The Hold opens with a celebration of Pride in Suffolk
- Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND
Welcome to The Hold. Suffolk’s new archive centre, built in the heart of the University of Suffolk campus, is an impressive sight.
It’s an imposing presence, situated opposite the iconic question mark sculpture outside the university buildings on Ipswich Waterfront, and its entrance hall acknowledges the history of the waterfront by showcasing a number of Valerie Irwin’s startling charcoal drawings depicting the demolition of the old Wet Dock buildings and the construction of the DanceHouse.
Opening for the first time since the latest lockdown The Hold is staging it’s inaugural exhibition ‘Pride in Suffolk’s Past’, which explores the frequently hidden stories surrounding Suffolk’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming people in Suffolk’s past.
It’s an exhibition which has required a lot of detective work to put together, scouring thousands of personal letters and journals which have been deposited with the Suffolk archive rather than official documents to find these highly charged, often very discreet stories.
Emily Shepperson, exhibitions and interpretation officer from The Hold, said the dynamic exhibition had taken more than two years to compile. Pulling together stories from such well-known personalities as Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to more hidden stories such as writer Edward Fitzgerald’s relationship with a local fisherman in the 19th century or Lord Hervey’s 17th century hot-blooded relationship with a Stephen Fox who he met on a visit to Bath.
These stories were pieced together from letters where the writers could let their guard down during times which could have seen them imprisoned for expressing their feelings.
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The archives have revealed not only male stories but some prominent women also had to be circumspect when making contact with partners and lovers. Surgeon and Suffragette Louisa Garrett Anderson shared her life with Dr Flora Murray during the first two decades of the 20th century. Dr Murray was Emmeline Pankhurst’s personal physician and Louisa Garrett Anderson founded the Women’s Hospital Corps during World War I. Despite such important work it is unusual that they are rarely mentioned in official texts.
The exhibition asks the question was this because they, unlike many others, were openly living together and even in death share a grave?
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Emily Shepperson said: “We have a lot a lot of support and help from volunteers and from organisations like Suffolk Pride and Outreach Youth to discover LGBTQ+ stories, both past and present, as they exist in the archive.
“It’s taken time to draw all the different strands together because they are obvious, for many reasons a lot of this important strand of our social history was hidden. At first there some concern that maybe we wouldn’t have anything in the archives at all but a little bit of digging revealed some intriguing leads and then, as always, the more you look, the more you find.”
She said that even though some people like Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were living together fairly openly in law they couldn’t share bank accounts or share the ownership of property. “This is brought home in the case of a simple invoice for shoe repairs to Peter Pears shoes. Even though the transaction was conducted by Mr Pears, the bill is made out to Mr Britten because they could share a bank account.
“It’s these pieces of domestic trivia which can speak volumes.”
She said that private letters between individuals also revealed the true story of a public friendship. It was private correspondence that told the hidden story between Lord Hervey and Stephen Fox and cast a new light on the relationship between Victorian suspense author MR James and book illustrator and travelling companion James McBryde.
While it is the personal letters, many of which are on display, that tell the uplifting, sometimes giddy stories of true love, the official documents in the exhibition tell a different tale. These often convey a much darker narrative – stories of imprisonment, punishment and hard labour.
Record books for Ipswich prison carry entries for punishments carried out for the crimes of sodomy – which is the Victorian era was a catch-all title for the offenses of so-called ‘unnatural love’. This offence could be applied to just holding hands or acting in an ‘unmanly’ manner.
Emily said: “Whereas the exhibition is very much about pride in Suffolk’s past, it would be untruthful if we didn’t acknowledge the other side of the coin – society’s official disapproval of same sex relationships or alternative lifestyles.
“These prisoner books show how society dealt with largely working class LGBTQ+ individuals, as by and large, upper-class people don’t appear in these ledgers.”
Another extraordinary document featured in the exhibition is a handwritten playscript The Farce of Sodom, one of the oldest LGBTQ+ documents in the Suffolk archive, and one if only ten known copies in the world.
Written by an anonymous author in 1694, the play is a satirical expose of the activities of the court of Charles II. Emily said: “The comedy and the character names are very crude. It will not be for everybody but it is important to have such an early and important document on display.
“It came to us as part of a bigger collection of documents belonging to a donor and it would be wonderful project to trace its connections with Suffolk.”
The exhibition brings the story up-to-date with testimonies from Suffolk people about life for LGBTQ+ people in lockdown and the history of Suffolk Pride. It also has recordings of actor Ian McKellen talking about the founding of Stonewall.
Emily points out that the exhibition is also keen to ask the difficult question about whether these individuals, “particularly those of the Victorian era, who worked so hard to conceal their true feelings, whether they would have been happy to have their life choices put on display for others to judge?
“We have tried to avoid putting labels on people because we don’t know how they would have identified and almost certainly they wouldn’t know the modern terminology but what we do have are their letters and we can allow their words to speak for them.”
Pride in Suffolk’s Past runs at The Hold, Fore Street, Ipswich until July 4. Free tickets must be booked in advance on the website.