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The Severn Bridge doesn’t need a new name

April 11, 2018

Naming places and objects can be a political minefield.  Whether it’s a polar exploration ship or a Bristol shopping centre, letting the public suggest a name risks frivolous recommendations while an elite committee might choose a name that causes offence.  Now the Secretary of State for Wales has caused an upset by announcing that the Severn Bridge, or at least the newer Second Severn Crossing is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge when the tolls are abolished later this year. He’s turned a good news story on the tolls into a public relations disaster worthy of the ‘Thick of It’. What on earth was Alun Cairns thinking? You can imagine the scenes in Gwydir House on Whitehall, where Wales Office officials, press officers and the hapless minister himself are all blaming someone else for the mess.

The original suspension bridge was opened in 1966 and has been known as the Severn Bridge for over fifty years. A graceful piece of engineering, it must be the most visually arresting link between two countries in the world. Strictly speaking though, the Severn Bridge is entirely within England, linking the two Gloucestershire banks of the river Severn.  The rather more utilitarian bridge over the Wye has to be crossed in order to arrive in Wales. The bridges over the Severn and the Wye need no name other than the rivers that the cross, just like the Humber and Forth bridges.

A case could be made for a different name for the newer bridge, opened thirty years after the original.  But that case should have been made in 1996.  It wasn’t, so for the last 22 years it has had the rather ungainly name of Second Severn Crossing.  It’s more of a causeway than a bridge with four fifths of it a concrete viaduct, with the bridge as the central span. Maybe it should have been called the Severn Causeway in 1996.  Renaming it the Prince of Wales Bridge now seems a bit late.

Perhaps Mr Cairns was trying to make his mark in his inconsequential role.  Devolution has been in place for Wales and Scotland since 1999.  The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have legislative competence over a wide range of areas.  Yet there are still UK cabinet positions for a Secretary of State for Wales and Scotland. There can’t be much for the Wales Secretary to do. Ironically, even the bridge tolls decision was out of his hands as the bridges are managed by the England Department of Transport, headed by his awful colleague Chris Grayling.  If Cairns had wanted to both show his relevance and make a popular intervention he should have got Grayling to scrap the tolls before the Easter holiday, rather than on some indeterminate date later this year. I’m glad the tolls are going, I launched a campaign for their abolition four years ago, with my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleagues.

Cairns’s bridge naming intervention shows that Westminster still doesn’t respect devolution.  The Second Severn Crossing has one leg in devolved Wales and another in the West of England, which elected its first Regional Mayor (regrettably not me…) last year. Neither the First Minister of Wales nor the Mayor appear to have been involved in the decision. If they had been I would assume that they would have suggested at least some form of public engagement, rather than a fait accompli.

Personally, I think the first bridge should remain as the Severn Bridge, Pont Hafren in Welsh. The 1996 bridge should be called the Severn Causeway, or Sarn Hafren in Welsh.  But there are alternatives:-

Prince of Wales Bridge – I gather Cairns means this name to be a 70th birthday present for Prince Charles.  On balance, I admire Charles and think he’s made a positive contribution in his difficult role of understudy to his mother. The Prince’s Trust does excellent work with young people.  But the bridge name is non-specific, rather like a lot of pubs with the same name.  The name will upset republicans on either side of the border and will upset nationalists in Wales as it refers clearly to the prince of the English crown, rather than a native Llywelyn or Owain.

St David’s Bridge – after the patron saint of Wales.  Maybe the 1966 bridge could be the St George’s Bridge (as it’s all in England) and the two could be known as David and George. This might upset secularists as well as multi-culturalists.

The Red Dragon Bridge – after the national flag of Wales.  Even if this name isn’t adopted, I think more Welsh flags should be flown on the Welsh side, maybe where we now have the clutter of the toll booths.

Other national symbols such as the daffodil or leek don’t sound right for a solid structure like a bridge.

Famous Welsh people – with priority for South Walians such as Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Dylan Thomas or Ivor Novello. If we widen the net to all of Wales then it should be the Lloyd George Bridge, after my political hero.

I think what this proves is that bridges are best named after the river that they cross, or after the town or village in which they lie.  Naming a bridge after a person, especially a living one, is asking for trouble. And there must be better birthday presents to give to Charles.



A petition has been launched, against the renaming of the bridge.  At the time of writing 35,000 have signed it.





The legacy of the SDP

March 26, 2018

Today is the anniversary of the launch of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.  I was too young to join at the time but I was interested in politics and joined just after the 1983 general election, when I was 16. The following year I helped in what would turn out to be the first of many Parliamentary by election campaigns, in my home constituency of Cynon Valley. I stood as the SDP candidate in my school’s mock election and won. The SDP had started me off on a political journey that has had its ups and downs and may or may not be completed.

The SDP had a short life of just 7 years before it merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.  Historians and commentators have generally described its brief existence as a failure.  It did not “break the mould of British politics”, the task set by one of its founders, Roy Jenkins. There were some spectacular by election results, stellar heights in opinion polls but the 1983 and 1987 general elections were both crushing disappointments.

Political parties are more than brands. They are a collection of like-minded people. The SDP as an institution ceased to exist in 1988 but lives on through the former members who are still active in politics.  They are mainly in the Liberal Democrats but there are others in the Labour Party (attracted by Blair) and even a few in the ranks of Conservative MPs.  The SDP’s core policies of a mixed economy, constitutional reform and above all keen support of Britain’s place in the European Union, are still the key messages of the Liberal Democrats. The SDP brought tens of thousands of people into political activism.  Rather than a failure, I believe it was an understated success.

In March 2011 I planned to write a blog to mark the 30th anniversary of the SDP’s foundation.  My intention was to show the strength of the contribution of former SDP members to the Liberal Democrats in Parliament.  I set out to speak to all of my then 57 Commons colleagues, plus many Peers and former MPs, to gauge how many of them came into politics via the SDP.  The list took so long to compile that I sailed past the anniversary and never wrote it up.  So today I’ve dug it out of my files.

SDP members in the House of Commons

The original SDP parliamentary party was made up of 28 defectors from Labour and one from the Conservatives. Between 1981 and 1987 there were 4 MPs elected at by elections and there was just one gain in the 1983 general election, though it turned out to be a very significant one. The SDP MPs who went on to serve as Liberal Democrat MPs are Robert MacLennan (the last Leader of the SDP and the first joint Leader with David Steel of the Liberal Democrats), Charles Kennedy (the sole gain in 1983) and Mike Hancock.

The MPs elected as Liberal Democrats who had come into politics as SDP activists are, in chronological order – Matthew Taylor (originally SDP but elected as a Liberal in Truro in March 1987), Mike Carr, Mark Oaten, Vince Cable, Paul Burstow, Bob Russell, Evan Harris, Sir Robert Smith, Michael Moore, Annette Brooke, Norman Lamb, Paul Holmes, David Laws, Roger Williams, Alan Reid, Chris Huhne, me, Stephen Lloyd, Gordon Birtwhistle, Ian Swales and Mike Crockart.

What was interesting from my conversations was the number of my colleagues who had never been a member of either the Liberal Party or the SDP, in many cases because they were too young!  The post 1988 political joiners of the Lib Dems who became MPs were – Andrew George (who had been in Mebyon Kernow), Steve Webb, Edward Davey, Richard Allen, Lembit Opik, Sandra Gidley, Matthew Green, Sarah Teather, Parmjit Singh Gill, Lorely Burt, Julia Goldsworthy, Jeremy Browne,  Lynne Featherstone, Greg Mulholland, John Leech, Jenny Willott, Jo Swinson, Danny Alexander, Dan Rogerson, Susan Kramer, Nick Clegg, Stephen Gilbert, Duncan Hames, Tessa Munt (who left Labour in 1997!), Julian Huppert and Simon Wright.   I don’t know the origins of the new MPs from the 2017 general election, so would be interested to find out about Layla Moran, Jamie Stone and Christine Jardine.

Many former SDP MPs and activists have entered the House of Lords. All bar one of the Leaders of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party in the Lords have come from the SDP – Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Shirley Williams, Tom McNally and the current leader, Dick Newby.

Outside Parliament the SDP will have contributed tens of thousands of party activists, many of whom will have served as local councillors. Several professional staff went on to work for the Lib Dems or elsewhere in public life.

Thoughts in 2018

It’s my belief that the short life of the SDP has had an enduring and positive impact on British politics.  Its founders left Labour as it had lurched to the left and advocated Britain’s withdrawal from the European Economic Community.  Sounds familiar? The Labour Party of 2018 is under a more left wing (and much less intelligent) leader than Michael Foot. The party leadership has embraced Brexit.  The party machinery has been captured by the hard left, to a much greater extent than 1981.  Yet moderate, pro EU Labour MPs are sitting tight. Maybe they hope Corbynism is a temporary aberration.  But I suspect in many cases they will have looked at the fate of the 28 defectors in 1981 and don’t fancy their prospects outside Labour.  I think they are mistaken.  An understanding of history shouldn’t lead to fear that it might repeat itself.  The circumstances of 1981 and 2018 are quite different.  Brexit is a meteorite about to strike our political order.  A breakaway of pro EU MPs from Labour could easily become a success and this time there might be more than one defector from the Conservatives. So much has happened in recent years that was not predicted, so who knows what lies around the corner.  I hear all the time that people are fed up with the current political offer.  It’s time to try breaking the mould again.

How we can build the new homes that are needed

March 9, 2018

The fact that Theresa May is taking a direct interest in building new homes is a welcome step. Government departments and their ministers will often roll their eyes at yet another initiative from Downing Street, catching the daily headlines but without the follow through that makes any real impact.  But they also know that if the full weight of Number Ten is behind an agreed policy then it stands a good chance of success among competing demands for parliamentary time for legislation and also Treasury money.  Over the next year (as over the last one) Brexit preparations will crowd out most of the routine business of government.  If a drive to build houses is going to gain any traction then the active support of the Prime Minister is essential.

There is a big hill to climb if the country is going to build enough homes to meet the increasing demand of a growing population. Even without population growth (and it’s possible that new household formation will dip post Brexit if immigration falls) we need new homes to match the pent up demand already in the system.  In property hot spots, with high private sector rents and large deposits needed to buy your first home, it is now common to find “young” people in their late twenties or early thirties still living with their parents, while they save up the money needed for independent living.

Estimates have been bandied about but it is fair to say that we need to build at least an extra quarter of a million homes every year.  The Liberal Democrats went into the 2015 and 2017 elections saying that we needed to reach 300,000 pa over a ten year period.  Both of these figures are a huge leap from our current position.  The latest housing completion figures for 2016/17 show that there were 217,350 net additions to the housing stock in England.  Only 183,570 of these were completely new builds. Much of the balance was from various other initiatives, including office to residential conversions and the sub division of houses into flats. Some empty homes would have been brought back into use as well.

The country has only just got back to the level of house building prior to the crash in 2009. The last time the nation built at the levels needed now was in the 1950s. But the extraordinary levels of house and flat building under Harold MacMillan was largely to make up for war damage and there was also a huge programme of slum clearance.  So much of the building programme was replacing existing housing stock.  It is also true to say that much of the building, particularly council tower blocks, was well below the standard that would be acceptable and legal now.

So how do we increase the rate of new home building by say 100,000 every year? It won’t be easy. The Prime Minister resorted to attacking the private sector volume builders, an odd position for a Conservative politician. It’s true that companies could build out their sites at a faster rate. But that’s not always going to be the most profitable option and like it or not, companies are not social enterprises so their shareholder interests are paramount. The bonuses paid to their directors, obscene as they might appear, are a consequence of this economic reality.

Theresa May also announced yet another review of the local authority planning system.  I was a minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government from 2013-15.  I believe that the Coalition Government wrung the most that was possible (or desirable) from reforms of the planning system.  There will be much diminished returns from further reforms, though some could work.  I also think that the Treasury led initiatives to help people onto the housing ladder have little scope for expanding the rate of house building. “Help to Buy” and its various funding cousins have certainly helped individuals finance their first house purchase and when the housing market was flat it would have stimulated new build. But now that house building has picked up there is a danger that the major result of finance schemes is to blow price inflation into the market.

