Amgueddfa Blog: LGBTQ+

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales is home to a growing collection of objects exploring Wales’ LGBTQ+ history. Like the other collections, they’re all available to view online in the Collections & Research tab on the Museum’s website. The Collections Online features objects both in store and currently on display.

Though the collection is always available to freely view and people may read through the information about each object and learn in their own time, it is a shared view that it is important to celebrate and uplift the stories and lives of marginalised communities and bring forward hidden aspects of Welsh history. In doing this work we hope to normalise queer lives in Wales, and solidify the important role of diverse identities as part of Welsh culture.

To give an idea of the sort of objects we will be discussing in the Queer Tours projects, we would like to invite you to look through Collections Online, and consider not only contemporary queer icons who make our variety of Pride events so unique, or even famous historical figures who have secured a place in mainstream Welsh heritage, but the lives of the everyday person who may have had to live in secret, or whose activism was never properly recorded. Here we want to bring forward all of these lost stories, in the hopes that by sharing them we will continue to uncover more.

In an effort to bring attention to the LGBTQ+ Collection, we have developed the Queer Tours project to encourage the public to explore the variety of objects and better understand Wales’ queer heritage. This project has been developed by Amgueddfa Cymru Producers on behalf of the museum for the Pride season.

For the ever-growing variety of objects in the collection, and a want to reflect as many important aspects of this heritage as possible, several parts of this project have been developed or are in the process of being developed:

  • A series of social media posts highlighting a selection of objects in the collection and their role in queer Welsh heritage that will be available on the Bloedd AC Instagram account.
  • A digital tour video of St Fagans National Museum of History exploring objects currently on display and the way we can interpret the history of queer everyday life.
  • A self-guided tour for visitors of St Fagans National Museum of History to follow the route themselves and become immersed in history themselves.
  • A  special one-time-event in-person led tour is being developed so that attendees may enjoy hearing about the work at St Fagans National Museum of History and the continuing effort being put into the LGBTQ+ Collection.

It is our hope that this project be useful and educational to people not just during this Pride season, but will leave a lasting impact and change views of what queer heritage means in Wales.

All of this work is possible thanks to the Hands on Heritage support fund.

A Queer Welsh Ballad

Mair Jones & Norena Shopland, 24 March 2022

In October 2021 following a talk on cross-dressing in history by Norena Shopland, a Welsh language ballad, Can Newydd, came to light in the Welsh Music Archive (WMA), National Library Wales. More can be read on that story in A Queer Bawdy Ballad. What is striking is the explicitly sexual nature of the ballad, depicting cross-dressing women having sexual relations with women.

Archifdy Ceredigion Archives (ACA) and Archives and Special Collections, Bangor University (BU) have exact copies in their collections but in February 2022 a third copy was located at Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales (ACNMW) however this version is simply entitled Can and has a few differences. Mair Jones who did the first translation of Can Newydd, also did the translation for Can.

The lyrics of both versions were written by a rather eccentric part-time criminal, one-eyed balladeer Abel Jones, ‘the last of the “great” balladists’ but who was often known by his bardic name Bardd Crwst after his birthplace, Llanrwst. Jones was a balladeer who travelled and performed at fairs across Wales, selling his ballads as ‘new songs’ (can newydd) on specific topics, such as the death of the Emperor of Russia, industrial accidents and disaster, tithe war and murders - though not always historically accurate, because his main aim was to sell his ballads. Sometimes he sold them with his son, and usually it was to people like the agricultural working-class community. He was the most well-known and popular balladeer of his time, though he died in Llanrwst Workhouse.

Dating the ballad is difficult although dates of between 1865-1872 have been suggested (see A Queer Bawdy Ballad for more details) and there is nothing in Can to suggest whether it comes before or after Can Newydd. However, all three versions of Can Newydd are signed Bardd Crwst while the ACNMW version is signed Abel Jones, (Bardd Crwst) and there may be a reason for this.

