Twitter logo Facebook logo Instagram logo

Sexuality and gender identity in Tower Hamlets: LGBTQI+ collections guide


Tower Hamlets, as with the rest of London, has provided LGBTQI+ people a place of refuge to live their lives with relative tolerance. Before 1967, sex between men was illegal. For centuries and as recently as the 1990s, religious intolerance and discrimination was widespread. People whose sexuality or gender transgressed the established norms tended to keep that aspect of their lives private and were not perceived as the ‘community’ as is the case today.


Sexual orientation was not used as a criteria to define a person’s identity until the Victorian period. Terminology continues to evolve. For the purposes of this guide, LGBTQI+ stands for

  • Lesbian - women who are attracted to women
  • Gay – usually men who are attracted to other men, but ‘gay’ is also frequently used by anyone with a same-sex attraction
  • Bisexual – a person who is attracted to people of more than one gender
  • Transgender - or trans – used to describe a person whose gender is different to the one they were assigned at birth
  • 'Q' can stand for Questioning, ie individuals who are exploring their sexuality, and also Queer. The word Queer has been reclaimed in recent years as a positive self-affirming term, especially by people who do not identify within the binary categories of male/female and heterosexual/homosexual
  • Intersex - people born with variations in their sex characteristics (such as sex chromosomes, external genitalia or an internal reproductive system) that do not fit into a ‘typical’ male or female definition
  • '+' acknowledges that there are people within the community who do not identify with any of the above categories and prefer to self-define

Explore our collections catalogue

Search our collections catalogue. In ‘Advanced Search’ use the following terms to find catalogue descriptions
In the ‘Any Text’ field, search using the following terms

  • LGBT History
  • bisexual
  • gay
  • homosexual
  • lesbian
  • transgender
  • transsexual
  • queer

Search our Local History Library by classification. Type ‘306*’ in the ‘Class’ field.

Archives and Library Collections in Focus

Explore our collections relating to individuals and campaigns in Tower Hamlets.

James How also Mary East

In the mid-eighteenth century, James How (also spelt Howe, Hows, Howes or Howse) ran a pub in Poplar with his wife. James became a prominent member of the local community. In our collections we have the original minute book recording James’s election as parish constable (‘head-borough’) in 1744 and as overseer of the poor in 1752.

James How had been born Mary East in 1715. In late teenage years James began to live and dress as a man, having formed a relationship with ‘wife’ Mary. Together they moved to London. For several decades they ran the White Horse pub on Poplar High Street, becoming affluent. James’s gender became exposed after a blackmail attempt by a woman from his past. This became a major news story. Thereafter James lived as Mary East. Mary East died in 1780 and was buried in the church yard of Poplar Chapel (later St Matthias, Poplar), leaving a sizeable estate.

Discover more through the following sources:

  • Parish of All Saints Poplar and former Hamlet of Blackwall and Poplar: Meetings of inhabitants minute book (reference: L/ASP/A/1/2) and Churchwarden's and overseers' account book (reference: L/ASP/F/2/2)
  • ‘Mary East’ by G.H. Wilson, 1813. Article extracted from 'The eccentric mirror' (reference: LC6533)
  • ‘Wonderful characters: comprising memoirs and anecdotes of the most remarkable persons of every age and nation: collected from the most authentic sources’ by Henry Wilson,1821. Includes Hannah Snell who disguised herself as a man to become a soldier, pages 21-29 and Mary East, pages 276-281 (reference: LC75)
  • ‘Female husbands: a trans history’ by Jen Manion, 2020. Features Mary East (reference: LC15120)
  • Mary East’s will and testament, 1779 and proved in 1780 is available on The will is held by The National Archives (Prerogative Court of Canterbury reference: PROB11/1066/181)

Radical gay activity 1960s-1970s

  • Papers of Edith Ramsay, community worker include correspondence with Kenneth Leech on local matters including homosexual men and church pastoral work, 1963 (reference: P/RAM/1/3/2)
  • Community action in 1970s took focus in places such as East London Gay Centre, 19 Redmans Road and Bethnal Rouge, promoted by the Gay Liberation Front. Both places gave support and shelter. Read ‘The Radical Feminists and Bethnal Rouge’ blog, 2011 (reference: LC13700) and ‘A brief history of the Gay Liberation Front 1970-1973’ (reference: LC6613)

Tower Hamlets’ response to Section 28

Section 28 (formerly known as Clause 28) of the Local Government Act 1988 imposed a legal ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and by schools and libraries. The threat of Section 28 launched the gay rights movement in Britain into action.

