London Pride: LGBTQ stories from history

Many of the famous figures honoured with a London blue plaque lived radical private lives outside the sexual norms of the time. Some were persecuted for it and some helped to challenge public perceptions of gender and sexuality. Below, we explore the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) stories associated with some of London’s blue plaques.

Radclyffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge

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Oscar Wilde 

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas at Oxford in 1893
© Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Standing in the dock in 1895 on trial for gross indecency, playwright Oscar Wilde was asked to explain the phrase ‘the Love that dare not speak its name’. ‘It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection,’ Wilde responded. ‘There is nothing unnatural about it.’

The phrase came from a poem called ‘Two Loves’ by Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Wilde explained that the line referred specifically to the ‘intellectual’ love between an elder and younger man (Wilde was 38 and Douglas 22 when they met), but the phrase was ultimately adopted as a euphemism for homosexual relationships. Although Wilde denied the charges against him, he didn’t deny his love for Douglas, as demonstrated in this exchange with Prosecutor Charles Gill in which love letters between Wilde and Douglas were presented to the court: 

Gill: In letter number one you use the expression ‘Your slim gilt soul,’ and you refer to Lord Alfred’s ‘red rose-leaf lips.’ The second letter contains the words, ‘You are the divine thing I want,’ and describes Lord Alfred’s letter as being ‘delightful, red and yellow wine to me.’ Do you think that an ordinarily constituted being would address such expressions to a younger man?

Wilde: I am not happily, I think, an ordinarily constituted being.

Gill: It is agreeable to be able to agree with you, Mr. Wilde? (Laughter.)

Wilde: There is nothing, I assure you, in either letter of which I need be ashamed.

In the 20th century Wilde’s defence of his relationship with Douglas would inadvertently turn him into a gay icon. However Wilde himself didn’t benefit from his public stand in court. After his first trial ended in a hung jury he was convicted on retrial and sentenced to two years hard labour. He was bankrupted and suffered from increasing ill health. After prison, he travelled in Europe and reunited briefly with Douglas but died three years after his release. In De Profundis, a long letter written while in prison and published in 1905, Wilde wrote: 

Society as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed.

Visit Oscar Wilde’s plaque at 34 Tite Street, Chelsea, SW3 4JA . 

The Bloomsbury Group 

The painter Duncan Grant with economist John Maynard Keynes
The painter Duncan Grant talks to fellow Bloomsbury Group member John Maynard Keynes in 1926. They met in 1908 and had a passionate affair which lasted for several years
© Universal History Archive/Contributor/Getty Images

In the early 20th century a set of young, Cambridge-educated men sought to break free of the Victorian morals which had put Oscar Wilde in prison. Starting out as members of the secret society ‘The Apostles’ at Cambridge University, they eventually became part of the London-based ‘Bloomsbury Group’, whch also included Virginia Woolf, her sister – the artist Vanessa Bell – and Duncan Grant, also an artist. At the centre of the group were the biographer and writer Lytton Strachey and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Although the group was a closed set in many ways, they were liberal both in their politics and personal relationships. Both Strachey and Keynes had numerous homosexual affairs – with each other, with Duncan Grant, with Woolf’s brother Adrian, and with men entirely unconnected to the group.

Living in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury before the outbreak of the First World War, Keynes recalled the atmosphere of the times: 

It was exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of a renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth, we were the forerunners of a new dispensation, we were not afraid of anything. 

Strachey, for his part, delivered one of his best one liners to a military tribunal, to which he had been sent as a conscientious objector. Asked what he would do if he saw a German solider trying to violate his sister, he replied archly ‘I would try to get between them.’

It would be too simplistic to call Keynes, Strachey and Grant homosexual. Keynes eventually married the ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, Strachey set up house with the painter Dora Carrington and Grant had a romantic relationship with Vanessa Bell, with whom he had a daughter. However their refusal to conform to the moral standards of Edwardian society has been seen by many as a precursor to the gay liberation movement of the 1960s.

Visit the former haunt of the Bloomsbury Group members at Gordon Square in the Borough of Camden. Strachey's plaque is at number 51 and Keynes’s at number 46.

Radclyffe Hall 

The novelist Radclyffe Hall
The novelist Radclyffe Hall was given the nickname 'John' by her first partner, Mabel Batten
© Russell/Stringer/Getty Images

Another figure who rebelled against the social prejudice directed towards homosexuality in the early 20th century was the novelist Radclyffe Hall. Writing in 1928 to secure the publication of her novel The Well of Loneliness, Hall had this warning for the publisher:  

I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world… So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted in fiction. 

