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