In 1859 the body of a man by the name of Harry Stokes washed up in the River Irwell. Upon examination, it was discovered that twice-married Stokes was biologically female and had been successfully living the life of a Victorian man in Manchester.
Now, I am by no means a history buff but what a story! It’s fascinating to think how our LGBT ancestors navigated their sexual identity during a time in which LGBT communities didn’t exist. Well, I say they didn’t exist because that’s what history would lead you to believe. LGBT legacies are often forgotten, suppressed, misinterpreted and, on the whole, eradicated. But LGBT History Month and in particular the annual LGBT History Festival are all about changing this.
Thanks to the festival, Harry Stokes’s life came to light after lying hidden for over a century. The extraordinary story of this trans pioneer was discovered in a few precious press clippings hidden in the depths of Manchester Central Library. Despite giving fairly scant detail, these news reports gave birth to Mister Stokes: Man-Woman of Manchester which premiered in Manchester last month at the People’s History Museum thanks to Pagelight Productions. And what better way to evoke society’s feelings at the time than to use the 1859 headline in the Manchester Guardian as the play’s title.
But breathing life into this 19th century narrative was no mean feat, as I discovered when I spoke to Stephen Hornby, National Theatre Coordinator of the LGBT History Festival and co-founder of Pagelight. Little is known about the exact details of Stokes’s life other than what is contained in the news clippings.
“As to what actually happened, well that’s completely unknown” says Hornby. “We don’t really have the facts, we have press reports of something. How much the press reports relate to what the actual events were, is another question, as we know.”
As a writer, I was fascinated to hear about the process of telling such a captivating story with only a few tantalising bare bones to go on. But with a team of historians, creative professionals and LGBT advisers, the key to this task was to be true to what they knew. This wasn’t much but, by considering the historical possibilities, the writer Abi Hynes and the team were able to devise a play.
“Literacy is what we aim for,” explains Hornby. “We’ve done our homework and we’re making intelligent choices in terms of festival theatre and how it represents the period. Within that, in order to create a narrative, you have to select. Instead of replaying the whole of the events, you have to make a selection to make it meaningful. You’ve got a responsibility in making festival theatre to think carefully about what you’re selecting and why and what you’re not selecting and why.”
According to Hornby, it’s about finding a balance between maintaining historical accuracy and producing a drama that is narratively satisfying. By doing this, characters can be brought back to life and restored to our collective sense.
“I think drama is uniquely able to make the emotion and the feelings and immediacy available to an audience. I think that’s important to an LGBT audience.”
Last year’s A Very Victorian Scandal, another Pagelight Productions show, told the true events of one of the biggest police raids in Victorian England when officers stormed an all-male drag ball in Hulme in 1880. It was a three-parter made up of site-specific performances: a re-enactment of the raid in Via on Canal Street; an intimate performance at Manchester Central Library exploring the motives of the police at the time; and a re-enactment of the trial of four of the 47 arrested men, based on historical documents and census records.
So, has Manchester always been at been at the forefront of the LGBT movement? Hornby admits it’s difficult to say if these events paved the way for today’s LGBT Manchester. But it’s fair to suggest that the shock and outrage of the press during the Victorian raids did no harm to Manchester’s LGBT reputation. This scandalous story made regional, national and international headlines. Manchester became the city of vice.
“There’s almost a sense that the raid and the trial, in its attempt to suppress that theme, cemented and augmented it and created Manchester as a mecca for those who didn’t fit into Victorian patriarchal heterosexuality. It was the biggest scandal of its day and it was reported salaciously. I think in that climate and in that time, the watch committee [a public authority responsible for overseeing the operations of a police force] expressed their anxiety about reporting, because they can see that very argument. If it’s reported in that way, that it ends up being a draw for the very people that they’re attempting to morally police.”
It’s fascinating to think about people like Harry Stokes, the people who shaped and paved the way for what we have now, and reflect on their bravery. Through the work of the LGBT History Festival, the stories of these remarkable men and women are finally coming to light and they are being rightfully celebrated as pioneers of our community.
Photos courtesy of Pagelight Productions
For more info about The LGBT History Festival, see www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk/national-festival