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The Hilton Sisters: Non-normative bodies, queer lives

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I was very excited to become part of the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery Queer The Pier community curators’ team.

My understanding of what we mean by ‘Queer’ has grown in recent years to include not only sexuality but a whole range of people and things considered ‘non-normative’. As a person with a disability, I encounter the physical challenges of a normative world with a non-normative body every day. It is likely this was true also for conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton who were born in Brighton in 1908.

Violet and Daisy Hilton

The Hilton sisters became famous in Europe and Australia but made their fortune in North America. Their mother Kate Skinner, who was living in poverty in Riley Road, gave them up to her midwife Mary Hilton, who was also the landlady at the Queen’s Arms public house in Kemptown. They were put on show as a ‘curiosity’ to be stared at from only a few weeks old, before being toured round the world and trained to sing and dance. They regained control of their lives and some of the money they had been making aged 23. They went on to star in two films: the controversial Freaks (1932) and the exploitative b-movie Chained for Life (1952).

They returned to the UK just once, in 1933, performing up and down the country, including four sell-out shows in April at the Brighton Hippodrome. Intriguingly they both married men who turned out to be gay, and there were rumours amongst people who worked with them that Violet preferred the ladies. Their popularity waned in later years and they died within days of each other in North Carolina in January 1969. They were offered to be safely separated a few years before this but decided to remain as nature intended, forever together side by side.

Credit: Wellcome Collection

Violet and Daisy Hilton, Credit: Wellcome Collection

A local historian Alf Le Flohic has successfully campaigned for a blue plaque to be placed where they lived here in Brighton, which is to be unveiled in 2020. We are delighted to say we will use a short clip of them performing in Chained for Life, as Vivien and Dorothy Hamilton, as part of the exhibition Queer the Pier. You can see the trailer for the film on YouTube.

Launching 2020

Queer the pier will launch in 2020, but in the meantime:

Janet Jones, Queer the Pier working group member