So here are some reforms and initiatives that I believe will drive up the rate of housebuilding:

1              Planning reforms – I would tighten up two existing rules.  Housebuilder companies have been much criticised for “land banking” whereby they sit on sites without building homes once planning permission is obtained.  This stops anyone else taking on the permission in place for the site for three years. It should be straightforward to reduce the maximum time allowed between permission being granted and work starting on site.  There should also be tougher anti-avoidance rules to make sure that the clock isn’t stopped by minor works that are not a serious intention to build out the site. If the limit was reduced to two years then further pressure could also be applied after 18 months, opening up bids for someone else to acquire the site.

The second planning reform I would advocate is a tightening up of site viability assessments. Local councils enter into negotiations with developers for local improvements (highways works, etc.) and also for a proportion of the development to be affordable housing. Developers will, naturally, try to get away with as little as possible.  They will claim that the development is economically unviable if councils demand too much.  During the recession developers often wriggled out of prior commitments.  This may have been a pragmatic approach by councils at the time, some new homes (plus construction jobs) being better than no activity at all. There is no excuse for it now.  It would be better for all if the process was more transparent and assessed by an independent examiner. If a developer wishes to revise an agreement then they would have to pay for a report, with the consultants appointed by the council.

2              Restructuring local government – successive Conservative ministers have criticised local councils for their tardiness in driving extra house building.  Yet they’ve shied away from any meaningful structural reform. Local government in England is a mess, with some areas little changed from the last nationwide reforms in 1888 (county councils) and 1894 when district councils were created. Edward Heath’s government started to put in a more rational structure in the early 1970s. Then Margaret Thatcher and John Major scrapped the strategic authorities created by their Tory predecessor.  New Labour carved lots of city and large towns out of their historic counties, creating all-purpose unitary councils on tight boundaries. These are usually surrounded by small district councils, which hold the planning powers that are key to increasing the number of new homes.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government made a start on re-ordering the map by creating a network of Local Enterprise Partnerships and providing finance to competitive local growth deals.  I appraised many of these and it was often clear that the lack of affordable housing was a drag on economic growth.  This was particularly true around Oxford, Bristol, Cambridge and other centres of the high-tech knowledge economy.

All too often the economic needs of a city are not the direct concern of the surrounding authorities, where protecting the character of small towns and villages will be seen as more important. There was little incentive for districts to expedite planning consents for new housing.  My Conservative coalition colleagues came up with the New Homes Bonus, a central government grant for each extra unit in the council tax base. This sounds fine at first but I found it objectionable as the extra money was funded from top-slicing the whole local government budget. Once data became available for a couple of years it was clear that much of the “bonus” was going to prosperous districts that had plenty of scope for expansion, at the expense of depressed areas that had little need for new housing.  At a time of a huge squeeze on council budgets this policy has become socially unjust and should be phased out.

The creation in May 2017 of new Regional Mayors and Combined Authorities in several conurbations (West of England, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Teesside and Cambridgeshire) may bring people together for a more holistic approach to planning.  But the underlying structure of local government remains and it is unlikely that the May government will go for a big bang reform. During the coalition Eric Pickles told me that he kept a pearl handled revolver ready to shoot any (Tory) minister who talked about reorganisation.  The preponderance of Tory councillors in the shire districts makes Tory MPs nervous about upsetting their activist base.

But Dorset is about to restructure, abolishing all its districts, merging Bournemouth and Poole into a single unitary with the rest of the county’s towns and villages coming under a Dorset county authority.  The two new councils will undoubtedly save money and will hopefully also be a model for strategic planning in the rest of England.

I have long favoured a Dorset model for the rest of the country.  England should be divided between city region and county authorities.  The new structure would be more efficient, would have the potential to rejuvenate local council chambers and crucially, would be able to plan in a strategic way to meet local needs, including new housing. A duty to cooperate would ensure that structure plans were coherent across a county or sub-region.

3              State intervention in house building.  Even with a fit for purpose planning system it is inconceivable that we would get anywhere close to 300,000 units a year by relying on the private sector. The huge volumes reached over 50 years ago were achieved only with a large amount of state investment, with much of the delivery by local government. The state needs to get back into the business of building homes. That means enabling local authorities to build but also making sure that housing associations have the resources to expand their portfolios.

There should not be a return to the state building monolithic estates of council houses and flats. The state should finance the building of balanced communities of homes of different sizes for rent and sale. The Treasury should relax local authority housing borrowing constraints, making permanent an initiative I helped launch in 2014.  Local authorities, housing associations and other state bodies (the NHS and MoD own lots of land) could pool resources into a social enterprise to build homes for sale and social rent.  All profits would be reinvested in social homes.  To safeguard the asset base and to maintain social balance the ‘right to buy’ should not apply to new homes.

4              Diversify the housing mix.  While our housing stock has not grown to accommodate a larger population it has also not changed to reflect the changing demographic mix. There are more single households and people are living at home well into their eighties and nineties. More smaller units of accommodation are needed in the social sector, to free up houses for families.  The same principle applies in the private sector.  Many elderly people are living in houses that are larger than they need and are also expensive to adapt for reduced mobility.  People are reluctant to give up the autonomy they enjoy in their own home if the alternative is council sheltered accommodation often presided over by a jobs-worth warden telling them they can’t have flower pots outside their front door. We build far fewer units of high quality owner occupied flats and bungalows than other countries. Perhaps a tax incentive would get pension funds and other institutional investors more interested in this sort of long term investment.  At the other end of the age spectrum students occupy large swathes of neighbourhoods near to their university.  The huge expansion in student numbers in the last two decades has not been matched by new halls of residence or purpose built student flats. Local families have been crowded out of many streets by buy to let landlords. Universities or private investors should be incentivised to provide student rooms and flats and local authority plans should identify suitable sites.

5              Learn from others. My comments so far have referred to England, where I have been a politician as a councillor, MP and minister.  Local government and housing policy are devolved to Wales and Scotland. It’s possible that their governments have had more success in raising the levels of housebuilding and have invested more in social housing, though I’ve not seen any evidence that this is so.  Housing pressures are concentrated mainly around Cardiff and Edinburgh so it’s possible that the national need is not as urgent as it is in large areas of England. But there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from many of our European neighbours.  There is a much larger private rental sector in prosperous countries such as Germany and Switzerland.  But the flats and houses are purpose built, owned and managed by institutional investors rather than the small private landlord model we have in Britain.  Modular build is also more common, enabling sites to be built out much faster than our traditional bricks and mortar method.

6              Address the skills gap.  Building more homes will require more resources other than land and money.  A big expansion cannot happen without the skilled workforce needed to bring sites to completion.  It is likely that Brexit will make this much harder, as freedom of movement ends and the pool of labour from Eastern Europe diminishes. A concerted drive is needed to attract more young people into the construction industry, with particular focus on the gender gap.

7              Quality and sustainability.  Finally, this is not just a matter of numbers of units. The mass building of the 1950s to the 1970s was often of very poor quality, especially in flats.  Today’s building regulations are much tighter. All homes, whether private or social sector, need to be built to high standards of sustainability and with generous dimensions.  As a minister I put in place a national standard for room space and also the legislation for “zero carbon homes.” The Conservatives governing on their own have scrapped the higher sustainable standards and the ‘allowable solutions’ that would have compelled housebuilders to invest in other environmental schemes such as retrofitting older homes.  This policy should be reinstated so that new homes are built to last and older homes (the vast majority of our stock is a century old) refurbished for more sustainable and affordable living.



Further information

DCLG latest housing statistics for 2016/17 –

My best LGBT+ heritage sites

February 27, 2018

British heritage sites are at last beginning to acknowledge aspects of their queer past that have long been swept under the carpet. Many of the country houses and castles that I’ve visited in the last 40 years have been owned at some point by families with gay and lesbian characteristics. But guide books, exhibitions and human room guides have usually been silent about the sexual identity of former lords and ladies.  Often at best there were hints, nods and winks about a king’s “favourite” courtier, or a lord’s “eccentric” behaviour or a lady’s “close companion.”

This is now beginning to change.  Marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality, the National Trust announced its “Pride of Place” initiative to highlight the queer personal histories of many of the former owners of its properties.  Historic England, the government body with responsibility for listing buildings of historic or architectural interest, is now adding LGBTQ characteristics to its listing particulars, accompanied by a mapping project. English Heritage, the charity that manages state owned sites, is also now promoting the gay lives of people associated with their castles and houses.  I hope that Cadw, the Welsh equivalent to which I belong, will follow suit but a Google search brought up a list of Cadw camp sites, which wasn’t quite what I wanted!

There is an inherent problem in identifying historic sites that are of interest to modern queer or transgendered people, or to anyone interested in all aspects of a building’s past. For most of the history of a site the sexuality of its owners, people who worked there or were associated with it would have remained secret, were denied or played down.  Homosexual men were until 1861 in danger of losing their lives as anal sex was a capital offence.  It wasn’t until our current century that holding hands or kissing in public became activities that would no longer land men in a police cell. This means that very few male historical figures were open and unambiguous about their sexuality.

Men who today would be free to express themselves would have then lived a double life, with a wife and children but also a male “favourite” in their entourage.  It is assumed that men from Edward II to John Maynard Keynes had male lovers but to many of their contemporaries they lived conventional family lives.  There are very few Oscar Wilde exposés and convictions and even he artfully denied the charges. Some men achieved notoriety for exuberant and flamboyant lifestyles, what today we would call high camp, but they avoided being labelled homosexual men.

So in many of the grand houses of Britain, visited by millions of people today, we have some stories about the owners who lived complicated lives, possibly genuinely bisexual, more likely living a lie.  While there is little firm evidence about queer lives upstairs, next to nothing is known about life downstairs or about what went on in those strictly gender segregated attic bedrooms.  What little is known is mainly about men, though quite often the facts are thin. Even less is known about lesbian relationships, although these were never outside the law and “Sapphic” love was not persecuted. See below for the remarkable contrast between the attitudes to the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, who received celebrity visits in an age when gay men were being executed.

When I was an elected politician I made many speeches on gay rights.  I often asserted that one day the law would be broadly fair, treating us all as equals.  For lesbians and gay men we are now at that point, though there is still some way to go for transsexuals and people born inter-sex. I used to add that even when the law was fair, society would not be equal until gay men and women were portrayed alongside our straight fellow citizens as full participants in all aspects of our popular culture.  This includes how we tell the story of our past and who we celebrate and recognise in our national history. There are now more openly gay MPs than when I was elected in 2005.  Sport, especially football, in on a journey but has a long way to go.  Gay characters do now feature in many of the TV dramas that I have time to watch these days but some of them don’t seem to last long. It’s time that all of our castles, houses, museums and galleries told the full and inclusively queer story of all the people who have lived and shaped their buildings and collections.

One of my interests outside politics is visiting historic places.  I’ve been writing about my favourite castles, abbeys, cathedrals and sites associated with Prime Ministers.  So for LGBT History Month, what follows is my first attempt at a guide to the best places to visit that are associated with people who used to be forgotten because of their sexuality or remembered in all aspects except for their sexuality.  It’s time to celebrate Britain’s queer past.

Hadrian’s Wall – named after the Emperor who ordered its construction, marking the north-western boundary of his empire.  There are more surviving statues of Hadrian than any other Roman emperor, apart from Augustus.  The third most commemorated man is Antinous, or Antinoo.  Who was he? When he drowned in the Nile a grief stricken Hadrian ordered many statues to be carved in memory of the young man who was probably his lover.  They show Antinous as an exquisitely beautiful man, of the sort you might expect to grace the cover of Gay Times or Attitude.  Some show him in Egyptian garb, as the god Osiris.  Others show him as a classical Roman, like the much later statue of David by Michelangelo.

Most of the world’s great museums will have a statue or bust of Antinous.  The best one that I’ve seen is in The Prado in Madrid and I have a poster of it on my bedroom wall, so I see Antinous every day!  In Bristol I can also see a fine plaster cast of a bust of Antinous staring down from the staairwell of Blaise Castle House. The British Museum has a fine version.  The museum is also the place to see the remarkable Warren Cup.  It’s a small silver vessel with an image of two men having anal sex. There are numerous images on Greek and Roman pottery and metalwork showing same sex scenes.  Given that what we see now in museums is just a tiny fraction of what Mediterranean culture has left us, there must have been thousands of them.  Back to the Wall – you won’t find any busts of Antinous or sexually explicit vessels in the otherwise excellent museums.  You’ll just have to imagine what those soldiers got up to on cold nights at the end of the Roman world.

