Homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967. The treatment of homosexuals in earlier times is difficult to gauge as the historical record rarely exists for anything other than criminal activity. Early punishments ranged from fines, hard labour, hanging, and the pillory (a wooden frame with holes for the head and hands, in which offenders were placed and exposed to public abuse). From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries the court of Quarter Sessions dealt with any complaints and allegations of homosexual behaviour, frequently referred to in the court records as ‘an unnatural crime’.
In Surrey, there are several examples which appear in the records, although survival of all evidence from the arrest to the sentencing of prisoners is not complete. Many of the accused were acquitted through lack of evidence. In the cases found, punishment ranged from the equivalent of a good behaviour bond to the pillory, or imprisonment for up to two years in one of the local houses of correction.
Calendar of prisoners for the House of Correction, Newington, 1812
Prisoner No.54. is Edward Long, committed on 24 Dec 1811.
Following the oath of John Smith, Long is charged with assaulting him at St Saviour’s, Southwark, with intent to commit an ‘unnatural crime’. He was detained for want of sureties (i.e. no one pledged money for his good behaviour) but this was eventually secured.
Calendar of prisoners, featuring Edward Long, 14 Jan 1812 (SHC ref QS2/6/1812/Eph)
Examination regarding an alleged assault, Southwark, 1716
This curious case involved David Dartnall, a carpenter of Brasted, who in his examination claimed that whilst sitting by the fire in the kitchen of the Greyhound Inn, Southwark, he was approached by Thomas Reeves and asked where he would lie that night. Dartnall replied that he was sleeping at the inn and Reeves declared that he would lie with him. The examination gives a graphic account of the activities that took place but Dartnall did not protest and implied that Reeves ‘never threatened or offered to turn him’. The examination finished with Dartnall declaring ‘the reason why he did not cry out was the reason of his greater surprise’!
Unfortunately, as the further evidence for this case has not yet been located we do not know whether Reeves was punished or not. Click on the image below to see a larger version.
The examination of David Dartnall of the ville of Brasted in the said County, carpenter taken upon oath this 16th day of March Anno D[omini] 1716 as followeth viz:
This examinant saith upon oath that on Thursday the seventeenth day of this instant March in the evening as this Def[endant] was sitting by the kitchen fire at the Greyhound Inn in the Burrough of Southwark in the County of Surrey, Mr Thomas Reeves of Cowden being there asked this Def[endant] where he lay that night, he answered him he lay there then the said Mr Reeves said you shall lye with me David, who was contented and accordingly went to bedd together and that as this Def[endant] was saying his prayers the said Mr Reeves putt his hand upon his breast and soo down to his private parts and took hold of them and said he would make him spend and did make him spend. And then said to this Def that he had had a whore who told him the said Reeves that he never had had one in his life, who said he had, and then gott over himin the bedd several times and at last he rubbed himself against one of his thighs and spent against the same and the gott over him and went to sleep – and soo continued the ret of the night; but the said Mr Reeves never threatened or offered to turn him And the reason ehy this Def[endant] did not Cry out was by reason of his greater Surprise.
[signed] David Dartnall
Jucat die et Anno superdictam
S lambard Jeff. Arnhurst
The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual act illegal, even in private.
Section 11 of the Act stated that any man convicted ‘shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour’.
Controversially, this part of the Act was inserted at the last minute after being drafted by the MP Henry Labouchere. It did not fit in with the rest of the Act, which dealt with sex crimes relating to young women, but was still passed by the House of Commons.
The amendment was described as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ as it effectively outlawed every form of male homosexuality. It prompted a number of prosecutions, most famously Oscar Wilde in 1895. Wilde served his sentence in Reading Gaol.
The Act was repealed in England and Wales in 1956, but homosexuality was not fully legalised until 1967. In Scotland this did not come into force until 1980, and in Northern Ireland, not until 1982.
The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 allowed transsexual people to change their legal gender.
Current legislation bans some anti-gay discrimination, as well as religion-based hate speech against homosexuals.
Information curtesy of Surrey History Centre and Exploring Surrey’s Past