Queer relationships in nineteenth-century Australia

Yorick Smaal reveals how the queer world of nineteenth-century Australia undermines arguments by those opposed to marriage equality.

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay, Robert Sayer, 1792. Image via National Library Australia.

Marriage was never the bedrock of early white Australia traditionalists have claimed it to be. British sex and gender norms may have been part of the First Fleet’s cultural baggage, but its officers, crew marines and their families – and the 751 or so convicts who survived the journey from England – quickly found themselves in a very different world when they landed near modern-day Sydney in 1788.

Unconventional relationships flourished in the penal settlement where men (incarcerated or not) overwhelmed women. The blessing of church and state failed to concern many opposite-sex couples in those early decades. Marriage was relatively infrequent, and around two-thirds of European women in New South Wales remained unmarried in 1806, choosing instead to cohabitate with their male partners. Their relationships were stable and productive despite the absence of nuptials.

De facto unions and legally invalid marriages continued throughout the nineteenth century. Bigamy was not uncommon given the improbability that convicts would be reunited with the spouses they left behind in Britain. Many went on to live informally with new partners given the difficulty and expense of divorce. Colonial mobility also encouraged high rates of marital separation and polyandry, especially during the gold rushes. One shoemaker in Victoria in the late 1850s, for instance, appeared in a sensational bigamy trial after leaving his first wife, marrying a second woman, before again taking a shine to his first spouse. Even after their first marriage, wife and husband ‘soon commenced a gipsy [sic] life the former living with other men and the husband with other women’.

Concerns about ‘abominable’ crimes were also never far from official anxieties from the outset of settlement. The colony’s first Governor, Arthur Phillip, suggested in 1787 that convicted sodomists were destined for the dining tables of New Zealand’s Maori cannibals, to be enjoyed alongside the flesh of murderers. This hollow threat fell on deaf ears. Sodomy flourished among segregated inmates, and its apparent prevalence became a key argument for abolitionists calling for an end to transportation in the 1840s.

So-called ‘unnatural’ behaviour was not a male-only affair. Women also discovered intimacy and companionship with their fellow convicts. An Inquiry into Female Convict Prison Discipline between 1841 and 1843, for instance, heard evidence of immorality among female inmates in Tasmania including the practice of ‘nailing’ in which women used their hands to pleasure their same-sex partners. Later that decade, on Norfolk Island, a magistrate with the convict department was surprised to observe conspicuous pairings of male inmates. Prison relationships involved more than fleeting moments of passion (or violence). Jealousy was allegedly rife between around 150 male couples who could not bear to be separated and who went about together as self-described ‘man and wife’.

London’s eighteenth-century mollies may have been well practised at wedding rituals joining men as ‘man and wife’ within the queer subcultures of London, but dandified aesthetes found no such underworld in frontier Australia. Nonetheless, some men used gender codes to express their identities and interests across the nineteenth century. Some inmates in Macquarie Harbour Prison in Tasmania, in the 1820s, were known by other inmates by female names like Polly, Sally and Bet to designate their passive role. In 1890s’ Mackay in Queensland, a young English aristocrat hosted all-male parties on his isolated property and was not unknown to dance in sequins with butterfly wings.

The preponderance of bachelors was exaggerated in regional Australia during the nineteenth century. Males travelling together looking for work and sharing a bed, or sleeping rough, was not an uncommon practice. The very potential for sex led Russel Ward in the 1950s to downplay the intimate side of mateship. He argued for a ‘sublimated’ and ‘spiritual’ type of homosexuality, but the evidence shows otherwise. As early as the 1830s, hotels may have catered to men seeking like-minded others, and the court records from the nineteenth century reveal that the bridge between friends and lovers was short and frequently crossed.

By the 1890s, some men began to spin loose connective threads of embryonic subcultures across city parks, lavatories and boarding houses in large Australian cities. Sydney’s scurrilous rag the Scorpion remarked in 1895 on the ‘Oscar Wildes’ who gathered in the city’s Hyde Park.

Away from public rendezvous, romantic friends formed close and lasting bonds with their same-sex partners. Some couples dedicated their lives to each other, although we cannot be sure whether they were sexual or not. The infamous Australian bushranger Captain Moonlight (George Scott), for instance, developed a deep homoerotic relationship with a fellow gang member, James Nesbitt. Moonlight wept openly over Nesbitt’s body after he was killed during a shootout with the police in late 1879, kissing him passionately on the lips. He wore a ring made from a lock of Nesbitt’s hair during his time in prison and asked to be buried in the same grave as Nesbitt on his execution.

Mary Josephine Bedford and Lillian Violet Cooper in buggy, Brisbane, circa 1900. Image via State Library Queensland.

The authorities did not grant Moonlight’s request but in Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery Lilian Violet Cooper and her partner of more than 60 years Mary Josephine Bedford are interned under the same gravestone. Cooper was Queensland’s first female doctor (the second in Australia) and Bedford, who was involved in philanthropic work, was a keen motorist. They were often seen on the road together with Bedford at the wheel.

If female couples like Cooper and Bedford formed intimate and mutually-supportive relationships, passing women were able to claim the rights to public space, employment and even marriage by appearing and living as men. The Irish immigrant Edward de Lacy Evan (born Ellen Treymayne), for instance, was thrice married in colonies in the 1860s and 1870s. Hotelier, pony trainer and bookmaker Bill Edwards (born Marion Edwards), meanwhile, ‘made hot love’ to women including his wife.

Cooper and Bedford’s grave, Toowong Cemetery, 2010. Image courtesy of the foto fanatic.

Australia’s history of intimate relationships is more complex than many people recognise. Some opposite-sex couples lived in non-marital relationships, while some same-sex couples entered into relationships that are unfamiliar to our modern ways of thinking about love and romance.

Queer men and women lived happy and successful lives even if many others felt the full force of social and legal opprobrium that accompanied same-sex behaviour. Their desire, love and dedication to one another persevered in spite of the circumstances, whether they were convict ‘man and wife’, bachelor and spinster, romantic friends or passing women, and whether their relationships were conducted in public or in private, incarcerated or free.

Dr Yorick Smaal is an ARC DECRA Research Fellow and an Associate Investigator on the ARC-funded Laureate Fellowship the ‘Prosecution Project’. Yorick is an historian with particular interests in sex and gender, crime and punishment, and war and society and has published widely in these areas. His forthcoming book Boys, Sex and Crime (Routledge, 2018) examines young males as victims and offenders of sexual assault in Australia and the United Kingdom between 1870 and 1930. He is also investigating with Mark Finnane the history of courts-martial in the Australian forces and is author of Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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