Queer Coastal Heritage

On the 15th July 2023, Adam from Queer Norfolk gave a talk at Cromer Museum about queer women who lived and loved on the North Noroflk coast. Using his research alongside research from Dr Jane Hattrick and Beau Brannick, he shed light onto 3 pairs of influential ‘lesbians’ (more on why that’s in quote marks later) who made their mark on Norfolk and beyond.

No modernism without lesbians

The story begins not with queer women, but with a man called John Craske. John Craske was a fisherman born in 1881 who later became an artist due to a permanent disability caused by influenza. As part of his recovery, he created many pictures and embroideries with a nautical theme and even invented his own stitches to reflect the ferocity of North Sea waves. His work became popular with American collectors and sustained him and his wife until his death in 1943. The popularity of Craske’s work is linked to a queer story involving lesbian networks of passion and friendship that extended from the avant-garde American art market to rural areas of the North Norfolk coast via the nation’s capital. While Craske did not lead a queer life, the story of his work’s popularity is queer in nature.

Dorothy Warren, an American art dealer, discovered the work of Craske through Valentine Ackland. Valentine Ackland, who was born as Mary Kathleen Macrory Ackland and raised in Norfolk. She was her father’s favourite until her sister revealed her romantic relationship with another female student. Ackland refused to admit any wrongdoing, causing further anger from her father. In 1925, Valentine married a homosexual man, Richard Turpin. She cut her hair into the short ‘Eaton Crop’ style on the day of her wedding – a fashionable lesbian hairstyle. Her marriage was eventually annulled, and soon Valentine began wearing trousers (considered unusual at the time) as a symbol of her newfound freedom. It was during this time that Valentine first visited John Craske and purchased one of his paintings.

Valentine had had an affair with the art dealer Dorothy Warren, a bisexual woman known for being a sadist with a violent temper and her love of drugs and bondage. Dorothy recognized the talent of artist Craske after seeing a painting purchased by Valentine and gave her £25 to buy more of his work. Valentine visited Craske and purchased several works, which impressed Dorothy and led to an exhibition of his work in her London gallery in August 1929.

It was around this time that Valentine met Sylvia Townsend Warner. The pair fell in love quickly and spent most of their time between Dorset and London. Ackland took Warner on holiday to Winterton, Norfolk, where Valentine had a holiday home and considered to be her true home. They stayed at Hill House, which is still in existence today and now part of Hermanus Holidays leisure park. Sylvia was surprised by how accepting people were of Valentine’s idiosyncrasies. They enjoyed walking on the beach, and would write their initials together in the sand.

Pencil drawing of Winterton from a distance. Prominent features include the church and lighthouse.
A pencil-drawn postcard of Winterton from the end of the 19th century. The lesbian poet Valentine Ackland had strong family ties to Winterton. © Norfolk Museum Service

Resentful of Velentine’s newfound love for Sylvia, Dorothy Warren planned a second exhibition of John Craske’s works to win her back. Valentine took Sylvia with her to purchase pictures and embroideries for the exhibition, allowing her too to meet Craske. On her return to London with the artworks, Dorothy violently and almost fatally attacked Valentine while Sylvia was out for lunch with friends. The exhibition did not go well, but Sylvia sent friends to purchase Craske’s works to help his family survive.

Sylvia Townsend Warner wears a simple dress and stand next to the very tall Valentine Ackland, who weras slacks and a shirt. Valentine points a camera forward to sapture an image of the couple reflected in a mirror. Sylvia peers into the camera with Valentine.
Valentine and Sylvia in the early days of their relationship. Source: collection of Frances Bingham (see source list at end of blog for more)

Valentine and Sylvia lived briefly in Norfolk before moving to Devon. During World War II, they moved back to Winterton, and after the war, they lived in Salhouse, where Sylvia wrote her final novel, The Flint Anchor. Valentine and Sylvia’s relationship, in spite of Valentine’s many infidelities and heavy drinking, spanned 39 years, until Ackland’s death from breast cancer in 1969. Sylvia died in 1978.

Sylvia and Valentine were lesbians, and Valentine referred to herself as such. But you will have noticed that this talk, in spite of focusing on women, is not called ‘Coastal Lesbian Heritage’. It becomes harder to aply these ideas to women the further back in time we go. It is only in Valentine’s later life that the term lesbian becomes common and means what we today think of when we hear the word. Ideas around sexuality are solidifying themselves at this time, but as we progress further up the coast and further back in time, the word lesbian disappears and ideas around sexuality become less familiar.

The New Women

Sylvia and Valentine embody the feminist ideal of the “new woman” who challenged traditional gender roles and expectations in the late 19th and early 20th century. The “new woman” was highly educated, financially independent, politically active, and challenged societal norms through clothing, sports, and advocating for women’s suffrage and other feminist causes. The development of the “new woman” was accompanied, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the emergence of queer female and lesbian identity. Women’s increasing financial independence allowed them to pursue for the first time alternative lifestyles and relationships without the need for a male guardian’s approval (at least in the global North).

