The Tragedy of the final two males hanged in Britain for being homosexual

  • Go deeper into the societal pressures, hangups and outrageous hypocrisy of 1835 London that led to 2 working class homosexual males being executed with the Mail’s new podcast. Author Chris Bryant hosts the haunting and deeply immersive three-part sequence  Lost Voices – The Story of James and John. Click right here to pay attention or discover it on Apple or Spotify

On a heat Saturday morning in August 1835, James Pratt mentioned goodbye to his spouse and daughter at his residence in South-East London and set out for town centre.

A decent member of the working class, he was – unusually for him – out of labor and eager to discover a new state of affairs. Almost actually he walked the entire manner from Deptford quite than spend tuppence on the bus fare.

Just a number of hours later, 32-year-old James can be caught up in a hideous nightmare. He would by no means once more see his residence or hug his ten-year-old daughter, and his very life can be at stake.

His first vacation spot that sunny day was a home by Holborn Bridge, greater than 5 miles away, the place he deliberate to go to an Irish buddy, Fanny Cannon.

The London of 1835 was already a sprawling metropolis. On the cusp of the Victorian age, it appeared, superficially a minimum of, to be more and more civilised and rich, with a continuously increasing inhabitants.

Fields that had as soon as separated outlying villages, reminiscent of Islington, from the City of London have been quickly disappearing, and lots of feared buildings would quickly cowl each patch of inexperienced.

MP Chris Bryant begins the three part story of James and John, the last two men in Britain to be hung for the crime of sodomy on LOST VOICES: The Tragedy of James & John

MP Chris Bryant begins the three half story of James and John, the final two males in Britain to be hung for the crime of sodomy on LOST VOICES: The Tragedy of James & John

Simply misreading the brush of a hand, a throwaway look or a wink, could lead to men being beaten to a pulp, ostracised or hauled up before a magistrate (stock image)

Simply misreading the comb of a hand, a throwaway look or a wink, might result in males being crushed to a pulp, ostracised or hauled up earlier than a Justice of the Peace (inventory picture)

The space the place Fanny lived was a twisted jumble of lanes, famend each as a cauldron of poverty and a homosexual pick-up space. Barely two years later, Charles Dickens would set the kitchen of master-thief Fagin there in his novel, Oliver Twist.

According to Fanny, a married ‘seller of sheep’s toes’, James arrived at 1pm, they usually had a few pots of half-and-half [mild ale and bitter] with their lunch. Fanny advised he ought to keep to tea, however he was in a rush to depart, telling her he was seeking a job and needed to be residence by six.

He ‘appeared a little affected with liquor’, she added, and left at two o’clock with ‘a friend’. This might have been John Smith, an illiterate labourer (aged between 34 and 42, based on clashing data) who’d quickly be sharing James’s ghastly destiny.

What we do know is that at about 4pm, John Smith appeared downstairs at 45 George Street, a home in Southwark, and requested the owner if a person known as William Bonell lodged there.

‘Yes, he does,’ he was advised, ‘but I do not believe he is within.’

Undeterred, Smith mentioned he’d seen him on the window and began up the steps to Bonell’s room on the primary ground. The landlord then noticed Smith flip again and open a non-public side-door to let in James Pratt.

Both males entered Bonell’s room. We don’t know whether or not James and John already knew one another, or whether or not they’d met for the primary time that day. What appears clear, although, is that this was an assignation.

Something piqued the curiosity of the owner, John Berkshire. During the 13 months that Bonell – a 66-year-old widower and retired home servant – had lodged there, the Berkshires claimed he had continuously taken males as much as his room, typically in pairs.

To verify or allay his suspicions, the owner squeezed himself into the loft of the next-door steady and dislodged a tile. This allowed him to see into Bonell’s room, the place he noticed James sit down first on Bonell’s knee after which on John’s.

It was cramped within the loft, so Berkshire quickly gave up and went again indoors to his tea – and to his spouse, to whom he associated what he’d seen. This prompted Jane Berkshire to go upstairs and peek by means of the keyhole of their lodger’s room.

Bonell had simply left seeking a jug of ale, so James and John have been alone. Jane later claimed that she noticed the boys take down their trousers and begin to have intercourse on the ground.

Scandalised, she ran down to inform her husband. He rushed upstairs, knelt exterior Bonell’s door and likewise peered by means of the keyhole. Then he burst by means of the unlocked door.

James Pratt and John Smith instantly drew aside and began pulling up their trousers. Terrified, they threw themselves on their knees and begged Berkshire to allow them to go, providing him their purses.

At that second Bonell returned with the jug of ale. ‘What is the matter?’ he requested.

‘You old villain,’ cried Berkshire. ‘You know what is the matter; you have been practising this in my place for some time past.’

‘I know nothing of what is done in my place,’ Bonell mentioned, calmly declaring that he had not been current and providing Berkshire a drink.