Explore records of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group, an organisation which was formed in response to the legislation:

  • Papers include press cuttings, letters of support and publicity, 1986 – 1988 (reference: S/LGG)
  • Issues 1-3 of 'Out East: Newsletter of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group', 1989-1990 (reference: LC9012)

The Group launched the ‘Stop Clause 28’ campaign and lobbied Tower Hamlets Council to not enforce it. On 8 April 1988, a national day of protest took place. Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group created the Pink Postcard Protest. Tower Hamlets Council declared the clause was ‘an attack on the independence of Local Authorities, and an attack on individual civil liberties.’ Despite widespread opposition, Section 28 was enacted on 24 May 1988.

Campaigners feared Section 28 banned local councils, schools and libraries from having any literature featuring gay people.

When Section 28 became law Tower Hamlets’ Central Library produced the Library’s Gay and Lesbian Booklist (see reference: LC12596). This declared that the books were not a ‘recommend list…simply details of over sixty titles with gay and lesbian themes’. The booklist further states that ‘if your favourite title isn’t here please let us know, we will be glad to obtain it for you’.

Explore our press cuttings on the Library’s defiance against Section 28 (references include: S/LGG/2/3, LCX10016).

Records of Frank Small, Librarian, Morpeth School, Bethnal Green include a file (reference: I/MOR/4/4) with:

  • 'Positive Images: a resources guide to materials about homosexuality, including lesbian and gay literature for use by teachers and librarians in secondary schools and further education colleges', 1986
  • 'Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material', by The Library Association, 1988

Section 28 activists including actors Ian McKellan and Michael Cashman met at McKellan’s home in Limehouse. They formed the LGBTQI+ rights charity, Stonewall which extensively campaigns today.

Personal papers

  • Original artwork by Cornelius McCarthy (1935-2009) including 62 sketchbooks from his studio. Also Peter Dobson, author and McCarthy’s friend’s biographical research papers relating to the artist, 1953-2016 (reference: P/MCC). McCarthy was an artist and painter specialising in the male form. He lived with his partner Alec Ayres at Arbour Square, Stepney
  • Papers of Reverend Doctor Kenneth Leech: cuttings and ephemera relating to lesbian and gay people in the church, 1995-2004 (reference: P/LEE/2/1)
  • Records of Paul Barlow (reference: P/PBA) were deposited with papers of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group. They relate to his role as personal assistant to Mildred Gordon MP, his involvement in the Labour Party, 1988-1995

Oral histories

  • ‘Walking proud in East London’, by RiverCultures, 2011. An oral history of LGBT people in East London from a wide cross-section of ages, ethnicities and occupations. DVD video recording of interviews and booklet (reference: LC14660)
  • Interview with Nicky Hilliard of 4A Tredegar Square, 2002. He talks about the square and its people and refers to a gay brothel. Recording and transcript (reference: LC1508-1509)

Local History Library and Images

Discover Images and printed material in the Library, classification 306

  • Newspaper collections cover key moments such as the impact of Section 28 during the late 1980s. Explore cuttings (reference LCX10016)
  • Images of Gay Pride Festival, Victoria Park 1995 by David Rich (references P12129- P12133) and souvenir magazine (reference: LC7404)

Books include

  • ‘Sex, time and place: queer histories of London c. 1850 to the present’, edited by Simon Avery and Katherine Graham (reference: LC14962)
  • ‘Queer London: perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis, 1918-1957’ by Matt Houlbrook, 2005 (reference: LC6607)
  • ‘London and the culture of homosexuality, 1885-1914’ by Matt Cook, 2003 (reference: LC6608)
  • ‘The queer spaces of Tower Hamlets : gay men and the regeneration of an East London borough’ by Gavin Brown (reference: LC6612)

Sources elsewhere

Explore significant collections at:

Personal papers and records of organisations including The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA). This includes cuttings, badges, T-shirts and a reference library.

Printed material, personal papers and photographs of women, events, and demonstrations. Established in 1984 as the Lesbian Archives Collective in London, the Lesbian Archive was transferred to Glasgow Women's Library in 1995.

Court records, 1700s-1900s including cases against gay men, papers of organisations and campaigns. Explore Information guide 25: Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Archives at LMA.

Records of gay rights organisations and LGBT activists from 1950s which form part of the Hall-Carpenter Archives.

Government records documenting sexuality and gender identity history. Explore their guide with tips for sources elsewhere.

  • Other links

'Gay History and Literature. Essays by Rictor Norton' website. This includes research on Eliza/Elijah Scott, a runaway American black slave in the 1850s in the East End.