LGBTQ+ histories: archives and manuscripts, 1600 to present

A watercolour drawing showing two women in long skirts walking alongside each other. One is holding up her coat and the other is holding a walking stick. The drawing is titled, 'The Ladies of Llangollen' and is dated 1819.
The Ladies of Llangollen, 1819, Add MS 59655, f.79.

Archives and manuscripts in the Western Manuscripts collections relating to LGBTQ+ histories from the 17th century to the present day.

About the collection

The British Library holds many archives and manuscripts that offer insights into LGBTQ+ histories. These collections include manuscripts relating to the development of theories of sexuality and gender, records relating to the persecution of individuals and communities, archives relating to LGBTQ+ activism, as well as the personal correspondence and creative outputs of individuals who have explored LGBTQ+ themes in their works. 

When examining LGBTQ+ archives and manuscripts we should consider that our contemporary terminology for, and concepts of, sexuality and gender are different to those of the past and were largely developed by theorists from the 19th century onwards. When this guide lists collections relevant to LGBTQ+ histories before this era, it recognises that these existed in a different historical context and that the terms ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, ‘trans’ and ‘queer’ encapsulate certain identities that may not have been recognised in the same way in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

It is relevant, however, to include earlier collections that may explore or refer to the multiplicities of sexuality and gender expression beyond the conventional, so that we may explore the ever-changing manifestations, descriptions, definitions and understanding of sexuality and gender through time.

Researching LGBTQ+ histories in Explore Archives and Manuscripts

The ability to isolate archives and manuscripts that give insights to LGBTQ+ lives and history depends on a number of factors. Many of the subjects in the archives listed below were collected for reasons other than their personal lives. Their archival descriptions therefore, are unlikely to make direct reference to their respective sexualities or gender identities. Catalogue records may make use of pronouns that subjects would not have identified with themselves. The suppression and regulation of queer sexualities and genders over the centuries has meant much documentation has been destroyed. In addition to this, historic taboos towards LGBTQ+ themes has led to a reluctance to refer to relevant archival content in catalogue records and catalogue subject headings.
 
The combined effect of these factors is that descriptive terms relating to sexuality and gender seldom produce significant results in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, especially for material created before the 20th century. The most effective method for finding relevant material is to search for specific individuals based on prior research, or to use the information given below that describes relevant holdings.

Warning: When researching and reading histories of sexuality and gender identity, it is important to consider that descriptive terminology and attitudes have changed over time, so that some archival materials may contain content considered offensive today. They may also contain evidence of and descriptions of violence against LGBTQ+ people and communities. 

17th century 

It is difficult to identify open discussion of same-sex relations in the 17th century. Relevant records from the 17th century often relate to persecutions of individuals for sexual acts. In this regard, we hold an account of the arrest and trial of John Atherton and the Earl of Castlehaven, both executed for convictions of sodomy. A number of early modern writers alluded to the subject of same-sex relations in their works, such as Delarivier Manley, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, and John Dryden. We hold papers relating to the life of the 1st Duke of Buckingham, who was known as the King’s favourite and popularly thought to be the King’s lover. Papers include affectionate letters from King James I to the Duke of Buckingham and copies of popular verse that satirised their relationship. 

18th century

The Blenheim Papers include the correspondence of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough - the favourite of Queen Anne. These papers include correspondence between Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough and her rival for the Queen’s favour, Baroness Abigail Masham. Within these volumes are a number of satirical poems by Arthur Maynwaring, which depict the relationship between Abigail Masham and Queen Anne as a lesbian one. The Library also holds the papers of the diplomat, spy and soldier Chevalier d’Éon, who expressed both male and female gender identities throughout their lifetime. This collection includes the Chevalier d’Éon’s journal, correspondence, school exercise book, an engraved portrait and assorted memoranda.  The Library also holds correspondence between numerous supposed same-sex couples including the Ladies of Llangollen (Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler), and the love letters of Lord Hervey and Sir Stephen Fox-Strangways in the Holland House Papers. There are extensive manuscripts relating to the life and works of the Romantic poet Lord Byron whose infamous love life at the turn of the century included affairs with men and women.
 
