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Erimus: Uncovering Teesside’s missing LGBT+ history

There’s an odd stereotype about our LGBT+ community on Teesside: that it doesn’t exist. It’s not true, of course: census data earlier this year found that there are over 10,000 LGBT+ Teessiders - That’s just those comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity; we know that many more, particularly our older residents, still feel unable to come out.

Part of the problem is that we haven’t been able to tell our own story. LGBT+ Teessiders have always been here - but how much of our history can we read about?

The truth is that there is a rich, diverse history across Teesside. We had feminist pioneers like Marion Coates Hansen, Alice Coates and Red Ellen Wilkinson, all the way through to the late Mo Mowlam. We’ve had anti-racist campaigners, from the Stockton trade unionists through to today’s activists like ‘Chief’ Bradley Mafuta or Georgina Chinaka. So too have we had generations of LGBT+ folk.

That’s why, thanks to the North East Heritage Library’s Amplified History Fund, it’s important to highlight just some of the LGBT+ Teessiders left out of our history.

Ivor Gustavus Cummings (b.1913)

During the nineteenth century, Hartlepool had exploded from an isolated fishing town into a major bicentric shipping hub of over 70,000 people. There were Welsh ironworkers seeking work, Irish migrants fleeing famine, Jewish refugees escaping pogroms, and sailors from as far as Southeast Asia coming to settle. By the turn of the century, the ‘Hartlepools’ were a cultural melting-pot; so it was that in West Hartlepool in December 1913, a Sierra Leonean merchant named Ishmael and an English nurse named Johanna had a son, Ivor.

Ivor Cummings would grow up to live a fascinating life. Despite homosexuality being illegal under harsh "gross indecency" laws, he was open about being a black gay man. He travelled widely, enjoying nightlife in major cities, and became part of 'The Group' of black intellectuals in London. He spent time with the rambunctious jazz pianist Reginald Foresythe; they were a contrasting pair, with Cummings described as ‘elegant’, often found with a long cigarette holder and addressing men as ‘dear boy’.

In 1941, he became a senior civil servant at the Colonial Office, the only black member of the welfare department at the time. He remained closely linked to black British advocacy organisations on the outside, from the West African Students' Union in London to British-Honduran foresters in Scotland. He worked to recruit African nurses for the new NHS, and was instrumental in settling migrants from the Empire Windrush, greeting them and finding them housing and employment. His decisions about where to settle people shaped the communities that thrive to this day, communities which would later be betrayed by the high-profile Windrush scandal from 2012. In 1958, he resigned to work for the government of the newly-independent country of Ghana.

Cummings was not the only LGBT+ Teessider to shape national history at this time.

Ivor Cummings from The Independent’s obituary in 1992

Esmé Langley (b.1919)

Guisborough is a quiet East Cleveland town, perhaps best known for its beautiful ruined priory, home to celibate monks during the 12th century. In 1919, a woman was born in Guisborough who would have a slightly different lifestyle.

Esmé Langley was a highly intelligent woman, working on cyphers at the War Office during WWII. After the war, she decided to become a writer and publisher. She had a strong desire to fight for minorities, and in 1963 she founded the UK’s first lesbian group, the Minorities Research Group. Her first task for the MRG was to set up a new publication - Britain’s first lesbian magazine.

In spring 1964 the first issue of Arena Three was published, and Langley took on the sole legal and financial responsibility for it. The magazine provided a lifeline for lesbians and bisexual women across the country; the former secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, Antony Grey, later wrote that Arena Three was pivotal in ‘breaching the public wall of silence and bringing lesbianism into the arena of public debate’. Esmé risked loss of employment, abuse and ostracization from family to do it.

Arena Three ran until July 1971, before morphing into a new publication called Sappho, first published in April 1972. Sappho was the main platform through which lesbian and bisexual feminist voice was developed in the UK, until its final issue was published in 1981. The two publications were directly responsible for establishing key LGBT+ organisations, such as the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and KENRIC, the UK's longest-running lesbian social group. But indirectly, the impact of Esmé’s work was in huge strides of social progress for lesbians and bisexual women. By the time she passed away in 1991, homosexuality had been partly decriminalised and Stonewall were amassing public opposition to the Conservatives’ vicious Section 28 legislation.

That progress circled back to Teesside. A Teesside Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) group was founded in November 1970; by 1972 there were three separate CHE Groups across the Tees Valley. Under Labour’s Mike Carr in the 1980s, Middlesbrough Council set up its first equal opportunities committee and donated £750 to fund a lesbian telephone helpline. The council was branded “Looney Left” for doing so, and the Evening Gazette published a whole page of complaint letters. That didn’t stop the community from growing. A small LGBT+ scene started to emerge in Middesbrough, and older folks in the community remember a tiny club called Paradise in the 1980s, as well as gay nights at The Grand Astoria, The Hog’s Head (now a Tesco) and Centrefold (now being turned into flats).