Jones wrote a number of humorous ballads, often using the tune Robin yn Swil (Robin is Shy), the same as for Can Newydd, a tune ‘more suitable for the tavern than for singing at respectable concerts and eisteddfodau.’ One of his ballads is listed as a poem about ‘courtship’, another was about Dic Sion Dafydd, and another about a drunken woman, while his other ‘courtship’ poems were advice not to marry or a man’s complaints about his wife.

One mention of Can Newydd in a newspaper of 1915, when discussing Bardd Crwst’s works, as ‘Song about two Young Women who went to knock at Ffermdy (Farmhouse) Tu Ucha’r Glyn, near Harlech’, has an added note by the compiler, ‘I didn’t give the title of the last one in full’ which seems to show that this would have been too disrespectful even for the newspaper, including leaving out the cross-dressing aspect.

The risqué nature, not only of the lyrics, but of the tune it was associated with may have caused Jones to remove his full name from the Can Newydd version. No tune is associated with the ACNMW version so there may be the possibility that Can came first and Jones made it saucier in the second version but decided to omit his full name. Can also uses some English words, such as ‘beauty,’ ‘Kate Pugh,’ ‘Visles’ and ‘Cirnoleens [sp],’ while Can Newydd uses Welsh spellings such as ‘biwty,’ ‘Cit Pugh’ and ‘busle,’ and has removed the spelling error of ‘crinoline’.

Another difference is the location where the event takes place. The introduction to Can is "A song about two young women who dressed themselves in men’s clothes and went to knock at Ffarmdy (Farmhouse) at two other young girls, and entered their House, to bed like two men and two dear lovers" whereas in Can Newydd it is "The tale of two young women from this region who dressed themselves in men’s clothes, and went courting to a country house to seduce two young women, who were strangers to them".

The farmhouse has disappeared and is replaced by ‘Plas uchaf and Glyn’. Plas Uchaf (Upper Hall) is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from Corwen, Denbighshire, and Plas Glyn, possibly short for Plas Glynllifon 56 miles (90km) from Corwen. It seems Jones has moved the location from an obscure working-class farmhouse to named gentrified houses, although no cross-dressing reference has been found in connection with these two properties. It is however, a trope used even today, to place sensational stories among the wealthy who are fewer in number and have more time on their hands, than working-class people and Jones may not have wanted to offend his main audience.

Whatever the purpose of the ballad, it was decided to revive it for a presentation at an LGBTQ+ History Month 2022 by Aberration recorded by Cerys Hafana with backing vocals by the community.

By sharing this queer-related ballad today as a part of our Welsh history, it is reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community, creatively reimagined and helps to build our Welsh queer community today.

Trawsnewid is here!

Oska von Ruhland, 10 March 2022

The exhibition is free to visit at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, from 12 March through to 17 July 2022.

Trawsnewid, meaning 'Transformation', explores and celebrates Wales' history of queerness and social change. Objects on display have been taken from the Amgueddfa Cymru LGBTQ+ collection held at St Fagans National Museum of History to be compiled in a brand-new narrative, alongside new queer Welsh artworks. Visitors can walk through this often forgotten aspect of our past and see how the movement for social change continues into the present. With objects on display taking queer history as far back as the late 1700s, and even as recent as during the current Covid-19 pandemic, there is a wide breadth of communities, identities and movements represented in the exhibition.

The objects that are highlighted in this exhibition were selected by the participants of the Trawsnewid project. The participants are young people who host and attend various workshops that explore history of Wales' LGBTQ+ people and culture and have come together to develop the theme of this exhibition, focusing mainly on queer art and creations. Over several weeks the participants have gone through the collection and selected which pieces stand out the most as important markers of queer Welsh history.

Integrated in the display is a collection of new artworks made by some of the volunteers. Each piece has been inspired by some aspect of Wales' queer history, be it a piece from the LGBTQ+ Collection, or by the communities around them. A variety of artistic mediums come together to bring this often forgotten history right into the contemporary modern day.

