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Sexuality and gender identity in Tower Hamlets: LGBTQI+ collections guide


Tower Hamlets has provided LGBTQI+ people a place of refuge to live their lives with relative tolerance. Before 1967, sex between men was illegal. For centuries and as recently as the 1990s, religious intolerance and discrimination was widespread.

People whose sexuality or gender went against the established norms tended to keep that aspect of their lives private. They were not perceived as the ‘community’ as is the case today.


Sexual orientation was not used as a criteria to define a person’s identity until the Victorian period. Terminology continues to evolve. For the purposes of this guide, LGBTQI+ stands for

  • Lesbian - women who are attracted to women
  • Gay – usually men who are attracted to other men, but ‘gay’ is also used by anyone with a same-sex attraction
  • Bisexual – a person who is attracted to people of more than one gender
  • Transgender - or trans – used to describe a person whose gender is different to the one they were assigned at birth
  • 'Q' can stand for Questioning, i.e. individuals who are exploring their sexuality, and also Queer. The word Queer has been reclaimed in recent years as a positive self-affirming term. This is especially the case for people who do not identify within the binary categories of male/female and heterosexual/homosexual
  • Intersex - people born with variations in their sex characteristics (such as sex chromosomes, external genitalia or an internal reproductive system) that do not fit into a ‘typical’ male or female definition
  • '+' acknowledges that there are people within the community who do not identify with any of the above categories and prefer to self-define

Explore our collections catalogue

Search our collections catalogue. In ‘Advanced Search’ use the following terms to find catalogue descriptions In the ‘Any Text’ field, search using the following terms

  • LGBT History
  • bisexual
  • gay
  • homosexual
  • lesbian
  • transgender
  • transsexual
  • queer

Search our Local History Library by classification. Type ‘306*’ in the ‘Class’ field.

Archives and Library Collections in Focus

Explore our collections relating to individuals and campaigns in Tower Hamlets.

Society for Reformation of Manners

The Society for the Reformation of Manners was formed according to Rictor Norton in Tower Hamlets in 1690. This and related societies aimed to suppress bawdy houses, street prostitution and immorality.

We hold:

  • 'The judgement of the Reverend Dr Henry Sacheverell, concerning the Societies for Reformation of Manners, compared with the judgement of many of the Lords spiritual and temporal and Honourable judges of this kingdom and that of Ireland, with some reflections thereupon', by Josiah Woodward, 1711 (Pamphlet reference: LC13285).

In the 18th century, sex between men was a crime punishable by death. Molly Houses were places where men could meet, socialise and have sex in secrecy from wider society. 'Molly' or 'moll' was slang for a gay man, a lower class woman, or a woman selling sex.

In 1728, a raid took place at Miss Muff's Molly House. Nine 'male ladies' were taken into custody. Explore transcripts of the case at the Old Bailey by searching 'Muff'. News reports and further information on Muff are available on Rictor Norton's website.

Black Lion Yard is reference 45 on William Morgan’s survey of 1682. It ran north from Whitechapel Road to
Montague Street. It was reference 17 on the 1720 parish map and named on the 1745 Rocque
survey. The Yard was closed in 1979 and replaced by Black Lion House, 45 Whitechapel Road. Source: 'A Topography of Tower Hamlets c1700-c2000' by M. F. Elliston, 2016.

No records of the Molly House survive. However, we hold contemporary maps, and 20th century photographs of Black Lion Yard in the Local History Library.

In the mid-eighteenth century, James How (also spelt Howe, Hows, Howes or Howse) ran a pub in Poplar with his wife. James became a prominent member of the local community.

In our collections we have the original minute book recording James’s election as parish constable (‘head-borough’) in 1744 and as overseer of the poor in 1752.

James How had been born Mary East in 1715. In late teenage years James began to live and dress as a man, having formed a relationship with ‘wife’ Mary. Together they moved to London.

For several decades they ran the White Horse pub on Poplar High Street, becoming affluent. James’s gender became exposed after a blackmail attempt by a woman from his past.

This became a major news story. Thereafter James lived as Mary East. Mary East died in 1780 and was buried in the church yard of Poplar Chapel (later St Matthias, Poplar), leaving a sizeable estate.

