Why does LGBTQ heritage matter?

The entrance to Smallhythe Place, Kent

The influence of ‘queer’ people upon Britain’s social, cultural, intellectual, and economic spheres resonates across time and space – LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) 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’ has as much to do with place and history as it does with identity and culture. Broadly, it is 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

Place documents, stages, and creates history and identity. People shape place, and place shapes people. This intertwined relationship between space and the social 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

Domestic spaces have long afforded privacy and sanctuary to those leading sexually unconventional lives. For example, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, Priest’s House, a Kentish country house in the grounds of Smallhythe Place, was home to theatre director and producer Edith Craig, who lived in a ménage-a-trois with writer Christopher St John (previously Christabel Marshall) and artist Clare ‘Tony’ Atwood. Here, they led productive lives as lovers and as colleagues.

In the city

‘Queer’ heritage finds wide and varied expression in the city. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, London’s Soho district in particular, for example, was home to a vivacious underground world of clubs and bars. Whilst very few, if any, of these bars were specifically established for LGBTQ people, they functioned as tolerant social spaces for London’s queer population.  

Activism, community, resistance

Heritage can be about more than place – it can relate to other forms of cohesion that bring communities together and elementally shape social identities. Political activism and campaigning might therefore 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 twentieth and early twenty-first centuries gave particular impetus to these political battles. A significant part of the preservation of LGBTQ heritage is concerned with the commemoration of lives lost and 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, such as the life of the sexually adventurous writer, poet, and gardener Vita Sackville-West. Others are more obscure and speculative.

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

Our places with LGBTQ connections

The house and garden at Smallhythe Place

Smallhythe Place 

Smallhythe Place was at once a Kentish country retreat and creative centre of artistic and theatrical activity. In 1899, it was purchased by the renowned actress Dame Ellen Terry. Following her death in 1928, her daughter Edith Craig turned the house into a museum commemorating her mother’s life and opened it to the public. She also converted its seventeenth-century barn into a theatre, staging productions by her own company, ‘Pioneer Players’ and others. Until her death there in 1947, Smallhythe Place and Priest’s House were frequently visited by contemporary queer and lesbian artists and writers, such as Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville-West.

The White Garden in July at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent

Sissinghurst Castle Garden 

Situated a few miles north-west of Priest’s House are the magnificent gardens of Sissinghurst Castle, the country home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. She and Harold moved there in 1930 and, in the following few decades, lovingly refurbished the garden and buildings. Although their partnership was loving and affectionate, Vita and Harold had variously intense and casual affairs with people of their own sex throughout their marriage. Virginia Woolf, Vita’s friend and, for a while, lover, often visited Sissinghurst.

Deer wander through Knole Park outside the West Front entrance of Knole in Sevenoaks, Kent

Knole 

Knole was the ancestral home of the Sackville-West family. Having grown up there, the estate was entailed away from Vita to her uncle; the loss of her beloved family home, in this way, was devastating. Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando (1928), is set at Knole and provocatively rewrites the estate’s aristocratic family history; Vita’s youngest son, Nigel Nicolson, has famously described the novel as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” from Virginia to her friend.

Monks House Garden

Monk's House 

Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased Monk's House in the small Sussex village of Rodmell in 1919, making it their country retreat away from the hubbub of London. Virginia wrote some of her most well-known novels and essays here, many of which subtly represent and explore forms of ‘queer’ love and attraction, particularly between women.

Bucks Mills Cabin Hartland

Bucks Mills Cabin 

Looking out from the North Devon coastline, Bucks Mills Cabin is a tiny stone cottage quietly sequestered away close to the historic fishing hamlet of Bucks Mills. It was used as a retreat for the artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards from the 1920s until Judith’s death in 1971. The pair met at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. They struck up a creative and romantic partnership, travelling extensively for their painting but almost always returning to the cabin for the summer. The cabin and its contents have remained as Ackland and Edwards left them when they last locked up the cottage over forty years ago.

Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton decorated in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement

Wightwick Manor and Gardens 

The Mander family of Wightwick Manor had a keen interest in Victorian art and design, inspired by William Morris’ flourishing ‘arts and crafts’ movement and Oscar Wilde’s lectures on the subjects of aesthetics and domesticity. Their home contains a diverse collection of artworks by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others including Simeon Solomon, Evelyn de Morgan, and May Morris. From paintings and drawings to embroidery, their artistic productions, overtly and covertly, explore androgynous forms of gender expression and same-sex eroticism and desire.

National Trust team outside Birmingham Back-to-Backs during Birmingham Pride 2017

Prejudice and Pride: Exploring LGBTQ history 

Explore the LGBTQ history of our places and the lost and hidden lives of the people who helped shape them - part of our programme called Prejudice and Pride which marked 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.