Vita Sackville-West's desk and chair

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Vita Sackville-West's desk in the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent. On either side of the desk are photographs of Vita's husband Harold Nicolson and her lover Virginia Woolf © The National Trust Photolibrary/Alamy

Domestic Privacy

Homes offered LGBTQ people privacy away from family and neighbours, and potentially dangerous attacks from the authorities and disapproving members of the public. Some queer people have used their homes creatively to protect their privacy and safety.

Smallhythe and Priest's House

The Priest's House and St John the Baptist Church, Smallhythe.
The Priest's House and St John the Baptist Church, Smallhythe. Edy Craig, Chris St John and Tony Atwood lived here in a ménage a trois © Creative Commons/Marathon

Private homes have provided space for different types of queer relationships. Edith (Edy) Craig, daughter of Victorian actress Ellen Terry, lived at Priest’s House in a lesbian ménage a trois. The building was situated in the grounds of Terry’s home, Smallhythe Place, in Kent. Craig, a suffragist and theatre director, had shared a home with writer and translator Christopher St John (Christabel Marshall) since 1899.

In 1916 the artist Tony (Clare) Atwood joined the household in Smallhythe and 31 Bedford Street, London. This was on Edy’s condition that: ‘If Chris does not like your being here, and feels you are interfering with our friendship, out you go!’  They lived together for the rest of their lives.

Edith Craig, Clare Atwood and Chris St John sitting around a table
Edith Craig, Clare Atwood and Chris St John at Smallhythe Place, Kent © National Trust

This domestic setup was very successful. The Smallhythe trio were visited by queer artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall.

Timber framed house with leaded windows and garden borders and climbing plants.
Smallhythe Place, home of Ellen Terry. Edy Craig, Chris St John (Christabel Marshall) and Tony (Clare) Atwood lived at the neighbouring Priest's House © Creative Commons/David Ansley

Edy Craig and her friends set up the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe, and held an annual drama festival from 1929. This attracted lectures and performances from many luminaries of the theatre world, including the queer actor John Gielgud.


Poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West also visited Craig, St John and Atwood at Priest’s House. Sackville-West lived at Sissinghurst Castle, also in Kent, from 1932 with her husband Harold Nicolson. Both Sackville-West and Nicolson had numerous same-sex affairs.

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent © National Trust Images

Vita Sackville-West had a strong attachment to Sissinghurst, originally an Elizabethan country house. Derelict when she bought it, she restored the tower - where she had her study - and several other parts of the site. Around and between these buildings, Vita and Harold built their famous gardens.

Black and white photo of a tower with bushes in the foreground
The Tower of Sissinghurst Castle, Kent © Historic England CC001087

Vita Sackville-West briefly left her husband for Violet Trefusis during their affair in 1918-21. Her diaries, which gave an account of this relationship, were discovered locked in a bag in her tower study after her death, and were published as Portrait of a Marriage (1973).

Black and white photo of a woman sitting at a wooden desk. A tapestry is on one wall, a bookshelf on another.
Vita Sackville-West at her desk at Sissinghurst Castle. A portrait of Vita's lover Virginia Woolf can be seen next to Vita © REX/Shutterstock

The most well known of Vita’s love affairs was that with the novelist Virginia Woolf. Woolf modelled her very successful book Orlando (1928) and its gender-shifting hero on her lover. Both Vita and Harold were discreet about their same-sex affairs. Their home at Sissinghurst allowed them to share a happy, queer marriage.

Black and white photo of a woman and a man in a garden. The man is seated on a small wooden bench, the woman stood behind holding a basket.
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in their garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent © National Trust Images

Private queer spaces

Architects John Seely and Paul Paget, designers of the Art Deco additions to Eltham Palace, were business as well as personal partners. They spent weekends at ‘The Shack’, a separate out building in the grounds of Mottistone Manor on the Isle of Wight. The couple could entertain guests at the Manor and then spend the night at ‘The Shack’, a safe space to avoid being suspected of a sexual relationship.

Photo of the inside of a shack showing a writing desk designed to fit underneath a raised bed
Inside The Shack at Mottistone Manor designed in the 1930s by business and romantic partners John Seely and Paul Paget © Creative Commons/Howard Dickins

St Ann’s Court, a modernist house in Surrey, was designed (1936-37) by Gerald Schlesinger and architect Christopher Tunnard in direct response to contemporary homophobia. If they expected visitors, their double bed in the master bedroom could be separated into two halves. Separated by retractable screens, this now formed two single bedrooms. For more about St Ann's Court, see our LGBTQ Architecture section.

Aerial photograph of St Ann's Court
Aerial photograph of St Ann's Court, 1937 © Architects' Journal

Other homes similarly obscured their owners’ intimate lives. Playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell’s flat at 25 Noel Road, Islington was to outsiders only the eclectic home of two ‘artistic’ ‘bachelors’. Two single beds separated across the expanse of the one bedroom in the flat supposedly maintained the fiction that the men were not queer in interviews and press photo shoots.  

Black and white photo of a man lounging on a bed. The wlal behind him is covered in lots of photos
Joe Orton at 25 Noel Road, London, 16 April 1964 © George Elam/Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock

Coming out at home

When the Sexual Offences Act (1967) decriminalised consensual homosexual sex between adult men in private, some men felt an enormous burden had been lifted. They might now live openly and publicly as homosexuals with partners and homes, like their neighbours.

Teacher Rex Batten and his partner moved to working-class East Dulwich in south east London in 1957. They bought a home together and felt it a safer location than the bedsits they’d previously lived in. With partial decriminalisation in 1967 they felt still safer and publicly bought a double bed. It was delivered to the door in front of the neighbours. ‘That was a hell of statement to make!’ Rex remembered.

Black and white aerial photo of East Dulwich
Residential streets around Lordship Lane and Landells Road, East Dulwich, 1937 © Historic England

Domestic Privacy Photo Gallery

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