Helen Smith 

Alright, I admit that the quote I’ve used to title this post might be a headline grabber but I’ve been waiting to use it for years. Can you blame me? This immortal line was uttered by a man who, in reporting an assault to the police in 1950, admitted (without provocation) to the sexual relationships that he had been having with other men at his work place. He was remarkably graphic in the way that he described the details of these relationships, finishing his statement with the resigned comment of ‘almost every time I see a cock I’m lost’.

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This man’s desire for other men was plain to see, yet it was not attached to notions of sexual identity or of guilt regarding any identity. In fact, the only sense of regret that runs through the statement is that at 61 years of age he could no longer attract the partners that he had throughout his life. He had to offer younger working men small gifts and a shoulder to cry on in return for sex: one of his latest young men had been having problems with his wife and liked to talk these through after the deed was done.

Even this one example problematises notions of sexuality in post-WWII Britain. Here was a working-class man having sex with other working-class men at his place of work. Sometimes he paid them (subverting the trope of the middle/working-class relationships), and sometimes it was just for fun. Although he had previously been in prison for gross indecency, and had worked in a mental hospital, he did not use the language of sexuality in his statement or show a medicalised understanding of his desires. He and his partners seem to have been operating in a different, yet parallel, sexual culture to some of the more famous metropolitan case studies of the era. Cross-class relationships in the north were much rarer than in London, particularly ones involving middle-class men paying working-class men for sex. And the action (so to speak) in the north often took place outside of a network of queer commercial spaces and parties that was more typical of the capital.

Moving the focus of study for the history of sexuality outside of London offers up hundreds of lives, like the one above, that further enrich our understanding of the wide variety of ways that men experienced their sexual selves throughout the 20th century. For some reason, regional or, dare I even say it, local history is viewed as parochial by many modern British historians and historians of sexuality. It’s as if the small size of Britain renders obsolete the idea of regional difference as something that matters. American historians of sexuality have no such qualms and some of the most influential and thought-provoking work on the field has come from studies of the Deep South and Pacific Northwest to name only two examples. I make an argument that in the north of England, regional identity (as well as masculine identity) was linked to work, particularly in areas of traditional industry such as mining and steel working. The depth of these roots and (even in our globalised world) how much they can still matter has been displayed over the past few years and even months by reactions to the death of Margaret Thatcher, the closure of the last deep cast mine and what looks to be the final swan song of the British steel industry.

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Fancy dress parade at Beighton, Sheffield. (Image used with permission from Sheffield Local Studies Library)

Place and region had a distinct impact on the way that men experienced sexual relationships with each other. In the north of England it influenced the likelihood of whether they would fall victim to the police (very unlikely), whether they saw their sexual desires and choices as linked to an identity (working-class men didn’t in my experience), whether their wives and girlfriends could get over their indiscretions (they usually could), and whether same-sex desire could be part of a spectrum of ordinary sexual behaviour within certain bounds of privacy and discretion (it could).

This is important stuff. It means that all sorts of hitherto unexplored sexual cultures have been co-existing throughout the 20th century, and beyond. It means that in some areas same-sex desire was a part of unremarkable, ordinary experience. Our fascination with the glamorous, extraordinary and metropolitan has obscured these tens of thousands of lives and experiences, with the irony being that to 21st-century ears the ordinary has become the extraordinary. This was brought home to me when teaching this material for the first time: my students were nonplussed by Oscar Wilde and the Bright Young Thing Stephen Tennant but a Barnsley village’s favourite same-sex couple Fred and Maurice and the miners of South Yorkshire needed some thinking about.

By way of example, let’s look at the year 1954. During that remarkable year, four trials took place in England that each highlighted a different way of experiencing same-sex desire that, I argue, was linked to the region in which the men lived. Most famously, Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were prosecuted and found guilty of homosexual offences. This was a story of cross-class relationships, wealth and, to some extent, metropolitan glamour. The settings for the action included London and the capital’s queer scene, country estates, and coastal hideaways.

A second trial in Birmingham during the summer of 1954 had elements of the experiences of Montagu and his friends but with less aristocratic glamour. Twenty-eight men were prosecuted for homosexual offences in one case, and although there were cross-class relationships and middle-class men were involved, many of those prosecuted were working class. The working-class men came mainly from the hospitality trades and they spoke about having camp names, wearing makeup and women’s clothes and meeting in specifically queer venues in Birmingham City Centre. This clearly sounds similar to many of the experiences of men in London as discovered by Matt Houlbrook which included queer commercial venues, parties and a subculture that included camp expression.

Two further cases in Rotherham and Barnsley told a totally different story again. Dozens of men convicted of homosexual offences met at work, home or the pub, never in queer venues — probably because they didn’t exist in South Yorkshire at this time. Oral history testimony speaks of mixed, working-class venues that were friendly but not specifically queer until into the 1960s. There was no evidence of camp names, makeup or cross dressing and some of the men were married. Although Rotherham and Barnsley were geographically close, neither set of men knew each other. Despite their experiences being isolated from each other, they were remarkably similar.

I’m sure that elements of each of these regional sexual cultures would have been unrecognisable to outsiders. The queer venues of Birmingham would have been as alien to the men from Rotherham as Lord Montagu’s country pile. Sex on the factory floor would have been as unlikely for Peter Wildeblood as camping it up in a West Midlands milk bar.

So, what does all this mean? Well, for one thing, regional experiences of sexual desire are complicated and resist generalisation. Even talking about the north is difficult (as I am painfully aware), because there, as is the case for many other regions, identity and culture have historically been different from city to city and town to town. However, the importance lies within this complexity as it provides the ability to destabilise, nuance and reimagine much broader understandings of the history of 20th-century Britain, identity and sexuality. After all, one man’s ‘homosexual’ identity was another man’s ‘every time I see a cock I go funny’.

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Helen Smith photoHelen Smith is a social and cultural historian and her research concerns northern, working-class men, sexuality, class and masculinity in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. Helen tweets from @DrHelenSmith



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