Archaeology informs our imagination and a report on a dig in 2002 enhanced our understanding of Roman culture and what we would now call a transsexual sub-culture.  Catterick (Roman Cataractonium) lies half way between Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman city of Eboracum, now York. During the excavation of the scant remains of the small Roman town a remarkable grave was discovered.  The skeleton of a young man was buried with what appeared to be female funeral goods, bracelets, necklaces and an anklet fashioned with jet. Archaeologists have concluded that this was probably the grave of a galli, one of the eunuch priests of the cult of the maternal goddess Cybele.  The cult of Cybele reached Rome from Asia Minor in about 200BC.  Cybele’s lover Attis castrated himself as punishment for his infidelity. The practise was carried on by devotees of Cybele as the cult spread throughout the Roman world.  We know that the cult reached the northern limits of Britannia as there was an altar to Cybele at the fort of Cortbridge, on the Wall. Finds from the Catterick dig are held at the Yorkshire Museum, in York.

Kings and “queens” – several kings of England and Scotland are believed to have had same sex experiences.  The evidence is a bit flimsy with William II (1087-1100) and Richard I (1189-99) but firmer with Edward II (1307-27) and James VI and I (1567 and 1603 – 1625) who lavished attention on male favourites.

Edward was the son of Edward I, the conqueror of Wales.  He was born at Caernarfon castle in 1284 and his father proclaimed him the first English Prince of Wales in 1301. About this time the young prince’s household was joined by Piers Gaveston, a native of Gascony. The two formed a close bond, which came to be resented deeply by England’s nobles.  Gaveston was the first of Edward’s male favourites. Gaveston was exiled by Edward’s father (a character loosely based on him was instead thrown out of a castle window by the king in the film ‘Braveheart’) but returned to England when Edward became king in 1307.

By 1311 Edward’s closeness to Gaveston had estranged him from his barons. After a period holed up in Scarborough castle, Gaveston was taken prisoner, taken to Warwick castle and in early 1312 was condemned to die.  He was killed on the road between Warwick and Kenilworth.  Medieval chroniclers claimed that Edward and Piers had been in a homosexual relationship.  Whether or not this was true, the story was perpetuated by Christopher Marlow in his play Edward II, written in 1592. In our own times the story has been repeated in Derek Jarman’s 1991 film and in the 1997 ballet Edward II, a dance by the Stuttgart Ballet that I saw at the Bristol Hippodrome.

Back to history, Edward soon took another male favourite, the much wealthier Hugh Despenser (the younger) who was Lord of Glamorgan. He held Caerphilly castle, the largest castle in the kingdom after Windsor. Edward was unlucky in his favourites, as the Despenser family also made enemies of the great families of the kingdom and furthermore caused a rift with Edward’s queen, Isabella, sister of the king of France.  By 1326 Edward had lost the support of the nobility and facing an army of invading French mercenaries led by his wife, fled to Despenser’s castle at Caerphilly with much of the royal treasure.

Instead of facing a siege, Edward escaped to Neath Abbey, where the monks were reluctant to grant him sanctuary.  He was captured by Isabella’s forces just north of Llantrisant. Despenser met a grisly end, being hung, drawn and quartered at Hereford.  Edward was imprisoned at Berkeley castle.  You can see the pit where he was held and where it is assumed he was murdered in 1327.  There is no evidence to support the story that the method of murder was via a red hot metal rod inserted into Edward’s rectum but the story persists.  Whether or not it happened that way, the story is clearly meant as a reference to Edward’s behaviour with his two favourites, Gaveston and Despenser.  Edward’s body was taken to St Peter’s Abbey, now Gloucester cathedral, where you can see his fine tomb.

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 she was succeeded as monarch of England and Wales by the 37 year old King James VI of Scotland. Known to most people for avoiding the Gunpowder Plot, for commissioning his eponymous Bible and for founding lasting colonies in North America, James also had an eye for attractive young men.  James had what we would call now a troubled childhood. He was brought up without his parents (his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, had been exiled when he was one and was later executed in England) or grandparents. He was also an only child.  Raised by scheming Scottish nobles, it is hardly surprising that he craved male attention.  His first recorded favourite during his early teens was the much older Esme Stuart, who James later raised to the title Duke of Lennox. Lennox, a Franco-Scottish catholic, was eventually exiled by James’s Presbyterian nobles and died in Paris in 1583.  James wrote a poem in his memory, the Ane Tragedie of the Phoenix, describing Lennox as a bird of fancy killed because of envy.

James’s first recorded favourite as king of England was Robert Carr, who the king first encountered in 1607 after a fall from his horse during a joust watched by James. Carr was 17 and the king was 41. The handsome Carr was made a member of the king’s private staff and rose quickly up the ranks at court. BY 1615 Carr was married and had been created Earl of Somerset.  The jealous James complained that Robert had been “withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber…” Carr’s wife Frances was implicated in the poisoning of one of Carr’s friends and the two were put on trial.  It is alleged that Carr threatened to reveal that he had slept with the king.  But he stayed silent and the king commuted the death sentence.

By this time James had already moved on to a new favourite, the best known in history, George Villiers.  James first met the handsome and intelligent 21 year old George at a Northamptonshire hunt at Apethorpe hall in 1614. James’s infatuation suited his nobles, keen to be rid of the Earl of Somerset. George became the royal cup-bearer.  His rise was meteoric, within four years he moved several steps up the peerage to become Marquess of Buckingham and James’s most trusted adviser and companion.  James told his privy counsellors that “Christ had John, and I have George.” The correspondence between the two men is extraordinary, even allowing for differences of expression over four centuries.  James called George, “Steenie”, after the angelic faced Saint Stephen. (I’ll try this next time someone calls me Steve…) He wrote to George as his “sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear father and husband.”

Historians agree that George was James’s most significant favourite and that he had a powerful hold over the king. Some have cast doubt on the sexual side of the relationship as James had defended Henry VIII’s laws against buggery (see below), I would suggest that this shows the limit of straight male historian imaginations, not being able to contemplate love without penetration.  James certainly had an active sex life with his queen, Ann of Denmark.  She became pregnant eight times, with two surviving sons.  James (like Edward II) had done his regal duty and produced an heir and a spare.  Unfortunately, it was the spare, Prince Charles, who succeeded his father in 1625.  George retained his position at court, having been raised to duke in 1623. But he became unpopular with Parliament and the nobles and in August 1628 was stabbed to death at the Greyhound pub in Portsmouth, now called the Buckingham house hotel. Charles gave him a tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Numerous portraits of James can be seen in London, Edinburgh and several country houses.  The reign of James is depicted in the magnificent ceiling paintings by Rubens at The Banqueting House, in Whitehall. They would be the last grand images seen by Charles I as he was led to his execution from this room in 1649.  Apethorpe has been restored in the last decade by English Heritage as one of the best Jacobean interiors in the country.  During the restoration a secret passage was rediscovered, linking the king’s bedroom to another.  As the house was used regularly by the king, EH have now renamed it Apethorpe Palace and it is open for a limited period in the summer. James’s tomb is in Westminster Abbey.

Farleigh Hungerford Castle – just outside Bath, now largely ruined but once the home of the Hungerford family.  Walter Hungerford (c1503-40) was an associate of Henry VIII’s second chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who arranged for Walter to be made a peer in 1536. Lord Hungerford was known to be a cruel husband, locking up his third wife Elizabeth in a tower at Farleigh Hungerford.  She wrote to Cromwell that she had resorted to drinking her own urine to survive. The Privy Council was investigating a charge of cruelty against his wife when in 1540 both Hungerford and his patron fell from favour and were accused of treason. Hungerford was accused of harbouring a priest who had predicted the death of Henry. But an additional charge was added against him. In 1533 Parliament had passed an “Act for the punishment of the vice of buggerie”, taken through the Commons by Cromwell.  Walter Hungerford was the first man to be accused and convicted of this offence. The Act provided for the death penalty and Walter was beheaded at Tower Hill on 28th July 1540, at the same time as Cromwell himself. Executions for buggery, sodomy or “unnatural acts” were common in the 18th century. The penalty for anal intercourse remained death until 1861, when it was reduced to life imprisonment. It remained an offence until 1967 when anal sex in private between men aged 21 was decriminalised. The offence was not removed completely until 2003.

Ickworth, Suffolk – Ickworth house, near Bury St Edmunds, is a peculiar piece of architecture.  It resembles a stone drum, with a domed roof.  Its unconventional style is appropriate for the most unconventional family that occupied it until recently. The Hervey family, Marquesses of Bristol (with no connection to my home city!) have long been the source of controversy. The seventh marquess died young in 1999, his drug habit bankrupting the family.  His relative, John, Lord Hervey (1696-1743) was one of the most notorious aristocrats of the 18th century.  A phrase from the time went, “When God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys.” John Hervey was what we would now call camp, an effeminate man, fond of wearing white make up.  Although he was married and fathered eight children, he was assumed (though not charged under the law) to be in a relationship with Stephen Fox-Strangways, the first Earl of Ilchester. Ickworth displays a portrait of the two of them.  Hervey served under Prime Minister Walpole and was a witty pamphleteer. He thus had enemies, who would use his effeminacy against him.  The poet and satirist Alexander Pope was his most vociferous enemy in print, dubbing Hervey as Lady Fanny. In his poem Epistle to Arbuthnot, Pope depicted a character based on Hervey as “fop at the toilet, flatterer at the board, now trips a lady, and now struts a lord”…”a bug with gilded wings.”


Beckford’s Tower, Bath – at the age of ten William Beckford (1760-1844) became one of the most fabulously wealthy men in the country.  He inherited from his father the rough equivalent today of £125,000,000.  The fortune was from sugar plantations in Jamaica.  There is an interesting parallel historical awakening in many country houses, an acknowledgment that the buildings and their art collections were funded on the backs of slaves. Beckford’s fortune enabled him to indulge a life-long passion for books, pictures and architecture. On his travels he received music lessons from Mozart.  In the early 1780s he had a homosexual relationship with William “Kitty” Courtenay (1768-1835), heir to the Earldom of Devon, reputed to be the most beautiful young man in the country.   Unfortunately, letters between the two were intercepted by Courtenay’s uncle, who used the evidence to shame but not prosecute Beckford.  The two men lived secluded lives thereafter, with periods abroad.  Beckford’s extravagant tastes sapped his fortune.  He built Fonthill Abbey, an enormous gothic mansion in Wiltshire.  It collapsed and little now remains. He lived instead at Lansdown Crescent in the north of Bath.  He built the Lansdown Tower behind his house, which is now named after him.  There are superb views from the top and Beckford’s grave can be seen in the cemetery in the grounds of the tower.  Beckford’s art collection is now dispersed, with many of the world’s great galleries owning a picture that once hanged at Fonthill or at the tower. Beckford’s own portrait can be seen amongst the fabulous art at the National Trust’s Upton House, near Banbury.  Courtenay’s portrait can be seen at his family home, Powderham Castle, Devon.

Plas Newydd, Llangollen – A traditionally styled black and white half-timbered house in the Vale of Llangollen was once the home of Regency Wales’s equivalent of a celebrity couple, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby. “The Ladies of Llangollen” lived together at the house for 50 years from 1780.  Lady Eleanor was born in 1739, daughter of the Earl of Ormonde. The Butlers were one of the grand families of Ireland and she was brought up at Kilkenny castle. Sarah was born nearby in 1755, her family were less grand but still in the higher echelons of Anglo-Irish society. Sarah met the much older Eleanor while at school in Kilknenny.  The two became firm friends and in 1778 decided to elope together.  To escape the clutches of their disapproving families they sailed from Waterford to Milford Haven.  They travelled around Wales in search of an ideal home and eventually settled on Plas Newydd. Dressed in a male like appearance, with dark clothes and black stove pipe hats, they soon became local eccentrics.  They also attracted attention from travellers on their way to explore the scenery of north Wales or travelling to Dublin and struck up a correspondence with many of the era’s most famous figures.  Among their early visitors was Arthur Wellesley, from another Anglo-Irish family, who remained a friend when he was more famous as Duke of Wellington.  Another Irish luminary (and former Bristol MP) who visited was Edmund Burke.  Wordsworth and Southey visited and wrote poems for the ladies.  Many of the most famous names of Regency Britain called on the ladies for lunch, tea or dinner.  The royal family took an interest and George III awarded them a pension.  There is little doubt that the ladies were in a lesbian relationship.  It is a remarkable contrast in society’s attitude to gay men, who were still being executed at the time.  The ladies are buried together at Llangollen churchyard.

