton with her companion Hannah. The couple were devoted to each other, were socially recognised as a pair and even sent joint Christmas cards. When Hannah died in 1878, Miss Burdett-Coutts told a friend that she was utterly crushed by the loss of 'my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for 52 years'. Though such romantic partnerships were accepted by the world at large, they may in fact - behind closed doors - have been little different from the long-term lesbian relationships of today. The secret diaries of Yorkshire heiress Anne Lister, only recently decoded, give quite explicit accounts of her sexual activity with other women in the early to mid 1800s.

Other early records strongly suggest a lesbian element to the modern eye. In the 1870s Miss Harriet Rowell, taught swimming at Brill's Baths in Pool Valley under the name of Miss Elphinstone Dick. She won local fame for herself with a series of public swimming feats including a 2 hour 43 minute swim in a rough September sea from Shoreham to Brighton. Harriet fell in love with a Brighton woman, Alice Moon, and the couple emigrated to Australia where they started a women's gymnasium and taught gymnastics.

Chapter 2 of 4: An Underground World, 1900-67

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