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Ordinary Objects with Extraordinary Stories

15th February 2022 / Museum, Museum blog

In the UK, February is LGBT+ history month. Queer stories have often been overlooked or marginalised, so in this blog we take a look at the stories behind everyday objects in our collection that reveal the lives and experiences of some of the LGBTQ+ community both past and present.

Please note, this blog contains historic terminology that some people may find upsetting.

 

 

Borough Lands Poster (1981) and Queen Mary I Charter (1554)

In 1554, Queen Mary I granted Chippenham its charter, allowing it to form a council to run the borough. It also granted land to the town, to raise money to repair the bridge and main roads. Some of the land granted to Chippenham had been seized by the crown from Walter Hungerford after his execution at the Tower of London in 1540.

Hungerford was the first person to be executed under the ‘Buggery Act’ passed by parliament in 1533. The act made sex between men a capital offence, meaning it was punishable by death. It marks the first time in law that gay men were a target for persecution in the UK and remained in place in Britain until 1861.

The former Hungerford lands, still form part of the holdings of the Borough Lands charity to this day.

You can learn more about Walter Hungerford and the Buggery Act here 

 

Stoneware Bottle and Measuring Tankard (circa 1900s)

This ½ pint measuring cup and beer bottle are from the Northey Arms pub in Box. In the 1930s the was owned by the actress and singer Maisie Gay, one on the greatest comedy actors of London’s Music Halls. She was a close friend of the renowned playwright and composer Noel Coward, known for works such as Brief encounter and Blithe Spirit.

Coward was gay and although this was never acknowledged publicly at the time, it was an open secret. When he used to stay with Maisie at the Northey Arms, he would amuse himself by serving behind the bar, much to the surprise of the pub’s regulars which would have included railways works and quarryman.

 

Huntley and Palmers Biscuit Tins (circa 1930s)

The high-profile prosecutions of several gay men in the years following the Second World War led to a review of the laws around homosexuality and prostitution. The resulting Wolfenden Report, named after the committee’s Chair Lord Wolfenden, was published in 1957 and recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence”.

While the report was being prepared the committee were concerned for the modesty of its female staff leading to the use of ‘Huntley and Palmers’ as code words for homosexuals and prostitutes. Huntley and Palmers were a well- known biscuit manufacturer of the time.

It would be a further 10 years before the recommendations in the report were implemented with the partial decriminalisation of homosexually in England and Wales in 1967. It was not until 2001 that gay and bisexual men achieved sexual equality when the age of consent was equalised with that of heterosexual people.

 

Rainbow Wedding Shoes (2020)

These shoes were worn by Heidi Wilton and Dana Dilulio on their wedding day. Having booked the 4 July 2020 before the coronavirus lockdowns, they had an anxious wait to see if their wedding could take place. Thankfully they became the first couple to be able to marry at Chippenham Registry Office after the restrictions were lifted.

In 2004 the Civil Partnership Act allowed same-sex couples to legally enter into binding partnerships, similar to marriage. The 2013 Marriage Act went further, allowing same-sex couples to get married in England and Wales, this was followed by Scotland in 2014. It would not be until 2020 that same-sex marriage was legal in Northern Ireland.

Heidi and Dana’s rainbow shoes were a statement about their LGBTQ+ pride. The rainbow flag was created in 1978 by gay activist and drag performer Gilbert Baker. For Baker the “flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate… The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things”. The pride flag continues to adapt and evolve with the introduction of the progress flag.

 

LGBT+ History Month takes place every February to promote equality and diversity for the benefit of the public. To mark the event, Chippenham Museum has launched two blog posts sharing queer stories from its collection. Read the first blog post in the series here and find out more about LGBT+ History Month here.