‘And you thought that dressing yourself in women’s attire was the best way of avoiding those abominations?’ Homosexuality in the dock at Guildhall

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We live in a liberal society, albeit one that is under attack from the forces of conservatism. Not only is it legal to form sexual relationships with persons of whoever gender we choose (so long as both parties are 16 years of age or more and consenting) but the rights of those who identify as homosexual are protected by law. Moreover in recent years this has been widened to include those that identify as transgender. For me, as a heterosexual male this is a very good thing. I enjoy living in a society where difference is not accepted, it is valued and championed. For me this makes us stronger, not weaker, as a nation and as a community.

However, it was not always like this – as the recent anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots in New York and LGBT helpline in central London testify. Gay and Lesbian rights have been hard one and when we see LGBT marchers heckled and verbally abused by other Londoners in 2019 it is a reminder that not everyone feels the way I do about diversity.

In the 1800s being different in this way was dangerous. After 1885 it became more dangerous, as Oscar Wilde found to his cost. Wilde was locked up as a result of his sexuality and until relatively recently being homosexual – and practicing that sexuality – could earn you a prison sentence and, in the case of Alan Turing, even worse.

I was interested by the following case heard at the Guildhall Police court in late July and August 1854. On 26 July two men – John Challis, in his sixties and George Campbell (35) – were set in the dock and ‘charged with being found dressed as women… for the purposes of exciting others to commit an unnatural offence’.

The pair were arrested by Inspector Teague of the City Police whose men had raided an illegal dance club in Turnagain Lane. The club was in the Druid’s  Hall and was packed with around 100 men and women, about 20 of these were men dressed as women. Teague had been watching the club for a while and had seen Challis there before. On this occasion he was dressed ‘in the garb of a shepherdess of the golden age’. He nabbed Campbell as he was coming out of the club, pulling him aside and decaling; ‘that is a man!’.

This alerted the other revelers who rushed to escape. The police were too few in number to arrest very many people and had to settle for the capture of Challis and Campbell. In court Teague also tried to bring a charge of pickpocketing against Campbell but the evidence was limited. It was enough, however, for the magistrate to agree to a remand. Challis is released on bail of £100 (£50 for himself and two sureties of £25 from others).  As the men were led away to the police van a crowd yelled abuse at them and struggled against he police line who tried to keep them safe. Homophobia is not a new thing after all.

On 1 August Campbell was back in court at Guildhall, but there was no sign of Challis, who had failed to surrender his bail as required. Sir Richard Carden was furious; he had only allowed bail out of pity for his age and apparent exhaustion’. Campbell claimed to have no idea where the older man was but assured the magistrate that he had been in ‘such a wretched condition in prison that another day’s confinement would, I think, have killed him’. He then asked for the court to cleared of the public while he told his own version of events.

Inspector Teague stepped forward to say that the only fresh evidence was that Campbell’s real name was Holmes  – the Reverend Edward Holmes to be precise, a minister in the Church of Scotland. He had apparently told the police that he had entered the club dressed as a woman to witness for himself the state of vice in London, all the better for warning his parishioners against it.

In court Holmes now claimed he was not priest but a lawyer instead. He had wanted to see ‘London life’ but without ‘mixing with its abominations’ he told Sir Richard.

‘And you thought that dressing yourself in women’s attire was the best way of avoiding those abominations. I must say it was a very imprudent course’, the justice told him.

Campbell (or Holmes) agreed and said he was truly sorry for it. Yet he was at pains to say that he hadn’t robbed anyone and thankfully the magistrate agreed. He was a foolish man, Sir Richard continued, but he was willing to accept that there was nothing more serious to deal with than that. In fact Carden wasn’t in the chair on that occasion, he had presumably appeared to allow some continuity. The sitting magistrate at Guildhall on 1 August was Alderman Carter and he was just as disgusted by Campbell’s behavior, if not more so.

‘If it had not been for Richard’s closing remarks’, he told him, ‘I should have felt inclined to commit you to prison as a rogue and a vagabond. You may go now, and I hope I may never see your face here again’.

A day later a Mr Edward Holmes (of the Middle Temple) made a statement to the court to the effect that he was the only member of the bar with that name and he was certainly notthe person who was also known as ‘George Campbell’. As if a lawyer would ever be caught dressing in women’s clothes…

I don’t know what happened to John Challis (or even if that was his real name). Druid’s Hall was home to ancient order of druids but could be hired for events. The event that Challis and Campbell had attended was a masked ball and, according to witnesses, this was a fairly regular thing. This was London’s gay community coming to together as it had in the previous century (when Molly Houses were the locus for homosexuality).