Kingston Lacey, Dorset – The Bankes family were forced to abandon their ancestral home of Corfe Castle after one of the most famous sieges of the civil war. They built a new home at Kingston Lacey, in mid Dorset.  The house was remodelled in the style of an Italian palazzo by the architect Charles Barry (of Palace of Westminster fame) for his friend William John Bankes (1786-1855) and is one of my favourite country houses. Bankes used his wealth to travel widely and acquire great works of art.  He bought many pictures in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War. One of the stereotypical homosexual dalliances of the upper classes is to be caught with a London guardsman.  Bankes was twice caught in the act.  In 1833 he was caught with a soldier in the urinal outside Parliament. He was acquitted (only buggery was an offence at the time) with the help of the Duke of Wellington, who he would have met during the Peninsular War. But the accusation ruined his Parliamentary career as the MP for the Dorset county seat. In 1841 he was arrested for “indecently exposing himself with a solider of the foot guards in Green Park.” He avoided trial by fleeing the country and lived the rest of his life in exile in Venice.  He died there in 1855 and his body was brought back for burial in Wimbourne Minster.

Clifton Hill House, Bristol – Once the home of John Addington Symonds (1840-93), who was one of the first writers to use the word ‘homosexual’, in his ground breaking writings on male same sex love.  He was himself attracted to men, a fact that he volunteered to his wife and close friends.  At a time when the law became even more oppressive to gay men, Symonds was taking quite a risk in his writings and activities.  The risk was mitigated by spending much of his later life in Switzerland. Symonds was born in Bristol in 1840, the son of a wealthy doctor, one of the founders of the Bristol General Hospital. In 1851 the family moved into Clifton Hill House, Bristol’s grandest Palladian villa. As a boy in fashionable Clifton and throughout his life he met many of the literary leaders of his times. From his time as an Oxford student he soon acquired a reputation as a writer in his own right.  He wrote mainly about classical poets and also figures from the Renaissance. In 1868 he set up his own family home with his wife Catherine at 7 Victoria Square in Clifton, now marked by a plaque. The couple had four daughters.  Their friend Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for their eldest daughter Janet.  Catherine resigned herself to tolerating her husband’s sexual appetite for men. He wrote to her, “The anomaly of my positon is that admire the physical beauty of men more than women, derive more pleasure from their contact and society, and am stirred to sexual sensations exclusively by persons of the male sex.”

While at Victoria Square in 1873 Symonds wrote ‘Male Love, A Problem in Greek Ethics’ and it was in this work that he was among the first to use the new word ‘homosexual’, with homo drawn from the Greek “same” rather than the Latin for “man”. The book was not published for a decade, just before the law on homosexuality became even tighter.

In August 1885 Lord Salisbury’s government introduced a brief Bill to amend the criminal law by raising the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16, in order to outlaw child prostitution. As the Bill reached its final stages in the Commons in the early hours of 7th August 1885 the Liberal MP for Northampton, the writer Henry Labouchere, proposed an amendment which said, “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour…” the sentence for which would be up to 2 years in prison, with or without hard labour. The amendment was passed with very few MPs present.  At a stroke the law against gay men was widened well beyond the prohibition of buggery that had been law since 1533.

Symonds was one of those who spoke out against the new law, though now from the safe haven of Davos in Switzerland, where the family lived from 1877 owing to Symonds’s poor lung health. While in Switzerland Symonds enjoyed mixing with male farm workers and had a lasting relationship with Christian Buol, a sledge driver. Symonds wrote that homosexuality should be studied as a medical issue, not something for criminal prohibition.  He wrote jointly with the physician Henry Havelock Ellis ‘The Sexual Inversion’, a scientific work but also partly autobiographical.  It was published in German in 1897, four years after Symonds’s death. Many of Symonds’s writings on homosexuality could not be published in Britain during his lifetime.  His family destroyed many of his manuscripts but surviving drafts and others published in German have been published in the last few decades. Symonds died in Rome in 1893 and is buried in the city. Clifton Hill House was sold to the University of Bristol in 1909 and the house and grounds were used as a hall of residence for women students.  This is doubly appropriate as Symonds was an advocate of women entering university and he was one of the founders of Bristol University College in 1876.  The college was the first university to admit women on the same basis as men from the date of its foundation.


Henbury churchyard, Bristol – An obelisk next to the wall of the church marks the grave of one of Victorian Britain’s most remarkable women, Amelia Edwards.  Born in London in 1831, Edwards achieved fame as a novelist and a writer about her archaeological travels, most notably in Egypt. In 1877 she published ‘A Thousand Miles up the Nile’, illustrated with her own drawings of Egyptian artefacts.  It was a best seller. From the early 1860s Edwards lived at The Larches, Westbury on Trym in Bristol, with Ellen Braysler who was to be her companion for 30 years. Edwards used her fame as a writer to promote votes for women and she was Vice President of the Society for the Promotion of Women’s Suffrage.  Ellen and Amelia died within a few months of each other in 1892 and were buried in the same grave. An ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, lies on the grave. In September 2016 Historic England gave the grave a grade II listing, for its architectural, historic and social interest.

Reading Gaol – The most famous victim of the Labouchere Amendment, section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, is of course Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Like many gay men at his time and since, Wilde was married with children. But his marital life and his fame as an author did not stand in the way of him indulging his sexual desire for younger men. In 1888 he began a sexual relationship with the 17 year old Robbie Ross, a youth half his age.  Ross was an acquaintance of Lord Alfred Douglas and by 1891 Wilde had also embarked on a relationship with the 20 year old, known as “Bosie.”

Lawyers had predicted that the Labouchere Amendment would be a “blackmailers’ charter.” Wilde was playing with fire once Bosie had introduced him to a succession of rough trade rent boys. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury (a man with two failed marriages who enjoyed watching men hit each other in the sport whose rules bear his name) had a tempestuous relationship with his son. His efforts to draw Lord Alfred away from Wilde failed.  In early 1895 he attempted to confront Wilde at his club but instead had to leave his calling card, addressed to Wilde, “posing as a sondomite” (sic).

Despite being advised of the risks, Wilde initiated a libel suit against Queensbury. The case collapsed in court when it was clear Queensbury had several witness statements of Wilde’s meetings with rent boys. The tables were turned on Wilde, arrested and charged with gross indecency under the 1885 Act but fortunately for him, not for the more serious 1533 Buggery Act. Wilde was convicted and given the maximum possible sentence of two years in prison, with hard labour.

Wilde’s prison sentence began in London on 25th May 1895 and the hard labour regime soon took its toll.  Wilde was saved by the intervention of Richard Haldane, a Liberal MP. Haldane was unmarried, effeminate and nicknamed ‘Pricilla‘ by fellow MPs. He was also an admirer of Wilde’s works and had been serving on Herbert Gladstone’s commission looking at penal reform. He was able to use this position to visit any prisoner and called at Wandsworth Prison, where Wilde had been admitted to the infirmary.  He arranged for Wilde to be transferred to Reading gaol on 23rd November 1895. There was to be no more hard labour and Haldane took Wilde paper and pens. He also supplied him with a selection of books to read, beyond the permissible Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Wilde then wrote a 50,000 word letter to Lord Alfred. The letter was not sent but Wilde took it with him on his release in May 1897.  Wilde left immediately for France, never to return to these islands.  Robert Ross joined him in France and became his literary agent.  Wilde wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and it was published under the pseudonym C.3.3 – Wilde’s cell number at Reading. The poem runs through a description of the horrors of hard labour, ‘we tore the tarry rope to shreds with blunt and bleeding nails…’ and also recounts an execution by hanging.

Wilde died of meningitis in Paris on 30th November 1900, with Ross by his side.  He is buried there and in 1909 Ross commissioned a memorial from Jacob Epstein.  It is a modernist depiction of an angel, complete with a penis.  Ross published a version of Wilde’s letter to Bosie, as De Profundis. In 1950 his ashes were buried with Oscar.

HMP Reading closed in 2013 and awaits redevelopment.  The building is listed so I hope a way can be found to preserve the cell of its most famous prisoner.  There is a superb statue of Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, the city of his birth.  His clothing is picked out in different colours of marble. There are two adjacent statues, a nude woman representing Constance Lloyd, Wilde’s wife and a male torso, representing the Greek god Dionysus.  Wilde’s direction of gaze is towards Dionysus.  There is a less satisfactory of Wilde in London by Maggie Hambling, called a conversation with Oscar Wilde.  Located in Adelaide Street at the rear of St Martin in the Fields, a green granite sarcophagus acts as a bench, with a bronze sculpture vaguely resembling Wilde’s head at one end.  The best bit about it is the quote carved below, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, from Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Knole, Kent – one of the great houses of Tudor England, built on a grand scale rather like Hampton Court. It was commissioned by Thomas Sackville, one of Elizabeth I and James I’s ministers. The Sackvilles live in part of the house to this day, though the state rooms are opened to the public by the National Trust.  When I visited last summer they had just opened a set of rooms in the gatehouse to mark the 50 years of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. They were furnished in the style of the 1920s, when they were first occupied by Eddy Sackville-West (1901-65), the heir to Knole. Eddy was a writer and music critic.  He promoted the works of gay composers Benjamin Britten (see below) and Michael Tippett. He had a succession of male lovers at Knole and at his house in Dorset.  One was Paul Latham of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, who used Eddie over a decade for BDSM, causing Eddy to have a breakdown in 1937. Latham was a Tory MP (Scarborough & Whitby 1931-41) and holds the dubious distinction of being the only example in the last century of an MP who had to resign and also be court martialled. Latham was exposed in 1941 for having sex with men under his command in the Royal Artillery. He was sentenced to two years, without the hard labour.

Eddy’s cousin Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) was also brought up at Knole but as Eddy was the male heir to the title she made her home at nearby Sissinghurst Castle.  There she and her husband and fellow prolific writer Harold Nicholson (1886-1968) created what has become a famous garden. Vita and Harold had many friends in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and intellectuals.  Most of them were married but had lived unconventional lives with many same sex relationships.  The group included John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell.  Woolf had a lesbian relationship with Vita, one of many same sex relationships throughout Vita’s life. Harold also had same sex relationships and close male liaisons from literary and political circles.  He was the National Labour MP for Leicester West from 1935 to 1945 and his diary is an important insight into the lives of many of the leading figures of the time. Among his supposed liaisons were Liberal politicians Lord Beauchamp (see below) and Robert Bernays (1902-45), the MP for Bristol North 1931-45 and the last Liberal MP in the city before my election in 2005.

Aldeborough, Suffolk – a village in Suffolk made famous by Benjamin Britten (1913-76) and Peter Pears (1910-86) who established an annual music festival there in 1948. Britten composed a variety of works, both for orchestra and for performance by a specific individual.  He met the tenor Peter Pears in 1937 and the two then became lifelong musical, emotional and physical partners. Though their relationship would have been known to many people, they escaped prosecution. Britten became Britain’s most celebrated and honoured 20th century composer.  He wrote ‘War Requiem’ for the 1962 rededication of the new Coventry Cathedral. A clear sign of the acceptance at the highest levels of society of Britten’s position came in 1964 when the Queen made him a member of the Order of Merit, three years before decriminalisation. The Queen opened The Maltings, the concert hall developed by Britten at Snape, Aldeburgh in 1967.  In 1976, just before his death he was made a peer.  Britten and Pears are buried in adjacent graves at Aldeburgh and Britten has a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey. Their home at Aldeburgh, the Red House, is the base of the Britten-Pears Foundation.  A scallop sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh is also a memorial to Britten. The relationship of Britten and Pears was long, happy and successful and a rare example of a known same sex relationship that was not subjected to adverse comment or the harsh intervention of the law.

