LGBTQ+ Voices in history - the diaries of Matthew Tomlinson


The diary of an early 19th century Yorkshire famer is not intuitively the first place to look for an understanding attitude to homosexuality, but diaries held in the archive of Wakefield Libraries are just that.

Cover of Tomlinson's Diary

In 1810, Matthew Tomlinson, a Yorkshire farmer and widower in his 40s, wrote about his everyday life. His diaries have previously been used by researchers for his eye-witness accounts of elections in Yorkshire and the Luddites smashing up machinery, but now his views on homosexuality have attracted interest.


The diary challenges preconceptions about what ‘ordinary’ people thought about homosexuality in the early 19th century and shows there was a debate about whether someone really should be discriminated against for their sexuality. Tomlinson's diary contains views about same-sex attraction being a natural human tendency.


Tomlinson had been prompted to write by newspaper reports of a sex scandal in which a well-respected naval surgeon had been found to be engaging in homosexual acts. A court martial had ordered him to be hanged, but Tomlinson was unconvinced by the decision, and questioned whether what the papers called an ‘unnatural act’ was really that unnatural.


Tomlinson argued, from a religious perspective, that punishing someone for how they were created was equivalent to saying that there was something wrong with the Creator.


The diarist makes reference to being informed by others that homosexuality is apparent from an early age, suggesting that Tomlinson and his social circle had been talking about this case and discussing something that was known to them.


The loudest surviving voices in history are usually the wealthy and powerful. Tomlinson’s diary is therefore historically important as it challenges preconceived ideas and shows that people were questioning the assumptions of their age.


Tomlinson was writing around the same time as Ann Lister, better known as Gentleman Jack, who is the subject of our next blog post.


Further information:

The 200-year-old diary that's rewriting gay history - BBC News


Yorkshire farmer argues homosexuality is natural in 1810 diary discovery | University of Oxford

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