The Bishopsgate Institute

Placard used at London Trans+ Pride March in London, 2020 , stating 'Black Trans Lives Matter' written over rainbow colours.

Proudly independent since 1895, the institute is a central London cultural venue open to all.

The Institute in the City of London holds Special Collections and Archives documenting the experiences of everyday people, as well as the individuals and organisations who have campaigned for social, political, and cultural change. 

A different method of archiving LGBTQ+ materials

The Institute’s archiving of LGBTQ+ Britain differs from that of many other cultural organisations. The Bishopsgate Institute believes that: 

  • Everybody’s experiences should be archived, whether it’s an oral history, scrapbook, love letter, poem, artefact or photograph. We want to save these items to tell the real and complete story of LGBTQ+ Britain. 
  • LGBTQ+ Special Collections and Archives should be accessible to everyone. The archives the Institute looks after are not relics but living items with the power to continually inspire and engage generations to come.
  • While incredible collections documenting the struggles and battles are important, the Institute is also committed to recording all of LGBTQ+ experience. In the Special Collections and Archives, alongside banners, campaign materials and protest, you will find the records of poets, sports people, dancers, artists, clubbers and anyone who wishes to document their life. 

Through the changing times – 57 years of personal letters

John Dalby and John Thompson were partners for 57 years from the early 1960s. The Bishopsgate Institute’s Special Collections and Archives hold their personal letters which defied social discrimination.

John Dalby (1929-2017) was a British actor, singer, composer and musician. Born in Bristol, he attended the Bristol Old Vic School, The Guildhall School for Music and Drama and appeared in many roles on stage and screen. He also worked behind the scenes as a composer – most notably perhaps for the 1984 film ‘A Passage to India’, in which he had a cameo role. Dalby also taught singing at the London School of Music and Dramatic Art and at the Actors’ Richmond Centre. He was a dear friend to many in the music and theatre industry. Upon his death he left his partner of fifty-seven years, John Thompson (1924–2018).  

The letters below between the two Johns are taken from the very beginning of their relationship, when such a union was still a crime and these letters could have been used as evidence in any criminal case brought against them.  

Bishopsgate institute cultural venue for all. John Dalby and John Thompson letters

Letters between John Dalby and John Thompson. Copyright: John Dalby Archive, Bishopsgate Institute

The Museum of Transology’s collection

Held in the Bishopsgate Institute’s Special Collections and Archives the Museum of Transology (MoT) is the UK’s most significant collection of material culture surrounding trans, non-binary and intersex lives.

E-J Scott founded The Museum of Transology’s collection. A form of curatorial direct action designed to halt the erasure of transcestry. Scott established the MoT with the collection of artefacts they had saved from a gender affirming surgical procedure. These artefacts include human remains, medical documentation and hospital room ephemera. 

Each donor had autonomy over the object they contributed. Each artefact has a brown swing tag with a handwritten message explaining its significance. This means both story and object are archived as two parts of a whole. This deliberate strategy ensures everyday lives and experiences surrounding trans, non-binary, and intersex people’s are recorded in their own words and in perpetuity. 

The collection has therefore been designed to halt the erasure of trans lives from history. It tackles the misrepresentation of trans people in the political sphere, and it combats the spectacularization of trans bodies and experiences by the mainstream media. 

Bishopsgate institute cultural venue for all. Placard
Placard used at London Trans+ Pride March in London, 2020. Copyright: Museum of Transology, Bishopsgate Institute.

The MoT’s ambition is that other trans communities will be able to establish their own Museum of Transology collections. This will ultimately make more museums and archives recognisably welcoming for trans, non-binary, and intersex visitors. 

The placard pictured was used at a London Trans+ Pride March in London, 2020.  

The Backstreet Club collection

The Backstreet was a London club run by John Edwards and Mark Allnutt from 1985 to 2022. A leather and fetish bar, it held regular themed nights with strict dress codes.

Club nights included Mastery nights, BLUF [Breeches and leather uniform fanclub], ROL, Meatrack, Unzipped [naked night], Unzipped Light [naked, jock, underwear or fetish], Skin, Sports and Gentlemen. 

The vast collection includes advertising material such as flyers, posters, CDs, leaflets, t-shirts and badges. You can also find a multitude of bondage leather objects. Leather jackets, boots, gloves, gauntlets, belts and various fetish gear (cock rings, nipple clamps, dog collars and leads).