19th century

The 19th century witnessed a growing academic interest in theories of sexuality and gender. The British Library holds the extensive papers of Havelock Ellis who researched, and published extensively, on the subject of sexuality and gender expression. Important correspondents include poet and advocate of male love John Addington Symonds; campaigner for reform of laws relating to homosexuality George Cecil Ives; writer and early advocate of gay rights Edward Carpenter and the extensive papers of Edith Ellis, women’s rights advocate who lived openly as a lesbian. The Eccles Bequest comprises one of the largest collections of Oscar Wilde’s papers in the world, The Lady Eccles Oscar Wilde Collection. This rich collection includes Wilde’s plays, notebooks, books, correspondence, photos, paintings and more. Correspondents include members of Wilde’s circle many of whom had same-sex relationships, including Robert Ross, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas and Edith Simcox. The Library holds the journals and correspondence of the writers and couple, Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, who published work together under the pseudonym ‘Michael Field’. The Library also holds the notebook of poems by Charles Kains Jackson who was a member of the Uranian School, a group of gay poets writing in the later 19th century. 

20th century - present

Our relevant 20th century holdings include a wide range of writers and poets who explore or allude to LGBTQ+ themes including W. H. Auden, A. E. Housman, Christopher Isherwood, Charlotte Mew, Angus Wilson, Vita Sackville-West, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Joe Orton, and Hanif Kureshi, among others. The Havelock Ellis papers hold correspondence from Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge relating to the obscenity trial of the novel, ‘The Well of Loneliness’, whilst the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays hold the play scripts and official correspondence relating to state censorship of plays containing gay themes. In addition to this, the British Library holds the correspondence and plays of noted gay playwrights and actors such as Sir Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan as well as the diaries and letters of actor, Kenneth Williams. The Turing Trust archive contains material relating to the legacy of computer scientist, Alan Turing, including photographs, location lists of his papers and correspondence on the publication of his collected works. The papers of politician Jeremy Thorpe contain correspondence with the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Albany Trust. The archive of activist and publisher, Beryl Foster, includes printed material on lesbian history and culture. The papers of Peter Tatchell, LGBTQ+ rights activist, contains placards and posters relating to the campaign against Section 28 and the campaign to lower the male same-sex age of consent. 

Examples:

What is available online?

The Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue contains catalogue entries for archives and manuscripts relating to LGBTQ+ histories in the Western Manuscripts collections. 

The British Library’s LGBTQ+ Histories website explores LGBTQ+ life and histories through the British Library’s collections from the 1500s to today. It examines the UK LGBTQ+ community’s struggles for social and political equality through articles, timelines and collection items.

The UK Web Archive holds extensive archived web content relating to many aspects of LGBTQ+ life across contemporary Britain.

 

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Archives and manuscripts relating to LGBTQ+ histories can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. You may need to provide us with a letter of introduction or further information in order to access manuscripts and archives. Read the full description of the item in the online catalogue to find out whether access conditions apply. It is advisable to contact the Manuscripts Reference Team before travelling to the Library, particularly if you are consulting autograph literary manuscripts. Up to 5 working days’ notice is required to process applications to consult restricted collection items.

What is available in other organisations?

  • The Bishopsgate Institute holds one of the most extensive archives of LGBTQ+ history, politics and culture in the UK, which includes the archives from Stonewall, Switchboard, GMFA/The Gay Men's Health Charity, Outrage! and material relating to the Terrence Higgins Trust, Achilles Heel and QX magazines. 
  • The London School of Economics holds a comprehensive collection relating to LGBTQ+ activism. Collections include papers of the Albany Trust, Campaign for Homosexual Equality and archives of prominent gay rights campaigners. 
  • The National Archives holds a large number of records relating to LGBTQ+ history. Their research guide describes how to identify such records in their expansive collection.

Further information