From a cross-dressing highwayman to a bisexual Roman Emperor — Herts LGBT history month has it all

Forster Country sculpture in St Nicholas’ churchyard in Stevenage, Essendon Church and The Sun pub in Baldock

Forster Country sculpture in St Nicholas’ churchyard in Stevenage, Essendon Church and The Sun pub in Baldock - Credit: Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

In recognition of LGBT+ History Month in February, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies is celebrating with an online exhibition looking at the lives of some LGBT+ people from the county's past.

The exhibition includes documents and artefacts from bisexual Roman Emperor Elagabalus, whose coin was found in Baldock, a cross-dressing highwayman in Ware, and the life of a “female husband” and pub landlord in Baldock.

James Allen, born in Great Yarmouth and assigned female at birth, married Abigail Mary in 1808, who was a lady's maid at his employer in London.

Their marriage was not consummated on their wedding night as James took ill and after that, the couple initially spent little time together before taking over the Sun pub, later the Victoria, in Baldock.

During a robbery at the pub, all their money was stolen and so James became a labourer. And after 20 years of marriage in January 1829, a piece of timber fell on James' head - immediately killing him.  

A post-mortem was carried out and it was revealed that James had female anatomy and had given birth. 

Herts Archives went onto explain: "Mary Allen was thrust into the limelight with the stories about James, and she was quick to try and distance herself from the scandal.

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"She said there had been a couple of times when her suspicion had been aroused, such as questioning James’ strange voice, but that James had become angry and often violent whenever she questioned him, so she avoided probing."

Other parts of the exhibition focuses on the discovery of a person’s identity; a rector from Essendon had to flee the county after accusations of gross indecency, and Oscar Wilde, an Irish playwright and friend of Lady Desborough of Panshanger, was sent to prison for his same-sex relationships.

Edward John Edwards took up the post as domestic chaplain to Lord Salisbury at Hatfield and later became a rector in Essendon where rumours swirled that he was homosexual. 

Police visited Edward’s house and a couple of days later they issued a warrant for his arrest for “committing acts of gross indecency”, a serious offence at the time.

He fled Essendon before he could be arrested, resigning his living before he left. 

The Herts Advertiser covered the case by questioning: "Why and at whose instance, if at anyone’s, did the police delay effective action until Mr Edwards had left the village?” when the police had been surveilling Edward's house. 

The St Albans-based newspaper also mentions, according to Herts Archives, Reverend Lord William Cecil, son of Lord Salisbury, as someone that Edwards met just prior to his arrest, and immediately prior to the police visiting his home. 

But Herts Archives points out "If it was indeed suspected that Reverend Lord William Cecil was one of the men Edwards engaged in homosexual acts with, then these rumours never permeated too far, nor affected Cecil’s career.

"Cecil and his wife had seven children in total, and Cecil remained Rector of Hatfield for 28 years. In 1909, he had the honour of becoming a chaplain to King Edward VII, and in 1916 he was made Bishop of Exeter at the insistence of Prime Minister Asquith."

The month also looks at the time of writer E.M. Forster, who kept his homosexuality secret from the public but not from his close friends, and who grew up at Rooks Nest near Stevenage. 

There is also a reflective look at the outbreak of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and its impact on Hertfordshire and on how local authorities tried to curb the spread, and what impact that had on LGBTQ+ communities.

Cllr Ralph Sangster, executive member for resources at Hertfordshire County Council, said: “We are proud of the diverse and inclusive history and nature of our county. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies preserves the county’s history, but it also continues to collect these histories and expand its collections.

"This online exhibition is fascinating and I would highly recommend you visit hertsmemories.org.uk

Hertfordshire Archives asks that anyone who is comfortable sharing their own stories and memories do so under a dedicated section of the exhibition. The first LGBTQ+ collection was created in 2019. Anyone with items to donate to the archive so that they can be preserved for future generations can get in contact with hals.enquiries@hertfordshire.gov.uk

To view the exhibition visit here

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