‘Gay’ in the 1950’s
Publish Date: 09/02/2012
As an only child, born in Second World War London and raised in the post war period of recovery, reconstruction and subsequent economic expansion, Mike Newman grew up in a time of growing living standards but also of sexual repression.
“Sex was something mysterious which happened to married couples and Homosexuality was never mentioned; my mother later told me my father did not believe it existed at all ‘until he joined the army’. As a child I was warned about talking to ‘strange men’, without any real idea what this meant. I was left to find out for myself what it was all about.”
Sex Crimes & the Wolfenden Committee
By the time of my caresses with another young man at school, there were moves towards legal reform, principally by the Homosexual Law Reform Society, founded in 1958. My friend and I were aware that our limited physical contacts were illegal, and were certain it was a ‘phase’, which would pass in favour of relations with women - we both later married.
This all took place, while the Wolfenden Committee was undergoing its deliberations on the subject of prostitution and homosexuality. All homosexual behaviour, or even suggesting it, were illegal at the time.
Anal intercourse, officially ‘buggery’ in England and ‘sodomy’ in Scotland, was punishable by life imprisonment, though before 1861 it was a capital crime. There were shorter sentences for other sexual acts, and for seeking them - cottaging (sexual activities in public lavatories) and ‘Gross indecency’ (mutual masturbation, oral-genital contact or ‘intercrural contact (referring to legs or thighs) - was only made a crime, for consenting behaviour in private in 1885 under the ‘Labouchere Amendment‘.
The maximum sentence was two years’ imprisonment, as it was for procuring or attempting to procure such acts. Prosecution for soliciting and importuning invited the use of police agents provocateurs. For this, six months in prison could be awarded by a magistrate’s court, but two years by an assize or quarter sessions.
Between 1945 and 1955 the number of annual prosecutions for homosexual behaviour rose from 800 to 2,500, of whom 1,000 received custodial sentences. Wolfenden found that in 1955 30% of those prosecuted were imprisoned. The irony of imprisoning homosexual men in institutions which were all-male seemed lost on the system.
I remember this being mocked on ‘That Was the Week that Was’, and Leo Abse, later to steer the 1967 Act through the Commons, likened them to imprisoning a sex maniac in a harem. Much misery was the outcome even for those not prosecuted, promoting a feeling of self loathing among gay men (the term ‘gay’ at that time meant happy) and at worst leading to suicide.
The reform activist Antony Grey quotes the case of police enquiries in Evesham in 1956, which were followed by one man gassing himself, one throwing himself under a train, leaving widow and children, and an 81 year old dying of a stroke before sentence could be passed.
The justifications of all this were various, centering around ‘abnormality’, a concept questioned by the American biologist Alfred Kinsey in America, when his extensive researches with large numbers of men suggested that they could be allocated on a seven point scale, between totally heterosexual and totally homosexual, with most men somewhere in between, suggesting in 1948 that most men had had some kind of homosexual experience at some time in their lives.
Not for the last time, the great and the good were of other opinions, with one Lord Chancellor refusing to sit in cabinet when the ‘filthy subject’ was discussed. Even Wolfenden, refers to homosexuality as ‘the problem’, others were less restrained, thinking of it as sin. The special feature of this particular form of sin is that it was also illegal.
‘How to Spot a Homo’
There were numerous cases, of men both prominent and obscure in this period, publicised in the press in a style simultaneously outraged, moralistic, self-righteous and full of juicy scandal, though it is interesting to note that opinion surveys suggest that far from all the general public agreed with such a stance, and a decreasing proportion as time went by.
The infamous Sunday Pictorial feature of 1963, ‘How to spot a Homo’, might be less a subject of interest today. Much use was made of stereotypes of mincing queens and child molesters or corrupters which bore at best marginal resemblance to the generality of gay men, then as now, but were nonetheless often believed.
The former Knitting Circle website, source of much vital material in the study of gay history, referred to the fifties as the time of the ‘Great Purge’. Most of those arrested in the police drive in the autumn and winter of 1953-4 were ordinary unexceptional men whose personal tragedies did not make much in the way of waves, except in the local press.
A few achieved wider notoriety, such as the case of Rupert Croft-Cooke and Joseph Alexander, who invited two Royal Navy cooks who they met in a pub in London to spend the weekend at their home in a Sussex village. When the cooks had difficulty getting back to their base in Chatham, they tried to steal a bicycle and were arrested.
In the course of questioning, they claimed to have been involved in committing indecencies - such an occurrence, where the original cause of interrogation was forgotten in the authorities’ eagerness to pursue homosexual men, became part of a pattern. Croft-Cooke and Alexander were arrested, an attempt by the Navy men to withdraw their earlier statements in writing was deemed inadmissible in court, and their Sussex hosts received prison sentences.
‘The Last Gay Trial’
Of all the cases from this time, the highest profile is that of Montague and Wildeblood in 1954, the former an aristocrat, the latter diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail. Montague and film director Kenneth Hume were accused and acquitted in 1953 of ‘committing an unnatural offence’ with two boy scouts on Montague’s estate at Beaulieu, but the jury could not agree on a further charge of indecent assault, and a retrial was ordered.
Shortly after, Montague, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood were charged with sodomy, attempted sodomy and gross indecency with two RAF men, and with conspiracy to commit the offences, a charge with less stringent rules of evidence which was also used later, even after law reform.
It is likely the RAF men were encouraged to name other names by promises of immunity if they did so - certainly, of all those they did name, only three men were charged. Use was also made of the social gulf between them and the accused, suggesting that itself was unnatural.
The RAF men disappeared into obscurity; the three accused were all found guilty and imprisoned. The only positive note is that Wildeblood was courageous and gifted enough a writer, to publish his account, called ‘Against the Law’, a widely praised work which helped to create the climate of opinion which led to the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee.
It has to be said that such prominent men must have been judged of little significance to polite society, perhaps because of their consorting with the lower orders. Others from upper echelons seemed to possess immunity from prosecution.
Noel Coward’s preferences were well known, but it can hardly have been a disadvantage to have friends in the royal family. The composer Benjamin Britten’s relationship with the tenor Peter Pears was widely enough known that my friend in school who was taking A level music said ‘Everyone knows they would get married if they could’.
The poet W H Auden, and Stephen Spender, even Burgess, Maclean and Blunt before their revelation as spies, all pursued their proclivities without falling foul of the law. So did the MP Tom Driberg, notorious for his casual liaisons, supposedly protected by his employer Lord Beaverbrook, for whom he wrote the William Hickey column.
It might be added that, while the law came down heavily on working class men, they were often more accepted by their families and communities than other groups - one thinks of Allan Horsfall’s later foundation of the North West Homosexual Reform Committee in a miner’s cottage in Lancashire, as well as the good-natured banter researchers reported between gay and straight in working class pubs."
To find out more come along to Pioneers and Progress – A short British history of gay men’s freedom. 23rd February 7pm at the Lesbian & Gay Foundation
A special event for LGBT History Month to share Mike’s short history of freedom for gay men in Britain since the 1950’s featuring exclusive interviews with Leo Abse, Alan Horsfall, Peter Tatchell, Dennis Killin and thoughts on the late Antony Grey. To reserve your place please e-mail: email@example.com