Steelworkers and Secret-Keepers: Being Queer Up North in the 19th and 20th Century

Both celebratory and reflective, Jack Burnett interrogates the histories of public and private queer expression in the North of England. In his in-depth, compelling case of the intersections between class and sexuality, he draws up a conversation about which Northern LGBTQ stories get remembered and why

Watching this amazing Outposts video gives a great perspective on why illuminating representations are so important. This means looking at the history as more than just stories, but what the things we know about those people tell us about ourselves. This isn’t to say that stories cannot help us to understand ourselves better. LGBTQ scholars agree that the stonewall riot has become mythologised, but the way it represents strength, community and intersectionality makes its repetition worthwhile. Martha P Johnson may not have thrown the first literal brick, but through this story her wide and selfless contributions to the local community are remembered. Looking at the myths and assumptions around the idea of being “gay up north” show, in plain colour, what stereotypes they are built upon.

Drawn by Beck Kubrick

So, what are the stereotypical myths when we think about how the north of England intersects with LGBTQ culture? The wonderful film Pride (2014) can reveal one. In it, a group of suburban and metropolitan gay and lesbian Londoners use their influence in club and city life to raise money for Welsh miners, who act as a point of contrast. The mining community eventually accept and embrace this support, but their default state is traditional and heteronormative. The idea that northern English culture has always been a bastion of traditional, nuclear families shows up even in this Outposts video. Both China and Laura acknowledge “escaping” to London. China goes further to articulate how being non-binary and northern can feel incompatible and that this can make the sublime enveloping beauty of the north feel at odds with its marginalised people. This myth in particular is unfortunate as so many stories from Yorkshire’s past show certain heteronormativity as a product of the capital that were initially resisted outside London. 

It is easy to see London as a “gay capital” when using sources more typically used by historians. Between 1895 and 1910, around 3 times more men appeared in court charged with homosexuality. This relationship holds true until the 1940s, where it becomes 8 or 10 times more. This does not represent actual populations though; it has a lot more to do with the strict enforcement of anti-sodomy and anti-homosexual laws by the Metropolitan Police. Homosexuality was also more homogenous in London, the clubs and bars helped to form an encompassing, easily identifiable queer identity which meant it was more often targeted by enforcement. By looking at a famous example we can begin to see this binary of normal and different be broken down by northern queerness.


Anne Lister was a businesswoman, landowner and well taught upper-class woman who lived from 1791 until 1840 and documented her countless lesbian loves, flings and dramas in four million words worth of coded diaries. The diaries were translated by her family who destroyed the code out of shame and almost burnt all the manuscripts – which are now UNESCO heritage protected texts held in the Halifax archives. Work is still being done to fully unearth all their secrets; academic Emma Donoghue famously described them as The Dead Sea Scrolls of Lesbian history. In the 1980s Helena Whitbread released translated extracts and after cracking the alphabet noticed other finer details: a cross in the margin denoted an orgasm and the code’s translation had already been lying in plain sight in love letters by former partners. Looking at a small extract we can see how sexually active and popular Lister must have been with other titled and landed ladies:

“Christmas Eve: flirting w. Isabella Norcliffe

Christmas Day: do. Mrs Milne

Boxing day: do. Miss Duffin”

Anne Lister

According to Jill Liddington’s analysis, Lister’s homosexuality ‘overflows the neat categories convenient to historians’ and perhaps the most interesting part is that Lister’s comprehensive understanding of her own sexuality ‘indicates a continuing underground tradition of women who desired other women’. Although the need to code her experiences acknowledges a danger in declaring it openly, the frequency of her seduction and her lifelong upstanding position in the upper class suggests an acceptance of the ‘open secret’ of her sexuality (all her staff and cohabiting family are presumed to have known about it for many years). 

Drawing of Anne Lister
Anne Lister drawn by Beck Kubrick

The Story of Anne Lister is an incredible one, but it only gives us a non-typical account of historical northern LGBTQ experience – and a contentious one at that. Lister was a seductress, often forcing herself upon women who showed no interest in her. She was also incredibly business minded, and many argue she pursued women not just because of attraction, but for the social mobility it would give her. Her first partner, Eliza Rain, was the half Indian daughter of an English surgeon, who she slept with in a secluded attic room of their boarding school. Despite their inseparability, it is believed that Anne left Eliza with little warning in order to pursue more ambitious relationships, sending Eliza into a deep depression. She would never recover from this heartbreak, eventually being committed to an asylum. Anne would also affirm racist points made by her future lovers about Eliza in letters. For further reading, Anira Rowanchild in chapter one of her PhD thesis has written at length about the way race and power played into Lister’s actions and goals. It is important to draw from Anne Lister and to see her as the complicated character she was. To try unearthing a more representative idea of the LGBTQ population, it might help to extrapolate a picture of a working class, gay subculture in towns like Sheffield and Doncaster. When reading about examples like Lister, who were considered eccentric by their contemporaries, it is easy to see homosexuality in the north as an outsider lifestyle, but the reality is again more complicated, and arguably more naturally intertwined with typically masculine lifestyles.