The police may have wanted to suppress them but it was hard for them to do so without more resources. ‘It is very difficult to catch them in the act, as they have men placed at every outlet to keep a lookout’, Inspector Teague had told Sir Richard Carden. ‘Unless someone attending these parties made an accusation against another man, they remained private spaces’, and the police were limited in what action they could take.1

The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 effectively changed this. Sodomy was illegal in 1854 (and punishable by death until 1861, although prosecutions were rare because of this). But section 11 of the 1885 act made ‘gross indecency’ a crime and what constituted this was left deliberately vague. Oscar Wilde was sent to gaol for two years under the terms of the act and Alan Turing (the brains behind Bletchley Park and so someone directly responsible for Allied victory in the Second World War) was sentenced to chemical castration. He took his own life a consequence of this.

Intolerance of sexual difference is now a thing of the past, in legal terms at least. And that is where such intolerance belongs, in the past and not in the present.

[from Daily News, Thursday, July 27, 1854; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1854]

 

1.Charles Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, p.76

A scandal in Fitzrovia, or a simple case of under age drinking?

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At seven o’clock in the evening of Thursday 15 December 1887 police constable 432D was on duty in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia. As the officer walked his beat he noticed a young girl ‘reeling about’ and seemingly unwell. He approached her and caught her by the arm and soon ascertained that she was drunk. He asked her name and she told him it was Betsy.

Betsy Embery was just 14 years of age and worked as a servant in Bloomsbury High Street, not far away. The constable took her to the police station and her father was summoned. When Mr Embery arrived he was shocked to see his daughter in such a state and declared that someone must have drugged and assaulted her.

This was a serious allegation that the police were bound to investigate. Betsy was examined by the divisional surgeon, who quickly decided that there had been no assault; in his opinion the girl had just been drinking. The next day she was brought before Mr Mansfield at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of being drunk and incapable.

‘Where did you get the drink, little girl?’ the magistrate enquired.

‘’My sister and a woman gave it to me in a public-house near to Drury Lane’, the girl replied.

Her sister was 23 years old but Betsy didn’t know much more about her than that, not whether she was married, or the name of her drinking companion. Betsy was released into the care of her father but it all seems a little fishy to me. How had she got from Drury lane to Cleveland Street and what was she doing there anyway?

Cleveland Street was about to become notorious in the late 1880s. In 1889 the chance arrest of a 15 year-old boy for a suspected theft uncovered a male brothel that catered to an elite clientele. The Cleveland Street scandal resulted in no prosecutions of anyone ‘in society’ (merely light sentences for some of the male prostitutes that worked there) but it sent shock waves through the establishment.

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It has been suggested, but never proven, that Prince Albert Victor (Queen Victoria’s grandson) was a customer. The scandal fuelled contemporary homophobia which culminated in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde two years later for having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.

So I wonder if young Betsy was simply there by accident or whether she had been ‘drugged’ as her father claimed, and taken to Cleveland Street to be used as a child prostitute. This was only a couple of years after William Stead has exposed the extent of child prostitution in ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’; an article that had helped push through legislation to raise the age of consent.

Was Betsy set up by a predatory procuress or had she simply wandered into Cleveland Street after an afternoon of drinking with her big sister? Was her father’s claim correct or was he just trying to rescue his daughter’s (and his own) reputation?

[from The Standard, Saturday, 17 December, 1887]

Scandal in fashionable Chelsea as three brothels are exposed

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In 1885 Parliament passed a Criminal Law Amendment Act. Its subheading explained its purpose: ‘An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. It raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and followed a campaign by Josephine Butler and others to change the law. The bill had become deadlocked in parliament as it was opposed by powerful elite interest who felt that they and their sons had a natural right to the bodies of young working class girls.

The act was finally passed after the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette William T Stead orchestrated a sensational news story involving the sale of a 13 years old girl into prostitution. Stead and his accomplices, Elizabeth Jarrett  and Bramwell Booth, were prosecuted and Stead and Jarrett went to gaol, but his goal was achieved and the act passed.

One of the terms of the act was to allow the use of summary proceedings for the prosecution of brothel owners. In December 1885 Ellen Randall (alias Johnson) a 34 year-old landlady was charged at Westminster Police court with renting two houses in Chelsea (at 5 and 7 Elm Park Road) ‘with the knowledge that they were used for immoral purposes’. She was fined £20.