The items decorated the bar or were used in the bar are also being looked after in the collection. One can find U.S. license plates, flags from the U.S., Germany and elsewhere, beer steins, baseball glove, boxing glove, gas mask, waders, chains and handcuffs, suitcase, wooden stocks, wooden barrel, torture chamber, pin board, key board, camouflage, cycle helmet, a till, beer tap, and a gibbet cage, pictured here. 

Bishopsgate institute cultural venue for all. Gibbet cage exhibit
Gibbet cage from The Backstreet. Copyright: The Backstreet Collection, Bishopsgate Institute.

The Rebel Dykes movement / Karen Fisch

Rebel Dykes were a group preserving, exploring and sharing the archive of a bunch of kick-ass post-punk dykes who shook up London, UK in the 1980s.

The Rebel Dykes Archive (RDA) is centred around the heritage of a group of young lesbians and punk women who lived on the edge of society in 1980s London, specifically Brixton, Vauxhall, Peckham, Soho, Forest Gate and Hackney. These women were involved in political movements during 1983-1991, including Greenham Common, South London Women’s Hospital Occupation, anti-censorship, sex-positive feminism, sex workers’ rights, anti-Section 28, the Poll Tax Riots, OutRage! and other HIV/AIDS activism.

As a movement, the Rebel Dykes were heavily involved in art and culture, by creating music, art, club nights, zines and festivals. 

Bishopsgate institute cultural venue for all
Chain Reaction membership card and flyer. Copyright: Rebel Dykes Archive and Karen Fisch Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

Karen Fisch aka Fisch aka King Frankie Sinatra was a member of Rebel Dykes. Displayed here are her membership card and a flyer from the club night ‘Chain Reaction’. The club night was held at Market Tavern in South London and a favourite haunt of the Rebel Dykes. 

Kevin Saunders Archive

Kevin Saunders was a bisexual+ activist and campaigner.  He was the editor of ‘Bi-Issues’, a member of London Bisexual Group. Kevin Saunders attended many ‘BiCons’ (National Bisexual Conferences), as pictured below. 

The Archive includes papers, correspondence, press cuttings, publications, meeting minutes, conference documents regarding bisexuality.

You can find in the archive articles and editorial papers regarding BCN (Bi Community News) and the BCN Collective. Draft layouts, articles and artwork for the journal Bi-London are also available to view. Not only the business plan and reports regarding the journal Bi Issues are being kept but interestingly correspondence and publications from journals such as Anything That Moves, Spare Rib, Sexuality and City Limits.

A wealth of detailed information such as call-logs for the Bi Phone Line for example. Additionally notes from various workshops on organising and sexuality and a proposed handbook for bisexual activism are present in the archives. Several publications of poetry zines from other groups as well for the support to bisexuals such as the London Bisexual Group.

Programs, press cuttings and information regarding UK and international mobilisation for the rights of bisexuals can be found. Information about the march on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation and the International march on the United Nations to Affirm the Human Rights of Lesbian and Gay People, bisexuals and trade unionism in also in the collection. Informational guidelines for volunteers of the National AIDS Helpline and press cuttings regarding the equal age of consent can also be found. A poster for the London Pride 1996 is being looked after. 

Bishopsgate institute cultural venue for all
National Bisexual Conference flyers. Copyright: Kevin Saunders Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

How to access the collections

Our Special Collections & Archives contain a wide range of original documents and ephemera.

We are here to welcome you. If you are carrying out dedicated research or just interested in the history of your street or building. Equally if you are tracing your ancestors or simply feeling nostalgic. You can find out more about what we have by searching our catalogue online.

Our collection includes:

  • photographs and other images
  • rare publications
  • reference books
  • press cuttings
  • maps
  • diaries and all sorts of unexpected ephemera

Everyone is welcome no membership requirements.

Monday – Friday 10:00 to 17:00 Wednesdays 10:00 – 20:00

We are a reference library only – books and other materials may only be consulted on site. 

Both the Library and the Special Collections and Archives Researchers’ area are wheelchair accessible.

Assistance dogs are welcome. 

Many thanks to the staff at the Bishopsgate Institute for writing this blog post. Edited by Isabel Lauterjung and Jake Doyle.

Further information

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