Bristol’s secret history


As a young woman, my mother was as naive as you’d expect a nice Catholic girl brought up in rural pre-War Ireland to be. So even decades after the event, she spoke of the time she encountered Gloria with uncomprehending amazement.

My father was in the merchant navy and was away for weeks or months at a time. When he was coming back she would often travel to various parts of the British Isles to meet him. And so it was that sometime in the early/mid 1950s she was at Avonmouth, watching him come down the gangway while, at the rail a man in a dress and lipstick was in tears.

Recovering her jaw from the ground she asked (well, demanded, I expect) what on earth was going on.

“Oh, that’s Gloria,” said Dad. “He’s just upset because nobody wants to go ashore with him.”

The popular memory is that until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act started to liberalise the law, gay, lesbian, bi- and trans people in Britain lived secret lives, terrified of the legal consequences that might follow being outed or arrested.

Actual LGBT history is, of course, far more complicated, nuanced and infinitely more interesting. In pockets of the British merchant navy, for instance, especially the liners, gay men could be found in large numbers. Cunard, for one, was widely known to employ gays as stewards because they were good at it, and probably frankly because they were so grateful to have a job in which they could, within certain boundaries, be themselves.

As a radio officer employed by Marconi, Dad and his mates always loved being assigned to Cunard liners, not just because of the prestige, but because their stewards were the best in the British service, if not the world, and passengers and crew alike knew that standards of service were second to none. In dreary postwar austerity Britain, nothing came close to the glamour of Cunard.

Dad’s own first encounter with men in dresses was, he said, the night he was called forward to the crew accommodation on a Cunarder to repair their radio, because without it the big Saturday night dance would have to be cancelled. The radio was fixed, and the party got going, and Sparks politely declined the offer of a drink and beat a hasty retreat back to his own cabin.

Naturally you’d ask yourself why on earth any sailor who valued his health would want to walk into a pub in Avonmouth or Bristol with a man in a dress. But Gloria probably knew exactly what s/he was doing. Whether trans or Queen Bee, Gloria would have been connected to a secret network of like-minded people spanning sea-ports across the globe; Gloria would have known which pubs or clubs to go to in Bristol, or at least how to find those places without being beaten up or arrested. This was a secret world in which initiates even had their own language.

Whether you’re gay or straight you can’t fail to be fascinated by the hidden history of sexual minorities – from those who lived by discreet, unspoken understandings all the way through to some astonishingly brave men and women who courted criminal records, prison sentences and even death by openly proclaiming their sexuality.

Until very recently most straight people were – too many still are – frightened or disgusted by sexuality different to their own, at least when considering it at a distance. At the same time, many workplaces, be they ocean-going liners, shops or offices, had one or two flamboyant male homosexuals who were not only tolerated, but were often popular with their straight workmates.

Working in an office in Bristol in the 1970s, an aunt of mine was full of stories about the outrageous things a very camp colleague of hers used to say. They all loved him; the life and soul of every party. It was like having a John Inman, Larry Grayson or Kenneth Williams of your own! … But at the same time they might well nod in righteous agreement with every saloon bar bigot or tabloid columnist who said it should be criminalised again.

Others, of course, lived more discreetly. If you attended a girls’ or mixed-sex secondary school, you were almost certainly taught by unmarried women who lived with other unmarried women (often other teachers). Just as Queen Victoria couldn’t believe there was such a thing as female homosexuality, it probably never even occurred to you Miss X and Miss Y were anything other than two good friends who had never met Mr Right, and lived together in order to share the bills. Perhaps, said people, they had lost the great loves of their lives in the War.

All this by way of my usual long-winded introduction. This time, to a very good local cause.

OutStories Bristol is putting on a big exhibition at M Shed in February, and it wants stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans- people who live in the Bristol area. Or who once lived in the Bristol area.

It’s an important aspect of Bristol’s history. As a seaport it probably has more LGBT history than comparable places inland. As the biggest city in the region, it has always attracted young men and women from surrounding small towns where they were, at worst, persecuted or, at best, were unable to find others like themselves. To this day, youngsters are drawn to the big local city because they know they’ll find friends, support and romantic (or just plain sexual) adventure.

If you’re LGBT, or know anyone who is, or even if you’re straight but have an interesting story about LGBT people in the Bristol area from within living memory, please get in touch. Whether your life has been fabulous and filled with adventure, or whether you think it’s been dull, OutStories wants to hear from you. Absolute discretion guaranteed if you want it.

They want to hear from heteros with LGBT tales, too. Maybe you’ve got a good story about a friend, relative or workmate.

This stuff matters. It’s the history of some sizeable minorities of the city’s population. It mustn’t be forgotten.

OutStories Bristol are doing great work and have already started to piece together some of this amazing hidden history. Find out more, and how to contact them at


One Response to “Bristol’s secret history”

  1. 1 The Secret History of Bristol | Cheryl's Mewsings

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