Sunday 16 October 2022

Happy 100th Birthday, Aunty Beeb

Following the centenary of the Women’s World Games which I wrote about last time, we celebrate another this coming week. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was founded on 18th October 1922. The BBC, affectionately known as “Auntie Beeb”, is perhaps the world’s most famous broadcaster, though it was by no means the first (and despite what you read on certain websites, “Auntie Beeb” is not, and never has been, used derogatively, at least not by people whose opinions matter).

The BBC was founded by royal charter, meaning it is an independent organisation overseen by the British government on behalf of the Crown. Since it’s very beginning the BBC has had many lgbt broadcasters, producers, creative artists and governors.

The BBC has produced a special website to promote their centenary. They have created a page dedicated to their lgbt broadcasting history. You can see it here, though I suspect the website will be taken down after the celebrations have ended. If this is the case I will reproduce the lgbt history page in a future article.

It would be impossible to write about the history of the BBC without mentioning Sir John Reith, Baron Reith (1889-1971), successively its first manager, first managing director, and first director general. Even today his name and reputation are known to many.

Rumours and speculation about Reith’s sexuality have been going around for decades. There is a lot of disagreement on the subject, but I think the definitive answer comes from his daughter who acknowledged her father’s bisexuality in 2006. This has been accepted by most people and is included in the BBC 100 website referred to above.

The evidence suggests that Reith had a gay relationship before his career with the BBC. His affections were directed towards Charlie Bowser (b.1894). They met in May 1929. Their close friendship didn’t please Reith’s father, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, and Reith’s brother was particularly vocal in his opposition to it. Two years later, however, the Bowser family moved to London and Reith decided to follow them.

Over the next few months and years John Reith and Charlie Bowser spent much time together, living in the same apartment, and going on holidays together. They shared a bed, but that meant nothing in those days (modern sex-obsessed society is conditioned into not understanding any innocence in it, and touching someone on the shoulder can lead to accusations of sexual abuse – talking from experience). In this case, however, we can assume it was significant in their relationship.

Reith was commissioned into the 5th Scottish Rifles, Territorial Battalion, in 1911, and following the outbreak of World War I, was transferred to the Royal Engineers. When he was posted to France Charlie Bowser was there to see him off. Throughout the war Reith carried a photo of Charlie in his wallet. In 1915 Reith was hit in the face by a rifle bullet. The scar was visible for the rest of his life.

Reith’s broadcasting career and the establishment of the BBC is well covered elsewhere on the internet. His bisexuality, however, was largely ignored or denied until more recent decades. The definitive word on the subject should go to his daughter, Marista, who confirmed Reith’s bisexuality in 2006.

On Reith’s appointment as the first manager of the BBC there was no television broadcasting. It was solely radio. Fellow Scotsman John Logie Baird developed the first broadcastable television system. An experimental broadcast produced jointly by the BBC and Baird’s company, a play, was broadcast in 1930, but the fist full BBC television broadcast was made on 22nd August 1932. It consisted of a brief message of Logie Baird himself, followed by a variety programme featuring dancers, songs from popular singers of the time, a ju-jitsu demonstration, and Sammy the performing sea-lion.

The producer of this programme was an ex-army officer called Eustace Robb (1897-1983). He had joined the BBC in its gramophone department before being appointed producer of that first light entertainment television programme 90 years ago this year.

It was around this time that Robb’s wife decided to divorce him on account of his many affairs with young men, which he never his from her.

By 1934 Robb had become the BBC’s first Director of Television Programming, responsible for deciding what programmes should be made and broadcast. He left the BBC in 1935 after the company switched television production to its new Alexandra Palace studios and changed from Baird’s system to the higher-definition Marconi-EMI system which it continued to use until 1985.

Eustace Robb was redeployed during World War II, working with the British Expeditionary Force and in the War Office.

On retirement from the army Robb became a landowner, inheriting and living at Great Tew House in Oxfordshire from the 1950s. This was once owned by his great-great-grandfather Matthew Boulton, the industrial pioneer. Boulton appeared on the UK’s £50 note with his business partner, the more famous steam engine pioneer James Watt. They was replaced in 2020 by the gay code-breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing. Ironically, part of Eustace Robb’s duties at the War Office included receiving and distributing decoded messages from Turing and the other code-breakers at Bletchley Park.

Robb lived at Great Tew for the rest of his life. Great Tew entered the headlines in 2018 when the newly married Duke and Duchess of Sussex rented a converted barn on the estate for two years.

From its very beginning the BBC has been influenced by members of the lgbt community.

Saturday 1 October 2022

A Women's Sporting Centenary

The year 2022 has seen great summer of sport of lgbt athletes. Sadly, it has also been not so great for others who were not allowed to compete. However, the EuroGames in the Netherlands just before the Commonwealth Games began provided a multi-sport festival that excluded no-one. This year would have been ever better if the Gay Games in Hong Kong has not been postponed until next year.

Sporting anniversaries abound. The Gay Games celebrates 40 years this year. The EuroGames, the mini version of the Gay Games, celebrated its 30th anniversary, and another sporting festival which I mentioned in passing last month was founded 100 years ago. That festival was the Women’s World Games.