Esme Langley. Original source unknown but shared by Dr Gillian Murphy on X:

Reverend Christopher Wardale (b.1946)

Esmé had been born in the midst of a post-war baby boom - and 27 years later, there came another one. Two and a half million babies were born in the years directly after the Second World War, thanks to the NHS and the modern welfare state. One of them was Christopher Wardale.

Christopher was born in Saltburn in 1946; his father ran Saltburn Motor Services, a major bus company in East Cleveland which ran 44 vehicles transporting I.C.I. workers, builders and tourists. This upbringing allowed him to go to university to study fine arts. At 30, he was accepted for training to the priesthood.

“I never thought of myself as a priest who 'happened' to be gay,” he would later write. “I was called by God, as a gay man, to be a priest."

After being ordained in 1979, the Reverend Wardale became an energetic, pioneering leader across the North East - turning around churches from Boldon Colliery in Tyneside to Cockerton in County Durham. He served as the minister of Holy Trinity Darlington for fourteen years from 1992. It wasn’t always easy; he was spat at and called the ‘anti-Christ’. But his ability to preach with joy, fun and compassion led to his description in The Northern Echo in 2006: "respected by many".

In the late 1980s, Christopher met his long-term partner Malcolm, an academic at Northumbria University. After twenty years together, the couple celebrated their civil partnership in 2005. They were among the first civil partnerships in the country, and although the church nationally didn’t approve, their local church held a thanksgiving celebration service where the former Bishop of Durham blessed the couple. After his 60th birthday in 2006, Christopher retired. Hundreds of local well-wishers turned out at his church in Darlington, and the Mayor gave Christopher and Malcolm three cheers. Since then, Christopher and Malcolm have continued to work to change attitudes in the church across the UK and Ireland. Earlier this year, the Anglican church agreed to bless same-sex marriages.

By the time Christopher retired, the community across Teesside was starting to thrive. Local LGBT+ bars included Annie's, The Oak, Cassidy’s and Desirez in the 1990s and early 2000s - predecessors to modern clubs like Tiny and Sapphire’s. In 1997, the Rainbow Centre community group was established, which became Hart Gables in 2005.

An image of Chris Wardale and husband Malcolm, in the Evening Gazette from 2005.

It is notoriously difficult to uncover LGBT+ history, but there are stories and records going back to Teesside’s very beginnings. There was the Bainesse Gallus, a gender-non-conforming Roman priest who lived in North Yorkshire in the 4th century. There was Anne Lennard, daughter of the Duchess of Cleveland, who had a lesbian relationship with the Italian mistress of her father King Charles II. There was William Metcalf, an elderly resident of Sir William Turner’s Hospital in Kirkleatham, Redcar who was expelled for ‘sodomy’ in the 1770s. There was Sir Edmund Backhouse, an eccentric bisexual scholar from Darlington who alleged he’d had affairs with Prime Minister Archibald Primrose and the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi. There was Renée Duncan, a 1920s drag king who performed at the Darlington Hippodrome. There was Sir Paul Latham, MP for Scarborough & Whitby, who campaigned against appeasement and pressured the government to take on the Nazis - and was later arrested for homosexuality. There was Denise Mosse, a transgender woman who grew up in Skelton, Cleveland in the 1960s and later became Redcar’s chess champion. There was Harry Coen and David Thornton, flamboyant gay journalists in Redcar in the 1970s who were arrested for organising an illegal 3,000-person gig for the Edgar Broughton Band. There are LGBT+ veterans of North East mining communities, like Bob Bell, who tell stories of the quiet lives of gay miners in North Yorkshire; in one record from the miners’ strikes in 1984, a North Yorkshire miner wrote:

‘Why should I keep quiet? I have as much right as anybody else to express my feelings!’ 

LGBT+ Teessiders have always been here, and aren’t going anywhere. It’s as Middlesbrough’s motto says: Erimus. We shall be.

There’s another motto that exists on Teesside, of course: 'Progress In Unity'. These were the words stitched into Teesside’s crest of arms more than fifty years ago, emblazoned in red beneath images of ships and seahorses and billowing wreaths in silver and blue. The message was simple: that only together can we move forward.

It was an unlikely idea, borne out of the hopes of generations of workers and families who put differences aside to build a place they could call home. Less of a motto, and more of a promise. Teesside has not always lived up to that promise, but throughout the stories is a common thread of hope. We may come from different places, and carry different identities with us, but for all of us this little corner of the world is home. That’s who we are - and who (Erimus) we shall be.


Luke Myer is a writer and campaigner from Redcar & Cleveland who runs LGBTees, a Teesside LGBT+ network with over 300 members.

This piece was supported by NEHL's Amplified History Fund, providing funding for underrepresented histories. It also featured in the North East History Compendium.

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(18. 2.)

thank you for writing this lovely piece about our history

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