On the same day Edwin Summerfield (59) and Ellen Dewhurst (alias Summerfield) were charged with keeping a disorderly house at number 12 Elm Park Road. Both cases drew ‘considerable interest’ from the public gallery as these addresses were not in the poorer districts (often associated with immorality and crime) but slap bang in the middle of ‘one of the best parts’. Mr Partridge fined Mr Summerfield £20.

The 1885 act was wide ranging and multi purposed. While it undoubtedly helped protect some vulnerable women and young girls it also criminalized homosexuality. Section 11 (known as Labouchere’s amendment) was vague and allowed for the prosecution of any men who engaged in any form of homosexual act. In 1895 it was used against Oscar Wilde who was accused and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sent to prison. It virtually destroyed Wilde, ruining his reputation and crippling him financially. The amendment wasn’t repealed until 1967.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 12, 1885]

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

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I often wonder what the Victorians would make of our society if they could visit it. I imagine they’d be both awed and shocked if they were able to time travel forward to 21stcentury London. Awed by the technology perhaps: the cars, neon lights, television, mobile phones. Shocked by what they would see as irreligion, immorality and a lack of deference.

Of course the idea that the Victorians were prudish and all went to church has been successfully challenged by historians but it remains a fact that they were more conservative and less tolerant of some behaviours than we are today. Homosexuality was made illegal in 1885, and men could be sent to prison for engaging in sexual relationships with other men, as Oscar Wilde was. Suicide was a crime and there was considerably less understanding of mental illness throughout the period. The criminal justice system was harsh: many more people were incarcerated for relatively minor property offences and the death penalty existed, and was used, for murderers.

The newspaper reports of the metropolitan Police Courts are an excellent way to peer into this world. To quote Hartley, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, and we can see this at Bow Street, Lambeth, Marylebone and all the other magistrate courts.

At the end of June 1886 two individuals were brought up at Lambeth Police court charged with begging. Begging remains an offence punishable under nineteenth-century legislation (the Vagrancy Act of 1824) but it no longer carries the risk of prison and is often ignored by the police unless it is aggressive or causing a particular nuisance. So while retain the power to prosecute beggars we rarely use it. Instead the emphasis is on helping those that beg, or (more cynically) in arguing about how best we should help them.

In 1886 there was a Mendicity Society; an organisation dedicated to the prevention of begging, especially by those it deemed to be imposters. I’ve written about them before  and their officers crop up frequently in cases that came to court. Joseph Boseley was one such officer and on the evening of Monday 28 June he was watching two beggars in Church Street, Camberwell.

Both appeared to be women and they held a Bible out to read from. As passers-by approached they would ask for a donation and if it was forthcoming they would reward the donor with a verse of scripture. However, if they were refused money, then, ‘as soon as the person walked on [they] made use of foul language to one another’. Boseley smelled a rat and he arrested them for impersonation.

Boseley knew this pair well and was watching them to gather sufficient evidence against them to prosecute. He knew also that they weren’t both women: one of them was a man dressed up as a woman, and this was assumed, I think, to be a ruse to separate pedestrians from their hard earned cash, as a pair of females asking for charitable donations to a ‘good cause’ seemed more believable.

In court the pair cut a sorry looking vision in the dock. Mary Ann Saunders was 55 and her partner, Henry Bennett ten years younger. Bennett was set in the dock still wearing ‘female clothing, with hat and ribbons, and hair hanging down his back’. When questioned he continued to speak in a high-pitched impersonation of a female voice, as he had being doing as he stood beside the kerb in Camberwell.

Boseley told the magistrate (Mr Biron) that there had been multiple complaints about the duo and that they ‘were old mendicants’. Saunders could often be seen pushing Bennett around in ‘a perambulator’, always dressed as a woman, and always begging for money. He saw them as a couple of charlatans who were entirely underserving of the public’s sympathy, let alone their money.

Today however, I wonder what we would make of them. Was Bennett merely donning female attire as a ruse to con people, or was he cross-dressing because he felt more comfortable in women’s clothes? We have only very recently begun to accept that gender is more fluid and the term ‘transgender’ wasn’t coined until 1971. In 1870 two men were put on trial for transvestism, but there was insufficient evidence to convict them.After 1885 men who dressed as women were sometimes prosecuted as homosexuals, again demonstrating a contemporary misunderstanding of those that cross gender boundaries.