Berkshire responded with a sneer, ‘No, I would not drink in any such society.’

The commotion attracted one of many different lodgers in the home, who agreed to protect the three males whereas Berkshire went seeking a police constable.

Thus, on August twenty ninth, started the chain of occasions that may result in one of many best injustices in British authorized historical past.

Whatever James and John felt about their attraction to males, nevertheless they handled emotions of disgrace and guilt, they need to at all times have lived in worry. Simply misreading the comb of a hand, a throwaway look or a wink, might result in being crushed to a pulp, ostracised or hauled up earlier than a Justice of the Peace.

Accusations of precise sodomy might result in demise by hanging – the automated sentence for the offence because the reign of Henry VIII. Only the wealthy and well-connected might defy the system, understanding they may name on spectacular character witnesses and depend on a jury of their friends to acquit them.

When it got here to the remainder, England had essentially the most shameful report in Europe. Most different nations had by no means executed folks for homosexuality, and people who did had abolished the observe lengthy earlier than. (Germany’s final case was in 1537, Spain’s in 1647, Switzerland’s in 1662, Italy’s in 1668 and France’s in 1750.)

Yet between 1806 and 1835 in England, 404 males have been sentenced to demise for sodomy. Of these, 56 have been hanged, whereas many extra have been imprisoned or transported.

A report from 1835 details the case of James Pratt and John Smith as they were condemned to be hanged, saying the prisoners 'left the dock in tears'

A report from 1835 particulars the case of James Pratt and John Smith as they have been condemned to be hanged, saying the prisoners ‘left the dock in tears’ 

In the afternoon of Saturday 19 September 1835, James, John, William and 21 other prisoners were cuffed together in pairs and marched one and a half miles to Newgate Gaol (pictured)

In the afternoon of Saturday 19 September 1835, James, John, William and 21 different prisoners have been cuffed collectively in pairs and marched one and a half miles to Newgate Gaol (pictured)

What impressed such cruelty? Religion actually performed a big half: the omnipotent Church of England dominated your life from baptism to burial, threatening damnation for the impenitent sinner. And high of the checklist of vices was the sin of sodomy or ‘buggery’.

So visceral was public repugnance that some homosexual males have been put within the shares as a part of their sentence, the place they have been pelted with lifeless cats, rotten eggs and buckets stuffed with blood, offal and dung.

Yet for all of the denunciations, there was a weird and hypocritical willpower by no means to say what such males have been presupposed to have finished. It was the crime that dared not communicate its identify.

Most newspapers made a advantage of drawing a veil over authorized proceedings, claiming that such unspeakable acts might by no means be detailed. Even the hanging judges have been coy, usually making solely making veiled references to depravity.

Warders at Newgate, officers within the Home Office, clerks and shorthand writers on the Old Bailey adopted swimsuit, refusing to put in writing out the entire phrase and inscribing ‘b-gg-ry’ or ‘s-d¬y’ as an alternative. In many instances, all that was recorded of the trial was the identify of the felony, the anonymous offence, the decision, the sentence, the jury and the decide.

This strict omerta signifies that as we speak’s historical past books make it look as if early nineteenth-century Britain was a homosexual-free zone.

Indeed, the downfall of James and John can solely be reconstructed because of the unusually diligent shorthand author at their trial. Aware that he might embody little or no in his official account, he however supplied a wealth of element in an appendix – the one one he ever wrote.

Who have been they, these two males accused of the worst ‘crime’, bar homicide? Of John, we all know that he got here from Worcester and, like so many different nation boys, had travelled to London to enter home service.

Just 5ft 3in, he was stoutish, with mild brown hair, inexperienced eyes and a good complexion. From 1818, for a minimum of two years, he labored as a servant for a wealthy household in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury. Much of his working life, nevertheless, appears to have been spent as a labourer.

We know way more about James, who was born right into a poverty-stricken household in Great Burstead, Essex. Both his mother and father ended up in separate workhouses, the place they died inside days of one another in 1817.

James, then 15, had already been subsisting for 3 years on paltry handouts from the Poor Law guardians. Like John, he made his approach to London.

At some level in 1818, he discovered a place as a groom for a trainee barrister in Camberwell, South London – then nonetheless a farming village. Five or six years later, he parted on good phrases together with his grasp and moved to Deptford, the place he met Elizabeth Moreland, the daughter of a shipwright, and married her when he was 20.

An artist's painting of Newgate Gallows in 1891. The jail had been the capital city’s sole place of execution since 1783

An artist’s portray of Newgate Gallows in 1891. The jail had been the capital metropolis’s sole place of execution since 1783

Few employers saved a groom on when he married. However, James was in luck – not solely did he discover employment close by as a footman, incomes about £40 a yr, however he and his spouse got free lodgings in a close-by tenement.

