Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives

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

Proudly independent since 1895, Bishopsgate Institute is a cultural venue within the City of London, open to everyone. The Institute’s Special Collections and Archives document the experiences of everyday people, as well as the individuals and organisations who have campaigned for social, political, and cultural change. 

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

John Dalby & John Thompson

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 above 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.  

Museum of Transology

The Museum of Transology (MoT) is the UK’s most significant collection of material culture surrounding trans, non-binary and intersex lives. Each donor had autonomy over the object they contributed. A brown swing tag with a handwritten message explaining the object’s significance is attached to the artefact. This means both story and object are archived as two parts of a whole, in a deliberate strategy to ensure the experiences surrounding trans, non-binary, and intersex people’s everyday lives are recorded in their own words, in perpetuity. 

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

The Museum of Transology’s collection was built by E-J Scott as 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 (including human remains, medical documentation and hospital room ephemera). 

Placard used at London Trans+ Pride March in London, 2020. Copyright: Museum of Transology, Bishopsgate Institute.

The MoT’s ambition is, therefore that, with this support, 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.  

Backstreet

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 collection includes flyers; posters; CDs; leaflets; t-shirts; badges; leather jackets, boots, gloves, gauntlets, belts, collars, cuffs, hoods, wrist bands, loincloths; fetish gear (cock rings, nipple clamps, dog collars and leads); items used to decorate the bar or used in the bar (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. 

Gibbet cage from The Backstreet. Copyright: The Backstreet Collection, Bishopsgate Institute.

Rebel Dykes / Karen Fisch

Rebel Dykes are self-described as a group committed to 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. 

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’, 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 and attended many ‘BiCons’ (National Bisexual Conferences), as pictured below. 

The Archive includes papers, correspondence, press cuttings, publications, meeting minutes, conference documents regarding bisexuality. Includes articles and editorial papers regarding BCN (Bi Community News) and the BCN Collective; draft layouts, articles and artwork for the journal Bi-London; business plan and reports regarding the journal Bi Issues; correspondence and publications from journals including Anything That Moves, Spare Rib, Sexuality and City Limits

Additionally, it contains call-logs for the Bi Phone Line; notes from various workshops on organising and sexuality; notes for a proposed handbook for bisexual activism; poetry zines; other groups for bisexuals, including the London Bisexual Group; papers from UK and international conference on bisexuality; programmes and press cuttings regarding the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation; papers regarding the International March on the United Nations to Affirm the Human Rights of Lesbian and Gay People; bisexuals and trade unionism; guidelines for volunteers for the National AIDS Helpline; press cuttings regarding the equal age of consent; poster for London Pride 1996. 

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, photographs and other images, rare publications, reference books, press cuttings, maps, diaries and all sorts of unexpected ephemera. We’re here to welcome you if you’re carrying out dedicated research or just interested in learning more about the history of your street or building, tracing your ancestors or simply feeling nostalgic. You can find out more about what we have by searching our catalogue online. 

Both the Library and the Special Collections and Archives Researchers’ Area are wheelchair accessible. Assistance dogs are welcome. 

There are no membership requirements. Everyone is welcome. We are a reference library only – books and other materials may only be consulted on site. 

The Special Collections and Archives are open Monday through Friday from 10:00 until 17:00, with a late opening on Wednesdays until 20:00. 

Further information

Bishopsgate Institute online catalogue: https://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/archives

Many thanks to the staff at the Bishopsgate Institute for writing this blog post.

Edited by Isabel Lauterjung and Jake Doyle.