On 9 January 2000, after a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, homosexuality across the British Armed Forces was legalised – but people have been exploring sexuality and gender within the Royal Navy for centuries.
Historically, women have been expected to stay at home and raise a family, so exploring ‘queer identities’ was out of the question. In fact, there was very little language for such experiences. But from the 1700s, women were cross-dressing to join the Royal Navy, and though records are scare, evidence places two of these remarkable individuals in Plymouth.
In 1759, 19 year old Mary Lacy found herself shipped out to the Ushant, an island off the west coast of France, aboard HMS Sandwich under the name of William Chandler. Consistent bad weather forced Sandwich to return every two months and dock in Plymouth, undergoing repairs and replenishments while the crew, including Lacy, were able to rest in the city. Lacy went on to become a shipwright in Portsmouth, enjoyed intimate relationships with women and successfully applied for her pension.
From the autobiography of Mary Lacy
Almost half a century later, 14 year old Elizabeth Bowden walked from Truro to Plymouth in search of her sister. Failing to find her she donned a pair of trousers and assumed the name of John as she boarded the HMS Hazard from Plymouth Dock. Her story only makes the history books due to her involvement in the sodomy trial of William Berry, accused of abusing a young ship’s boy. In 1807, “a little female…dressed in a long jacket and blue trousers” gave the evidence that saw Berry hanged from the starboard fore yardarm of his ship in the Hamoaze.
Centuries later the revised Sexual Offences Act of 1967 saw homosexuality partially decriminalised, but not for the British Armed Forces. LGBTQ+ personnel were isolated and anxious. Suspicion would force them to “admit or deny” their sexuality, ultimately ending their naval career.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Plymouth’s Lockyer Tavern became an important social space for gay men both within the Royal Navy and locally. Its ‘back bar’ provided a discreet separate room for them, and visiting sailors, where they could be more open.
In more recent years, The Swallow became a haven for naval personnel; many remember it as the first gay pub they ever visited. They had to be cautious though; there was always the risk of colleagues posing as patrons to catch them out. Brett Burnell first visited The Swallow aged 19. Less than a year later he was called in for questioning after a book containing a list of gay bars was found in his locker. Several months later he was dismissed.
Since the lifting of the ban, the Royal Navy has made remarkable progress to become more inclusive of its LGBTQ+ employees in just twenty short years. In 2005 it became the first defence organisation to join Stonewall’s Diversity Champions. In 2018, the Royal Marines joined it to march in London Pride for the first time.
After lockdown, visit us at the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre to learn about queer history, see original documentation relating to Court Martials and discover the stories of naval personnel who have transitioned, in a collection of moving portraits by celebrated artist, Stephen King.