Public attitudes towards homosexuality during the Georgian era may have been more tolerant than thought, the 210-year-old diary of a Yorkshire farmer reveals.
Matthew Tomlinson, 45 — of ‘Dog House’ farm — argued in an entry dated January 14, 1810 that homosexuality may be innate and should not be punishable by death.
The Christian man’s diary revealed that he struggled to understand how a just God could countenance death for a ‘natural’ or inborn trait.
Mr Tomlinson penned the entry in response to reports that he had read of the execution of an accomplished naval surgeon for the then crime of sodomy.
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Public attitudes towards homosexuality during the Georgian era may have been more tolerant than was previously thought, the 210-year-old diary of a Yorkshire farmer reveals
THE EXECUTION OF JAMES NEHEMIAH TAYLOR, SURGEON
Matthew Tomlinson penned his diary entry in response to reports of the court martial and execution of naval surgeon James Nehemiah Taylor.
Mr Taylor, 37, had admitted to performing sodomy — then a crime — with his young servant, Thomas Ashton, in his cabin aboard the HMS Jamaica on August 23, 1809.
The act had been witnessed by three other members of the vessel’s crew through a hole in the cabin’s wall.
He was subsequently hung to death from the Jamaica’s yard arm on December 26, 1809.
Mr Taylor is reported as saying that he ‘did not look upon himself as a notorious sinner’.
He is also recorded as saying that ‘this crime is more general than you are aware of […] in London, in France and in the Mediterranean he had seen the crime committed, and it was not considered a crime.’
Accounts of the trial were published in both British and Irish newspapers, which stressed the draconian penalties meted out for homosexual behaviour.
Until 1861, acts of sodomy were met with the death penalty.
‘Contemporary media reporting on sodomy cases, often couched in the language of moral panic, both reflected and reinforced social stigma against same-sex intimacy,’ Mr O’Keeffe said.
‘But Tomlinson’s writings suggest that not all readers uncritically accepted the homophobic assumptions they encountered in the press.’
Mr Tomlinson wrote: ‘It appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is)…’
‘…if they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural, otherwise, as a defect in nature … it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.’
Held in the collections of the Wakefield Library, Tomlinson’s diary has been written about by researchers in the past — but this is the first time that this particular passage has been brought to attention.
Historian Eamonn O’Keeffe of the University of Oxford came across the passage in the course of his research into British military musicians during the Napoleonic Wars.
‘As it turned out, the diaries had little to say about military music — Tomlinson was disdainful of patriotic pageantry,’ Mr O’Keeffe said.
‘But his reflections on homosexuality, which I spotted by chance while paging through the journals, stood out to me as striking and unusual for the time.’
‘In this diary we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that should not be punished by death.’
‘While Tomlinson’s writings reflect the opinions of only one man, his phrasing — “as I am informed it is” — implies that his comments were informed by the views of others.’
‘This exciting discovery complicates and enriches our understanding of Georgian attitudes towards sexuality’.
The announcement of the discovery coincides with the celebration of LGBT History month in the United Kingdom.
Mr O’Keeffe noted noted that parallels exist between the reasoning lain out in the diary and modern debates over equality.
‘[Tomlinson] anticipates some of the arguments that have been deployed so successfully in recent decades by proponents of LGBT equality and marriage rights to argue for greater acceptance and celebration of sexual diversity,” he said.
‘The diary suggests that recognisably modern ideas about sexuality were in circulation in British society more widely and at an earlier date than is often believed.’
Matthew Tomlinson, 45 — of Dog House farm — argued in his diary entry dated January 14, 1810 that homosexuality may be innate and should not be punishable by death
It should be noted, however, that Mr Tomlinson’s reasoning also considered — less progressively — that homosexuality might be deserving of punishment were instead it a choice, or as he put it, the product of a ‘corrupted inclination’.
He furthermore entertained the notion that sodomy’s capital punishment might instead be replaced with castration — and stated in support of his reasoning the mistaken assumption homosexual behaviour was unknown among animals.
‘Tomlinson’s meditations thus prove ultimately inconclusive, but nonetheless provide rare and historically valuable insight into the efforts of an ordinary person of faith to grapple with questions of sexual ethics more than two centuries ago,’ O’Keeffe said.
The Christian man’s diary revealed he struggled to understand how a just God could countenance death for a ‘natural’ — or at the very least inborn — trait
The diary entry, Mr O’Keeffe added, suggests ‘that the revolutionary conception of same-sex attraction as a natural human tendency, discernible from adolescence, was mooted within the social circles of an ordinary Yorkshire farmer.’