The people she referred to were, in her words, ‘congenital inverts’ – a term she also used to describe herself. ‘Invert’ was a term popularised by sexologists such as Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis to refer to people whose natural gender – they claimed – was different to their biological one, meaning that their sexual impulses were towards people of the same biological sex. In these early scientific studies of sexuality, there is little differentiation between transgender identity and homosexuality.

Hall dressed in men’s clothes and often used the name John, though she referred to herself as ‘she’. In 1907 she fell in love with the singer Mabel Batten and their romance lasted until Batten’s death in 1916. Hall later formed a long-term relationship with Batten’s cousin, Lady Una Troubridge, living with her from 1918 until Hall’s death in 1943. 

Radclyffe Hall and Lady Una Troubridge
Radclyffe Hall (standing) with her partner Lady Una Troubridge in about 1927
© Fox Photos/Stringer/Getty Images

Although both Hall and Ellis considered sexual inversion to be an affliction, they also believed it to be a condition people were born with and something which should be accepted. It was for this reason Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness. The novel follows the life of an upper-class woman called Stephen Gordon (so named by her father) who is forced to abandon her relationship with another woman due to the social isolation they experience. ‘[T]he book,’ Hall wrote, ‘is a cry for better understanding, for a wider and more merciful toleration, for acceptance of these people as God has made them.’

The censors, however, were not moved by Hall’s cause. The book was banned three weeks after it was published in 1928 and it wasn’t available in the UK again until 1949. The Well of Loneliness has since achieved recognition as one of the first novels to write openly about lesbian relationships, but Hall herself is a complicated figure in the context of human rights movements. Her defence of same-sex relationships was courageous, but she held conservative views in many other matters. She didn’t support women’s suffrage, for instance, and by the 1930s she was expressing proto-fascist views.

Visit Radclyffe Hall’s plaque at 37 Holland Street, Kensington, W8 4LX.

EM Forster   

The novelist EM Forster
A 1920 portrait of EM Forster by Dora Carrington
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Among the famous literary figures ready to defend The Well of Loneliness at the 1928 obscenity trial were Virginia Woolf (see below) and EM Forster. In the end, neither of them were called upon, which may have been just as well. Neither Forster nor Woolf admired the novel in artistic terms and Woolf records that Radclyffe Hall ‘screamed like a herring gull, mad with egotism and vanity’ when Forster told her as much. Forster wrote a piece in the Nation defending the novel on the principle of literary freedom but wrote to Woolf’s husband, Leonard Woolf, that he found ‘Sapphism disgusting’. 

By this time however Forster had authored his own novel about homosexual love. He wrote Maurice in 1910–13, shortly before he had his own first homosexual affair. The novel follows the life of Maurice Hall, a privileged Cambridge student-cum-stockbroker who falls in love with Alec, a gamekeeper. ‘ “I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,”’ Maurice confides to another character in the novel.

Forster was inspired to write Maurice after visiting the early gay rights advocate Edward Carpenter and his partner George Merrill. (Carpenter had no known permanent base in London, and therefore doesn't have a blue plaque.) ‘I approached [Carpenter],’ Forster wrote, ‘as one approaches a saviour’. 

George Merrill and Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter (right) with his partner George Merrill. They were together for over 30 years and were the inspiration for the characters of Maurice and Alec in Forster’s novel ‘Maurice’
© Courtesy of the Sheffield City Archives

In its frankness about homosexuality, Maurice was revolutionary for the times. It was also, Forster thought, completely unpublishable. He only shared the manuscript with friends during his lifetime and Maurice wasn’t published until 1971, the year after Forster’s death. Forster wrote of the novel:  

A happy ending was imperative… I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows. 

Forster himself was 51 when he experienced that happiness for the first time. He met the policeman Robert Joseph ‘Bob’ Buckingham in Hammersmith in 1930 and formed a loving partnership that lasted until his death. Although Buckingham married in 1932, the three developed a triangular relationship that appeared to work for all of them. Two years after meeting Buckingham, Forster wrote:  

I have been happy, and would like to remind others that their turns can come too. It is the only message worth giving 

Visit EM Forster’s plaque at Arlington Park Mansions, Sutton Lane, Turnham Green, W4 4HE.