The beginnings of attempts to understand transgender issues can be seen in the late nineteenth century but for a sympathetic understanding we have to wait till late into the twentieth century. Even now those that feel uncomfortable in the gender they were born into and who are brave enough to present themselves as the person they know and believe themselves to be can find it a very tough experience. We are only very slowly adjusting to the idea of all gender toilets and allowing people to be whom they want to be.

Was Henry Bennett ‘trans’? It is impossible to know of course. Mr Biron was convinced he was a beggar and said he would remand the pair for further enquiries. At this Bennett fainted in the dock, although the papers saw this as a yet another example of imposture and an opportunity to poke fun at him for the amusement of its readership. On the 9 July they were brought up again and the magistrate sent them both to prison for a month for begging, declaring them to be ‘rank imposters’.

As he was led away Bennett cried out: ‘A month, what for? I didn’t beg; I only give bits of scripture comfort’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 30, 1886; Reynolds’s, Sunday, July 11, 1886]

‘That sink of iniquity Bluegate Fields, where so many outrages and robberies’ occur.

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré, 1872

‘Walter Hill aged 26, a man of colour and late cook and seaman on board the ship Ben Nevis, from Surinam, was charged with attempting to murder Honara Morris, a woman of this town, better known as Mad Norah, on Sunday morning in that sink of iniquity, Bluegate Fields, Shadwell, where so many outrages and robberies have been committed’.

So began the Daily Newsreport on the proceedings of the Thames Police Court on July 29, 1862. There is so much information here for the social historian before we even get to grips with the case itself.  Bluegate Field features in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: 

‘Then, suddenly, some night he would creep out of the house, go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields, and stay there, day after day, until he was driven away. On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself…”

The Picture of Dorian Gray, (1890)  p.112

The area was a byword for vice and crime, with opium dens and brothels, the haunts of seamen, thieves and those seeking the seedier side of life, like Dorian. Nowadays it is only remembered in the name of nearby school but in the 1860s it was a slum district over which Nicholas Hawksmoor’s impressive church of St George’s in the East loomed.

So we learn that this attempted murder took place in a notoriously rough and criminal area, and that its supposed victim, ‘Mad’ Norah was quite likely to have been closely connected with prosecution.

The ship, the Ben Nevis, is listed in a catalogue of fast sailing ships for the period 1775-1875 and the fact that it had sailed out of Surinam might give us a clue to its cargo. Surinam (or Dutch Guiana) was an economy built on the labour of slaves and then indented workers (by the late 1800s from Java) to replace the supply of slaves once that trade was abolished. In fact slavery was only abolished in 1863, a year after this case appeared in the London press and it took another decade for slaves to be emancipated. The slaves and later free workers farmed sugar, cotton and indigo so we might imagine the Ben Nevis was bringing these to the London docks.

We also learn of course that the defendant in this case was black. As a ‘man of colour’ the reporter felt it necessary to distinguish him from other ‘cooks’ and ‘seamen’ either as a conscious act of Victorian racism or simply because it was newsworthy, as something ‘different’. Either way it reminds us that in the second half of the nineteenth century London was a melting pot of peoples from all over the world.

According to one witness, a local labourer named James Hayward, Walter lived in Ratcliffe Highway where many sailors had lodgings close to the docks. Hayward saw him arguing with Norah outside her house in Bluegate Fields. He had accused her of stealing clothes and money, something she vehemently denied. It was 5 in the morning and must have wakened many nearby. Hayward said he saw Hill land a punch on the woman before running off.

He came back about two hours later armed with a knife. Grabbing Norah from behind he threatened to murder her. Hayward, addressing the magistrate at Thames, described how he saw Hill strike:

‘her blow after blow with the knife  until it stuck into her shoulder, and he could not get it out again’.

Hill fled but was chased and caught. His clothes had been stolen, Hayward agreed, but not by Norah. Someone else had snuck into the room while the seaman and the woman (clearly a prostitute) slept off the drink they had consumed the night before.

The police were called and PC Edward Dillon (18K) arrived. He fetched a surgeon and Norah was taken to the London Hospital where she was treated for multiple stab wounds. When she had received sufficiently to be questioned by the police she confirmed she had entertained Hill but had not pinched his belongings. She knew who had however, ‘Irish Annie and Black Sall’, and said she told Hill that he had better go home (since he was pretty much naked) and come back later. She must have been shocked when he had returned with a  knife.