Plas Newydd, Anglesey – overlooking the Menai Straits, the house has been home to generations of the Paget family. Most famous was Henry, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, awarded the title for his service in the Napoleonic Wars.  Second in command to the Duke of Wellington, he lost his right leg at the Battle of Waterloo. You can see his wooden false leg at Plas Newydd.  Most infamous was the 5th marquess, Henry Cyril Paget (1875-1905), known as the Dancing Marquess. He was fascinated by all things theatrical and when he inherited the title and estates in 1898 he had the means to indulge his wildest fantasies. He had a particular passion for jewellery and established a Polish jeweller in Llandudno to supply his pieces. Henry converted the chapel at Plas Newydd into a theatre. He staged plays by Oscar Wilde, despite his recent disgrace and imprisonment. Henry also staged his own special productions, appearing as the glittering star on the stage in front of bemused guests, to whom the Marquess gave souvenir photographs of himself in his bejewelled costume. The architect of Port Meirion, Clough Williams Ellis, described the marquess as “a sort of apparition, he was quite unforgettable – a tall, elegant and bejewelled creature, with wavering elegant gestures…”

By 1904 Henry had racked up jewellery purchase debts of over half a million pounds, leading to a forced sale of possessions. He died the following year in Monte Carlo, aged only 29. His cousin was left the job of rescuing the house and estate.  The 6th Marquess commissioned the bisexual artist Rex Whistler (1905-44) to decorate his new dining room. Whistler, one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the age, painted a 17 metre long mural of Italian sea port and North Wales mountain scenes, now the most famous feature at Plas Newydd.

Tredegar House, Newport – South Wales’s next generation answer to Henry Paget was Evan Morgan (1893-1949), who succeeded his spendthrift father Courtenay Morgan as Viscount Tredegar in 1934.  While his father was a womaniser, Evan was known to be homosexual, though he married twice to keep up a respectable façade. He continued his father’s practice of spending on a vast scale, during the last of the glory days of wealth from the Monmouthshire and Glamorgan coalfields. Tredegar House had been the home of the Morgans since medieval times but its current red brick main block dates from the 1670s.  It is one of the few grand houses of Wales.  The house and grounds became famous in Evan’s time for his grand parties.  His guest list drew from many other members of the Bright Young Things, including Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Aldous Huxley, H G Wells and Charlie Chaplin. Apart from the food and alcohol guests were able to bathe naked in the lake or watch performances by Evan’s menagerie that included a boxing kangaroo.

Walmer Castle, Kent – one of the coastal forts commissioned by Henry VIII, it has long since been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.  After it ceased to have any real commercial or naval marine meaning, the post has been held mainly by leading politicians or royals, including Wellington, Asquith and the Queen Mother.  Walmer Castle was a handy place to hold weekend parties away from London.

The Lord Warden from 1913-34 was the Liberal politician William Lygon (1872-1938), the 7th Earl Beauchamp.  His parties at Walmer were all male affairs, with other high society homosexuals mixing with local fishermen and youths. Beauchamp was married to Lady Lettice Grosvenor, sister of the Tory Duke of Westminster, who was eventually to bring down Beauchamp.  Lygon had succeeded to the title at the age of 18 and his wealth and peerage opened the way to several political appointments.  He spent two years as a very young Governor of New South Wales from 1899-1901.  The new Liberal Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, made him government Chief Whip in the House of Lords in 1905.  He held a series of other appointments, the final of which was Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords from 1924-31.  It was during this time that he and his Tory brother in law became bitter enemies, both political and social.  The Duke later referred to his sister’s husband as his “bugger in law.”

Beauchamp had a string of male sexual encounters, both at Walmer and at the family’s own home, Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, where he had sex with his valet and handsome footmen.  He is also thought to have had sexual encounters on his political travels with Harold Nicolson and Robert Bernays (see above). In 1931 the Duke of Westminster brought matters to a head by informing the king and persuading his sister to file for divorce.  George V is supposed to have told the Duke, “I thought men like that shot themselves.” He was also concerned about his fourth son, Prince George (1902-42, later Duke of Kent) who had spent time with Beauchamp at Madresfield and was reputed to have had several same sex experiences.

The divorce petition stated that Beauchamp was “A man of perverted sexual practices, [who] has committed acts of gross indecency with male servants and other male persons and has been guilty of sodomy … throughout the married life … the Respondent habitually committed acts of gross indecency with certain of his male servants.” Such a charge would have led to arrest, so Beauchamp fled abroad to Paris. He was able to return from exile in 1937 but died within a year.  His children had stayed loyal and had disowned their mother, throwing her bust into the moat at Madresfield.  One of Beauchamp’s sons was Hugh Lygo, who predeceased him in a 1936 road accident.  He was a friend of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who in 1945 published Brideshead Revisited, with characters based loosely on the Beauchamp family.

My guidebook to Madresfield is silent on the sexual activities of its most famous owner or his fall from grace. The only hint is the reference to one of the objects in the house, a statuette of a naked golfer, sculpted by Lord Beauchamp from a young Australian model while he was Governor of New South Wales.

Buscot Park, Oxfordshire – home to an eclectic art collection, assembled mainly by Gavin Henderson (1902-77), the 2nd Lord Farringdon.  His father amassed a fortune from railway finance, enabling Gavin to live a carefree hedonistic lifestyle.  He threw wild parties at Buscot and had a particular taste for working class youths. Earlier in life, in 1926, his family attempted to marry him to a respectable bride, Honor Phillips.  Gavin fled to Australia for 4 months but was persuaded to return home for the marriage.  But on his wedding night he abandoned his new wife and spent the night with a sailor. His marriage was annulled in 1931. On inheriting his title in 1934 Gavin became a Labour member of the House of Lords.  His sexual preferences were well known inside Labour circles so he never held ministerial office.  However, he did become chairman of the Fabian Society and hosted many parties for Labour luminaries at Buscot.  I visited the house just after the 2015 general election.  It’s well worth a visit, for the gardens as well as the art.  But, as with Madresfield and Lord Beauchamp (see above), the guidebook says much about Lord Farringdon’s politics but nothing about his sexual personality. Again, as with the Beauchamp family, Evelyn Waugh knew the Farringdon family and in his novel Vile Bodies based his character Lord Parakeet on Gavin.

Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire – the location of the government’s secret code breaking base during the Second World War. When I visited the site on a Parliamentary delegation a decade ago it was still in the early stages of its development as a museum of cryptology and computing.  But I was delighted to see a statue of its most famous war time worker, Alan Turing (1912-54), a pioneer in his fields of maths and computing. The statue is a remarkable piece of art, made up of thousands of slices of Welsh slate. Turing is shown holding an Enigma machine, the German code settings for which he had helped to break. The work of Turing and other cryptographers and engineers at Bletchley Park saved thousands of lives, in particular those sailing the Atlantic convoys that kept Britain supplied with food and armaments. Historians agree that his work also shortened the war in Europe, by at least a year.  The details of the work at Bletchley remained a secret for many years and Turing’s own papers have been declassified only recently. That is one reason why Turing’s name was absent for decades from the legions of history books, films and TV programmes about the war. The other reason was his subsequent disgrace in 1952 and the circumstances of his death in 1954.

Turing was homosexual. There is no evidence of any war time relationships. Maybe there wasn’t the time, maybe he didn’t want to jeopardise his war work. After the war Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.  I’ve visited the NPL (learning a lot about SI measurements) but they didn’t make anything of their links to Turing.  There is however a plaque on his house at nearby Hampton High Street. In 1947 he moved to Wilmslow (there’s a plaque on his house) to take up a position at Manchester University. In early 1952, aged 39, he began a relationship with Arnold Murray, a workman 20 years his junior. Events quickly turned for the worst, when Turing’s house was burgled by someone known to Murray. During the police investigation it became clear to them that Turing and Murray were in a relationship. The victim of a burglary became the one accused of a crime and Turing was charged with gross indecency under the 1885 law.  The police at the time were under instructions from the Home Secretary to ramp up the arrests of homosexuals. David Maxwell Fyffe had served as the main British prosecutor of the Nazis at Nuremburg but at home he was a thoroughly illiberal hardline opponent of rights for homosexual men. In his first year as Home Secretary (1951) the arrest rate more than quadrupled to over 5,000. Turing and Murray were two of those swept up and Turing’s record of service was not going to save him.  He actually pleaded guilty at his trial on 31st March 1952, escaping prison but instead sentenced to a parole period of a year of chemical castration treatment. Murray received a conditional discharge.

Turing was stripped of his security clearance and could no longer act as a consultant to GCHQ. On 7th June 1954 his housekeeper found him dead in bed, with a half-eaten apple. The inquest recorded a verdict of death by cyanide poisoning.  The ghost of Labouchere had deprived the world of one of its most brilliant scientists, half a century after the death of Wilde.  How many other positive contributions to humanity have been cut short by prejudice?

The law under which Alan Turing and tens of thousands of other gay men were convicted was not repealed in full until 2003. Since then there have been many calls for convictions prior to that date to be quashed and the accused to be pardoned.  The case of Alan Turing has been at the head of several petitions and parliamentary procedures. In 2009 Gordon Brown issued a statement of regret about the treatment of Turing but his government did not offer any legal redress for him or anyone else.  In 2012 the Coalition Government passed the Protection of Freedoms Act, which enabled victims of the 1885 and 1967 laws to have the convictions disregarded in any criminal record check.

Campaigners urged the government to go further and to issue pardons.  My Liberal Democrat colleague John Leech (MP Manchester Withington 2005-15) tabled a motion in January 2012 (EDM 2660) that called for a full pardon for Turing. I was one of his 27 co-signatories. The campaign widened and became known as a call for an Alan Turing Law, for the pardon of all victims of the persecutory laws.  On Christmas Eve 2013 a rare Royal Pardon was issued for Alan Turing.  Leech and Lord John Sharkey (a Liberal Democrat Peer) had introduced Bills in both Houses to amend the law. Eventually the Police and Crime Act 2017 introduced a retro-active pardon for all deceased victims and a procedure for people still alive to apply for a pardon from “crimes” that are no longer on the statute book.

Universities and scientific institutions all over the world have buildings named after Turing.  I have seen the statue of him at the University of Surrey in Guildford. There is also a statue of him at Manchester, showing him seated on a bench, apple in hand. It is appropriately sited between the university and Canal Street, Manchester’s world famous gay friendly district. Turing now has the positive place in history that he deserves.  I hope that his face will appear on the next new bank note, so that everyone can be reminded of his contribution to our freedom.

Beaulieu, Hampshire – most people visit Beaulieu for the National Motor Museum. The vintage and classic car collection were assembled in the grounds of the Palace House in 1952 by its owner Edward Douglas Scott-Montagu (1926-2015), Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Few visitors in the last few decades would know much about Lord Montagu, apart from his passion for cars and promoting British tourist attractions. But in the 1950s he was famous for a court case and prison sentence that could have ruined him but instead gave impetus to a relaxation in the law against homosexuality.

Montagu inherited his peerage at age 2 and became an attender of the House of Lords as soon as he reached adulthood.  He was one of the 92 hereditary peers to retain a seat in the upper chamber when Tony Bair compromised with the Conservatives over Lords reform. He became one of the longest serving peers and I saw him many times in his wheelchair, particularly at the arts and heritage events that I attended as often as I could.  He is one of several figures who I now wish I’d had a longer conversation with, while I had the chance.

Montagu has stated that he has been comfortable with his bisexuality since his days at Oxford. He went on to host beach parties at his hut on the Solent, on the edge of his Hampshire estate. In 1953 he was accused of having sex with a 14 year old boy scout but he was not convicted. The following year he invited his cousin, Dorset and Wiltshire landowner Michael Pitt Rivers (1917-99) and his friend the Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood (1923-99) to a beach party. Wildeblood brought with him an RAF corporal with whom he was having a relationship, Edward McNally along with McNally’s friend John Reynolds. All five were arrested and charged under the 1885 Act.  McNally and Reynolds turned Queen’s Evidence, so leaving Montagu, Pitt Rivers and Wildeblood to face the music. Montagu and Pitt Rivers denied the charges.  Wildeblood took the brave and principled stance of stating to the court in Winchester that he was indeed a homosexual. His letters to McNally were also cited in court.  On 24th March 1954 Wildeblood and Pitt Rivers were sentenced to 18 months and Montagu to 12 months.

