LGBTQ+ History Month at the Bodleian Law Library

British LGBTQ+ history has an involved and often traumatic relationship to the Law. At the Bodleian Law Library (BLL), we’ve taken the opportunity to highlight some of those relationships through a display of our primary and secondary collections. In this post, we want to briefly touch on just a few pieces of legislation, currently on display or accessible on open shelf in the BLL, that were vital to the progression of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK, showing how the Law Library can be a key resource for studying its history.

Three books on display against the background of a rainbow flag
Physical copies of the Wolfenden Report, a Homosexual Law Reform Society annual report, and Peter Wildeblood’s memoir.

In 1954, Peter Wildeblood, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers were convicted for “consensual homosexual offences” and sentenced to 12 to 18 months in prison. The trial invigorated a reform movement that triggered a Commons “committee on homosexual offences” that, in 1957, would publish the seminal Wolfenden Report, which advised that “‘Homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence”. The report was debated in parliament, but the government did not act on its recommendations, galvanising new organisations agitating for gay rights, such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society (a 1960s report of the Society is on display in the Law Library). Also in the Law Library, you can read the Wolfenden Report itself, as well as Wildeblood’s brave memoir Against the Law, which appeared in the same year.

Picture of a book display showing various primary and secondary resources related to LGBTQ+ history
Part of the LGBTQ+ History Month display at the Bodleian Law Library.

The library-held collections of historical and in-force statutes (such as Halsbury’s or online legal databases like Westlaw or Lexis+ subscribed to by the Bodleian – see the list of legal databases at Legal databases | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk); not quite as up to date but freely accessible to everyone is the government’s own Legislation.gov.uk) are a key source of LGBTQ+ history. In 1967, ten year after the recommendations in the Wolfenden report, the Sexual Offences Act finally decriminalised in-private sex between men over 21 (i.e. only a partial decriminalisation: the age of consent, moreover, was not equalised until 2000). Another key statute is the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which finally gave Trans people the legal right to full recognition of their gender (we also hold the 2018 parliamentary consultation material regarding its reform). And there is the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act of 2013, which legalised gay marriage, or the 2010 Equality Act, Britain’s key anti-discrimination legislation. All these laws have a direct impact on people’s daily lives and experiences, as well as our sense of what kind of society we are and/or want to be.

The BLL does not only hold the final product when it comes to legislation. In the Official Papers collection, the often fascinating (and not rarely disturbing) parliamentary history of LGBTQ+ – related legislation can be followed, for instance through the debate reports printed in Hansard (also online at https://hansard.parliament.uk/). From the first discussion of Lesbianism in parliament in 1921 (a Criminal Law Amendment bill, which would have criminalised all sex between women, was defeated in the House of Lords that year) to the long history of the repeal of the repressive section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 (which prohibited the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities, inspiring the activism of Stonewall and OutRage!), readers can discover how House discussions and committee reports reflected (or not) debates, prejudices, advocacy and reform in wider society. Behind the glass of the main reading room, for instance, three volumes on display chart the repeal of section 28: from the 1988 introduction of the paragraph which offensively termed gay partnerships “pretended family relationships” into the 1986 Local Government Act, over the introduction of repeal in the Standing Committee stage of the 2003 Local Government Bill, to the eventual enactment of repeal in the Local Government Act 2003 (a government apology, however, did not follow until 2009).

Two statute books and a parliamentary committee report on display, resting on bookstands.
Tracing the repeal of Section 28 at the BLL

If you want to know more, a good first place to start is the Oxford LibGuide prepared by the Law Library: Home – LGBTI law – Oxford LibGuides at Oxford University. The secondary literature on display until the end of this month in the main reading room, moreover, highlights not only titles about the UK, but also the US, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. On the first floor of the library, in addition, there are extensive collections of statutes from Australia, Canada, India, and many other jurisdictions: on the first of February, for instance, we displayed the Canadian Civil Marriage Act, which legalised same-sex marriage in the country on that day in 2005 (on the same day in 2009, incidentally, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the prime minister of Iceland, and with it the world’s first openly gay head of government).

