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Exploring LGBTQ+ history at National Trust places

The visitor staircase at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands, featuring Indian rush-work below the dado rail and William Morris' Willow Bough pattern wallpaper above
Oscar Wilde's lecture on Aestheticism influenced the interior choices at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

LGBTQ+ heritage is an important part of the history of the nation. It also plays a vital role in unlocking the histories of some of the places in our care, many of which were home to, and shaped by, queer people who challenged wider society's conventional ideas of gender and sexuality.

We're a founding member of the Queer Heritage & Collections Network. With investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we're developing our digital skills programme to support our work on LGBTQ+ heritage.

What does LGBTQ+ mean?

LGBTQ+ (an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and other sexual identities) is widely accepted as an inclusive term to reference the diversity of gender and sexuality that go beyond the ‘hetero-normative’ conventions (that is, binary definitions of gender and of ‘one man with one woman’).

‘Queer’ was once a term of abuse that has now largely been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. It's also begun to be used as a term that encompasses all aspects of difference across gender and sexuality. It's a way to look at gender and sexuality as a spectrum rather than a series of definite, fixed categories.

We've adopted the approach taken by Historic England in their Pride of Place project and acknowledge that ‘in the past, as today, there is no single LGBTQ+ community, terminology or uniform identity that defines all LGBTQ+ people or heritage’.

Stories and National Trust connections

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was a poet and playwright who inspired the interiors of Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands. Theodore Mander, who built Wightwick Manor, attended a lecture by Wilde on the new Aesthetic Movement in 1884 and introduced its principles to the manor's interiors. In 1895, Wilde was put on trial because of his sexuality and went on to be convicted with gross indecency with other men.Learn more about Oscar Wilde
Henry Cyril Paget
Known as 'the dancing Marquess,' Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, was considered the 'black sheep' of the family owing to his eccentric behaviour and love of performance and costume.Learn more about Henry Cyril Paget
Virginia Woolf
The author Virginia Woolf was a leading light of the Bloomsbury movement in the early 20th century. Her life was shaped by her unconventional approach to gender and sexuality.Learn more about Virginia Woolf
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, who bought and renovated Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, enjoyed an open marriage and both had numerous same-gender extramarital relationships.Learn more about Vita Sackville-West
Eddy Sackville-West
Eddy Sackville-West, the reluctant heir of Knole in Kent, was a writer and music critic. The decorated interiors of Eddy's apartments in the Gatehouse Tower, where he lived between 1926 and 1940, were a celebration of his identity. He was a gay man and had many passionate but fleeting affairs there. Eventually, Eddy moved to Dorset and built a home with like-minded friends where they were free to express their creativity and sexuality.Learn more about Eddy Sackville-West
William John Bankes
Kingston Lacy in Dorset was profoundly shaped by William Bankes, who fled England in 1841 to avoid prosecution for sexual acts with other men. Although forced to leave the home he loved, he continued to send back works of art and treasures.Learn more about William John Bankes
Edith Craig, Christopher St John and Tony Atwood
Edith Craig was a prominent producer, writer and actor. Along with her partners Christopher St John and Tony Atwood, the three women found refuge in Smallhythe Place in Kent to express their art, gender and sexuality, living together as a trio.Learn more about Edith Craig
TE Lawrence
After his military career, TE Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) retreated to Clouds Hill in Dorset. There’s been much debate about his sexuality, largely prompted by his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), in which he wrote about same-gender encounters among male soldiers during the Arab revolt of 1916–18. He remains an important figure for many in the LGBTQ+ community.Learn more about TE Lawrence
Oliver Messel
Oliver Messel was one of the foremost stage designers of the 20th century. He grew up at his family home of Nymans in West Sussex, surrounded by art and culture. For 24 years, Oliver was in a same-gender relationship with Vagn Riis-Hansen, who supported him through some of his happiest and most creative years.Learn more about Oliver Messel
Simeon Solomon
Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton has 10 paintings by Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, who was hailed a genius in his lifetime. In 1873, he was arrested and fined after an attempted liaison with another man, followed by a second arrest and three months in prison a year later. Sadly, his career never recovered and he passed away in the workhouse in 1905.Learn more about Simeon Solomon
Rex Whistler
The famous murals painted by Rex Whistler can be seen in several country houses in our care, including Plas Newydd in Wales and Mottisfont in Hampshire. He was at the centre of a prominent group of artists, many of whom were queer. Most of his friends and contemporaries assumed Whistler was a gay man himself, and he certainly had romantic involvements with both men and women.Learn more about Rex Whistler
Vita Sackville-West's desk in the Writing Room in the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent
Vita Sackville-West's desk at Sissinghurst Castle Garden | © National Trust Images/Jonathan Buckley

Why does LGBTQ+ heritage matter?