The case attracted huge attention (unlike Turing’s, two years earlier) due to the high profile of the defendants. It helped to raise fresh debate about the suitability of the law, in the face of its hardline enforcement by Maxwell Fyffe. Wildeblood contributed to the debate with a book published after his release. “Against the Law” set out a case for homosexual law reform and also told a grim story of prison conditions. It was the Home Secretary himself who in the autumn of 1954 set up a committee to look at both the law on homosexuality and prostitution.  It was chaired by the Vice Chancellor of Reading University, Sir John Wolfenden.  The committee deliberated for two years, with Wildeblood among those giving evidence. The Wolfenden Report was published on 4th September 1957 and recommended the decriminalisation of private homosexual acts.  The government declined to implement the report and Fyffe, now as Viscount Kilmuir the Lord Chancellor, was one of its chief opponents.

It was not until 1967 that the 1885 law was amended, to exempt from prosecution same sex activity in private by men aged 21 and over.  The law was changed via a Private Member’s Bill, introduced in the House of Lords in 1965 by the Conservative Lord Arran, then in the Commons by Labour MP for Pontypool Leo Abse.  The Bill was supported from the government front bench by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and was applicable to only England and Wales.  Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait until the early 1980s for similar legislation by the Thatcher government.

In 2017 the BBC commissioned a superb selection of dramas and documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Act.  Among the dramas was the story of Wildeblood, Pitt Rivers and Montagu, named after Wildeblood’s book, ‘Against the Law.’


Carrow Road football ground, Norwich – Among my responsibilities as Communities Minister in the Coalition Government was combatting hate crime.  Most of my time was spent on racism, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  But I also persuaded officials that we should spend time on other identity related prejudice, including violence against people because of their appearance or lifestyle (a concern from the Sophie Lancaster murder) and of course homophobia.  I decided that football would be the area where I would direct my efforts on homophobia. The FA and all league clubs were contacted and I visited several of them. I do not know whether my Conservative successors have continued dialogue with the football authorities but it is certainly clear that football still has a massive problem. There are no openly gay male players in the four top leagues. With over 1500 players between them, this is clearly an implausible scenario.

There will be several factors to explain the reluctance of any player or group of players to be the first to come out, while still playing the professional game. Maybe the sad story of Justin Fashanu (1961-98) haunts the game.  Fashanu played for Norwich City from apprentice to full team professional by 1978.  His fame should derive from the £1million transfer fee to Nottingham Forest in 1981. But his period at Forest was a miserable experience, being bullied verbally by the manager Brian Clough, one of the most famous people in the game at the time (even I knew who he was…) Clough knew that Fashanu visited gay bars. He left Forest after a year and played for short periods with a succession of clubs, never settling in. Then in October 1990 in an interview with The Sun (a paper that had a strong homophobic reputation at the time) he came out as gay.

Fashanu continued to traipse from club to club, in England, Canada, Scotland and eventually the USA. In March 1998 he was accused of sexually assaulting a 17 year old male in Maryland. He flew back to England to escape arrest. On 3rd May he was found hanged in a garage in Shoreditch. In his suicide note he claimed the sex was consensual.

Justin Fashanu was the first and 28 years later is still the only football player to come out, while still playing. So I’m including his first football ground as a reminder that football, compared to most other sports, still exists in a state of denial about the contribution that gay players and officials make to the phenomenal success of the game. The worlds of the arts, politics and most other walks of life, including sports such as rugby (league and union) have embraced both their queer past and current prominent LGBT faces. Hopefully our most popular sport will join them soon.


Useful links and further reading

The National Trust list of LGBTQ property associations –

Historic England –

English Heritage –

Bristol Outstories –

Prejudice and Pride by Alison Oram and Matt Cook, NT Enterprises 2017

Closet Queens by Michael Bloch, Abacus books 2015

A Palladian Villa in Clifton by Annie Burnside, Redcliffe Press 2009

Guidebooks to all the above mentioned sites.

See my other heritage site blogs on castles, abbeys and cathedrals

History of Parliament Trust on James I and Villiers –

BBC report on the Catterick Roman grave of a galli –

Bristol and the centenary of women voting and standing for Parliament

February 6, 2018

On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the Peoples Act received its Royal Assent from George V and became law. The fourth major reform of the parliamentary franchise, it gave the vote to all men aged 21 and over and to women aged 30 and over who owned property or were married to male property owners.  Prior to the Act women were not able to vote in Parliamentary elections, though they were able to vote for local councils and the poor law guardian boards. Women were also able to stand for election as poor law guardians (since 1834), members of school boards (between 1870 and their abolition in England in 1902) and for District councils from their creation in 1894. In 1907 Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal government passed the Qualification of Women Act, which stipulated that women could also be elected to County and County Borough Councils and could serve as Mayor.

Until the 1918 Act men had been able to vote for MPs as long as they were property owners or heads of the household.  The rule meant that male lodgers or adult sons living at home were not able to vote. The First World War had mobilised hundreds of thousands of men and women who would not be able to vote in the election that would be held once the war was over. This was one of the main drivers for a change. The reform added 5.6million men and 8.4million women to the voting registers.

The franchise reform Act had been silent on women standing for Parliament. A Bill was rushed through in the week before the November Armistice so that women could stand in the forthcoming election. When the war ended a week later Prime Minister Lloyd George called an election.  The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 put women on a completely equal footing with men as regards eligibility to stand for Parliament.  There was thus a curious anomaly in that women aged 21 could stand for Parliament but not vote for themselves! Full franchise equality came in 1928.

There was little time for any of the parties to field women candidates, with only 16 standing across the four nations.  One was elected, Constance Markievicz in Dublin St Patrick’s constituency.  As a Sinn Fein representative, she did not take her seat at Westminster.  In subsequent by-elections Nancy Astor was elected for the Conservatives in Plymouth Sutton (November 1919) and Margaret Wintringham was elected for the Liberals in Louth in September 1921.  Both women were elected to replace their husbands. Labour’s first women MPs were elected in the 1923 general election, Dorothea Jewson in Norwich, Arabella Susan Lawrence in East Ham North and Margaret Bondfield in Northampton.

It took time before the three parties in Bristol fielded any women candidates for Parliament, despite there being women councillors and poor law guardians in the city.  The first woman candidate was Lady Clare Annesley, who stood for Labour in the by election in Bristol West in February 1928.  The by election was caused by the elevation of the Conservative George Abraham Gibbs, owner of Tyntesfield, to the peerage as Lord Wraxall. Bristol West was an ultra-safe Conservative seat and Cyril Culverwell, a Westbury on Trym city councillor, was elected comfortably. Annesley was defeated again in the 1929 general election.

In December 1930 Walter Baker, the Labour MP for Bristol East, died suddenly so necessitating another by election in the city.  The local Labour Party was minded to adopt the head of the National Union of Teachers, a Cambridgeshire headmistress named Leah Manning. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had appointed prominent barrister Stafford Cripps to the office of Solicitor General just six weeks previously.  But Cripps was not an MP and needed to be found a seat as soon as possible. Manning was first instructed and eventually persuaded by Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson (who knew a thing or two about shopping for constituencies) to withdraw.  The constituency selected Cripps, who oiled the wheels by paying an annual sum of £400 towards the party’s running costs. Manning was rewarded by being given the nomination for the next available by election and became MP for East Islington in February 1931

It was not until 1943 that the Conservative Party fielded its first woman candidate in Bristol. Again it was for a by-election, this time in Bristol Central.  The Conservative MP, Allen Algernon Bathurst (known as Lord Apsley, his courtesy title as the son and heir of Earl Bathurst, of Cirencester Park in Gloucestershire) had been killed in an air crash in Malta in December 1942.  The local Conservatives nominated his widow Lady Apsley as his successor.  Bristol’s first woman MP should then have been a formality as there was a war time electoral truce between the main parties.  But three independent candidates stood, including Jennie Lee, the wife of Labour MP Aneurin Bevan.  But Lady Apsley won the by election on 18th February 1943 with 52% of the vote.

Bristol’s first woman MP was therefore Violet Emily Mildred Bathurst, Lady Apsley. There is a remarkable photo of the election declaration in front of the steps of the Old Council House in Corn Street.  Flanked by the Lord Mayor and High Sheriff, Lady Apsley is seated in a wheelchair. She had been a keen horse rider but had been injured in a fall.  She made her maiden speech in the House of Commons in her wheelchair.  She is thus not only Bristol’s first woman MP but also its first and so far only disabled MP.  Lady Apsley was a remarkable woman.  During the First World War she had helped her mother and step-father run a military hospital at their home Marsh Court, near Stockbridge in Hampshire. She had married Lord Apsley in 1924, when he was the Conservative MP for nearby Southampton. She was the author of three books on horses and hunting and from 1930 also held a pilot’s licence and was an investor with her husband in the aviation industry. During the Second World War she was an officer in the Gloucestershire ATS and also an elected councillor on Sodbury rural district council.  Lady Apsley’s Commons career was cut short in the 1945 election when she was defeated by the Labour candidate Stan Awbery.  She remained active in Bristol Conservatives and stood for Bristol North East in the 1950 general election but failed to dislodge the sitting Labour MP William Coldrick.

The 1950 general election was the first time that the Liberal Party fielded women candidates in Bristol.  Miss Isla G Woodcock stood in the same seat as Lady Astley, coming in third. The Liberal Party also fielded women candidates in Bristol North West, Miss Florence M Pugh, who came third and in Bristol West where Miss Hilda Nuttall also trailed third. In November 1950 there was a by election in Bristol South East caused by the death of Labour’s Sir Stafford Cripps.  The election was the start of the long parliamentary career of Anthony Wedgwood Benn (the “Tony” came much later) but the Liberal Party had a remarkable woman candidate in Doreen Gorsky.  She was a leading feminist and one of the founders of the campaign for equal pay. She went on to be one of the first BBC senior executives, responsible for many TV programmes aimed at women, including the first cookery shows. She was also a commissioner of children’s programmes and people of my generation can thank her for buying the Magic Roundabout from French TV and dubbing it into English.  She tried unsuccessfully to win several Parliamentary seats and in 1970 headed up the Liberal Party’s central office and commissioned its election TV broadcasts.  The Liberal Party also put up Alice Pearce in Bristol North East in the 1959 and 1964 general elections.

Lady Annesley and Lady Apsley remained the sole women candidates put forward by the Labour Party and Conservative Party right through to 1979. No woman candidate stood for Labour in any seat for 50 years, which now seems quite astonishing. It may well be down to the fact that Labour was dominated by trade unionists from the docks and other big employers in the city.  In the 1979 general election Labour’s sole woman candidate in the city was in Bristol West, the seat they were least likely to win. Vivien Bath lost to new Conservative MP William Waldegrave. The Conservatives put up Mollie Mulvany in the marginal Bristol North East but she did not benefit from Margaret Thatcher’s national victory.

In the 1983 general election there were three women candidates.  The SDP stood for the first time in Bristol North West with Hilary Long as the candidate.  Sarah Palmer stood for Labour in the same seat but both of them were beaten by the Tory Michael Stern. Pam Tatlow came third in Bristol West for Labour.

In 1987 there were again only three female candidates but Bristol obtained its second female MP when Dawn Primarolo succeeded the deselected Michael Cocks in Bristol South. Ms Primarolo went on to be one of the handful of ministers who served all the way through the Blair and Brown governments. She was then Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons before retiring in 2015 and now sits in the House of Lords. Hilary Long had stood for the SDP in Bristol South and Mary Georghiou (now Mary Southcott and a campaigner for electoral reform) had come third in Bristol West for Labour.

In 1992 Bristol’s third female MP was elected when Labour’s Jean Corston defeated the Conservative Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol’s first ethnic minority MP) in Bristol East. Dawn Primarolo was the only other female candidate in the city.

In 1997 Labour won all four of Bristol’s constituencies, three of them with women candidates.  In addition to Primarolo and Corston, Bristol West fell to Labour with Valerie Davey. There were no other women candidates so that was a 100% success rate!

