The 1950s was a dark decade for queer Englishmen. Between 1945 and 1955, arrests for “gross indecency” soared to over 2,500 a year, with an average of 1,000 men being incarcerated annually. It was a marked increase, seen by many as a targeted persecution, and became known as the “gay pogrom.” Those who believe that narrative trace the cause to the huge number of servicemen, freshly discharged from the war with nowhere to go, unable to find work. The big cities, and especially London, teemed with them. England was proud of its returned heroes, but didn’t know what to do with them and worried that, left without a purpose, they would fall into corruption and vice. The pogrom was, in the eyes of many, a desperate battle to preserve the innocence of men freshly returned from war. To compound matters, the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, had promised “a new drive against male vice” that would “rid England of this plague.”
Not all historians subscribe to this view. Matt Houlbrook’s compelling Queer London, casts a different light on what was happening during this period. While the number of arrests is a matter of fact, Houlbrook argues that the increase was only proportional to the sudden increase in the number of men now living in the capital (a percentage of whom had joined the police forces, meaning there were also more police officers available to facilitate more arrests). I personally believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle, for while an increase in hard numbers could still be proportional to the population size, the way in which the police went about making those arrests speaks volumes.
Entrapment was common. Certain areas were widely known as queer cruising grounds, and attractive young policemen would loiter in them, propositioning strangers until somebody showed interest, at which point the hapless chap would find himself arrested. If a man was being blackmailed and went to the police for help, more often than not he’d find himself in the dock along with his blackmailer. If a man was mugged near a cruising ground, his background would be investigated. As Anthony Grey, former secretary for the Homosexual Law Reform Society, remembers in an interview with Geraldine Bedell for The Observer:
In the early days, they tell me, living together was a dangerous business. When a drunk coach driver crashed into their car outside their house in the night, ‘the first thing we had to do was make up the spare bed. We knew from experience that if you called the police and they suspected you were homosexual, they would ignore the original crime and concentrate on the homosexuality.’
Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked Enigma and developed the first prototype computer, was convicted of gross indecency after reporting a burglary. His conviction led to the revocation of his national security clearance, the loss of his job at GCHQ, and caused him to be denied entry to the USA. After agreeing to a chemical castration in lieu of prison which left him impotent and caused him to grow breasts, Turing committed suicide.
Another trick was to go through the address book of anyone arrested for gross indecency and arrest all their friends. A dozen or more men could be tried together as a “homosexual ring,” with all the connotations of organised crime that entails, just because they had one friend in common.
A year before Turing’s suicide, Lord Montagu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers spent a weekend a beach hut on Montagu’s estate, along with Montagu’s friend, the journalist Peter Wildeblood, Wildeblood’s lover RAF serviceman Edward McNally, and John Reynolds, another serviceman and friend of McNally. Wildeblood later stated the weekend had been “extremely dull,” but it was about to become the focus of the most scandalous prosecution since Oscar Wilde stood in the dock.
In January 1954, Wildeblood, Montagu, and Pitt-Rivers were arrested. McNally and Reynolds had been found out at the RAF, and in return for immunity from prosecution, had given statements against the three others.
It seems curious that two men would be offered a deal in return for testifying about an event that took place six months earlier, with two men they’d never met before or since. Montagu (who died in August this year) always maintained he was the victim of an orchestrated witch-hunt by the Home Office, who were determined to secure a high-profile conviction during their campaign against queer men, and who were especially determined to get him, personally, as he’d been tried and acquitted of having sex with a fourteen-year-old Boy Scout in the same beach hut only a year earlier (a claim he always strenuously denied).
This time the prosecution secured a conviction for all three men, but public opinion took a surprising turn as the trial unfolded. In his recount of the events in Against the Law, Wildeblood recalls a woman spitting at him in the street; by the time the trial concluded, the men had to be kept in the court to avoid a mob which had gathered — not for them, but for the two RAF men who had turned Queen’s evidence against them. As details of how the servicemen had been offered a deal in exchange for testifying came out, public sympathy shifted to those standing trial.
Within months, the Home Secretary had ordered a committee be established to look into the matter of homosexual offences. The Wolfenden report, published in 1957, recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”.
The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others… It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.
While an obvious victory, the recommendations of the report were still met with firm political opposition. The Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded the following year to lobby for the change the report proposed, but a full decade was to pass between Wolfenden and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.
Born on this day: Pedro Almodóvar (66, Spanish), director; Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay (42, Canadian), artist; Ronald Robertson (1937-2000, American), Olympic figure skater; and Oras Tynkkynen (38, Swedish), first openly-gay Swedish MP.
Died on this day: Jack Smith (1932-1989, American), director.