Similar arguments have been recorded being made from around this period — although such has been confined to the rarefied circles of characters like the poet Lord Byron and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
Mr Bentham, for example, wrote in notes on an unpublished manuscript that, on the matter of sodomy, he ‘no reason for punishing it at all: much less for punishing it with the degree of severity with which it has been commonly punished.’
Meanwhile, the Halifax landowner Anne Lister wrote in her diary in 1823 that her lesbian attractions were both ‘instinctive’ and ‘natural’.
Nevertheless, Georgian Britain was still a time of significant persecution for queer individuals of the time — who faced the risk of execution, presentation in stocks to hostile crowds, public disgrace and the need to flee into an overseas exile.
Similar arguments have been recorded being made from around this period — although such has been confined to the rarefied circles of characters like the poet Lord Byron and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, pictured left. Mr Bentham wrote in notes on an unpublished manuscript that, on the matter of sodomy, he ‘no reason for punishing it at all: much less for punishing it with the degree of severity with which it has been commonly punished.’ Meanwhile, the Halifax landowner Anne Lister (right) wrote in her diary in 1823 that her lesbian attractions were both ‘instinctive’ and ‘natural’
‘I am delighted that this discovery has been made,’ said Wakefield Library’s Claire Pickering, who is pictured left, with historian Eamonn O’Keeffe, who found the passage, pictured centre
‘I am delighted that this discovery has been made,’ said Wakefield Library’s Claire Pickering.
‘It’s not the first time Tomlinson’s diaries have come to the attention of academia for their provincial non-conformist outlook and thoughtful self-expression.’
‘But I’m delighted that a new audience will be exposed to them with an interest in LBGTQ histories.’
‘A former Methodist, Tomlinson was an observant but ecumenical Christian; he wrote extensively on faith, love, death, and the political and economic affairs of his day,’ added Mr O’Keeffe.
‘His voluminous diaries chronicle local Luddite disturbances, agricultural life, and his attempts to find a second soulmate after the demise of his first wife.’
Mr Tomlinson penned the entry in response to reports he had read of the execution of an accomplished naval surgeon for the then crime of sodomy
Princeton University historian Fara Dabhoiwala — who studies changing sexual attitudes and behaviour but was not involved in the present study — called the archival find ‘wonderful’.
It, he added, ‘provides vivid proof that, even during times of severe persecution, historical attitudes to same-sex behaviour could be more sympathetic than is usually presumed.’
‘Tomlinson’s diary illustrates that, by 1810, even an ordinary Yorkshire farmer could seriously entertain the idea that homosexuality was not a horrible perversion that deserved the death penalty, but simply a natural, divinely ordained human quality.’
‘The view that homosexuality was a natural inclination was rarely so clearly expressed,’ agreed researcher Rictor Norton, who is an expert in the history of homosexuality during this period.
‘It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalisation.’
‘Tomlinson’s diary reflections on homosexuality are unique for their time.’
AN EXCERPT FROM MATTHEW TOMLINSON OF DOG HOUSE FARM’S DIARY, JANUARY 14, 1810
“Was this week sencibly affected in reading the behavior, and execution of a Mr Taylor, surgeon on board the Jemaica [sic] Westindia-man for an unnatural crime: a man of great genious, and a ready turn of wit: it appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature; it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.
But if it first takes its rise in the human mind from a viciated, and corrupted inclination; and by cherishing and encouraging such a propensity or inclination it becomes habitual, then it is upon such premises worthy of a severe punishment.
It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death.
Now we do not see any symptoms of such a propensity in the brute creation: male invariably seeks the female, and that is the only argument which causes me to think that it is first formed from a visiated [sic] principle.
Now as life is very desirous to all animated beings, I think it would be no reproach to the legislative power, were they to mitigate the punishment which is executed upon rapes, and sodomy, from death to casteration [sic]: as I shou’d suppose that if a man was casterated, he wou’d neither have power, or feel inclination to commit such a crime a second time, and he might perhaps become a useful member of society: but when he his [sic] punished with death, we are certain that he cannot do either any more hurt or good; whereas if he was only casterated [sic], it wou’d be equally put out of his power to commit the same evil, and there wou’d be a great possibility of him doing much good.“
SOURCE: Wakefield Local Studies Library / University of Oxford