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LGBT+ History Month: The Story of William Burt and John Reagan

Discovering LGBTQ+ History in the archive, although always rewarding, isn’t always pleasant. As the LGBTQ+ community have for centuries been pushed to the margins of history, ignored, belittled – or worse. Until 1967, homosexuality between two men was illegal. This means that often, when we begin doing LGBTQ+ or queer history, the individuals we come across are usually only found because something bad has happened. This might mean they’ve been arrested, like the story of John Saul or “Dublin Jack”, a male sex worker arrested as part of the Cleveland Scandal in 1899.

We now owe a lot of our knowledge of London’s queer history in the Victorian period to the much publicized Cleveland Scandal.  . But there are many more gay and bisexual men whose lives before and after their brush with law enforcement can only be speculated.

One such man was John Reagan, who was charged with assault with intent to commit sodomy and sentenced to 1 month in prison for sodomy, following the testimony of William Burt. Those whose gender and sexuality don’t ascribe to social norms come from all works of life. John Reagan and William Burt both appeared to have been labourers working on the Thames Tunnel in 1827.

Work on the tunnel was difficult. Workers worked long shifts, underground, rarely if ever seeing daylight. The only light came from gas lamps, which were liable to explode if a pocket of methane was encountered. Thames Tunnel workers faced the almost constant threat of floods. For labourers, which both Burt and Reagan appear to have been, the work would have been backbreaking, carrying wheelbarrows of ‘spoil’ excavated from beneath the river bed away from the tunnel face and back to ground level.

The incident between Regan and Burt took place at the Duke’s head in King Road Rotherhithe, with the landlord testifying at the trial. While bars and pubs have long played a role in providing spaces where people whose gender and sexual identity didn’t ascribe to the norm, could meet safely, the Duke’s Head does not appear to have been one of these pubs.

We only have William Burt and the landlord, Everard Carlton’s testimony of what happened, and while they match up, one can’t help wondering what the truth of the matter was. John Reagan’s testimony is lost to us, but if he had testified, would he have felt able to reveal his true self? We do not know if Reagan was gay or bisexual as we might describe him today, as those weren’t words used then, all we have are tantalisng glimpses of individuals who lived over a century ago.

The story of William Burt and John Reagan came to light as part of a U3A Shared Learning Project about the Thames Tunnel workers. If you would like to research an aspect of the Thames Tunnel history, please get in touch at

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