All we find out about his look is that he was 5ft 1in tall. As the one male servant in his grasp’s family, his duties now included carrying coals as much as rooms, cleansing boots, trimming and cleansing lamps, caring for the silverware and glasses, making ready his grasp’s garments, laying the desk for meals, serving at desk, answering the entrance door, saying guests’ names and locking up at night time.

In 1825, Elizabeth gave delivery at their lodgings to a child lady, then two years later had a boy. Given his origins, James had loads of causes to congratulate himself: he was in work, solvent and now a household man.

Then every part modified. His employer died, and that was the tip of James’s job. Proud of by no means having relied on the parish since childhood, he did a brief stint as a footman, then labored as a labourer on a day price. In 1833, his six-year-old son died, and two years later – the yr of his arrest – Elizabeth had a miscarriage.

As far as his mates and neighbours have been involved, James was fortunately married. From his youth, nevertheless, he’d recognized he was sexually interested in his personal intercourse, and London teemed with out there males – such because the 1000’s of Navy veterans who’d spent years cooped up within the sole firm of different males.

On that August day that they have been arrested, John, James and William Bonell have been marched to the native magistrates’ courtroom, the place they have been dedicated for trial. The proceedings have been obliquely reported in some newspapers as ‘one of those revolting and unnatural cases.’

The subsequent Sessions on the Old Bailey weren’t due till 21 September, so the three males have been despatched to await trial on the Surrey County Gaol on Horsemonger Lane, the place they remained for 3 weeks.

Visitors have been allowed between 12 and 2pm daily, however prisoners needed to stand on the opposite aspect of a double iron grating, with a jail officer standing in between.

Explaining his predicament to Elizabeth can’t have been nice. Did he protest his innocence? It should have been equally harrowing for her. She had her personal disgrace with which to contend.

Would she admit the character of her husband’s ‘unnatural’ crime if anybody requested her? Would she deny all information? There was little privateness to ask her husband the numerous questions operating by means of her head.

Practical issues should even have consumed their ideas. James was the breadwinner, and the legislation required {that a} felon be disadvantaged of all his property when he was hanged.

In the afternoon of Saturday 19 September 1835, James, John, William and 21 different prisoners have been cuffed collectively in pairs and marched one and a half miles to Newgate Gaol. The journey would have been disagreeable, as crowds took each alternative to jeer at criminals certain for Newgate and pelted them with no matter got here handy.

The males should even have quailed on the sight of the gaol itself. Even quick prisoners needed to stoop to enter, because the outer door puncturing the four-foot-thick partitions was simply 4ft 6in excessive. It appeared designed to let folks enter, however by no means depart.

What primarily earned Newgate its popularity, although, was the truth that it had been the capital metropolis’s sole place of execution since 1783.

Inside, the place stank, because the prisoners have been saved in clammy dungeons for 14-15 hours daily; the flooring have been so damp that some have been swimming in an inch or two of water; and straw or depressing bedding was laid on the flooring.

One modern mentioned the darkness contained in the gaol was so oppressive you can lean towards it. Many referred to Newgate as ‘Hell above ground’.

As James and John waited to be processed, they sat within the ‘bread-room’, the place jail workers had assembled grotesque memorabilia. There have been plaster casts of the heads of two murderers, executed three years earlier than, an execution axe and the leather-based belts used for pinioning prisoners’ legs and arms earlier than they have been hanged.

From right here, the gaol was a sequence of winding high-sided corridors, dismal passages, quite a few staircases, cast-iron gates and gratings, tiny home windows, slender paved yards and dank wards and cells. Each yard had a single cold-water pump, and no cleaning soap was supplied to scrub garments.

The very first nationwide inspectors of prisons, who visited whereas James and John have been there, have been shocked. Newgate was, they mentioned, ‘an institution which outrages the rights and feelings of humanity, defeats the ends of justice, and disgraces the profession of a Christian country’.

James’s solely aid is prone to have been sporadic visits from Elizabeth. She needed to queue up with 100- 150 folks whom the jail commissioners known as ‘persons of notoriously bad character, prostitutes and thieves’.

But she stood by James, regardless of the indignity. We know of no such guests for John or William.

The following week, on Saturday 26 September, the three males have been taken to the Old Bailey to be tried by a jury composed mainly of shopkeepers.

Immediately reverse them, within the Old Court, sat two aldermen, the Recorder and the beak-nosed decide, Sir John Gurney, recognized to be pitiless and harsh – significantly when it got here to homosexuals.

Four massive chandeliers lit the room, and a mirror mirrored daylight from the home windows instantly onto the prisoners’ faces, in order that the jury might examine them extra minutely. Elizabeth watched from the general public gallery, the place spectators needed to pay a payment.