Siegfried Sassoon 

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon had an affair with the socialite Stephen Tennant from 1926 to 1932. He described Tennant as ‘the most enchanting creature I have ever met’
© Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

In the early 1920s the poet Siegfried Sassoon toyed with writing a novel about homosexuality – or as he termed it, a ‘Madame Bovary of sexual inversion’. He had come to accept and understand his own sexuality, helped in part by Edward Carpenter’s 1908 book The Intermediate Sex, which made a case for social acceptance of same sex relationships. Like EM Forster (above) – who became a friend of Sassoon’s in London – Sassoon revered Carpenter as ‘the leader and the prophet’. In a letter to Carpenter before the First World War, he wrote: 

What ideas I had about homosexuality were absolutely prejudicial and I was in such a groove that I couldn’t allow myself to be what I wished to be... the intense attraction I felt for my own sex was almost a subconscious thing and my antipathies for women a mystery to me...

I cannot say what it [The Intermediate Sex] has done for me. I am a different being and have a definite aim in life and something to lean on. 

Stephen Tennant, the lover of Siegfried Sassoon
Stephen Tennant was one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ between the wars
© National Portrait Gallery, London

After the war Sassoon had affairs with Prince Phillip of Hesse, Ivor Novello and the actor Glen Byam Shaw. Towards the end of the 1920s he started what would be his most consuming love affair – with the ‘Bright Young Thing’ Stephen Tennant. ‘You are the person I’ve most loved in my life,’ Sassoon wrote to Tennant, describing him in his diary as ‘the most enchanting creature I have ever met’. On their first night together they drove from a party at Tennant’s Wiltshire home to Stonehenge and stayed out until dawn, during which time Sassoon recalls Tennant making ‘the most passionate avowals and simply intoxicating my senses.’ 

The affair came to an end in 1932 and Sassoon surprised his friends by marrying Hester Gatty in 1933. They had a son together but the marriage broke up in 1944.

Sassoon never wrote his Madame Bovary. In 1929 he read the manuscript of Forster’s Maurice and Forster told him of the difficulties he’d had writing the novel. He felt he had achieved something original, Forster said, ‘though possibly the real right thing, shaming our clumsy efforts, lies buried in a hundred drawers.’

Visit Siegfried Sassoon’s plaque at 23 Campden Hill Square, Holland Park, W8 7JY .

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West in about 1920. Virginia Woolf’s novel 'Orlando', which was dedicated to Sackville-West, has since been called the ‘longest and most charming love letter in literature’
© Lenare/Stringer/Getty Images

While Radclyffe Hall, EM Forster and Siegfried Sassoon struggled to write openly about homosexuality, Virginia Woolf published Orlando (1928) – a daring but playful novel which unravelled socially accepted categories of gender and sexuality. Released in the same year Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness was banned, Woolf dedicated Orlando to the writer Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had fallen in love three years earlier. The title character – inspired by Sackville-West – is a time-travelling, gender-changing aristocrat who has affairs with both men and women across continents and centuries. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, later called the novel ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’.

Woolf first met Sackville-West in 1922, when she described her in her diary as a ‘florid, moustached, parakeet coloured’ aristocrat. But by 1925 their correspondence had developed into a love affair which lasted until the 1930s. ‘I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,’ Sackville-West wrote to Woolf in 1926. The following year, Woolf seemed similarly love-struck: 

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come. 

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf in about 1927, when she was involved in a love affair with Vita Sackville-West
© Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty Images

The man in question was Harold Nicolson, Sackville-West’s husband. Nicolson and Sackville-West maintained a more-or-less happy open relationship, in which both had homosexual affairs. Sackville-West had already had one particularly passionate affair with Violet Trefusis, in which the two women eloped to France and Sackville-West adopted the persona of ‘Julian’ to pass as a man.   

Woolf identified Sackville-West as a ‘Sapphist’ but she never applied the term to herself. She was married to Leonard Woolf from 1912 until her death, and the union was largely a happy one. For Woolf, sexuality was never easily defined.  

Vita Sackville-West’s plaque can be found at 182 Ebury Street, Belgravia, SW1W 8UP.

Virginia Woolf has two plaques: one at 29 Fitzroy Square, Fitzrovia, W1T 5LP and another shared with her husband at 34 Paradise Road, Richmond, TW9 1SE.

