Early gay activism discovered in National Archives

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

A dusty scroll of parchment which contains the writings of an 18th century proponent of gay rights has been unearthed.

Thomas Cannon’s 1749 book, Ancient And Modern Pederasty Investigated And Exemplified was suppressed, all copies were destroyed and the printer fled the country.

The work contained a defence of gay desire and translations of homosexual Greek and Roman writings.

The attempt to prosecute the printer of the book is the reason that we know so much about it.

The scroll, discovered by Dr Hal Gladfelder while doing research at the National Archives in Kew, south west London.

“I came across the scroll in a box of uncatalogued legal documents from 1750 at the National Archive in Kew,” explained Dr Gladfelder.

“No copies of the document survive but on an indictment scroll there were long extracts from the book.

“So the eighteenth century courts, who were trying to suppress this, unwittingly helped publicise it 258 years later.”

Dr Gladfelder, an academic at the University of Manchester’s School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, said the discovery was significant:

“This must be the first substantial treatment of homosexuality ever in English.

“The only other discussions of homosexuality were contained in violently moralistic and homophobic attacks or in trial reports for the crime of sodomy up to and beyond 1750.

” We know very little about Cannon. But we do know he had to leave the country for Europe to avoid indictment.

“Interestingly, his father was Dean of Lincoln Cathedral and his grandfather was Bishop of Norwich and Ely.

“He was also a sometime friend – and rival – of John Cleland, author of the erotic classic Fanny Hill or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1748.

“Cleland was author of the only other text of the period containing an explicit scene of male homosexuality.

“It’s a fair assumption that Cannon was writing for a gay subculture at the time – which has largely remained hidden.

“Though he lived in anonymity – possibly because of the notoriety of his pamphlet – I certainly regard him as a martyr.”