Discover more through the following sources:

  • Parish of All Saints Poplar and former Hamlet of Blackwall and Poplar: Meetings of inhabitants minute book (reference: L/ASP/A/1/2) and Churchwarden's and overseers' account book (reference: L/ASP/F/2/2)
  • ‘Mary East’ by G.H. Wilson, 1813. Article extracted from 'The eccentric mirror' (reference: LC6533)
  • ‘Wonderful characters: comprising memoirs and anecdotes of the most remarkable persons of every age and nation: collected from the most authentic sources’ by Henry Wilson,1821. Includes Hannah Snell who disguised herself as a man to become a soldier, pages 21-29 and Mary East, pages 276-281 (reference: L75)
  • ‘Female husbands: a trans history’ by Jen Manion, 2020. Features Mary East (reference: LC15120)
  • Mary East’s will and testament, 1779 and proved in 1780 is available on the free online resources page. The will is held by The National Archives (Prerogative Court of Canterbury reference: PROB11/1066/181)
  • Charlie Brown was publican of the ‘Railway Tavern’, West India Dock Road in Limehouse from 1895 until his death in 1932. His pub was famous for being filled with memorabilia from across the globe. It welcomed all and had a special attraction for gay dockers and sailors. The building was demolished in 1990 to make way for the Docklands Light Railway.
  • Explore cuttings, pamphlets (including reference: LC10345), photographs and Philip Mernick's collection of postcards (under reference: PM/3).
  • Claude McKay was a black Jamaican-American novelist and poet born in 1889. In 1920, he gave a poetic performance in the communist East London newspaper 'The Workers' Dreadnought' previously 'The Woman's Dreadnought'. The poetry looks at the arts and class struggle based on those he knew in the East End. His love poems shared expressions of love to the wider world as a man of African-Caribbean heritage, including queer love.

  • Explore the newspaper, 1917 (Pamphlet reference: LC7470) and series on microfilm (re-reference: LC13442)

  • 'Claude McKay: queer, black and radical' by Rudy Loewe, 2015 (Pamphlet reference: LC13347).

  • Cornelius McCarthy was born in 1935 into a family of Irish Catholic and Eastern European immigrant origins. He lived in Stepney. He was a leading artist specialising in the male form. His earliest artistic influence was probably through the artefacts and images used to promote Catholic devotion that he grew up with. Formal study was completed at Goldsmith’s School of Art, London, followed by a tour of Italy.
  • We hold McCarthy’s sketchbooks and artwork from the early 1950s onward, donated by the artist’s partner, Alec Ayres (1929-2015). There are also indexes to McCarthy’s artwork with a later catalogue compiled by Peter Dobson. Collection reference: P/MCC.
  • Read 'Radiant affinities: the life and work of Cornelius McCarthy' by Peter Dobson, 2015 (reference: LC13263).
  • Papers of Edith Ramsay, community worker include correspondence with Kenneth Leech on local matters including homosexual men and church pastoral work, 1963 (reference: P/RAM/1/3/2)
  • Community action in 1970s took focus in places such as East London Gay Centre, 19 Redmans Road and Bethnal Rouge, promoted by the Gay Liberation Front. Both places gave support and shelter. Read ‘The Radical Feminists and Bethnal Rouge’ blog, 2011 (reference: LC13700) and ‘A brief history of the Gay Liberation Front 1970-1973’ (reference: LC6613)

Section 28 (formerly known as Clause 28) of the Local Government Act 1988 imposed a legal ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and by schools and libraries. The threat of Section 28 launched the gay rights movement in Britain into action.

Explore records of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group, an organisation which was formed in response to the legislation:

  • Papers include press cuttings, letters of support and publicity, 1986 – 1988 (reference: S/LGG)
  • Issues 1-3 of 'Out East: Newsletter of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group', 1989-1990 (reference: LC9012)

The Group launched the ‘Stop Clause 28’ campaign and lobbied Tower Hamlets Council to not enforce it. On 8 April 1988, a national day of protest took place. Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group created the Pink Postcard Protest.

Tower Hamlets Council declared the clause was ‘an attack on the independence of Local Authorities, and an attack on individual civil liberties.’ Despite widespread opposition, Section 28 was enacted on 24 May 1988.

Campaigners feared Section 28 banned local councils, schools and libraries from having any literature featuring gay people.

