LGBT+ History Month: “one night after 8 hours of especially difficult work…”

It’s LGBT+ History Month in the UK in February. A queer history of the Black Country has yet to be written – most gay histories focus on big cities, and in particular London. The LGBT Archive and the Pride of Place project has gone some way towards restoring a regional focus – it’s well worth checking out the latter’s map, and you can add your own pins. The Wolverhampton LGBT History project has also recorded oral histories and other stories, and the Gay Birmingham Remembered project also has some incursions over the border.

Chance Brothers’ huge glassworks at Spon Lane, Smethwick (source: Revolutionary Players)

Often, LGBT+ histories are mere scraps in an archive otherwise unrelated to the subject. They might be very brief mentions, passed off as humorous or novel anecdotes; decontextualised almost out of all recognition; or even written off as everyday and not worth commenting on. I found the subject of this post while I was researching the famous Chance Bros glassworks in Smethwick earlier this year (shout-out to the Chance Heritage Trust for involving me in their excellent #MadeInSmethwick programme). It was in an unpublished typescript history of the firm written by Sir WHS (or Hugh) Chance, one of the last family directors of the the business, later a Conservative councillor for Bearwood, and knighted for his contribution to RA Butler’s education reforms. This text had been intended as a sequel to JF Chance’s (“Uncle Fred”) definitive history of the firm, published in 1919 and revised in 1926. Hugh Chance’s version (ref. no. BS6/10/1/1/6 at Sandwell Archives) follows the same format of giving an overview of the history, then a detailed description of the history of each of the firm’s departments.

Chance’s were pioneers in glass in all forms. One chapter focused on the globe department which, at its peak, produced 12,000 oil lamp chimneys, 1,000 petrol containers, 1,100 petrol pump globes, and 7,000 cathode ray bulbs per week. Hugh relates the following:

“It can be realised that with two 8 pot furnaces running at very high temperatures the mortality amongst the pots was very severe and pots often melted down on to the siege. This, of course, caused considerable trouble when the time came for us to get them out. The work was very arduous and it took a lot of encouragement and beer to get the men to last out. One of the funniest sights seen was at 11pm one night after 8 hours of especially difficult work Savage and Crowley finished up by putting their arms round each other and kissing most affectionately.

I have yet to find a trace of either Crowley or Savage in my usual places, and would love to find out more about them. I also don’t know the date – based on the rest of the text, I think between 1924 and 1939. What I do know is that shift teams at Chance’s were not thrown together on an ad hoc basis – they were teams of skilled craftsmen who trained together, worked in close proximity together daily, and likely relaxed after work or socialised together. No-one would bat an eyelid if two male and female colleagues got together romantically in such an intense and intimate environment, and I don’t think we should think it strange that two men would either. After a hard shift and a few beers to keep hydrated, who can blame Crowley and Savage for celebrating with a kiss?

Helen Smith’s excellent book Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957, highlights this sort of history really well. Her research focuses on steelworkers and coalminers in Northern England, particularly, and demonstrates that the line we often draw in the present day between friendship, comradeship, sexual desire and sexual activity should not be thought of in the same way in history. It was not uncommon for men thrown together in close proximity to engage in same-sex activities of any kind, from close friendship through to sex itself. They may not have considered themselves gay as an identity – after all, very few people did and in the early twentieth century this was only beginning to be considered as a possibility anyway (have a read up on Havelock Ellis and the sexologists of the period). For many working men, same-sex desire did not necessarily register as a moral or pathological concern – it was part of the normal way of behaving in certain industrial environments. However, police and media attention on gay men in the inter- and post-war periods probably persuaded some men to rethink their actions and perhaps to cover over their experiences of this in the past, and it takes careful excavations (as in Smith’s work) to restore this atmosphere.

WHS “Hugh” Chance, while serving with the Worcestershire Regiment

Hugh Chance covers the period 1919-1957 in his work. 1957 is an interesting year – that’s when the Wolfenden Commission recommended that same-sex relationships between men should be decriminalised. It took another decade before the Sexual Offences Act 1967 followed through, during which homosexual acts were still criminalised and aggressively policed. Even after 1967, prejudice did not just drift away, and homosexuality remained stigmatised for many years to come – you can argue that it often still is. Sometimes that takes the form of outright prejudice or discrimination; sometimes it comes in the subtler form of just assuming it doesn’t exist.

There’s a section in Terry Pratchett’s Jingo where Sergeant Colon of the City Watch says to the aristocrat military leader Lord Rust, “You can put it where the sun does not shine, sir!”

Rust never looked surprised. And since he knew that a mere sergeant would never dare offer cheeky defiance, he erased Sergeant Colon from the immediate universe. 

I think of Hugh Chance the same way. He saw two men put aside their inhibitions and kiss one another passionately. Instead of holding up a rhetorical handbag in horror, or reporting them to the police, or being otherwise scandalised, he didn’t have the imagination within his worldview to imagine that Savage and Crowley could be lovers. As a wealthy, Conservative, upper-class industrialist, a gay relationship between two working-class simply could not happen, it did not exist as a possibility. This, to me, is why he was comfortable including the story as a comic turn, “one of the funniest sights” that he had seen – lucky for us that his blindspot was ignorance rather than outright prejudice, otherwise we wouldn’t even know this story.

I hope this kind of story encourages local historians to keep an eye out for similar stories when they’re rooting through archives. Every little bit helps re-insert non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered lives back into the historical record from which they’ve often been excluded.

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