We all know that homosexuality was largely decriminalised in England and Wales by the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. (Scotland and Northern Ireland followed later.) But we know little about how it was criminalised in the first place.
That episode is the subject of Scandal: How homosexuality became a crime, a new book by David Boyle.
I recently spoke to David about the forgotten history he has uncovered.
Your book shows that homosexuality was criminalised suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, in the summer of 1885. How did that come about?
The story goes back to the Phoenix Park murders of 1882, when republican terrorists stabbed the Irish Secretary to death – accidentally, as it turned out: he happened to be walking with the intended victim.
The murders shocked the public on both sides of the Irish Sea, and to claw back the moral high ground, Irish Nationalist MPs launched a campaign to identify homosexuals in the Irish government, or part of the establishment in Dublin in some way – starting with the senior detective in charge of the Phoenix Park case, James Ellis French. The campaign led to huge torchlight processions and mass demonstrations, with bands, in many towns and cities of Ireland.
Most of the defendants were acquitted – the main issue at stake was whether it was physically possible to commit sodomy in a hansom cab (sodomy was the only charge that could be brought at that time, which had been illegal since Henry VIII but was, for obvious reasons, hard to prove).
The so-called ‘Dublin scandals’ barely ruffled feathers in London, except among campaigners linked to the Irish nationalist cause, or political friends of their parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Among these, the maverick Liberal radical MP Henry Labouchère, was particularly frustrated that sodomy had been so difficult to convict.
So when the opportunity arose the following summer in 1885, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act - designed to raise the age of consent for women from 12 - crawled through Parliament, Labouchère seized his chance. His amendment was debated at night in a few minutes and only one MP queried whether it was relevant to the debate. But for the next eight decades, it put men – it only applied to men – in a perilous position if they loved anyone of their own gender.
And you found that you had a family connection with these events...
Well, I always knew my family was basically Irish, and I always knew the old story about how my banker great-great-grandfather escaped from Dublin wearing a false nose in 1884. Why he went, and what he had been afraid of, had been lost in the mists of time – except that his photo remains torn out of the family album.
But now that Victorian Irish newspapers can be read online, I was finally been able to uncover some clues – and following them was what led me to this strange story about the Labouchere amendment and what followed. I was looking for something else entirely when I absent-mindedly put the name ‘Richard Boyle’ into the search engine at the British Library, and read for the first time the phrase ‘Dublin Scandals’, which dominated the Irish press that summer.
It took me some time to track down what happened to him later, feeling reluctant to reveal what he had tried so hard to hide, but I couldn’t leave the trail alone. I tracked him to a new career as a stained glass artist, among the glass industry in Camberwell, and – among other revelations – living with a man who was with him when he died, during the terrible London smog of Christmas week 1900.
But I also found strong evidence that he fled a second time, in the spring of 1895.
Is it right to say the new law did not much have much effect until the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895?
There were prosecutions, but there was something about Wilde’s arrest that turned public concern on the issue into outright moral panic. The Dublin scandals were the first gay political scandal. Ten years later, something about the moral climate made it ripe for this kind of sexual witch-hunts.
Contemporary letters imply that many others fled the night Wilde was arrested – maybe many hundreds of them: one correspondent reported that there were 600 passengers queuing for the Calais ferry. There were reports about well-known names seen in Paris or Nice or other parts of the continent for the rest of the year, and rumours of a major purge of the establishment. It was linked with the fall of Rosebery’s Liberal government a few months later.
It may be that this was an unprecedented moment of fear in modern UK history – one of the very few times people have fled (if they were wealthy enough) from London to Paris, rather than the other way around. It may even have been a unique moment of intolerance and fear in our history.
Do you see modern parallels with these events – say in the prevalence of accusations of the sexual abuse of children?
I do. There are lessons today about the dangers of political witch-hunts about sexual behaviour, the stock-in-trade of politicians since time immemorial. Whatever the arguments for investigating child sex abuse by the establishment – and we do have to investigate – if it is used to drag down people for political reasons, these campaigns can take on a terrifying life of their own, as the events in Dublin showed.
The campaign by Irish nationalists in Dublin led directly to a bitterly illiberal law which ruined many tens of thousands of lives. We have to be careful.
I gather this is the first book from a new venture of yours – the Real Press.
I’ve been writing books for a couple of decades now and it isn’t easy to make a living that way, partly because nobody seems to have developed new ways of paying the poor authors. Well, it seems to me that it was up to people like me to develop one – and I have! I’m planning, if possible, to publish ebooks and print on demand paperbacks in line with the themes I’ve been writing about in my blog. That’s why I’ve launched (actually relaunched) The Real Press.
Scandal: Why Homosexuality Became a Crime is the first – I hope it will be one of many, fiction, non-fiction and self-help – and they won’t all be by me either!