200-year-old diary shows tolerance always existed


200-year-old diary matthew tomlinson
Image: Alphahistory/Twitter

A historian examining the 200-year-old diary of a Yorkshire farmer discovered previously missed entries arguing for increased tolerance towards homosexuality. Matthew Tomlinson’s diary covers the period from 1806 until 1839.  It found its way into the Wakefield Library sometime before the 1950s.

Matthew Tomlinson lived from about 1770 until 1850. A widower at the time of his writings, no record of Tomlinson survives beyond his diaries.

Nehemiah Taylor

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Tomlinson commented in his diary on many of the events of the day. In January 1810, the English newspapers reported the execution of a naval surgeon. Nehemiah Taylor was hung for what the papers termed either a ‘detestable’ or ‘abominable’ offence. The papers described him as anywhere from 33 to 37 years of age. All spoke highly of his achievement during eighteen years as a naval surgeon.

The Northampton Mercury extolled his virtues.

“A man of good education, strong natural abilities, and very extensive reading… His manner was easy and courteous, and his quick flow of observations upon almost every object shewed a well-stored mind.”

Despite all that, at 11 am on Tuesday 26 December 1809, Nehemiah Taylor went to his death — hanged by the neck until dead — from the yardarm of H.M. Jamaica at Portsmith.

In the days before his execution, Nehemiah Taylor spoke extensively with a chaplain. Despite eventually expressing repentance, the condemned man originally argued that he committed no crime. He spoke of men the public looked up to doing the same thing and argued the practice enjoyed far more popularity than the chaplain knew. He observed men engaged in sodomy in London, France and the Mediterranean. In some places, it was not punished as a crime.

Nehemiah Taylor insisted, “he had a right to do with himself as he pleased, and was not accountable to God.”

The newspapers quoted extensively from the ‘confession’ apparently quite shocked at his lack of guilt.

Matthew Tomlinson

In his now over the 200-year-old diary, Matthew Tomlinson questioned how unnatural an “unnatural act” actually was. He argued that punishing a person for natural propensities actually attributed blame to the Creator.

“It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should make a being with such a nature, or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whom he had formed, should at any time follow the dictates of that Nature, with which he was formed, he should be punished with death.”

He wrote that a propensity to homosexuality from an early age must be “natural, otherwise as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature; it seems cruel to punish that defect with death”.

Eamonn O’Keeffe, who discovered the entries, said the importance of the diary stems from Tomlinson’s status as an ordinary rural worker.

“What’s striking is that he’s an ordinary guy. He’s not a member of the bohemian circles or an intellectual.

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“It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think.

“Even though this was a time of persecution and intolerance towards same-sex relationships, here’s an ordinary person who is swimming against the current and sees what he reads in the paper and questions those assumptions.”

Ann Lister

This latest discovery follows the recent television adaptation of the diaries of Ann Lister. Ann, who also lived in Yorkshire, wrote a coded diary of her lesbian relationships.  The television series Gentleman Jack is based on her diaries.

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