Uncovering Queer Stories at Gloucestershire Archives

Last year we hosted two workshops with artist Tom Marshman looking at uncovering queer stories within our collections. For LGBTQ+ history month I want to share two of these stories with you.

It can sometimes be difficult to uncover the stories of LGBTQ+ people throughout history, due to the stigma and laws prosecuting people who identified under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. We started our search by looking though Gloucestershire newspapers, and this is how we found both Chummy and Charley Wilson.


Photograph of Denise Burrell from Microfilm of the Gloucester citizen newspapers
Photograph of Denise Burrell from the Gloucester Citizen Newspaper, 1993

Denise Burrell (born Dennis) but also known as Chummy was born in Bristol in 1930, moving to the Gloucester area at the age of two into a small cottage with her mother and five sisters. As a child Denise enjoyed playing with her sister’s dolls, however her mother found this behaviour unacceptable and encouraged Denise to play ‘boys’ games. At school Denise refused to play football, rounders or Rugby and preferred dancing and cookery instead.

At the age of 14 Denise ended up in hospital with meningitis and pneumonia. Whilst in hospital tests were done that showed that her chromosomes were female rather than male. The consultant then suggested that Denise consider a sex change. Her mother was not accepting of this and wanted Denise to continue to live as a male. Torn between what she wanted and what her mother wanted Denise left home feeling trapped in a man’s body. Denise’s mother requested that she didn’t consider surgery until after her death as Denise was her only son.

Denise respected her mother wishes, but still presented herself as a woman. Denise lived with a man for 18 years and then after her mother passed away, she felt she could apply for surgery. Denise’s outlook was positive and courageous, she was in a successful relationship with a man and felt that she had never been anything other than female.

The above account of Denise’s life was reported in the Gloucester Citizen newspaper (22 November 1993) following her death.

Charley Wilson

drawing of Charley Wilson
Drawing of Charley Wilson from Lloyds Weekly newspaper, 10 October 1897

Charley Wilson was born Catherine Coome and lived for over 50 years as a man. Before this Charley married a man call Percival Horatio in 1851.

Before we look at what the newspapers tell us about Charley’s life, I am going to first tell you about what happened to Percival. Percival was admitted to Gloucester Lunatic Asylum on 17th December 1872. At Gloucestershire Archives we hold both an admission register (ref: HO22/60/1) that shows that Percival was admitted and a case book (ref: HO22/70/16) that gives us additional information about his condition and circumstances.

Percival’s entry in the case book tells us that his next of kin was his mother Sofia, his address is in Leckhampton and that he was born in Bristol. But more interestingly for this story, the cause of his condition is recorded as “Divided into moral desertion of wife 12 months ago and a physical blow to the head” I find this interesting because we know that Percival’s wife went on to live their life as a man for 50 years, was this part of the reason Charley left Percival? We will most likely never know the answer to this question, but it interesting to consider.

Going back to Charley’s story, from newspaper articles we see that Charley was born in Axbridge in Somerset in 1834, they received a good education at Cheltenham Ladies College and then at the age of 16 married their first cousin, a man 23 years older. (It is assumed that this is Percival Horatio)

Newspaper article from the Globe Newspaper, 6 September 1911

According to the Globe Newspaper Charley’s “husband ran away to London and wrote to her to say that he had a situation at Chelsea. When she reached London he pawned her clothes and finally said they must walk to Cheltenham.”

Charley mentions a brother named Tozer, who they lived with at West Bromwich “and it was in this district, she declared, that she began live as a man.” Charley then went onto to work as a painter and decorator for 43 years, until circumstances led to them entering West Ham Workhouse. Where “reluctantly she disclosed the secret of her sex.”

Terminology about how someone can label their sexuality or gender has changed over time, which makes it hard to understand how someone would have identified in the past. When I first read that Charley had lived their life as a man for over 50 years, I instantly assumed that this meant that they would have identified as a transgender man. But we can never know this for certain, we have no first-hand testimonies from Charley talking about how they identified. If only we could go back and ask them, would they prefer to be called Charley or Catherine, what pronouns would they have used to describe themselves? But until we invent time-travel this is not possible!

Written by Rhianna Watson (Community Cataloguing Archivist)

1 thought on “Uncovering Queer Stories at Gloucestershire Archives

  1. “Chummy” was born Derick John Barrow in Bristol in Oct 1931 and had 4 sisters she passed away in gloucester in Nov 1993


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s