There are many more legal resources accessible through the library, either in physical form (such as reports on the trial of Oscar Wilde, notoriously convicted under the infamous Labouchère Amendment of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, at KB65.ENG.WIL on the second floor), or in electronic form. As such, the library constitutes an excellent resource in remembering and making visible LGBTQ+ history, the constraints and repressions that the Law has inflicted, and the trajectory of its reform and the construction of anti-discrimination legislation.

 

A Visit to the Collection Storage Facility

Picture of a long aisle of high warehouse shelving filled with cardboard trays of books
Looking down an aisle at the CSF

In South Marston, just on the edge of Swindon, there’s an unremarkable-looking, medium-sized warehouse that contains a sizeable chunk of the world’s knowledge. Unlikely location as it might seem to those imagining the Bodleian and other famous libraries as crenelated holdfasts of forgotten tomes, it is in fact here, among the prefab walls and steel girders, that most of its collections are housed. The Book Storage Facility – soon to make good its new name as the Collection Storage Facility (CSF) – has for twelve years now been keeping safe more than 10 million titles, together with maps and other miscellaneous objects, on more than 150 miles of shelving. 30-ish aisles of more than 10 metres high filled with books ordered by size alone (!) are navigated by large picker-like assist vehicles that echo hollowly in the cavernous space. Despite the seemingly random placement, any book can be procured within a minute: if you order up your CSF materials in any Bodleian library by 10.30 am, you are guaranteed they will be available the same afternoon. At the same time, the CSF team works through an enormous mass of scan requests, often more than a hundred a day (more than a 1000 in the first week of Covid!). It was at this massive information management operation that we trainees got a look last week, and boy, were we impressed.

Photo of multiple bays of high warehouse shelving stacks filled with books
The high reaches of knowledge

 

There was a time, as our wonderful CSF guide told us, when Bodleian book transit meant a horse-drawn dray going between different Oxford locations, the horse reportedly refusing to pass by the King’s Arms pub without a drink (one might think the driver had something to do with this, though). Today, vans go out twice daily from the CSF, where storage is optimised for efficiency. Books are sized (from A to E), sorted and packed onto short acid-free cardboard trays (assembled on site) in the large workroom. Then, they’re shelved several rows thick in the 70-metre long aisles of one of the four temperature- and humidity-controlled storage rooms (outfitted – for obvious reasons – with a massive sprinkler system: wet books, as we learned, can be repaired – charred books can’t). Because all items and trays are barcoded, the electronic request system is able to immediately show staff the most efficient way to fetch any item. It is people, though, who have had to input all these books onto that system: when the facility opened in 2010 (at a cost of more than 20 million pounds), 7.5 million items had to be ‘ingested’ into the facility in one go. These had been gathered together from previous storage locations, including the ‘New Bodleian’ (Weston) library and Gladstone Link, the former Nuneham Courtenay storage facility, and even deep storage in Cheshire salt mines! As a continuation of this mammoth operation (which took a mere 15 months!), two days a week new material still arrives from the Special Collections and Legal Deposit teams: indeed, once again, and in what is a stable motif in the history of the Bodleian, space is becoming a precious commodity, especially for the largest-size material! The planned new storage chambers will surely be very welcome.

Picture of temporary storage caddy filled with trays of books
Newly ingested or audited material being readied for storage

 

The CSF, it should be stressed, does not just contain academic books: its materials are as varied as you could imagine. There’s university paperwork. There’s Mills and Boon. There are boxes of free toys that came with magazines.  There are up to 2 million maps stored across multiple floors filled with planchests, some of which we got to have a look at (the relief map of Britain was a firm favourite!). There is archive material. There are busts. There are death masks. And all this mass of material is managed fulltime by only 23 people: that is, as our guide pointed out, almost half a million books per person. If that is not impressive, I’m not sure what is.

