It’s queer up north? Finding queerness in Sheffield’s past

Researchers looking into the queer history of local communities outside London may find this to be a difficult task. There is no ‘LGBT’ tab on the local studies library record. However, LGBTQ+ history in places like Sheffield does exist. As an adoptive Sheffielder myself, I started wondering about this history about 10 years ago. I’ve lived in Sheffield since 2000 and with some notable exceptions, have not seen much queerness represented in the many historic works and museums that celebrate the city’s heritage. But talking to people I knew in the community, particularly my fellow singers in Out Aloud, Sheffield’s LGBT+ choir, I realised there was a fascinating history here that would be lost if someone didn’t try to record it.

Uncovering the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ people is often difficult because it is by its nature a commonplace thing that is not always recorded or remembered. Luckily, I was able to conduct oral history interviews with some local people, and these gave me a huge amount of detail that no amount of looking through the archives could have found. These interviews formed the basis of more archival research, which means we now have a much better understanding of what life was like for LGBTQ+ people in Sheffield. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was very little in the way of gay bars or pubs in Sheffield. One such place was a small room upstairs in a pub called the King’s Arms. Trevor remembered the experience of going up to the bar.

‘ And uh, if you went in the pub, the gay bar was upstairs. I’m talking about the 19 …. In the late 60s. And it was about the size of this conservatory, right? And there was a bar and some seats around and that was it. But to get to it you had to come through the straight bar, straight pub, and you always got comments. You always got comments about ‘Oh f**king puffs’ and all this lot. Uhm, you just learned to ignore ‘em.’

Soon there were more gay bars in Sheffield, mostly in out-of-the-way areas such as Attercliffe, a working class suburb of the city where the steel works were located. Lesley remembered a small club called The Amberley.

‘There was a little club on Attercliffe called the Amberley … it was a converted terraced house … it was very small, a lot more men than women … and we used to have to go to the door and knock on the door, and they used to open this little hatch and if you looked like a lesbian you got in, so I always got in.’

Aside from socialising, there was political work taking place in Sheffield too. By 1972 Sheffield had a branch of Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) and this group worked on informing local agencies about LGBT people and their needs, engaging local MPs in conversations about gay rights and leading on local campaigns around provision of services for LGBT people. It is worth noting that the Sheffield CHE’s main focus was on improving gay men’s rights, for example the campaign to lower the age of consent, but they also set up a separate women’s group, trans group (known then as TV/TS) and other special interest groups.

In the 1980s activists in Sheffield established both ‘Gay Phone’ and ‘Lesbian Line’ support phone lines for the local community and support groups for men during the AIDS crisis were established – some of which continued well into the 2000s. 

By the 1980s, some women in the Sheffield LGBTQ+ community were feeling increasingly pushed out by the masculine scene. Caroline said:

‘[T]here was the Cossack, which was rough as f**k, erm, you know and again there was very definite demarcations, there was dykes corner in there and then fights over the pool table, you know and it was, it was scary.’

Whilst the scene catered more towards gay men, Sheffield’s lesbian and bisexual women were finding ways of creating their own spaces. Some started women only meet ups at The Hole in the Wall – an otherwise mainstream pub on the outskirts of the city, and ran women’s discos at various venues in the city centre. Sheffield women set up a monthly women’s performance night at the Leadmill, which played host to many comedians such as Rhona Cameron and Jo Brand.  They went on to establish the Women’s Cultural Club in 1997 which served as a queer-friendly space for women who did not want to be part of the male-dominated scene.

We have only just begun to tell the story of LGBTQ+ people in Sheffield during the last half of the twentieth century, and much work still needs to be done. In 2018 I joined forces with other queer historians in Sheffield and we set up Steel City Queer History. Our aim is to gather and disseminate the stories that make up our shared history. In 2019 we published ‘A DIY guide to the queer history of Sheffield’, a zine outlining a brief history of the city and plotting significant places on a map. We formed part of the co-curator group on an exhibition of LGBTQ+ life with Museums Sheffield called Proud!. During lockdown we established an online project, ‘Our Steel City’. Via our website, LGBTQ+ people are invited to add the stories of their own past, and to enable us to share these stories on the Sheffield map. 

Links: 

Museums project, Proud! https://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/about/proud

Helen Smith’s book, ‘Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957’  https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137470980

Friends of Edward Carpenter: https://www.friendsofedwardcarpenter.co.uk/

Steel City Queer History: https://steelcityqueerhistory.wordpress.com/submit/

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