Alan Turing 

Alan Turing, who was arrested and convicted for his homosexuality in 1952
The scientist and code-breaker Alan Turing was forced to undergo a 'chemical castration' following his conviction for 'gross indecency' in 1952
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Although the writings of Edward Carpenter and the liberal attitudes of the Bloomsbury Group signalled the start of a gay liberation movement, the state lagged far behind. In 1952 the brilliant mathematician and pioneer of computing Alan Turing was convicted for gross indecency under the same laws that ruined Oscar Wilde in 1895. Unlike many gay men of the time, Turing was open about his sexuality. When his house was burgled in 1952, he told police that the culprit was a friend of his lover, Arnold Murray, and Turing was subsequently arrested for his homosexuality. At his trial in March that year, Turing didn't deny the charges and told the court he saw no wrong in his actions.

His punishment was severe. To avoid prison, Turing was forced to take injections of oestrogen. Called a ‘chemical castration’, the drugs were designed to render him asexual. He wrote to a friend: 

I have had a dream indicating rather clearly that I am on the way to being hetero, though I don’t accept it with much enthusiasm either awake or in the dreams. 

Although he continued to work, developing his morphogenetic theory and renewing an early interest in quantum physics, his conviction barred him from continuing his role at GCHQ. His sexuality was regarded as a security risk and he was monitored closely by the government.

He died two years after his conviction in an apparent suicide.

Visit Alan Turing’s plaque at 2 Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale, W9 1ER.

 

Sir John Gielgud 

Black and white photograph of Sir John Gielgud
Sir John Gielgud in 1969
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir John Gielgud was one of the nation’s most famous actors when he was prosecuted for ‘persistent opportuning’ in 1953. His arrest in a Chelsea lavatory – just a few weeks after he was knighted – caused a national scandal. Gielgud had given the ‘gad eye’ to a young man who turned out to be an undercover police officer. The next day Gielgud appeared before a magistrate, who fined him £10 and told him to ‘see your doctor the moment you leave this court.’ Despite Gielgud’s attempts to hide his identity, a reporter from the Evening Standard recognised his voice in court and the story made front-page news.

His fellow actors and producers in the play he was appearing in – A Day By The Sea – stood by him. Hate mail was redirected from the stage door to Dame Sybil Thorndike at her request and the public received him warmly. Nevertheless Gielgud suffered a personal breakdown five months later and never spoke in public about the incident.

Coming a year after Turing’s conviction (see above), Gielgud’s arrest has since been placed in the context of a 1950s witch-hunt against homosexual men. But the attention that Gielgud’s case received and the apparent public sympathy for him has led some to suggest that the case helped to bring the country nearer to legalising homosexuality. It was a measure of how far attitudes towards homosexuality had changed when in 1975 Gielgud played his first gay role, in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, directed by Peter Hall.

Gielgud contributed privately to the gay rights organisation Stonewall but had earlier told Ian McKellen that he didn't want to be known as ‘the first queer to be knighted’ and confined his public political gestures to animal rights. Gielgud died in May 2000, 16 months after the death of his partner of 40 years, Martin Hensler.

Visit Sir John Gielgud’s plaque at 16 Cowley Street, Westminster SW1P 3LZ .

Kenneth Williams 

Kenneth Wililams
Comedian Kenneth Williams introduced the British public to the gay slang of polari on the BBC radio show ‘Round the Horne’
© David Farrell/Contributor/Getty Images

‘How bona to vada your dolly old eek again!’* With this oft-repeated catchphrase on the 1960s BBC radio show Round the Horne, an unwitting British public was introduced to polari – the London slang used by gay subcultures. Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick played the two camp out of work actors Sandy and Julian, and together they loaded their lines with exaggerated innuendo from the secret language: ‘huge lallies’ was one favourite phrase, ‘lallies’ actually meaning legs. A jumbled mixture of Yiddish, Italian, lingua franca and backslang (saying words as if spelt backwards), polari allowed gay men to communicate and identify themselves as homosexual without risking exposure or censure. When the programme was first broadcast in 1965, homosexuality was still illegal, but following its decriminalisation in 1967 polari fell out of common usage among the gay community.

Kenneth Williams did not talk publicly about his own sexuality. His diaries, which were published after his death, reveal that he was attracted to men but it appears he had few, if any, significant romantic relationships. ‘I know how much I long for strong arms and the warmth of unquestioning love; and I know how quickly I would destroy it,’ he wrote in 1965. 

He was less reticent when in character however and his camp persona made visible a homosexual subculture which was only just beginning to secure a place in public society.

*Loosely, ‘Nice to see you again!’

Visit Kenneth Williams’s plaque at Farley Court, Allsop Place, Marylebone, NW1 5LG.

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