Rather than give a history of the Women’s World Games I’d like to write about the few competitors who were lesbian, bisexual or transgender in its twelve year run. There’s an excellent history of the game here on the Inside the Games website, the perfect sport website because it includes all sports except football, thank God.

Briefly, here are the official editions of the Women’s World Games

1922 – Paris, France
1926 – Gothenburg, Sweden
1930 – Prague, Czechoslovakia
1934 – London, UK.

Not all names of participating athletes are readily available, so there may be others. Here is the list of known athletes at the games. They are list in order of participation.

Mark Weston (1905-1978)

(competed as Mary Weston)
Representing England
Shot put
1926 Gothenburg

Mark Weston was the British women’s shot put champion for several years. He was born in 1905 with a genital abnormality, probably some form of intersex condition, and was assigned and raised as a girl. In 1936 he underwent surgery to realign as male and took the name Mark Weston.

In our own time, when Caitlyn Jenner transitioned in 2015, there were calls for her to return her Olympic decathlon gold medal. Mark Weston actually offered to return all of his medals that had won during his female career because he considered he had not won them fairly, but the sporting authorities refused to accept them.

Weston married in 1936 and had three children. He died in 1978. Interestingly, his sibling Harry Weston (a non-athlete) also transitioned in the 1930s. Even when competing in 1928 Mark felt he was different and, in his own words, “had no right to compete as a woman”.

Stanislawa Walasiewicz (1911-1980)

(also known as Stella Walsh)
Representing Poland
Track athletics
1930 Prague – 2 gold medals
1934 London – 1 gold medal, 2 silvers

Stella was one of the more famous female Olympic athletes in the early 20th century. I’ll direct you to this part of my 2018 “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” series in which I wrote about Stella Walsh’s career and controversy surrounding her gender. At the Women’s World Games Stella won 2 golds medals in 1930 in the 100m and 200m. In 1934 she won silver in both of these distances, but she won the gold medal in the 60m.

Zdeněk Koubek (1913-1986)

(competed as Zdena Koubková)
Representing Czechoslovakia
Track athletics and long jump
1934 London – 1 gold medal and 1 bronze

Koubek was one of Czechoslovakia’s most successful female athletes. Before his appearance at the Women’s World Games he held the Czech national titles in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 800 metres, high jump and long jump. It wasn’t unusual for female athletes of that time to compete in multiple disciplines, more so than male athletes. Koubek also held several world records before the 1934 games. He broke another while winning the 800 metres gold medal. He also won a bronze medal in the javelin throw.

Those 1934 games seem to have been Koubek’s last competitive appearance. He retired from athletics in 1935 and shortly afterwards began the process of transitioning. After its completion he courted publicity and interviews during 1936 before retiring to family life in Czechoslovakia with his new wife.

The last Women’s World Games in London were held from 9th to 11th August 1934 at the White City Stadium in London. Just six miles away on exactly the same dates the 2nd Commonwealth Games (then called the British Empire Games) were being held in Wembley Park.

Another athlete was almost certain to have competed at the 1934 Women’s World Games had the Commonwealth Games not taken place at the same time. I mentioned this athlete briefly in my piece about the Birmingham 2022 games last month. His name was Edwin Halstead (1907-1962). He was the UK’s top female javelin thrower, competing under the name of Edith Halstead, and at the 1934 games he won the silver medal.

As I said in that earlier article, very little is known about Edwin, so I used my genealogical skills to find out more. First, I needed to establish that Edwin and Edith Halstead were the same person. This is confirmed on the 1939 Register of England and Wales. As the war progressed the information was amended. Amendments were still being made in the 1980s when it was consigned to the National Archives. Below is the entry which proves Edith and Edwin Halstead are the same person. Edwin is living in Radcliffe, Lancashire, with his half-sister Eva Dawson.

The amendment code means – IC (identity card – a new one being issued in this case) /NWT (the enumeration district of Radcliffe). I haven’t deciphered CS36337 yet. The handwritten date, 22nd August 1944, is when the amendment was made, not when Edwin transitioned. So, we can be sure that Edwin transitioned during the war. He probably chose the name Edwin after his mother’s first husband, Edwin Dawson (an unfortunate man who died at the age of 38 after being run over by a train).

Other records tell us that Edwin married Ellen Rothwell in 1946. In 1948 he was working as a telephonist at the Post Office phone exchange in Blackpool (just like you see in old movies). He died in Blackpool on 5th May 1962. He and Ellen had no children.

There’s yet another possible addition to this list. At the 1934 Women’s World Games was the German sprinter and discus thrower Käthe Krauss (1906-1970). At the games she won 3 gold sprint medals and 1 bronze discus medal. Her gender was questioned during her career, though mostly through hearsay and rumour rather than definitive evidence. Athletes competing against her often expressed the opinion that Kathe was not completely female. I can only be surmised that they thought she was intersex. Perhaps we’ll never know for sure.

I’ve managed to find a short vide of the 1934 Women’s World Games. It shows Stella Walsh winning the 60m, and possibly Zdeněk Koubek competing in the long jump. Käthe Krauss is in the athlete's parade.