Matthew Tomlinson’s diary

Today’s been a busy day for me so far: it began with an interview on BBC Radio Four’s Today Progamme and has since then been packed with media correspondence and calls, interspersed with much-appreciated messages of support and congratulation from friends.

The reason for all the hubbub is my discovery of a passage from the 1810 diary of Yorkshire farmer Matthew Tomlinson, which I uncovered quite by chance in Wakefield Libraries. Reflecting on news reports of the execution of a naval surgeon for sodomy, Tomlinson suggested that homosexuality is innate and should not be punished by death. Despite their ultimately inconclusive nature, his comments indicate that recognizably modern attitudes towards human sexuality were circulating in British society more widely – and at an earlier date – than is commonly assumed. It seems especially fitting to share this find in February, the UK’s LGBT History Month.

On 14 January 1810, Tomlinson wrote: “it appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature”. Either way, “it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.” This inference sparked solemn religious introspection, as Tomlinson struggled to understand how a just Creator could countenance such severe penalties for a God-given trait: “It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death.”

To find out about the discovery of the passage, its context and wider significance, consider reading the BBC News article on the find (“The 200-year-old diary that’s rewriting gay history”) or the University of Oxford’s press release. My own comments on Tomlinson’s diary can be found on the University’s Arts Blog – “How I made a remarkable discovery in LGBT history – by mistake!” See below for a full transcript of Tomlinson’s comments on homosexuality.

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Speaking with Claire Pickering (Wakefield Libraries) and Sean Coughlan (BBC News) last week in Wakefield.

Wakefield Local Studies, 920:TOM, Journals of Matthew Tomlinson of Doghouse Farm
pp.1049-1050 – 14 January 1810: “Was this week sencibly affected in reading the behavior, and execution of a Mr Dixon Taylor, surgeon on board the Jemaica [sic] Westindia-man for an unnatural crime: a man of great genious, and a ready turn of wit: it appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature; it seems cruel to punish that defect with death. But if it first takes its rise in the human mind from a viciated, and corrupted inclination; and by cherishing and encouraging such a propensity or inclination it becomes habitual, then it is upon such premises worthy of capital a severe punishment: It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death. Now we do not see any symptoms of such a propensity in the brute creation: male invariably seeks the female, and that is the only argument which causes me to think that it is first formed from a visiated [sic] principle. Now as life is very desirous to all animated beings, I think it would be no reproach to the legislative power, were they to mitigate the punishment which is executed upon rapes, and sodomy, from death to casteration [sic]: as I shou’d suppose that if a man was casterated [sic], he wou’d neither have power, or feel inclination to commit such a crime a second time, and he might perhaps become a useful member of society: but when he his [sic] punished with death, we are certain that he cannot do either any more hurt or good; whereas if he was only casterated [sic], it wou’d be equally put out of his power to commit the same evil, and there wou’d be a great possibility of him doing much good.”

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