There is evidence of a gay culture up north that emulated London, for example in Warrington in 1806 24 men, mostly working class, were all arrested for homosexual behaviour. They were found ‘masked and painted. The men were in women’s clothes and the women in men’s’. There are stories of a several similar discoveries in Manchester, Doncaster and Birmingham but nothing on the scale of the capital. For further reading on this, check out chapter 3 of Helens Smith’s amazing study, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957. What is more illuminating is the rich history of men loving men as an ordinary and nonchalant part of their lives. The Northern counties had a strong sense of individuality and due to the cultural importance of drinking, gambling and prostitution police very rarely tried to control morality, establishing a sense of “living and letting live” that rested on a common understanding that the working class functioned best by accepting and allowing each other’s private business to continue undisturbed. This lack of policing and acceptance of privacy means the history, while valuable, is often scarcely documented. One great source of primary material is the work of Edward Carpenter. Poet, author and hopeless romantic, he moved to the north to escape the gay subculture of London, which he saw as too tied up with the exploitation of young boys. Carpenter was aware that many affluent members of London gay societies often were engaged in relationships with large age gaps, Oscar Wilde as an example. This is not to make a moral objection here – only to point it out as an interesting reversal of the “escaping to London” stereotype.

He wrote extensively about his appreciation for northern men, describing in his novel Toward Democracy: “the grimy and oil-besmeared figure of a stoker” or “the thick-thighed hot coarse-fleshed young bricklayer with a strap around his waist”. He also had a knack for romance, writing of ‘strong well-knit muscles, quick healing glossy skin, body for kisses all over!’. One evocative description of seeing his steelworker partner after a long week of work shows how these relationships were facts of their lives and not secrets kept hidden:

“Along the muddy lanes at night, or in whirling snow, I dragged him out through the woods and fields, and he all the time so exhausted with the week’s work that he would almost go to sleep on my arm. It sounds like cruelty to animals! But the truth was that to escape from Sheffield was such a joy, and to rest all Sunday in the clean air such a renewal of life.”

Edward Carpenter

Carpenter himself was a Southern immigrant to Sheffield, but through him we can consider the interesting quirks in the homosexualities of the men he pined for. Carpenter’s first relationship was with George Hukin. Hukin did not define himself as a homosexual, but as a politically active socialist, and a steelworker. His only qualms about his relationship with Carpenter was their different class backgrounds. Because of Hukin’s peculiar self-conception (which was not rare in these contexts) he fell in love with a woman and did not see this as a blockade to his time with Carpenter. He even joked in letters about Carpenter joining their honeymoon to romp with him in the same room as his knowing newlywed wife. Although Carpenter was confused and hurt by this, there is so much we can learn from their time together; traditionally masculine men who were politically active and well known in their rural communities could be open about sexual and romantic contact with other men. This contact did not necessitate a certain ‘queer’ lifestyle but could infer one. However, to see a good example of a gay couple that mutually understood their relationship as gay we need to look no further than Carpenter’s next serious partner, George Merrill.

Carpenter and Merrill drawn by Beck Kubrick

Carpenter and Merrill eventually became the favourites of gay authors and academics, because of how perfect their relationship seemed to be – E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice was a famous characterisation of their lives. Tending a garden together, socialising with the town in pubs and clubs and having frequent social dinners and some nudist meetings at their cottage. Merrill one time turned away a door to door preacher, when asked why he did not want to know the way to heaven, his reply was “can’t you see that we’re in heaven here – we don’t want any better than this.” Merrill was working class, similar to Hukin but was overall an entirely different character. He frequently walked around Sheffield in brightly coloured suits and was, in his own view, a gay man. Despite these public displays, he was still widely respected because of his honest work in the steel factory, known to be trusted to look after neighbours’ children and losing no social credibility from his sexuality. What is most interesting is that traditional industrial men leaning into the social security they earned from these jobs often had more sexual explorative freedom than their middle-class counterparts. In fact, when a one-man campaign of hate was launched against Merrill and Carpenter by a middle-class Londoner called O’Brien, Sheffield locals jumped up in support of the two men. They prioritised a person’s ability to love and live privately over some middle-class intruder’s appeal to their morality.


