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We’ve always been here: Tracing Sheffield’s subversive queer history

Evidence of Sheffield’s LGBTQ past is a unique connection through time for the city’s queer residents. Lucy Brownson finds out more.

Tethered to a boundary sign along Chesterfield Road, in bold block lettering, a handmade placard pronounces Sheffield the ‘Lesbian Capital of the North’. This golden accolade, captured in an archive image from April 1988, would baffle many LGBTQ+ people living in the Steel City today.

Why? Well, because Sheffield is not what you might call a metropolis of queer history and culture – or at least this is the impression that struck me when I first moved here from the comparatively thriving scene in Manchester.

Like other adoptive Sheffielders, I felt compelled to find some connection to the city’s queer past. Before I knew it I’d lost entire weekends to poring over countercultural magazines, digital archives and obscure community history forums, in search of evidence that we’ve always been here.

Sheffield’s queer history is full of gaps and absences though, not least because of criminalisation, active hostility, widespread discrimination and a lack of ‘official’ recognition. Local LGBTQ+ history might not be as well-represented and accessible here as that of larger cities like London and Manchester, but this doesn’t mean queer culture didn’t exist in Sheffield until recently – the LGBTQ+ community has always been part of our city’s social fabric.

Edward Carpenter 1905 NPG

Edward Carpenter in 1905 by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

National Portrait Gallery

Literary and artistic influences: Edward Carpenter and Louise Jennings

Victorian Sheffield was a gruff, working-class city of heavy industry, with its burgeoning steel and coal trades spurring rapid urban development throughout the nineteenth century. Yet by the close of the century, just nine miles from the city centre in the sleepy Derbyshire hamlet of Millthorpe, a poet named Edward Carpenter had begun quietly building a haven for himself and, later, his nesting partner George Merrill, to live openly as gay men.

Carpenter’s cottage became a retreat for other writers, artists and artisans, including his friends E.M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and William Morris.

In a brilliantly lucid and insightful article for the Sheffield Tribune, Sophie Atkinson argues that Sheffield was a utopia for these men because it offered a remoteness and a comparative lack of the kind of public scrutiny and police powers that would see Carpenter’s contemporary Oscar Wilde imprisoned for gross indecency in 1895.

A staunch vegetarian, Carpenter grew his own food at Millthorpe, cultivated his love of the natural world (namely by skinny-dipping each morning), and advocated for a gentler, freer life of love and self-knowledge.

Oil painting of a bustling crowd outside the Sheffield Lyceum on Christmas Eve 1932 The sky is dark blue and the pavements are flooded with golden streetlights

Christmas Eve, 1932 (First Night of the Pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield) by Roberta Louise Jennings.

Museums Sheffield

“It turned out in the long run that I was right – I did want to be a woman, but I didn’t know it,” says Louise Jennings in a 2018 interview about her incredible life. Louise, a WWII veteran who fought in the Battle of Dunkirk, lived as a man for 70 years until her wife Edith passed away in 1989.

She decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery shortly after, having always innately believed that “the women were superior to the men.” Louise was also a talented painter who primarily painted from memory. Her work has found its way into collections across the globe. Two of her paintings are now in Weston Park Museum, including a warmly atmospheric vignette (above) of the hubbub and excitement outside the pantomime at Sheffield Lyceum on Christmas Eve in 1932.

Visibility and community

Sheffield didn’t hold a successful LGBT Pride event until 2008, but queer people had gathered in numbers in the city many times before this.

In 1964, over the Pennines in Manchester, LGBT activists labouring under the umbrella of the gay liberation movement established what would become the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), one of the first and largest public campaigns for LGBT people’s legal and social equality.

In 1975 the CHE held its third annual conference in Sheffield, and local and regional activists brought their fight to that age-old site of civil disobedience, Barker’s Pool. In the image below, the Nottingham Gay Alliance prepare to perform their play 'Green Noses' on the steps of City Hall.

The proceedings of the Sheffield conference illustrate some of the deeper ideological fissures beginning to fragment the movement. At the opening reception, a local feminist activist called Nikki Henriques grabbed the mic from then-mayor Albert Richardson and told delegates that the female catering staff were on lower wages than their male counterparts.

This sparked ire among the crowd and the conference drew broader criticism for its failure to engage with the specific issues and oppressions faced by women in the movement. The tendency to gloss over lesbian identity also carried over to the women’s liberation movement – a ‘Sheffield Special’ issue of Spare Rib from January 1978, for instance, makes no reference to the local lesbian scene or to wider lesbian issues.

A group of people sitting and standing on the steps of City Hall One person is wearing fairy wings and a handmade t shirt that reads Gay Pride Some people hold a banner that reads All homosexuals will have green noses

The Nottingham Gay Alliance group performed the play ‘Green Noses’ on the steps of Sheffield City Hall as part of the 1975 Campaign for Homosexual Equality Conference.