Born alongside the concept of the ‘new woman’, Marietta Palliswas raised in a wealthy Greek family and aspired to be a new woman. She purchased a bicycle, a symbol of liberation, which she kept hidden from her parents. However, her father found the bicycle and destroyed it. In spite of their rather intense relationship, Merietta’s father (the passionate Greek poet Alexandros Pallis) studied botany at Liverpool University and ecology at Newnham College, where she challenged conventions around gender and sexuality and met her life-long companion Phillis Clarke. Women’s colleges around the turn of the 20th century fostered a culture of romantic pursuit, with older students mentoring younger ones and declaring their love for each other through flowers, cards, and poems.

Marietta Pallis sits in the back of a cart with two women. Pallis holds a walking stick and wears a suit and tie. In the rear of the carriage wearing a wide-brimmed hat is Palli's companion Phillis Clarke.
Marietta Pallis (front left) and Phillis Clarke (rear right). Source: Vlasto / Pallis Archive

It was her study of ecology that first brought her to Norfolk. Marietta Pallis inherited a substantial sum after her father passed away in 1935. She used the money to purchase a small farmhouse with 76 acres of peat grazing marsh at Long Gores, which she had previously rented when conducting research before WW1. She used the site for research, study, and as a base for her travels in Europe and the Middle East. Marietta and Phillis also travelled around the Mediterranean together during this time.

Marietta was a gifted botanist and ecologist who published scholarly articles in highly respected scientific journals. A species of hairy-leafed ash tree and a Dog Violet species were named after her – the latter, of course, being a common symbol among queer women at the time. Her most significant contribution to local ecology, however, was her support of Joyce Lamber’s hypothesis that the Norfolk Broads were man-made, not a natural feature of the landscape. Pallis put this theory to the test and published a paper on the impermeability of peat in 1956. In practice, this meant digging an enormous 3-acre swimming pool on her land. She corresponded with Joyce Lamber throughout the 1950s, and Joyce even visited her at Long Gores. Joyce was collected from the train station by Phillis.

The double-headed eagle pool. Source: Vlasto / Pallis Archive

The pool was dug for scientific purposes but was used by a passionate swimmer, Pallis, who bathed nude in it every day. The pool was a devotional piece of art, dug in the shape of a double-headed eagle, and inspired by Pallis’s publication of Tableaux in Greek History. It was designed to represent an imperial crown, the two-barred cross of the patriarch of Constantinople, and the three-barred papal cross, with two islands shaped into a double-headed Byzantine eagle. This unique pool was dug by hand and remains the only example of its kind created since the medieval period. Joyce was less convinced, commenting that, “’I think she was a serious scientist but with rather a shall we say airy fairy side to it”.

Pallis’ family contests that they had a ‘relationship’ in a queer sense, but both Pallis and Clarke are buried in the centre of the pool, which was eventually transformed into a memorial space after Phillis died in Cyprus in 1955 and was interred at the centre of the double-headed eagle pool. Pallis was later buried alongside her in 1963.

Was Pallis a lesbian, then? She (as far as we were aware) never specifically identified as one, though clearly she was in a relationship with Phillis Clarke. It is easy to apply the term ‘lesbian’ to the couple, but is it right to do so?

Cottage ladies

Our next story follows a local woman who lived her life with her female partner just down the road in Overstrand. This woman, unlike the women we have seen so far, was born and bred here in Norfolk.

Anna Gurney, born in 1795, was part of the wealthy Gurney family, who had a major part in the development of Norwich. Anna was paralyzed from the legs down due to Polio, but her wealth gave her access to resources that allowed her to lead a far more privileged life than many disabled people at the time. Anna devoted her life to self-improvement and philanthropy. She opened a school in Overstrand and helped to found the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society with Amelia Opie. Anna was a geologist and published papers in Archaeologia, and was also the first female member of the British Archaeological Association.

Anna gurney sits in a wheelchair pulled by two men. Next to her is Sarah Maria Buxton. Both women wear dark dresses and bonnets. Sarah carries a parasol. Behind them are two women wearing bonnets, one of whom carries a parasol.
Anna Gurney in her wheelchair. Sarah Maria Buxton stands in front. © Norfolk Museum Service