In 2001 the three women MPs were re-elected.  Pam Chesters had high hopes of re-gaining Bristol West for the Conservatives but was pushed narrowly into third place by me…

In 2005 Jean Corston retired (later elevated to the Lords) in Bristol East and Kerry McCarthy successfully defended the seat, with the Conservative Julia Manning coming third. I defeated Valerie Davey in Bristol West, becoming the first Liberal victor since 1935 and also the party’s and Bristol’s first openly gay MP.  In Bristol South the Liberal Democrat candidate was Kay Barnard, who went on to be the party’s City Mayor candidate in 2016.

In 2010 Bristol North West elected Charlotte Leslie as its Conservative MP.  Primarolo and McCarthy were re-elected, with the Conservative Adeela Shafi the runner up in Bristol East.  She was Bristol’s first female ethnic minority parliamentary candidate. I used to joke to people between 2010 and 2012 Bristol must have been a unique city in the world, where no straight men held any power as the Leader of the Council was Barbara Janke, with three women MPs and one male gay MP. Cllr Janke became a Liberal Democrat Peer in 2014. Bristol now has three female former elected politicians in the House of Lords.

In 2015 all four of the city MPs were women, as Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire defeated me in Bristol West. Karin Smyth held Bristol South for Labour, where Dawn Primarolo retired after 28 years as a Bristol MP. There were three unsuccessful female candidates – Theodora Clark for the Conservatives in Bristol East, Clare Campion-Smith for the Liberal Democrats in Bristol North West and Claire Hiscott for the Conservatives in Bristol West. Seven female candidates from the three main parties was the highest figure since 1918 and the first time that the majority of candidates were female.

The 2017 general election saw the defeat of Charlotte Leslie by Labour’s Darren Jones in Bristol North West.  The three female Labour MPs were re-elected with resounding majorities. The Green Party fielded their first female candidates, the most prominent being Molly Scott-Cato MEP fighting Bristol West. The other unsuccessful female candidates were Theodora Clark, standing again in Bristol East, Annabel Tall for the Conservatives in Bristol West and Celia Downie for the Lib Dems in Bristol North West.

In the century since women were able to stand for Parliament Bristol has had 8 female MPs.  Most of them have been elected relatively recently and women now dominate 21st century parliamentary politics in the city.  What has surprised me looking back over a century of election results is how few women candidates the three main parties have fielded. Only one stood in the 1920s, none in the 1930s and only Lady Apsley in the 1940s.  Apart from Apsley in 1950 only the Liberal Party fielded any women candidates in the 1950s and 1960s. The general elections of 1970 and the two in 1974 were all male affairs.  From 1979 onwards there has always been at least one female candidate and from 1987 always at least one woman MP.  In 2018 Bristol has one of the best records of any British city, something to celebrate in this centenary year.


Further Reading

These articles by fellow psephology and political history writer Lewis Baston are of interest.  First is on the long build up to women winning the local and national franchise.

The second is on the achievement of a fully equal franchise in 1928, in particular the part played by Margaret Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda, daugher of the Liberal industrialist D A Thomas (1st Viscount Rhondda) and as his sole heir, a peeress in her own right but barred from sitting in the House of Lords.


My best cathedrals of Britain and Ireland

January 31, 2018

Our islands are blessed with some of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals. They are an ensemble of every architectural style from the Romanesque through to the current century.  Some have been places of Christian worship for 1500 years, while others were founded in the last 100 years as different denominations established or, in the case of Roman Catholicism, re-established themselves.  The grandest were royal or noble foundations and tell our islands’ story in stone, wood and glass.  Some dominate their city centres while others can be seen for miles around.  In England and Wales all buildings known as cathedrals are intact and in use as places of worship and are the centre of their diocese.  In Scotland and Ireland the Reformation and later religious differences have left many in a state of ruin, the fate that befell most of our islands’ great abbeys.

My first visit to a cathedral was on a primary school trip to Cheddar caves and Wells cathedral. I preferred the man-made columns and sculpted formations in the cathedral to the natural wonders of the caves.  I have loved visiting cathedrals ever since and whether travelling in Britain or anywhere else in the world I will always seek out a cathedral to visit.  Due to the complex religious and political history of our islands there are rather a lot of churches with cathedral status. It’s a little simpler in Wales and England, where the greatest architectural treasures are in the custody of the Anglican church, with its 48 cathedrals.

The oldest cathedrals are in Wales, where Christianity continued after the departure of the Romans. Britain’s oldest cathedral is Bangor, where St Deiniol became the bishop in 546. Cathedrals were founded in the next decade at Llandaff, St Asaph and of course at St David’s. The pattern of four dioceses survived the incursions of the Normans, the conquest of Edward I, the reformation and the rise of nonconformity from the 18th century, overtaking Anglicanism as the main Christian denomination. In 1920 the Lloyd George government disestablished the Welsh church.  This removed its status as the state sanctioned church and also gave the new Church in Wales (not “of” Wales) its own Archbishop, on a par with Canterbury and York. Two new dioceses were also approved, upgrading the priory at Brecon and the church of St Woolos in Newport to cathedral status.

England’s oldest cathedral is the St Augustine foundation at Canterbury in 597. The Saxons gradually established dioceses throughout their kingdoms as they and the Danes converted to Christianity.  The Norman conquest in 1066 resulted in only minor tweaks to the diocesan map but the Saxon bishops joined the Earls in being supplanted quickly by Norman men. The new bishops embarked on a massive programme of cathedral (and abbey) building, bequeathing to us the glories of Norman cathedral naves, with massive round columns joined by rounded arches.

The diocesan map was shaken up more profoundly by Henry VIII.  Breaking from Rome gave the opportunity to create extra dioceses.  There was no need for new cathedrals to be built as Henry had dissolved hundreds of monasteries.  Five were converted to cathedrals.  For instance the enormous diocese of Worcester was broken up with Gloucester’s St Peter’s Abbey and Bristol’s St Augustine’s Abbey becoming cathedrals, with the towns themselves thereby becoming cities. By 1542 Henry’s Church of England had a total of 22 English and 4 Welsh cathedrals.

The 2 archbishops and 24 bishops were all members of the House of Lords.  Today there are still (incredibly!) 26 Lords Spiritual, though the rules for who qualifies for a seat have changed several times to allow for the creation of new dioceses, Welsh disestablishment and most recently from 2015, giving precedence to female bishops.

The modern Church of England has 42 cathedrals.  The 20 additions were made in the 19th and 20th centuries to reflect a growing population and the shift in that population to industrial centres. As with the Henrician creations, most of the new cathedrals were upgrades of large parish churches, for instance at Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle. One new cathedral was built by the Victorians at Truro in 1876 after diocesan status was restored to Cornwall after a gap of 826 years. In the 20th century new cathedrals were built at Liverpool (the largest cathedral building) and at Guildford, the last addition to the diocesan map in 1927.

I have visited all 48 cathedrals of the Church in Wales and the Church of England.  Most of them have been seen while on holiday or on heritage day trips. By 2013 only four had eluded me but as Minister for Communities in the coalition government I visited towns and cities all over England.  I made sure that community cohesion project visits in Blackburn, Bradford and Wakefield included a visit to their cathedrals. On my last day in the DCLG office in March 2015 my staff took me on a trip to Chelmsford, completing my cathedral set.

In 1829 Catholics were freed from most of the restrictions that had been placed on them since the Tudors and in 1850 the Pope decided to restore the hierarchy of bishops.  England now has 18 catholic cathedrals and Wales has three.  I have visited several but most are Victorian or modern buildings of less architectural interest than their Anglican counterparts. Liverpool and Westminster are the exceptions.

Scotland and Ireland have some architectural gems, again mainly survivors of pre reformation changes.  I will write about these separately below.

What follows is my selection of personal favourites, in various categories.  I will start with the cathedrals that I visited first, last and most frequently. I will add another category every few days.

1 First, last and most often visited

The tiny city of Wells is dominated by its cathedral, one of the architectural masterpieces of medieval England. The cathedral close is an enclave within the city, best entered through the gatehouse at the head of the high street, in the corner of the market place. The joy of visiting Wells is the complete ensemble of the close, with the cathedral at the centre facing to the west a green bordered by the houses of the canons and other officials of the cathedral. On the north side is Vicars’ Close with houses from the mid 14th century, reputedly Europe’s oldest continuously occupied street.  The Bishop of Bath and Wells lives not quite above the shop but his palace is to the south of the cathedral, with its own gatehouse from the market place and separated from city and cathedral by a moat. Between the moat and the cathedral are the Mendip water wells from which the city gets its name and supply of water.

The glory of Wells is the west front.  On my first and every subsequent visit I was mesmerised by the array of statues filling most of the niches right up to the roof gable. There are statues of kings and queens, knights and ladies, saints and disciples, culminating in Christ at the apex.  At ground level you can only appreciate the detail of the lowest rows.  On my next visit I must remember to put some opera glasses in my bag…but I have promised myself this before.  There are spaces for almost 400 in all and in medieval times they would have painted bright colours.  Repainting is unlikely but it would be wonderful if a temporary laser show could light them up.

Entering the cathedral through the west front door your eye is drawn immediately to an unusual architectural feature in the centre of the nave. Instead of a choir screen or an organ loft there are two arches filling the space beneath the main central arch, one inverted on top of the other.  They’re termed scissor arches but I think forceps is a better description.  Their purpose is to buttress and support the main central arches that support the central tower, which became too heavy after an extension to its original height.

I would pick out two other interior features.  A flight of well-worn steps curves to the right, leading to the chapter house.  The octagonal meeting room of the Dean and chapter (of canons) has a vaulted roof supported by a single central column.  Back in the main body of the cathedral, in the north transept, is a remarkable piece of medieval craftsmanship. Time keeping is essential in all cathedrals and monasteries for the orderly running of services.  The Wells cathedral clock is no ordinary timepiece.  A quick glance will not reveal the time.  The face has to be studied carefully.  The outer rim has 24 hours, with noon at the top.  Inner circles give the minutes, day of the month and the number of days since the new moon! But what caught my eye as a nine year old was that on each quarter hour four horseman ride around an oriel window above the clock face. Outside there is a conventional clock face but quarter hour entertainment is provided by two knights in armour who stand aside two bells, striking them with their halberds.  Wells cathedral has something to delight anyone who enjoys great architecture, set in a beautiful close with some medieval humour thrown in.  I can’t recommend a visit highly enough.

Cathedral 48 that completed my Anglican tour was Chelmsford. It doesn’t have the grandeur and splendour of a great cathedral but it is pleasing nonetheless. The parish church of SS Mary, Peter and the Saxon Cedd was given cathedral status in 1914 for the new Diocese for Essex, of which Chelmsford is the county town.  The exterior is unremarkable except for the south porch, with stone bands filled with flint. The spire on the tower is a slender spike.  The interior is an unexpected delight.  The nave is light and airy, with white painted walls roofed with a coved ceiling.  The ceiling plasterwork is painted blue, pink and green, edged with gold.  The chancel roof is also painted in bright colours.  The north transept window is filled with wood panels painted to show a tree of life.  Around the church are icons that would look more at home in an Orthodox church. The cathedral has commissioned several pieces of modern art to give it multiple points of interest that more venerable cathedrals have taken centuries to accumulate.

While Wells was the first and Chelmsford the last on a 39 years long cathedral tour, Bristol is the cathedral that I have visited by far the most times. I first saw it on the day of my interview for a place at Bristol University to study history.  Eight months later I took up my place and Bristol has been my adopted home city ever since.  I have visited the cathedral many times every year, sometimes for official services when I was a councillor and MP but mainly for pleasure.  In the decade that I was Bristol West’s MP I held my constituency surgeries in the nearby City Hall or Central Library and always had lunch in the cathedral café.  I must have munched my way through almost 500 jacket potatoes with tuna and cheese.  When visiting a major cathedral I always have either lunch or tea in the café as an essential part of my visitor experience. Winchester or Salisbury are among the best.