English Heritage, Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ Heritage

Despite this sidelining, local women’s lib and lesbian groups found their struggles often intersected. In the mid 1980s, a group of lesbian feminists established Sheffield Lesbian Line, a volunteer-run phoneline which women could call for advice, information or just a listening ear, bolstering the emerging scene for lesbians and queer women. Several organisers were also involved in Gwenda’s Garage, an all-women garage aimed at training women as mechanics and helping them find work in the male-dominated car industry, illustrating the overlap between local feminist and lesbian circles.

A placard is attached to a South Yorkshire boundary sign along a busy road The placards bold stencilled lettering reads WELCOME TO SHEFFIELD LESBIAN CAPITAL OF THE NORTH

‘Welcome to Sheffield, Lesbian Capital of the North’ placard attached to a South Yorkshire boundary sign, part of the Sheffield Lesbians Against the Clause demo, 8 April 1988.

Lesbian Archive, Glasgow Women’s Library

It was at Gwenda’s where the iconic ‘Welcome to Sheffield’ signs were made, in preparation for the Sheffield Lesbians Against the Clause demo against Section 28 in April 1988.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government mounted an active campaign of repression of LGBT people, Black people, people of colour and other marginalised groups, bolstered by the right-wing media. Amid devastating cuts to community funding, the Government’s most aggressive blow yet was the introduction of Section 28, a law banning ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities. Although Section 28 was repealed in 2003, its pernicious legacy is still felt today. Certainly, in my state secondary school we learned precisely nothing about same-sex relationships, and this lack of knowledge or representation created a heady brew of shame and confusion for countless queer people like me.

In the months leading up to Section 28’s introduction in May 1988, equality campaigners up and down the country vociferously challenged this state-sanctioned homophobia, and in Sheffield a loose coalition called Lesbians Against the Clause held a day of action on 8 April 1988. Their city-wide actions included the erection of the ‘Welcome to Sheffield’ signs, in an act of civil disobedience that made the city’s lesbian and gay community impossible to ignore. The spirit of rebellion against state repression carried forward well beyond 1988 and is captured in the art of Wildcat Cards, a feminist collective active in the 1990s.

Wildcat Cards artwork c 1980s

Wildcat Cards artwork, c.1980s.

Sheffield City Archives (X649 Wildcat Cards Collection)

Taking up space

Sheffield has long been fertile ground for DIY and countercultural ventures, as seen in Barbara Wasiak’s photos of the thriving underground music scene of the 1980s and 90s.

LGBTQ+ night spots have formed a part of the city’s club culture for decades, but – sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity – they’ve often been hidden or transitory spaces which, once gone, leave few traces behind. Recognising the fleeting nature of these key cultural touchpoints, community history collective Steel City Queer History have created a zine and now a podcast tracing Sheffield’s lesser-known queer spaces.

They’ve also recorded oral histories with locals, who remember LGBTQ+ pubs and bars like The Cossack on Howard Street, The Hole in the Wall on Savile Street, Amazon Disco at the Stars on Queens Road, The Albert on Division Street, and up in Attercliffe, The Planet and The Cavalier. A regular punter of Rockies, another gay club in Attercliffe, remembers that “the drinks were cheap, the men were even cheaper!”

One of Sheffield’s longest-running queer venues was The Cossack on Howard Street, which was for a while the only openly gay venue in the city centre. These venues weren’t simply places to meet — they were safe spaces for a community to flourish. One local describes her first visit to The Cossack as “the first time I’d walked in anywhere and felt totally at home.”

Side view from the road of a pub called The Cossack with a dark facade metallic lettering and a Tetley Ales hanging sign A furniture shop and some brutalist buildings are visible to the right of it

One of Sheffield’s most popular LGBT venues, The Cossack pub on Howard Street. The Cossack was demolished in 2008.

Picture Sheffield

Venues like The Cossack are long gone — but when a place which once felt like home vanishes, where do its stories go? And how do we mark queer presences in public spaces, like the CHE protest outside City Hall? How do we imprint ourselves on the city?

Steel City Queer History are doing exactly this through a crowdsourcing project, Our Steel City, which maps local LGBTQ+ people’s memories and favourite places across the city. Reading these accounts, from punk gigs in Hillsborough to finding community at Lion’s Lair (more recently the markedly different Yorkshireman Rock Bar), offers a whole new perspective on the city. I navigate these streets by a different compass.

With this year's LGBTQ+ History Month not too far behind us, we’d do well to embrace projects like Our Steel City with open arms. True, Sheffield’s queer history is piecemeal and a little thin on the ground in places, making a chronological history near-impossible. Where we can find it, though, there’s something magical in that encounter – proof that we’ve always been here.

Sheffield’s queer stories and places should be celebrated in all their subversive glory. What better way to do that than to – quite literally – put ourselves on the map?

Learn more

Got a story to tell about LGBTQ+ life in Sheffield? Add your own memories to Steel City Queer History’s Our Steel City map.

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