Community Manager
9 Jun, 2020
Chelmsford’s Queer Heritage: An Incomplete Timeline

Welcome to the Chelmsford Creatives blog! Each week we will be showcasing creative projects produced by local young people, sharing how we are keeping ourselves busy during social distancing or reflecting on past successes. 

By Neve-Taylor Van-Win

For me and my friends, Pride is always the most memorable and significant event of the year. We attend at least one Pride each year, which usually ends up being our local one: Essex Pride. We have a great time celebrating Essex’s diversity, expressing ourselves with no judgement and meeting lovely people. In honour of Pride Month 2020, I carried out research into Chelmsford’s history and significant figures to uncover hidden queer and LGBTQ+ stories of our city’s past and present.


AD 122: Emperor Hadrian 

Whilst we can’t project modern values onto ancient behaviours, same-sex relations were common in the Roman Empire. Emperor Hadrian is reported to have had a close relationship with a young greek man, Antinous. They travelled extensively together and when Antinous died, Hadrian was so devastated he had him recognised as a god and founded a cult to worship Antinous. Hadrian was unhappy in his marriage to a woman and they had no children. Hadrian visited Chelmsford in AD 122. A mansio was built in Moulsham before his arrival, marking the beginning of the town and establishing Chelmsford’s role in the Empire’s communication system.


1870: Fanny and Stella

Thomas Bolton and Frederick Park were a theatrical double act and Victorian cross-dressers, who went by the names Fanny and Stella. In 1870, the pair were performing in Chelmsford, and commissioned a series of portraits from local photographer Fred Spalding. Theatrical female impersonation was widespread, but the pair attracted attention when they began to visit theatres as female patrons. Bolton and Park were accused of and trialled for ‘homosexual offences’ in 1871. Fortunately, prosecutors couldn’t produce any hard evidence and they were found not guilty. Almost 100 years later, homosexual acts were partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967.



1910: Grace Chappelow

Grace Chappelow was a suffragette who lived in Hatfield Peverel, just outside Chelmsford. Grace was dedicated to the cause and in 1912 was sentenced to two months in prison for smashing the windows of the Mayor of London’s house. Grace allegedly ‘rejected men’ and never married, choosing to live with a female friend for over 30 years. She was also close friends with Zoe Proctor and Dorothea Rock, who lived together, and when they both died they left a significant sum to Grace. We can’t know the exact details of Grace’s relationships, as she insisted her housemate burn all her written correspondence upon her death in 1971.




1939: John “Jack” Macnamara

Jack Macnamara was a military officer and MP for Chelmsford from 1935-1944. Pre-WWII, Jack’s life involved international ‘sex tours’, Soviet espionage and trips to Germany as part of the Anglo-German Fellowship. After seeing the violence against gay men and jewish people in concentration camps, Jack vocally opposed anti-semitism and appeasment. Macnamara was also joint-secretary of the Basque Children’s Committee, responsible for supporting 4,000 refugees displaced by the Spanish Civil War. Jack and several other gay and bisexual MPs were nicknamed ‘The Glamour Boys’ by their peers. Jack desperately wanted to fight in the war, and was killed by a German attack whilst in Italy in 1944.



1972: Gay Liberation Front Chelmsford

The UK Gay Liberation Front started in 1970, prompted by the US movement in response to the 1969 Stonewall Riots. The UK GLF hosted weekly meetings of 200-300 people, created their own manifesto and by 1971 the national press recognised the GLF as a political movement. By 1972, there were 29 local and regional groups outside London including Chelmsford GLF.


1992: Chelmsford’s first ‘Gay Night’

The Army and Navy was an iconic late-night music venue in Chelmsford for decades. In 1992, the pub launched Chelmsford’s first ever LGBTQ+ weekly club night on Sundays. The events were so popular they drew crowds from across Essex, and were shortly rolled out to Sundays and Wednesdays. LGBTQ+ spaces are important places of belonging, where queer persons can find others like themselves in a safe environment. The significance of the pub to Essex’s community is commemorated every year by the Army and Navy stage at Essex Pride. The pub’s ‘Gay Nights’ are reportedly what kept the venue financially afloat for so long, before it closed in 2002. From 2002, Chelmsford’s weekly LGBTQ+ nights (G Sundays) were hosted by Chicago Rock Cafe.


1999: Drewitt-Barlow Family

The Drewitt-Barlow family became a significant part of the UKs history when their twins became the first British children to be registered with two fathers and no mother. As they lived in Danbury, Tony and Barrie first looked at adoption through Essex social services, but same-sex couple adoption was not legal at the time. The couple paid for a surrogate in the USA, and now have five children together. Same-sex couple adoption legislation came into effect in 2005, but British legislation didn’t allow two men to be named as parents on a birth certificate until 2010.


2003: Chelmsford’s first dedicated LGBTQ+ venue
Smiths and the launch of ‘Chelmsford Gay Day’

Inspired by other city’s Pride events, local Chelmsford residents decided to organise the first ‘Chelmsford Gay Day’. The event was a collaboration between Smiths, Wheatsheaf and Chicagos, three venues which were significant to the local LGBTQ+ community at the time. The event was an immediate success, but drew mixed responses with the Chelmsford Chronicle printing an article asking ‘Do we need Gay Day?’. The event’s attendance grew over the years, along with the community support for the annual celebration of LGBTQ+ pride. In 2008, the event was re-imagined as Chelmsford Pride, and eventually became Essex Pride.


2003: Grayson Perry is awarded the Turner Prize

Grayson Perry is a well known contemporary artist and winner of the 2003 Turner Prize. Perry was born and grew up in Chelmsford, and was kicked out when his dad discovered he was leaving the house dressed as a woman. Perry started self-identifying as a transvestite in his teens, and refers to his female alter-ego as ‘Claire’. Perry has produced several documentaries that explore masculinity and frequently examines class, politics and identity through his artwork.



My friends and I at Essex Pride (top) and Manchester Pride (bottom)

2009: Essex Pride takes place in Central Park, Chelmsford

By 2009, Essex Pride had cemented itself as a celebration for the whole community, attracting thousands of visitors from across the county. Increased sponsorship meant the event was moved to Central Park, Chelmsford and was open to under 18s for the first time. With increased audience numbers, organiser’s were mindful to ensure the new venue would continue to provide a safe space for their LGBTQ+ core audience. Essex Pride is the largest celebration of LGBTQ+ life in Essex and is still as important today as it was in 2003. Despite Chelmsford’s diverse and accepting community, homophobia and hate crime are still very current. Essex Pride continues to be a space for LGBTQ+ persons and allies to come together and reflect on how far we’ve come and acknowledge how much more work there is still to do.

Every year, June is a month of marches, parades and parties to celebrate LGBTQ+ identities and the diversity of our community. This year’s Pride events have been postponed until next year, but June 2020 is still a month of international celebration. Since the 1969 Stonewall riots, a lot has changed for the LGBTQ+ community, but there is still a long way to go. It’s still important that we have Pride Month and Pride events to help recognise LGBTQ+ history and raise awareness of the fight for equal rights.

Essex Pride 2020 is going digital – tune in on YouTube at 4pm, Saturday 20th June for live performances, interviews and messages from the LGBTQ+ community.

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