Also showing at the exhibition is the Queer Cabaret – a series of short films created by Trawsnewid participants exploring their experiences and connection to Wales and queer identity. The entire cabaret is available to watch on YouTube, but at the exhibition you will be able to enjoy it while immersed in the culture and history curated by everyone on the Trawsnewid Project and the LGBTQ+ collection.

LGBT+ History Month 2022

Mark Etheridge, 1 February 2022

February each year is LGBT+ History Month, with events throughout the month that help to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ people, their history and lived experiences. Each year there is usually a theme, and this year it is ‘Politics in Art’

Amgueddfa Cymru has a number of events planned for LGBT+ History Month 2022: 

On display at St Fagans National Museum of History throughout February 2022 will be the original design drawn by Jonathan Blake for the Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners badge from 1985. This will be displayed in the Wales is… gallery at St Fagans alongside an original LGSM badge. Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners were a group that raised money for striking south Wales miners during the 1984-85 strike. By the end of 1984 there were eleven branches of LGSM across the UK. Each of these branches ‘twinned’ with a particular community – with the London branch twinning with communities in the Neath, Dulais and Upper Swansea valleys. This story, and LGSM’s visit to Onllwyn, became immortalised in the 2014 film Pride. Last year Mark Ashton, who was one of the founders in 1984 of LGSM, was one of the faces of LGBT+ History Month 2021, so it is great that again this year we are able to celebrate the amazing achievements of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners.

 As part of Amgueddfa Cymru’s ‘Museum Talks’ series, curator Mark Etheridge will give a talk on the LGBTQ+ Collection at St Fagans and the importance of representation in museum collections. You can book here -  Museum Talks: LGBTQ+ Collections at St. Fagans | English | National Museum Wales

We have an exciting project being developed for LGBT+ History Month. Funded by Arts Wales, composer Gareth Churchill’s piece LGBTQ+ History Wales Songbook will be performed at Oakdale Institute at St Fagans during LGBT+ History Month. This will be a musical performance piece for voice and piano/keyboard that will celebrate and give musical voice to the St Fagans LGBTQ+ history collection. Initially it will be a closed performance that will be filmed and broadcast online. This will be broadcast as a finale to LGBT+ History Month, and will be advertised on the museum’s social media channels.

Of course, LGBTQ+ history should not just be celebrated during one month each year. So throughout 2022 look out for further displays and events across Amgueddfa Cymru’s museum sites. These are just a few things we have planned:

At St Fagans some LGBTQ+ related objects are now on display in the Wales is… and Life is… galleries. As well as the LGSM items mentioned, these include a teapot and toy paddle relating to the Ladies of Llangollen (probably the most famous lesbian couple in history) and a songsheet for the song We’ll Gather Lilacs that was written by Ivor Novello.

From mid-March some LGBTQ+ objects from the LGBTQ+ collection will be on display at the National Waterfront Museum as part of the exhibition Trawsnewid. This is part of a project for LGBTQ+ young people aged 16-25 that explores queer and gender non-conforming figures in Welsh history and supports participants to create work inspired by their own experiences.

Amy Dillwyn - 'The Pioneer'

Prof. Kirsti Bohata, Swansea University, 15 July 2021

As part of our Swansea PRIDE Celebrations this year, we'll be delving into the fascinating history of the novelist and successful industrialist, Amy Dillwyn, and presenting a performance piece about her life on 16th July. Here's Prof. Kirsti Bohata of Swansea University to tell us more about her. To find out more about this and all our Swansea PRIDE events, visit museum.wales

Amy Dillwyn was a pioneer. That was, in fact, her nickname amongst friends: ‘The Pioneer’. A writer, feminist campaigner and successful industrialist (a very rare thing for a woman in the 1890s) she made the most of her public platform to advocate for women’s rights.  Through her writing and her public persona she showed women could be resilient, adventurous and clever.  She rejected feminine norms, eschewing any interest in the restrictive frills of women’s fashion (except for casting an appreciative eye over the female form). Instead she cultivated a genderqueer identity (in her diaries she once wondered if she might be ‘half a man’) and her Trilby hat, thick boots, practical skirt and her ‘man’s cigar’ became iconic symbols of her claim to autonomy.

