200 year-old diary entry from a farmer uncovers hidden history of LGBT+ laws in Britain

A University of Oxford student has found the diary entry of a Wakefield farmer, which details his reaction to media reports about a man executed for sodomy.

University of Oxford student looking over the diary entry of a farmer who is speaking about how homosexuality is 'natural'

A 200 year-old diary entry written by a Wakefield farmer has revealed groundbreaking insights into public attitudes towards same-sex relationships and laws against sodomy in Britain. 

Doctoral student in the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, Eamonn O’Keeffe, discovered the diary entry while researching for his PHD in Wakefield Library. Dating back to 1810, the text contains the farmer’s thoughts on media reports about a naval surgeon who had been executed for sodomy. It has been stored in the Library since 1950. 

In the diary, Wakefield farmer, Matthew Tomlinson, expressed confusion towards the execution, questioning why God would condone such a severe sentence for a “natural” human tendency. He writes, “If [homosexuality] is in their nature… it must be considered as natural.”

Historians have previously combed over Tomlinson’s diary and life, however the entry has only recently been brought to light. O’Keefe said, “This exciting discovery complicates and enriches our understanding of Georgian attitudes towards sexuality, suggesting that the revolutionary conception of same-sex attraction as a natural human tendency, discernible from adolescence, was mooted within the social circles of an ordinary Yorkshire farmer.”

Tomlinson’s diary entry captures the farmer’s response to newspaper coverage of the execution of Jame Nehemiah Taylor. On December 26, 1809, the doctor was hanged after he was found guilty of committing ‘sodomy’ with his servant.

In the diary, Tomlinson writes, “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 … it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.”

The diary entry sheds light on public attitudes to same-sex relations, as Tomlinson references discussing the case among his social circle and everyone saying that homosexuality was apparent from an early age. O’Keeffe said, “In this diary we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that should not be punished by death. While Tomlinson’s writings reflect the opinions of only one man, his phrasing – ‘as I am informed it is’ – implies that his comments were informed by the views of others.”

O’Keefe further stated, “It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think. Even though this was a time of persecution and intolerance towards same-sex relationships, here’s an ordinary person who is swimming against the current and sees what he reads in the paper and questions those assumptions.”

The diary entry from the Wakefield farmer questions preconceived theories around public perceptions of same-sex relationships. Tomlinson’s written words have altered how historians approach LGBT+ history. His passage captures a fragment of a hidden history in Britain, which has finally been brought to light after 200 years.

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