The abbey of St Augustine was founded at Bristol in 1140 by Robert Fitzharding, later the first Lord Berkeley.  At dissolution in 1539 the abbot was part way through a major rebuild and the abbey nave had been demolished.  Henry VIII gave the truncated church cathedral status in 1542 but it wasn’t until the 1880s that Bristol finally got a new nave and a rather short one at that.  The nave replicates the design of the medieval east end and quire where the north and south aisles are the same height as the main body of the church.  The result is a unique “hall church” giving the cathedral a light and spacious interior. The best medieval features are to be found at the east end in the Lady Chapel, where the reredos has been recoloured. Above it are the carved heads of Edward II, murdered at Berkeley Castle and Isabella, his queen and instigator of his death. The Elder Lady Chapel (smaller but older!) has decorative carvings including a sheep playing a violin and a monkey playing a pipe.  Along the cathedral walls are recessed tombs of the Berkeley family, the principal benefactors.  The recesses are crowned by a “star-burst” arch, another feature unique to Bristol.  As with all cathedrals, there is a multitude of memorial plaques on every wall.  I would pick out the one in the south aisle commemorating Samuel Morley, one of my predecessor Liberal MPs.  He was one of the 19th century’s richest industrialists but also one of the most generous philanthropists.  Round the corner from Morley’s plaque the Norman chapter house is entered off the single remaining arm of the cloisters.  It’s arguably the best Romanesque room in the country, with stone patterned walls and a ceiling with zig-zagged ribs.  Another Norman feature is found outside, where the abbey gatehouse has survived a multitude of changes in the area, complete with its grand round arch.

Next up will be a selection of my favourite medieval original cathedrals.

2 Grand medieval originals

Prior to the changes of Henry VIII there were 21 dioceses, 17 in England and 4 in Wales. This group of 21 cathedrals are those that were purpose built as the mother church of the diocese.  All of them remain with us today, though London’s cathedral of St Paul was rebuilt after the 1666 great fire. The bishops (and two archbishops) of these cathedrals were major figures in their regions, with their dioceses often covering vast areas and controlling huge estates.  The Diocese of Worcester stretched all the way south to Bristol and the river Avon, the boundary with Somerset. Many of the medieval cathedrals are thus the showpiece building in their region, built for the glory of God but with the wealth of a huge area contributing to their construction.  They are all wonderful and worth a visit. But I will limit myself in this selection to three grand favourites and below, three smaller gems.

Edward the Confessor travelled to Exeter in 1050 to make the minister built by Cnut the cathedral of the new diocese joining Cornwall with Devon. His Norman successors rebuilt the cathedral but then in 1275 another rebuild commenced.  What we see today is one of the most beautiful examples of Decorated Gothic for the main body of the church but retaining two Norman towers.  Uniquely, instead of forming the usual pattern of bookending the west front the twin towers straddle the mid- point of the cathedral, forming the upper storeys of the usual north and south transepts. The lower third of the west front is like Wells, filled with niched statues, but with a great window above.  Entering the nave through the west front door it is immediately apparent that the west window was designed to shed light on one of Europe’s great medieval spaces.  The absence of a central tower and crossing space means that Exeter has a vaulted ceiling running the whole length of the building as far as the eye can see. At 300 feet (91m) it is the longest medieval vault in the world. The columns and pointed arches of the nave support a ribbed vaulted ceiling, resembling an avenue of palm trees. The palm vaults are joined by stone ribs running in a continuous line along the centre.  They are punctuated by coloured corbels with a variety of carved images.  One shows the murder of Thomas Beckett.  Other highlights of the interior include the cathedral clock.  The face is similar to that at Wells but there are no performing quarter jacks or knights.  But in the doorway below the clock there is a round hole, for the cathedral cat. Mice had a liking for the fat that used to smooth the operation of the clock mechanism and it is claimed that the Exeter clock is the inspiration for the nursery rhyme “Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock…”  Every cathedral takes its name from the cathedra, the throne of the bishop.  The one at Exeter is pretty spectacular.  It stands 60 feet high and was carved out of Devon oak in the early 14th century. It resembles a miniature of a tower, complete with arches and pinnacles and a vaulted roof topped with a spire.  William of Orange sat in the cathedra to make his proclamation claiming the crown from James II after his landing at Torbay in 1688. Also not to be missed at Exeter are the minstrels’ gallery, half way along the north wall of the nave and also the 1665 organ, mounted on top of the screen between the nave and quire.

The greatest cathedral of the Midlands is Lincoln. The flat topography of the county is punctured at Lincoln, with the medieval town on top of a hill, where the Romans had also built a settlement.  The cathedral sits on top and can be seen for miles around. The sight must have amazed medieval travellers and pilgrims and certainly impressed me when I arrived by car in August 2012. In medieval times the sight would have been even more amazing as the spire on the central tower soared to 525 feet, making Lincoln the medieval world’s tallest building.  The spire collapsed in 1548.  Surely with modern methods of construction and lighter materials there could be a reconstruction?

The Saxon diocese was a huge slice of eastern England from the Humber to the Thames. William I moved the mother church of the diocese from Dorchester on Thames to Lincoln. The town was to be his first northern outpost, overawing the conquered English. The cathedral faces Lincoln Castle, which now holds its copy of Magna Carta. (See my best castles blog ) To the south is the old Bishop’s Palace, part of which is now converted into a boutique hotel, where I stayed on my visit.  William’s Norman cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake in 1185.  The cathedral was rebuilt over the next century and a half, with the agricultural wealth of the vast diocese financing the building of one of the wonders of Europe.  Walking around the outside takes a while, such is the scale of the site and the variety of things to gaze up towards.  The west front has a Romanesque doorway and two huge rounded archways, the preserved fragments of the Norman cathedral. To the north is the decagonal chapter house, with a pyramid like roof.  The great interior was large enough to host three medieval Parliaments, in 1301, 1316 and 1328.

Stepping inside the nave you are immediately impressed by the vastness of the space, with the roof’s supporting columns inlaid with shafts of black Purbeck marble. I was fortunate that my visit coincided with the cathedral flower festival.  The nave was without chairs but arranged between the pillars were floral displays shaped into various human, animal and abstract forms.  I much prefer to see naves without chairs or pews, as this is how they were originally meant to be experienced.  The floral displays also gave a hint of the colour and bustle of the nave as it would have been prior to the reformation, with various altars and shrines.

The cathedral’s most famous shrine in medieval times was that of St Hugh of Avalon, the bishop who oversaw the early stages of the rebuilding from 1185. His shrine attracted many visitors and the income from pilgrims helped pay for building works.  It was smashed in the mad days of the reformation but a modern statue of St Hugh, feeding a swan, now stands in the choir, St Hugh’s choir. The roof of the choir has a most unusual pattern, with the ribs of the vault arranged in a way to give a sense of moving to the east – medieval “crazy vaulting.” Behind the choir, in the sanctuary, is one of the three tombs of Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward I, who died near Lincoln in 1290.   The grief stricken Edward ordered a cross to be erected at each stopping point on the journey of her body back to London.  Eleanor’s entrails are buried at Lincoln, her heart at Blackfriars and the rest of her at Westminster Abbey.

Lincoln has a good claim to be the finest early gothic building in Britain, or even in Europe.  Durham cathedral is undoubtedly one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Europe.  It’s most familiar image to me and to thousands of people every day is the view from the London to Edinburgh train.  The brownish great mass of the cathedral towers above the trees on the hill of the opposite bank of the river Wear from the rail line. As you walk from the station, across the bridge and up the hill the cathedral looms ever larger. The cathedral as we see it now was largely completed in a 40 year dash from the rebuilding ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1070s.  Like Lincoln, it was paired with a castle to consolidate Norman rule in the north. But it was also at the edge of William’s realm and a bulwark against the Scots.  The bishops of Durham had secular power as well as spiritual leadership as the king’s representative in the far north.

The cathedral interior, at least in its stonework, is largely unchanged from its completion in the 1130s.  The most impressive feature is the nave, with the bulk of its thick columns joined by their Norman rounded arches.  Unlike most Norman columns, they are neither plain nor uniform.  They alternate between solid drums and clustered finer columns.  The drum columns alternate with patterns of chevrons and diamonds incised into the stone. In the Lady Chapel, known as the Galilee Chapel and unusually at the west end due to weak ground at the east of the cathedral, there are thinner and finer versions of the massiveness of the nave.  The central tower was completed in the 14th century and the view from the top, looking down at the roof of the nave and over to the castle, is well worth the climb.  I wish all cathedrals opened their towers on a regular basis.

Next up will be three of my favourite medieval gems.

How to reform the NHS to cope with winter pressures

January 13, 2018

Every winter we see the same headlines about patients waiting long hours to be seen, sometimes kept on trolleys in corridors or in ambulances backed up outside A&E.  All governments, Labour, Coalition and Conservative respond by saying that they have already allocated more money and planning for winter pressures is better than before.  But this year it does seem to be a lot worse.

My own local hospital in Bristol, Southmead, is reported today ( ) to have the most patients in England waiting more than 12 hours to be seen in A&E.  The hospital managers say they are running at 104% of capacity, management speak for bursting at the seams. The Bristol Post reports that some patients in the hospital have gone without hot meals.  A nurse claims that staffing levels in her department are a third below their required level.  We thus have a terrible combination of patient excess demand and clinician under supply.  Action is clearly required immediately to inject the resources needed to bring services back into balance.  But to avoid a repeat in 12 months’ time a big shift in political thinking by the government is required.

The first big initiative should be a fair way of finding extra money. The NHS will celebrate its 70th birthday this July.  When it was founded not many people lived beyond their seventh decade.  Yet even without the current pressure of an ageing population it was recognised at the outset that there would never be enough money and rationing was part of the system.  Aneurin Bevan thought that the best way to secure maximum resources for his NHS was to take the funding from general Treasury resources.  He did not want the NHS or treatment entitlements to be linked to national insurance in the same way as the other pillars of the welfare state, social security benefits and pensions.  I have thought for many years that this principle needs to be set aside.  We need a full understanding of what 21st century healthcare expectations will cost and then a clear and fair way to find the resources.

I believe that we need a new tax, specifically dedicated to raising the money for the NHS. It should also fund social care services, the cost of which is currently borne by local councils. The clearest and fairest way to do this is to reform national insurance and dedicate all the proceeds to a combined NHS and Care system.  This would give the system the resources it needs and each year the Chancellor would adjust the tax to keep revenues at the right level to support service needs.  This would enable politicians to be clear with the public about how much the system costs and how much we all need to pay. It would also relieve local government of its biggest spending commitment and reduce the level of the unfair council tax. I’ve written more on how the new tax could work here –

Money raised for the NHS is spent mostly on its staff.  Extra money from a new tax should enable recruitment of a larger workforce.  But this will not be easy.  Training doctors, nurses and paramedics takes time. The NHS is the country’s biggest single employer and its workforce is made up of people from all over the world.  Britain’s exit from the EU next year will make it harder to recruit key staff as freedom of movement comes to an end.  Indeed the inflow of key workers from other EU countries is already drying up and many of those who are already here are choosing to leave for better opportunities (and a more welcoming environment) in France, Germany and our other neighbours.  So the second major and urgent shift in thinking is about the impact of Brexit on our NHS and care services.  The government needs to make an emphatic statement guaranteeing the rights of existing EU origin workers.  If we are to go ahead with the madness of Brexit then something that replicates freedom of movement needs to be in place for essential public services.  My 10 years’ experience as an MP in a cosmopolitan city with two major hospitals and two major universities showed me that the Home Office is a useless dysfunctional outfit that cannot manage effectively the existing visa regime.  Imagine the utter chaos that will ensue in March 2019 if we apply a work visa system to everyone from the EU. There is no sign that Theresa May grasps that her obsession with reducing immigration is going to inflict massive damage on the NHS.

The third shift in thinking has been slowly gathering pace for several years.  The boundary between the NHS and social services care causes problems for both sides.  The systems have different political masters and different funding streams so it is hardly a surprise that there is a failure to deliver a seamless service to the patient.  The Coalition began in 2014 to bring the systems together by pooling some local NHS and council budgets into the Better Care Fund. Mrs May’s shambolic reshuffle of her government this week renamed the Department of Health to add Care to the title of Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt.  It is unclear at the moment whether this means that Hunt and the new DoHC will be taking over care funding from my old ministerial department of DCLG, which also got a name change.  The Liberal Democrats have called for some time for the NHS and Care to be merged.  But without new funding Mrs May’s adoption of our approach will remain cosmetic.  At a local level elected Mayors and councillors need to focus on what they can do to align their social services departments with local NHS hospitals so that patients are admitted only when they need to be and are discharged promptly.

More money, extra staff and closer integration of services are all needed to avoid not just seasonal pressures but to make the NHS and Care fit for purpose all year round.