Portrait of Amy Dillwyn. Image courtesy of the Morris family.

Though she described herself as a ‘man of business’, and held prominent public roles including Chairman of the Hospital Board, she found her entrance to centres of economic power (like the Swansea Harbour Trust) barred by those who objected to her gender and, one suspects, those who had been on the receiving end of her plain-speaking.  She did not suffer fools. Calling out hypocrisy, inefficiency and incompetence where she found it amongst the all-male committees on which she served won her respect in some quarters but inevitably made enemies in others. She was ousted from the Hospital Board just as she had raised the money for a new convalescent hospital, a debacle  given blow by blow coverage over several issues in the press[i].

As a feminist campaigner, she wasn’t only interested in gaining the vote for herself – though she gave generously to the militant Women’s Freedom League and became president of Swansea’s branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – she spoke up for fair pay and conditions for working-class women.  In March 1911 she shared a platform with trade unionists Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) and Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), who later became a Labour MP, in protest against ‘sweated labour’. To an audience of striking dressmakers and the general public, Dillwyn argued that ‘Employers have no right to ... grind [poor people] down to take unfair wages or to make them accept unfair conditions of labour’ and called on Swansea to boycott the department store, Ben Evans. The campaign (which exposed illegal as well as unethical practices) was discussed in the House of Commons.

Trailblazer though she was as an industrialist and an iconoclastic woman who refused to have her behaviour (or dress) dictated by Victorian convention, Dillwyn’s most enduring legacy is her fiction and its importance to lesbian literary history.  Vigorous, feminist and bearing frequent touches of her dry humour, Dillwyn’s novels satirise the hypocrisy of her own class and she writes about social injustice from the perspective of the labouring classes.  Her abiding theme, however, is same-sex love and desire.  Sometimes this is overt: in A Burglary (1883) and Jill (1884) a young woman develops a ‘strange fascination’ and attraction to a woman just a little bit older (and richer).  Sometimes her plots are more coded, often involving disguise or cross-dressing: in The Rebecca Rioter she has a working-class man (based partly on Dillwyn herself[ii]) fall in love with an upper-class woman (while also fancying another man!) which suggests all sorts of queer, trans and bi-sexual readings.[iii] 

Olive Talbot with her father C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle. From NMGW collection

The recurring subject or women loving women, and her interest in unrequited love between all sorts of people, can be traced to Dillwyn’s own life and love.  Aged 15, Amy Dillwyn fell in love with the 17-year old Olive Talbot (1843-1894), daughter of local millionaire, C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle.  Amy and Olive were close friends, exchanged gifts, and stayed together in various houses and resorts. Though Amy laments that her ‘romantic… passionate… foolish’ love for Olive was met only with ‘ordinary’ affection, by 1872 Dillwyn referred to Olive in her diaries as ‘my wife’.  Olive remained the centre of Amy’s emotional and erotic world for at least the next 15 years (as detailed in her unique diaries which unfortunately stop in 1875 when Dillwyn underwent an operation) and probably much longer if the evidence of her novels (published during the 1880s) is taken into account. 

Though we don’t know exactly how their relationship progressed or ended – Olive spent the last years of her short life in London while Dillwyn was a semi-invalid in Swansea – the legacy of Dillwyn’s love and creative exploration of same-sex desire makes a remarkable contribution to queer Victorian literature. Her novels,[iv] along with her unusually frank diaries (held at Swansea University and currently being edited for publication), offer a compelling insight into queer life in nineteenth-century Wales. 

 

For more on Amy Dillwyn visit the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s12-DILL-AMY-1845

Photographs of Olive Talbot are included in a collection of photographs by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, that are part of the National Museum of Wales' collection. Mark Etheridge, NMGW Curator: Industry and Transport provides an introduction to the collection here: John Dillwyn Llewelyn — Welsh Pioneer Photographer | National Museum Wales

You may access this and other photographic collections in our care here: Photographic Collections | National Museum Wales