When Section 28 became law Tower Hamlets’ Central Library produced the Library’s Gay and Lesbian Booklist (see reference: LC12596). This declared that the books were not a ‘recommend list…simply details of over sixty titles with gay and lesbian themes’. The booklist further states that ‘if your favourite title isn’t here please let us know, we will be glad to obtain it for you’.

Explore our press cuttings on the Library’s defiance against Section 28 (references include: S/LGG/2/3, LCX10016).

Records of Frank Small, Librarian, Morpeth School, Bethnal Green include a file (reference: I/MOR/4/4) with:

  • 'Positive Images: a resources guide to materials about homosexuality, including lesbian and gay literature for use by teachers and librarians in secondary schools and further education colleges', 1986
  • 'Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material', by The Library Association, 1988

Section 28 activists including actors Ian McKellan and Michael Cashman met at McKellan’s home in Limehouse. They formed the LGBTQI+ rights charity, Stonewall which extensively campaigns today.

  • Original artwork by Cornelius McCarthy (1935-2009) including 62 sketchbooks from his studio. Also Peter Dobson, author and McCarthy’s friend’s biographical research papers relating to the artist, 1953-2016 (reference: P/MCC). McCarthy was an artist and painter specialising in the male form. He lived with his partner Alec Ayres at Arbour Square, Stepney
  • Papers of Reverend Doctor Kenneth Leech: cuttings and ephemera relating to lesbian and gay people in the church, 1995-2004 (reference: P/LEE/2/1)
  • Records of Paul Barlow (reference: P/PBA) were deposited with papers of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group. They relate to his role as personal assistant to Mildred Gordon MP, his involvement in the Labour Party, 1988-1995
  • ‘Walking proud in East London’, by RiverCultures, 2011. An oral history of LGBT people in East London from a wide cross-section of ages, ethnicities and occupations. DVD video recording of interviews and booklet (reference: LC14660)
  • Interview with Nicky Hilliard of 4A Tredegar Square, 2002. He talks about the square and its people and refers to a gay brothel. Recording and transcript (reference: LC1508-1509)

Discover Images and printed material in the Library, classification 306

  • Newspaper collections cover attacks on gay people as well as key moments such as the impact of Section 28 during the late 1980s. Explore cuttings (reference LCX10016).
  • Images of Gay Pride Festival, Victoria Park 1995 by David Rich (references P12129- P12133) and souvenir magazine (reference: LC7404).

Books include

  • 'Queer city: gay London from the Romans to the present day' by Peter Ackroyd (reference: LC14583)
  • ‘Queer London: perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis, 1918-1957’ by Matt Houlbrook, 2005 (reference: LC6607)
  • ‘The queer spaces of Tower Hamlets : gay men and the regeneration of an East London borough’ by Gavin Brown (reference: LC6612)
  • ‘London and the culture of homosexuality, 1885-1914’ by Matt Cook, 2003 (reference: LC6608)
  • Rebel footprints : a guide to uncovering London's radical history / David Rosenberg (reference: LC14903)
  • 'Same sex love, 1700-1957 : a history and research guide' / by Gill Rossini (reference: LC14689)
  • ‘Sex, time and place: queer histories of London c. 1850 to the present’, edited by Simon Avery and Katherine Graham (reference: LC14962)

Explore significant collections at:

Personal papers and records of organisations including The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA). This includes cuttings, badges, T-shirts and a reference library.

Printed material, personal papers and photographs of women, events, and demonstrations. Established in 1984 as the Lesbian Archives Collective in London, the Lesbian Archive was transferred to Glasgow Women's Library in 1995.

Court records, 1700s-1900s including cases against gay men, papers of organisations and campaigns. Explore Information guide 25: Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Archives at LMA.

Records of gay rights organisations and LGBT activists from 1950s which form part of the Hall-Carpenter Archives.

Government records documenting sexuality and gender identity history. Explore their guide with tips for sources elsewhere.

Other links and articles

'Gay History and Literature. Essays by Rictor Norton's website. This includes research on Eliza/Elijah Scott, a runaway American black slave in the 1850s in the East End.

'Listening to Queer Maps of the City: Gay Men's Narratives of Pleasure and Danger in London's East End' by Gavin Brown, in Oral History, Spring 2001, Vol 29 No 1, pages 48-61.