Nothing concerning the courtroom was acquainted to the three males. Its pomp was intentionally intimidating. Its authorized jargon was incomprehensible. It should have been terrifying.

As the indictment was learn out, James, John and William stood up. It was lengthy and repetitive, claiming the accused had been ‘seduced by the instigation of the devil’.

The fees began with John. He had ‘feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature’, dedicated and perpetrated ‘the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime, among Christians not to be named, called buggery’.

The fees towards James used related language. As for Bonell, he ‘feloniously and maliciously did incite, move, procure, counsel, hire, and command’ the 2 males to commit the felony.

Then the trial started in earnest. It can be unrecognisable to us as we speak, because the scales of justice have been horribly unbalanced.

The decide was not anticipated to be an neutral referee between prosecuting and defence counsel. Instead, he would usually lead the prosecution.

Moreover, if the accused had a defence lawyer – which the three males didn’t – he wasn’t allowed to deal with the jury. A wily lawyer, it was feared, would possibly persuade a jury {that a} rogue was an sincere man.

John Berkshire was the primary to take the witness stand, and recounted what he’d seen. Jane Berkshire was subsequent, testifying she’d seen John Smith’s ‘private parts’, and had observed the boys ‘moving’.

The subsequent witness was the policeman, who mentioned he’d famous what regarded like semen on James’s shirt. That was the tip of the prosecution. No fashionable courtroom of legislation would have thought it conclusive.

The three males have been every requested to state their defence. But with out anybody to advise them, that they had no thought what to say – past repeating they weren’t responsible.

All that remained have been the character witnesses – although, sadly, neither John nor William had anybody to talk for them. First up for James was Fanny Cannon, who mentioned she’d recognized him for 9 years.

‘He bore a very good character for morality, decency, and everything that is good’, she mentioned. Several different witnesses – little doubt discovered by Elizabeth – mentioned a lot the identical.

But they didn’t sway the jury who, with out retiring, took mere seconds to return their verdict. James and John have been responsible of a felony and William of a misdemeanour.

Sentencing occurred late the next Monday. This was the job of the Recorder, Charles Ewan Law, MP, who was the City of London’s senior authorized officer.

Everyone noted that James and John were ‘considerably affected’ and ‘wept very much during the address’ (stock image)

Everyone famous that James and John have been ‘considerably affected’ and ‘wept very much during the address’ (inventory picture)

Aged 43, he was virulently anti-gay. Shortly after changing into an MP, he’d tabled an modification to a invoice going by means of parliament, proposing that the legislation on homosexuality be toughened additional. Fortunately, the Lords thought the modification so excessive that they killed it.

Back on the Old Bailey, Law dealt first with Bonnell, sentencing him to transportation for 14 years to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Then the Recorder donned black gloves, and ordered that James and John be saved again whereas he handled the opposite convicts.

Eleven prisoners duly acquired demise sentences for crimes reminiscent of stealing 30 shillings-worth of handkerchiefs. Yet, as Law knew full effectively, England was dropping its urge for food for capital punishment, and each single sentence was prone to be downgraded later to imprisonment or transportation.

In his time as Recorder, he had not but seen a single man put to demise. At least, he hoped, the case of James and John would possibly result in a dangling.

When it was time to name them, Law advised that girls ought to depart the courtroom. He then addressed the pair, saying he’d separated them from the opposite prisoners as a result of ‘however great their crimes might have been, they would have been contaminated’ by James and John’s presence.

He didn’t need to offend the ears of the courtroom by dilating upon the enormity of the offence however he would implore the 2 males to hunt mercy from God, ‘as they stood upon the brink of eternity, guilty of offences which hardly excite a tear of pity for their fate, and in consideration of which in a British country mercy had ever been a stranger’.

Everyone famous that James and John have been ‘considerably affected’ and ‘wept very much during the address’.

With that, the ‘Ordinary’ of Newgate, the Reverend Horace Cotton, positioned ‘the black cap’, a nine-inch sq. of limp black silk, on high of Law’s powdered wig and the Recorder slowly intoned: ‘John Smith, the law is, that thou shalt return to the place whence thou camest and from thence to the place of execution, where thou shalt hang by the neck till the body be dead.’

Like a demise knell, he repeated that final phrase twice extra, ‘Dead! Dead!’

Law repeated the system for James, earlier than urging the boys ‘to apply the short time they had to live to God for that mercy which they could not expect to receive from the hands of a man’. He couldn’t have made the purpose extra forcefully: there was no hope.

Or so it appeared. In reality, there was nonetheless some cause to imagine James and John would possibly but escape the hangman’s noose…

Look out for half two of our unique guide extract on Mail+ this weekend.  

James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant is revealed by Bloomsbury Publishing on February 15 at £25. To order a replica for £21.25, go to the Mail Bookshop or name 020 3176 2937 (provide legitimate till 24/02/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25).