Helen Smith

There’s nothing like a post-war, municipal archive to bring joy to the heart of an historian. Well, this historian anyway. As the Queer Beyond London project has already demonstrated, thousands of sources relevant to queer history are hiding behind the unassuming and often uninspiring facades of local government buildings throughout the provinces. Sheffield Archive is a hidden gem which I have used to tell the stories of many queer men in South Yorkshire during the first half of the twentieth century. It’s already world famous for hosting the Edward Carpenter Collection, but there is a vast array of material relating to the post-war and post-decriminalisation period that has been largely untouched by researchers.

Such material tells stories as diverse as the fight against Section 28, student experience and rights activism from the 1970s onwards, amongst many other things. However, in this post, I want to focus on oral history. As part of the Stories of Activism project, a number of interviews relating to queer experience were collected and are now housed in the archive’s oral history collection. There is important material in all of these interviews, particularly relating to the lesbian scene and feminism, however, I want to introduce R.

The area of Sheffield where R was born, Image from Sheffield Local Studies Library, www.picturesheffied.com
The area of Sheffield where R was born (Image courtesy of Sheffield Local Studies Library).

R was born in a rough area of Sheffield just before the Second World War and came of age in the late 1950s. His story is typical of his friends and acquaintances in South Yorkshire but offers something different to many metropolitan narratives. Throughout his interview, R is keen to reiterate how ‘ordinary’ his life has been and that he likes it that way. However, the insight he gives into the world of his youth is extraordinary.

He realised that he was ‘gay’ when he was 19 (at the end of the 1950s) and ‘came out’ to his sympathetic friends in the same year. Although he feels that ‘it was a harder life than now’ and that the ‘law was keener with yer then’, he misses the ‘sense of community’ that was present in the 1950s and 60s. This sense of community extended to the size of the network that queer people socialised in. R remembers a gay scene that was ‘bigger than now’ in the early 1960s and consisted of five bars and a club in the East End of the city (a working-class area around the steelworks) and a number of ‘mixed’ pubs in the city centre including the Barley Corn, the Travellers and the Minerva. Pubs shut at 10 so he and his friends went to parties at each other’s houses or to the coffee bars that stayed open later. Police and public knew about these venues ‘but it was not mentioned’.

R used to go for nights out in Manchester, where he found a completely different scene to the one in Sheffield. Manchester was ‘more cosmopolitan’ and ‘not a working-class place’ where he ‘could let his hair down and sing songs in public’. In contrast, he had to be careful in Sheffield ‘as the housing was around the town centre’ and the venues were largely mixed. On reflection, he didn’t mind this and found it ‘exciting because you had to keep secrets and be careful what you said’. He felt that ‘being gay was easier in Manchester than in a working-class area like Sheffield’ where people ‘didn’t believe in being gay’, but that he had the ‘best of both worlds being gay in a working-class area’ as he could participate in the ‘straight side and gay side’.

Dempseys (Photo: Helen Smith)
Dempseys (Photo: Helen Smith)

At 25, R met his partner in a coffee bar and remained with him for 27 years until he died. This meant that he was off the scene from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. By the time his friends urged him back into the pubs, the scene was unrecognisable. It had been commercialised and sexualised, and ‘taken over’ by businessmen providing ‘gay only’ venues in a similar vein to Manchester. However, by the early 2000s the Sheffield scene ‘was killed off, infighting in the scene killed it’, unlike in Manchester where various business owners overcame this and solidified Canal Street as a destination. That left Sheffield with only one specifically gay bar.

R’s life story offers an almost unique insight into the development of queer networks and then a commercial scene in a northern city. It documents the move away from mixed venues and secrecy pre-1967 to the open and proud scene of the post-1967 period. It also documents a northern, working-class man’s response to this change and highlights the potential differences between how men like R and men in the capital saw their sexuality. R had ‘never been involved in campaigning for gay rights. Not for me, neither is pride. I always wanted a quiet life’ and he ‘prefers to be quiet and withdrawn’. Although the changes didn’t suit him, he was ‘glad that it goes on for a certain element of people that needs it. The gay scene is more out in the open so that’s got to be better’.

helen-smith-photo-e1394294686658Helen 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

Queering the provincial archive: LGBT+ history in Sheffield
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