One of the joys of my job are the quieter moments, when I can just explore the records for the next strike of inspiration. My role as Principal Records Specialist in Diverse Histories at The National Archives has evolved by both necessity and my interests – rather than being purely research focused, it is now as much about translating that research into exciting public engagement opportunities. At The National Archives our records are so vast and varied that there are always unexpected things to be found.
In November 2018 I was enjoying some random archive digging, when I came across a fantastic publication called The Link – straight away it made me think of modern dating apps and how little and how much has changed in the past 100 years. While I do research my audience’s interests where possible, I also tend to follow one basic premise; I programme things that I find fascinating and exciting. If it doesn’t excite me, how will it excite someone else?
The Link was a ‘lonely-hearts’ style publication from the early 20th century, which strove to provide connections – for love, lust and companionship. It had been founded in 1915 by Alfred Barrett in response to what he perceived as a crisis of loneliness. People had up to 25 words to describe themselves and what they were seeking.
Jimmie (Bath), 25, artistic, affectionate, lonely, desires correspondence, own sex, under 35. Same district preferred, but all answered. Photos appreciated.
Marian (Herts.), 39, wants chum, either sex, democratic, travelled, unconventional, interested in Socialism, Theosophy, Communism, fond of country and simple life, good plays and music, not a musician.
To me these buzzy little personal classified adverts sounded like the early twentieth century equivalent to what you might find on a Tinder or Grinder bio. It is these links to contemporary life that can often help convince new audiences that archives are relevant to them.
The publication wasn’t used entirely as planned. In 1920s Britain, homosexual acts between men were criminalised. Through this publication men used the coded and suggestive language of classified adverts to meet other men, and some women to meet other women. This can be inferred from some of the coded language of this publication: “artistic”, “bohemian” and “unconventional”. This attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police, who investigated the publication and men who had met through The Link.
Clearly, despite criminalisation of their love, queer people continued to strive to find ways to meet and defy the law; the Link provided them with one means of doing that.
Archive to event
This source material was fantastic, so it was clear we needed to get out of the archives and reach wider audiences. So in early 2019 I took the opportunity of applying for Being Human Festival funding. They had funded some of our innovative work before and seemed the perfect match for the kind of project I was looking for. I really recommend exploring Being Human as a funder for events, they have encouraged us to embrace innovation in our projects. With that in mind, I decided to be ambitious!
If we needed to reach audiences that don’t normally come to us, why not take the research to them? I contacted the iconic LGBTQ+ venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and was delighted when they agreed to host the event. I then approached Timberlina, Tim Redfern, who had helped us bring to life some previous records relating to the 1930s queer London scene. I knew my research time was limited and yet the records deserved lots of attention, so I looked at how I could source some help. The solution was a research event to be held at The National Archives, and another at the Bishopsgate Institute archives. This provided an extra chance for people to engage with the material in its original form and allowed me to get a sense of what other people found most interesting in the documents. In the end it didn’t save me time, but it certainly added a really vital richness to the project.
All this research then fed into our final event. Many meetings were had with Tim Redfern to get the tone right and to explore the research.
The resulting event on 23rd November at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was a fantastic celebration and commemoration of queer lives in the past. The tone was humorous while poignant. People actively engaged, writing their own (rather naughty) classified adverts in the 1920s style.
Early indicators show that we succeeded in our key aims:
- We got the material out of the archives, and potentially held The National Archives first public event in a pub.
- Appealed to wider audiences by positioning the event as a performance and discussion; using creative means to make the records accessible and approachable.
- Reached a different demographic. The majority of people were between 25 to 34 years old, and few had visited The National Archives before.
- And most of all, we had fun at the same time.
This project felt like a great success to me. We took important LGBTQ+ history and made it relevant to people today. I hope this project leads to more similar work, hopefully on a bigger scale.
You can find more about the research behind the project below:
- ‘Bohemian, broad-minded, unconventional.’ What was it like to be queer in the 1920s?
- Ernie and Geof: Love between men
- For wider records – Sexuality and gender identity history research guide
Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, Principal Diverse Histories Records Specialist, The National Archives