Anna Gurney: Norfolk’s Queer, Disabled, Geologist

As with so many LGBTQ+ people from the past, we find ourselves digging in archives and grasping onto small tell-tale bits of information in a desperate attempt to tell the stories of queer people in history. These stories are hidden for various reasons, whether it’s homophobia, transphobia, safety or simply not having the language at that point in time.  

Someone I came across in my research was Anna Gurney (1795-1857), an English scholar, geologist and philanthropist who lived in Norfolk, just three miles from Norwich.

Image: Norfolk Museum Service, NWHCM : 1892.28

Initially, my research on Anna focused on disability, as she had poliomyelitis (polio) as a child which paralysed her lower limbs, meaning from a young age she was a wheelchair user. However, as I delved deeper into Gurney’s life, I noticed some of the tell-tale signs of queerness. Anna never married and had a very close relationship with Sarah-Maria Buxton, her non-blood-related cousin by marriage (Buxton’s brother married Gurney’s cousin). Anna and Sarah were described as ‘cottage ladies’ and lived together for the majority of their later lives after Anna’s mother passed away in 1825 at Northrepps Cottage in Cromer.  

As with many historical relationships, relationships with cousins were widely accepted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Cousin relationships and marriage were often practised to preserve family wealth, strengthen family ties and for ease of courting. When we apply this to queer relationships it’s even more so understanding. At a time when being queer wasn’t accepted, it was extremely unlikely and difficult to find another queer person outside of your close circle. The two referred to each other as their ‘faithful and beloved partner’ and were known as the ‘cottage ladies’ which was a common term used to describe lesbian women who lived together for most of their lives. It was a way of covering their sexuality for both their own and society’s needs.  

Anna lived an impressive life being involved in various charitable and politically important areas. The Gurney family were an influential family of English Quakers who played a major part in the redevelopment of Norwich. They established Gurney’s bank in 1770, which merged into Barclay’s Bank in 1896. Amongst other philanthropic activities, the Gurney family was a wealthy one and Anna Gurney’s life reflected this. As an upper-middle-class family, Anna will have experienced a better quality of life than disabled people from lower socio-economic backgrounds by having access to money that could give her medical treatments and access mobility aids that people from working-class backgrounds weren’t able to obtain. However, as a disabled woman, Anna still will have faced discrimination and barriers in her home life, work and social due to ableism within society.  

Anna and Sarah-Maria together opened a school in Overstrand paid for by Anna after teaching the village children for a period from their own home inside Northrepps cottage.

Beautifully engraved in time forever, on the front of the school on a diamond motif is the initials ‘G & B, 1830’ for Gurney and Buxton.

Image: Photographer, Ian Capper

The school still lives on today as The Belfry Centre for Music and Arts, founded in 2016 as a hub for music and the arts in North Norfolk. As well as her love of teaching, Anna obtained and paid for the initial purchase of the ‘Manby Mortar’, a maritime lifesaving piece of equipment that rescued passengers from ships in distress. Anna’s interest and passion for the well-being and safety of seafolk extended to ‘In cases of great urgency and peril, she caused herself to be carried down to the beach, and from the chair in which she was wheeled about, directed all the measures for the rescue and subsequent treatment of the half-drowned sailors’ the Gentleman’s Magazine of September 1857 reported. 

This drawing shows Anna in the bottom right corner, directing a practice operation of the Manby Mortar on a tree, rather than a ship.

Image: Norfolk Museum Service, CRRMU : CP1502

As a Geologist, Gurney focused a lot of her research on local portions of the Cromer Forest Bed Formation. According to the Bury and Norwich Post, on 14 December 1821, Gurney presented to the Geological Society ‘various bones of the fossil elephant, found on the coast of Norfolk between Cromer and Happisburgh’. Much of Gurney’s extensive geology collection was donated on her request to Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, some currently on display at Cromer Museum.

In 1845, Anna became the first female member of the British Archaeological Association and published two papers in the Archaeologia. In Gurney’s later life she grew a love for learning languages including Danish, Swedish, and Russian literature and most impressive of all, Anglo-Saxon even publishing an English translation of ‘The Saxon Chronicle’. The Gentleman’s magazine’s obituary of Anna in September 1857 commented ‘When talking on her favourite subject – philology – she would suddenly and rapidly wheel away the chair in which she always sat and moved, to her well-stored bookshelves, take down a book, and return delighted to communicate some new thought or discovery.’ Gurney also upheld a strong interest in her abolition work where most notably she worked with Amelia Opie (1769-1853) an English author and abolitionist to create a Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Norwich. The society organised a petition of 187,000 names that was presented to parliament. 

Sarah-Maria passed away on 18 August 1839, aged 50 and Anna passed away later in 1857 after a short illness. They are buried together, at the Church of St Martin in Overstrand, Norfolk.

Gurney chose the inscription for their shared tombstone which at the end reads ‘They were partners and chosen Sisters knit together in the Love of God, and heirs together of Eternal Life, through Christ Jesus’, a beautifully queer line that commemorates the life of two partners who left their charitable and honest mark behind. 

Image: Photographer, Evelyn Simak

Written by Beau Brannick
Beau Brannick is a Norwich-based artist and Norfolk Museum Service Trainee. In their spare time, they also volunteer for Queer Norfolk – helping with everything from organisation and admin to research and workshops.