The stories of Carpenter, Merrill and Hukin are so valuable because we know they are detailed accounts of a wider culture that is seldom written down. This means that with the knowledge of how they existed we can look differently at more surface level accounts of homosexuality. Maurice Dobson was not a poet or an author, nor do we have detailed accounts of how he thought about himself, we only have a set of oral histories from locals remembering visiting his corner shop in Barnsley in the 1950s and 1960s. Maurice had a similar taste for fashion as Merrill, but also wore bright lipsticks and smoked from ornate and lavish cigarette holders. Maurice and his husband Fred were openly celebrated as members of the tight-knit local mining community, which is clearly not as incompatible with camp and queer identities as many people assume. 

Maurice Dobson drawn by Beck Kubrick

Court transcripts for indecency hearings can also be thought about differently. Brian Hobson was a 21-year-old driver from Rotherham who has frequent same-sex public encounters and ‘admitted his infamy without any sense of shame or remorse’. He gleefully admitted to having sex with six other men at the back of a bus – which was not the incident the police accosted him for in the first place. This orgy had gone unreported by the driver and anyone else on the bus. The fact that such a radical sex act was unreported, but later confirmed by witnesses alludes to a culture of public same sex hook-ups in Yorkshire towns. Similar cases of unreported acts being openly admitted to, like the case of Barnsley local Peter Goodliffe, show that public sex and affection was a norm. There was no commercial network of bars and clubs like the London ‘scene’, but as Helen Smith puts it: 

“Men could use the ‘scene’ in the capital to help them form a distinctly homosexual self-identity. However, in South Yorkshire, the social and sexual lives of men revolved around work, work trips, pubs and the cinema. There is evidence that these workmates moved fluidly between friendship and sex, sometimes on work premises.”

Helen Smith

Looking back at Hukin for a second, this idea of male friendships and sexual relationships being more fluid can help to understand why his casual outlook to his relationship with Carpenter could be considered less strange. We do not know whether Hukin had sex or relationships with men after or before Carpenter, but suddenly it seems much more likely.


Looking back at Pride (2014) – it is clear that it is a fairly realistic portrayal of homophobia in Onllwyn, a mining community torn up by Thatcherite Britain. The question to ask is – was it always this way? It is hard to certainly know, but easy to believe any mining town could have had their own gay culture. Far from being stuck in ‘traditional’ beliefs, in some ways Barnsley, Doncaster, Leeds and Sheffield had a more unified understanding of LGBTQ individuals – rather than the capital’s dense pockets of gay culture surrounded by people and police desperate to exploit and imprison them. 

Teaching gay history is so much more than radicals, revolutionaries and riots and especially more than a metropolitan queerness. Learning about the knotty idea of sexuality and the way it changed over time can also be illuminating, even though it presents uncomfortable truths. What does it mean if our icons like Anne Lister had other undesirable qualities? What does it say that someone like Hukin could understand queerness so differently to our contemporary understanding that he could break another mans heart before he’d realised what he had done wrong? Maybe we can learn from the historicisation of Stonewall and the value of a powerful story as a pedestal for the people and ideas it represents. What is so much more important than considering the paradoxes or complications of these stories is that they are known, and they are spread. A popular history of a northern queerness incorporated into the normal, not existing outside of it, would help so many out there trying to learn more about themselves. 

Jack Burnett

Drawn by Beck Kubrick

Further Reading

Research and Analysis

Anira Rowanchild, ’My mind on paper’: Anne Lister and literary self-construction in early-nineteenth-century Halifax

Anira Rowanschild: Skirting the Margins: Anne Lister, Self-Representations and Lesbian Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century Yorkshire (Chapter 8 in De-centring Sexualities: Politics and Representations Beyond the Metropolis edited by David Shuttleton, Diane Watt, Richard Phillips)

Anna Clark, Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity (In the Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 7 Number 1)

Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957

Literature and Letters

Edward Carpenter, Towards Democracy

Edward Carpenter, George Merrill: a true history, & study in psychology

E. M. Forster, Maurice

Muriel M. Green, Miss Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax: Selected Letters, 1800-1840 (available at Libraries in Stockport, Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds)

Videos and Material

Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, Memories of Maurice

Rebecca Woods, The Life and Loves of Anne Lister

*Those with a link attached are available for free online, but it is always worth looking at your local library for the others and to request they be ordered in if you are not able to find them. 

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