The influence of queer people on Britain’s social, cultural, intellectual, and economic spheres resonates across time and space – LGBTQ+ heritage is everywhere. Yet stories about Britain’s national and cultural heritage tend to reflect a ‘heterosexual past’; queer history and heritage has been blighted by the long criminal persecution and moral condemnation of gender and sexual nonconformity.

Identifying LGBTQ+ heritage

‘Heritage’ is broadly about the preservation, commemoration and restoration of a nation’s cultural legacies. LGBTQ+ heritage can therefore refer to the histories of individuals and communities who have been marginalised on the grounds of their ‘alternative’ sexual and/or gender identifications and practices.

Equally, its definition can be expanded to include aspects of art, literature, and architecture whose cultural importance is, in various ways, significantly bound up with the social history of same-sex love and desire, and gender diversity.

Heritage and place

People shape place, and place shapes people. This intertwined relationship between space and society allows a way of understanding how sexually nonconformist attachments were formed in certain places, and how those relationships, past and present, adapt and alter heterosexual understandings of intimacy, family life, friendship, and ways of loving and desiring. Domestic spaces have long afforded privacy and sanctuary to those leading sexually unconventional lives.

Queer heritage finds wide and varied expression in the city. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, London’s Soho district for example, was home to a vivacious underground world of clubs and bars.

National Trust at Birmingham Pride 2017, Birmingham Back-to-Backs, West Midlands
National Trust at Birmingham Pride 2017 | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Activism, community, resistance

Political activism and campaigning might be considered a kind of heritage, one that is crucial to LGBTQ+ people and their ongoing struggle against legal oppression and social marginalisation.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a particular surge in this activity. Identity-based groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front (formed in October 1970), women’s liberation and black feminist organisations, fostered broad communities of resistance, turning houses, bars, pubs, and queer-based shops into political bases and headquarters.

The rapid rise in HIV/AIDS diagnoses during the latter decades of the 20th and early 21st centuries gave particular momentum to these political battles. A significant part of the preservation of LGBTQ+ heritage is concerned with the commemoration of lives lost and the demystification of the ongoing stigma attached to homosexuality and HIV.

Recovering marginalised histories

Queer heritage is about remembering and, in a way, celebrating, a painful and complicated past, as well as repairing and restoring it. Some narratives of certain LGBTQ+ histories are overt and well-known, while others are more obscure and speculative.

Understanding and foregrounding LGBTQ+ heritage opens up the possibility of recovering those histories and telling the stories of the people of Britain’s queer past on their own terms.

The Queer Heritage and Collections Network

In early 2020, we launched the Queer Heritage and Collections Network (QHCN) as a founding member with English Heritage, Historic England, Historic Royal Palaces and the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (University of Leicester).

The QHCN aims to share knowledge, skills, expertise and best practice across national and regional heritage sites and collections working with LGBTQ+ histories in the UK.

In March 2021, the QHCN received almost £100k in funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Digital Skills for Heritage initiative, which will support a new digital skills programme for the network.

In July 2021, the QHCN won Best Partnership 2021 at the Museum and Heritage Awards.

About the author

This article contains information written by Adrienne Mortimer from the University of Leeds. Adrienne researches narrative representations of illiteracy and the illiterate subject from the early 19th century to contemporary literature and culture. Her research focuses on the connections between narrative and the formation of socio-sexual identities. She has ongoing interests in queer and gender theory, on which she draws in order to probe the relations between narrative, identity, and ‘queer’ history and heritage.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

People in history

Discover some of the social history behind the places we care for and uncover fascinating facts about the people who have lived in them.

Our partners

The Queer Heritage and Collections Network

The QHCN aims to share knowledge, skills, expertise and best practice across national and regional heritage sites and collections working with LGBTQ+ histories in the UK.

Visit website 

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

A hub for multi-disciplinary research projects and research engagement at the University of Oxford

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