The house surgeon at the London, David Hyman Dyte, testified that Norah’s wounds were serious but hopefully not life threatening, as all her organs had been missed in the stabbing. It had also taken ‘enormous force’ to extract the 5 inch blade from her shoulder. She had lost a lot of blood, and was not fit to appear in court. This would mean Hill would be remanded to wait for her to recover and the next appearance was set for the 5 August. Hill was held in Clerkenwell and when he came before the Thames court again he was again remanded by Mr Woolrych as Norah, although recovering, was still too ill to come to court.

The case eventually made it to the Old Bailey later that month and we get a little more detail from Honora (who was recorded as Myers not Morris, these mistakes are common in the press). She said that Hill had been brought to the house by Sank Smith (a ‘coloured girl’) and it was her that had taken his money. Her landlady had pinched his clothes she added, so perhaps these were ‘Irish Annie’ and ‘Black Sall’ who were mentioned earlier.

We don’t learn much else new about the incident and there were only the same witnesses as before, but the jury were told that while Hill admitted attacking Norah he was provoked and didn’t mean to cause her as much harm as he did. He added that it was his first time in England.

Whether this swayed them much is unlikely, but the reputation that the area had and the trade that Norah followed possibly did. They found him guilty but recommend him to mercy. The judge sent him to prison for a year.

[from Daily News, Tuesday, July 29, 1862]

Of disorderly elections, drunkeness, and a ‘borrowed’ Hanson cab

In February 1880 the death of John Locke, the sitting Liberal MP for Southwark seat brought about a by-election. In due course 15,312 eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot and the seat was won by the Conservative candidate,  Edward (later Sir Edward) Clarke. Clarke is most famous for being the barrister that represented Oscar Wilde in his unsuccessful prosecution of the Marquis of Queensbury for libel (which ultimately ended with Wilde being tried and then imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

Elections can be rowdy affairs even today and in the past (especially in the 18th century) they were raucous, sometimes fairly corrupt and drink tended to play a significant role. It seems the by-election in Southwark led to at least two Police Court appearances that month.

The first was a bricklayer named Frederick Evans, who ‘borrowed’ a Hanson cab when he was drunk. Evans admitted to having ‘got too much drink’ at the election (which caused much laughter in Wandsworth Police Court. He noticed that William Cheeney (a cab driver) was slumped in a chair in the Ballot room the worse for alcohol, and presumably thought he wouldn’t mind if he borrowed his vehicle.

Cheeney did mind. He appeared in court to give evidence that he wasn’t drunk at all and had only stopped off in the Ballot room to collect his fees for the night (presumably he had been ferrying voters of the receiving officers).

Mr Paget, the magistrate, wasn’t convinced by his story and while he fined Evans for being drunk in charge of a vehicle (so drunk in fact, that he fell off the cab!), he refused the cabbie’s request for expenses and told him to expect a summons from the police for ‘leaving his cab unattended’.

The second case was heard at Southwark and again involved drunkenness.

Ellen Harley (a 49-year old ‘stalwart Irishwoman’), was charged with being drunk and disorderly at the by-election, and ‘causing a mob to assemble’. PC Anker (305 M) was on duty outside a polling station in Fair Street, Horselydown, and witnessed Harley ‘on several occasions’ whipping up the voting public.

She marched up and down shouting ‘Home rule and Irish independence’ (a hot topic in the late 19th century) and the policeman asked her to go away and stop causing an obstruction and a nuisance. At six o’clock she was back and clearly quite inebriated and had gathered a ‘mob’ around her. PC Anker felt ‘obliged to take her into custody’.

In court she apologised and said she had been plied with drink by ‘some of her countrymen; and had got ‘rather excited’. The justice asked if she was known to the court or the gaoler. Fortunately it was found that she wasn’t; this was her first time in court. She was fined 10s or 7 days in prison.

Having stood for my local council at the last general election in 2015 I can attest that the process is a lot more sober these days but the campaigns can be quite lively for all that. Of course poor Ellen couldn’t vote. Although about 2.5 million more Britons had been enfranchised by the Parliamentary Reform Act (1867) this didn’t include women, she would have to wait to 1918 , if she lived that long (she would have been 87 so I doubt it).

p.s The loss of Southwark was temporary. in the 1880 general election (where Disraeli’s Conservatives were trounced by Gladstone, the Liberals regained the seat under Arthur Cohen MP)

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1880]