‘Ah, dear Brighton. Piers, queers and racketeers,’ Ric simply uttered the immortal line from Noel Coward who took this keen observation of this southern English coastal city.
Ric was our tour guide for the ‘Piers and Queers Tour,’ in which we would sightsee Brighton from a lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer perspective whilst learning what happened in this colourful city over the last 200 years along the pebbly beach and historic centre.
He was earnest, bubbling with enthusiasm when we met opposite the West Pier in Regency Square along the sea front. The wind was slightly biting after a long sunny hot day and I looked over to my wine nemesis, Auston of Two Bad Tourists frantically pulling out his jumper out of his bag. I rolled my eyes at his incapability to handle British weather at the faint hint of a cloud. He was visiting me for a few days and he certainly wanted to check out the LGBTQ history of what is arguably Britain’s Pink capital. So did I. I had lived here for four months already and it was high time that I should delve into Brighton’s glitzy rise in its history.
I confess I had high expectations for this tour. After all, the Piers and Queers Tour came recommended by Travels of Adam, Love Fringe who rated it five stars and exclusively by Bent Magazine. Okay, it should be awesome right?
My current knowledge of Brighton’s LGBTQ history that I knew it celebrated England’s first Civil Partnerships and also very recently the first same sex marriages in March 2014. I vaguely knew Noel Coward commentated on Brighton and I was informed by a Brighton resident earlier on that Oscar Wilde loved Brighton. That was it. Here I was, ready to embrace the diverse chapter in the history of Brighton and Hove.
I’ll highlight my favourite characters that we got to learn about throughout the tour.
The Doctor of the Sexes
Shortly after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Dr James Barry would be thrust into international prominence as he achieved a milestone in medical science. He became the first medical surgeon to have performed a cesarean section in Africa in which both the mother and child survived. Not only that, he greatly improved the medical conditions for wounded soldiers and for the native inhabitants in Cape Town. Sounds quite the hero in history. However, underneath lay a secret. Upon his death, his charwoman and doctor examined his body and was surprised to find that he was actually in fact a woman. The charwoman revealed this after the funeral to the papers but no one quite knew then. Even his doctor insisted that Dr James Barry was a man and signed the death certificate showing he was a man. But recently, it has been proven that Dr James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland.
So what’s with the Brighton connection? Well, Dr James Barry was said to be in a relationship with Lord Somerset, the Governor of Cape Province. The couple stayed in the Bedford Hotel in Brighton in 1831 in the last few torturous weeks of Somerset’s life in which Barry rushed to the city from his posting to be with the man he loved.
More importantly for me was the accomplishments of this stellar doctor. Even though as a woman, he became a doctor at least 50 years before the first ‘official’ female doctors. He reformed many medical conditions, challenged corruption, duelled a few times and also the medical feat of keeping both mother and baby alive throughout the first successful Caesarean section in British medical history. Many people are quick to embellish his gender changing status but I don’t really care. Without Barry, we wouldn’t be where we are today and we should celebrate him.
The Rosetta Stone of Lesbianism
Like me, you may have been rolling around Old Steine in Brighton in fits of giggles on the tour when the phrase ‘Rosetta Stone of Lesbianism’ was uttered in relation to a high society lady called Anne Lister (1791-1840). As a well-off Yorkshire landowner and traveller, she was also a very detailed diarist in which she noted her activities whether cultural, financial or industrial. However, it became known after her diaries was discovered behind wall panelling that section of her diary was written in code. No-one could figure the code out until 1930s when it was found to be a combination of algebra and Ancient Greek. So what was in the code? Intimate details of romantic relationships and sexual relationships with other women that completely challenged archaic assumptions about Lesbianism. Now, let’s get this in context. Relationships between women was not considered a crime whereas relationships between men were. Previously held assumptions about same sex female relationships were that ‘women did not do such things’ (Queen Victoria) and so it was never outlawed. However, in the next century, Anne Lister’s diary changed all that. She was often called the ‘first modern lesbian’ for her open lesbian lifestyle documented in her diaries, made public to the intrigue of the British public. Thus her diaries was referred to as the ‘Rosetta Stone of Lesbianism.’
So what’s with the Brighton connection? Anne Lister stayed in Brighton in 1826 at the Royal York Hotel with her partner Marianna.
It was because of Anne Lister that people became aware in greater detail of Lesbianism and became accepting.
The Look of Love
Little did I know that one of my favourite tracks ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was performed by a bisexual female star in the 1970s, Dusty Springfield. Her other song, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ was a huge hit for Dusty, who declared her bisexuality in 1970 after a candid interview with the Evening Standard. A brave admission coming one year after the Stonewall Riots. However, her career took a nosedive, hounded by the press and she fled Britain to the US where she had a turbulent romantic life. She returned to the charts in 1987 in which she credits the Pet Shop Boys for her success in their collaboration on their song ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?.’ She passed away in 1999 from breast cancer and she was induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two weeks later.
So what’s the Brighton connection? She started her singing career here in Brighton at the well-known Hippodrome in Middle Street 1964.
Verdict on the Piers and Queers Tour
Of course, I am not going to go into any more detail of the tour as I would want you to discover and experience more of the tour yourself and come to your own conclusion.
However, I did surprisingly enjoy myself on Ric Morris’ fascinating insight to LGBTQ history of Britain as we ambled to various landmarks along the sea front and the historic centre. I discovered many aspects to the city I lived in and I was truly grateful to the characters who in their own right contributed to the social, cultural, medical and entertainment sectors in times past. Ric’s in-depth detail of the LGBTQ figures in history was extensive and his whimsical opinions on events were a delight.
There were two aspects of the tour that I wanted to see more of. The first was that I was disappointed to discover that we finished at Old Steine, directly opposite the Brighton Pier. I was really enjoying the tour and we hadn’t been in the ‘gay district’ of Brighton, Kemp Town where there were many LGBTQ bars and shops to be found. I didn’t know if there were more history to be told there if the place was built up to achieve a following. Secondly, I was surprised to find that various art and sculpture points in the centre of Brighton such as ‘The Kissing Wall’ and ‘The Kissing Policemen,’ weren’t included. Were there history behind them?
But having said that, I really do recommend this tour to anyone who thinks of visiting Brighton. You’ll certainly come away with an appreciation and respect for Brighton, a city that has truly seen many quintessential LGBTQ characters in history come and go. Who knows, go on the Piers and Queers tour and you may find out more intriguing facts about Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and a same sex marriage back in 1923!
Meanwhile, Auston and I have an appointment with a bottle of red wine to discuss our thoughts of LGBTQ Brighton in one of the many gay bars in Brighton before being amusingly picked on by a drag queen show. It always happens.
Have you been on the tour? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.
- Website: Piers and Queers Tour
- Twitter: @BrightonTour
- Tour Time Length: 80 minutes
- Tour Guide: Ric Morris
- Private Tours are available for 2-25 people
- Talks are available at a time of your choosing
- Weather: please dress accordingly for the sea-front.
- Access: Step-Free; Written notes available for people with hearing impairments
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