We all loved it. This visit was a privilege, and a joy, not least because of the warm welcome we received (thanks to the CSF staff!). Looking down from a platform over a vista of high shelving, a picker bleeping unseen in a distant aisle, and, when the door opens, a flash of Iggy Pop playing in the background, it’s actually a rather emotional sight: here they are, all of these books that writers poured their heart and time into, being kept safe for the future, in a warehouse in Swindon.

 

Happy Halloween (or autumn) from the Oxford Library trainees!

Whether you celebrate Halloween or not, it is hard to deny that autumn is an atmospheric, spooky

Radcliffe camera with a sunset illuminating its top half and shadow on the bottom. Blue cloudy sky behind.
Photo of the Radcliffe Camera at sunset.

time to be in Oxford. Walking around the city in October, the trees are turning auburn, the mist is setting in, and, as the clocks change, the orangey streetlamps lamps are illuminated earlier and earlier. The night sky turns a deep royal blue. The clamour of ghost tours resonates around Radcliffe Square, reminding readers in the Old Bodleian of the city’s ghastly and rather gory history.

To honour this, I thought that there was no better time to explore some of the more ghoulish stories from the history of the Bodleian (and Oxford College) Libraries. For a Library which can trace its history back to 1320, you can imagine that these stories are plentiful. Through periods of history such as the town vs gown riots, which saw a Brasenose student killed by a local murderous mob, Radcliffe square has a hidden gruesome history. Thanks to Old Bodleian trainee Nia Everett, I have been informed about an even more prolifically gory historical function of this beautiful square: the Old Bodleian Anatomy school.

Founded in 1617, the Old Bodleian Anatomy school was active in this location for over 60 years, with frequent dissections occurring to instruct students on all aspects of physical human anatomy, including the slimy bits! For a current student or librarian, only allowed to take liquids into the library if contained in a keep-cup or sealable bottle, such activities are impossible to imagine taking place within the walls of the current Bodleian. However, to 17th century readers in anatomy, this study formed a crucial part of their daily scholarly practice. Such readers were able to demand the body of anyone executed within 21 miles of Oxford for use in their dissections and examinations.

A particularly oddly-spooky story from the Anatomy school is the tale of Anne Green’s

Early modern woodcut reading 'behold god's providence' with an image of anne green being hung and her resurrected from her coffin.
Image of Anne Green’s hanging

resurrection at the hands of William Petty, the Reader in Anatomy at the time of her execution. Anne was hung in Oxford castle yard, accused of committing infanticide. On a cold December night, awaiting to be dissected on the operating table, Anne Green was resurrected by Petty and his colleagues after they detected a faint pulse. Though she was brought back to life, her story ends with arguably another early modern horror: being married off to a man.

 

Turning away from horrors carried out within the Bodleian building, and towards its collections, there are plenty of spooky, magical, occult and alchemical manuscripts within the Bodleian’s special collections. For example, the Ripley Scroll, almost 6 metres long, as illustrated in this excellent TikTok from the Bodleian libraries: The Ripley Scroll. This manuscript instructs the reader how to create the philosophers stone- an item which Harry Potter readers will know can grant immortality. Additionally, many grimoires used by medieval priests to exorcise demons still remain within the Bodleian’s collections, such as this manuscript whose facsimiles are hosted on Digital Bodleian: MS. Rawl. D. 252.

To finish, I would ask you to consider the history all around you. Students at many Oxford Libraries can look up and see hundreds of years of architecture and artistry. College libraries can be over four hundred years old (Corpus Christi), or can be moved to cloisters (Brasenose) or be so grand, like my library at All Souls, that there are metres and metres of intricate cornices, shelving and windows to gaze up into. At the time of Halloween, All Souls requiems and frosty mornings, the vale between the present and the past becomes ever thinner, and the weight of history ever heavier.