Anna never married (a possibility open to her due to her wealth) and had a very close relationship with Sarah-Maria Buxton, her cousin by marriage (Sarah’s brother married Anna’s cousin). Anna and Sarah lived together for the majority of their later lives at Northrepps Cottage after Anna’s mother passed away in 1825. The two referred to each other as their ‘faithful and beloved partner’ and were known as the ‘cottage ladies’ – a rather cozy term which perhaps implies more than it states at face value. The past, as they say, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. There is a prevailing myth that people didn’t believe that female same-sex couples existed in this period, with this myth even stretching so far as to suggest that Queen Victoria refused to pass a bill criminalising sex between women. What we must remember is widespread anxiety around same-sex desire emerge after Gurney and Buxton are dead. Instead, these relationships, often called ‘romantic friendships’ by 20th century scholars, were not considered as being particularly remarkable. Another famous example is the Ladies of Llangollen, two Irish women who lived together in Wales. These relationships are often considered to be non-sexual and based solely on close friendship. It is important that we challenge this perception. Why should heterosexuality be presumed when a man and a woman share a bed, yet homosexual acts always have to be explicitly proven? Both in the past and the present, silence about sex can be willed or artificial: it doesn’t always imply an absence of knowledge or action. The cozy domesticity of the term ‘cottage ladies’ may be concealing something far more revolutionary to our modern ears are tuned to.

Sarah-Maria passed away on 18 August 1839, aged 50. In a letter to Anna’s cousin John Gurney, Sarah’s brother Thomas wrote, “Poor Anna…the affection she bore her partner was indeed remarkable, it is more than widowhood”. Anna passed away later in 1857 after a short illness. They are buried together, at the Church of St Martin in Overstrand, Norfolk. She was buried beside Sarah-Maria with an inscription that reads “partners and chosen Sisters knit together in the Love of God, and heirs together of Eternal Life, through Christ Jesus”.

Final thoughts

The six women covered by this talk all loved women, but is it right to call them all lesbians?

The gut reaction is ‘YES!!’. Of course, they were lesbians: they were all women who loved women. We must challenge the notion that queer people did not exist in the past; we have always and will always be here. But we must also remember that the way we see ourselves and our identities (as a group) have shifted over time.

Decorative tile depicting the school in Overstrand, now The Belfry Centre. Visible on the front of the flint building are the initials 'G + B', for Anna Gurney and Sarah-Maria Buxton, who paid to build the school together. Source: Cromer Museum
Decorative tile depicting the school in Overstrand, now The Belfry Centre. Visible on the front of the flint building are the initials ‘G + B’, for Anna Gurney and Sarah-Maria Buxton, who paid to build the school together. Source: Cromer Museum

There are no stable identities throughout time. Anna Gurney and Sarah Maria-Buxton may have had revolutionary ideas, but they did not challenge ideas around their gender and sexuality in the same ways that Marietta Pallis or Valentine Ackland did. And this is all before we bring our own modern ideas about gender and sexuality into the mix. The reason that ‘Queer Norfolk’ chooses the word ‘Queer’ is because the project seeks to apply a queer lens to the past to give the wiggle room to identify our queer ancestors while keeping ourselves open to new meanings and interpretations. Through this ‘queer’ lens, we can appreciate the similarities and appreciate the differences when we try to understand out shared queer heritage and plot our own lives within it.

Also, just as we must also remember the privileges these largely wealthy women were afforded in their time, we must also reckon with the privileges we afforded today. In this country and beyond, there are people who are punished, socially exiled and marginalised because of their sexuality and/or gender identity.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or requests of what you’d like to read more about next, please comment below.

A small self-guided tour was also produced for the event, which can be downloaded here.

Sources/Further Reading:

Bingham, F. (n.d.). My light and my gravity – The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. [online] The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. Available at: https://townsendwarner.com/about-sylvia-townsend-warner/valentine-ackland [Accessed 22 Jul. 2023].

Blackburn, J. (2017). Threads. Vintage.

Brannick, B. (2023). Anna Gurney: Norfolk’s Queer, Disabled, Geologist. [online] Queer Norfolk. Available at: https://queernorfolk.com/news/anna-gurney-norfolks-queer-disabled-geologist/ [Accessed 22 Jul. 2023].

Harman, C. (1989). Sylvia Townsend Warner. Vintage.

Livingstone, J. (2016). I Blew a Kiss to the Cherry. [online] The Awl. Available at: https://www.theawl.com/2016/10/i-blew-a-kiss-to-the-cherry/ [Accessed 22 Jul. 2023].

Matless, D. and Cameron, L. (2005). Experiment in landscape: the Norfolk excavations of Marietta Pallis. Journal of Historical Geography, 31(1), pp.96–126.

Matless, D. and Cameron, L. (2007). Geographies of Local Life: Marietta Pallis and Friends, Long Gores, Hickling, Norfolk. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25(1), pp.75–103.

Newnham College – For outstanding women, by outstanding women. (2021). Marietta Pallis (NC 1909) – Newnham College. [online] Available at: https://150.newn.cam.ac.uk/celebrating150/150-years-of-pathfinders-pioneers/marietta-pallis-nc-1909/ [Accessed 22 Jul. 2023].

Saunders, B. (n.d.). The Origin of the Norfolk Broads – a classic case of Confirmation Bias – Marietta Pallis. [online] http://www.broadsmaker.com. Available at: http://www.broadsmaker.com/how_did_they_really_do_it/marietta_pallis [Accessed 22 Jul. 2023].