Homosexual acts were illegal in England until 1967. Early punishments ranged from fines, imprisonment for up to two years in a house of correction, with or without 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. The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual act illegal, even in private.

Attitudes to homosexuality in earlier times are difficult to gauge as historical records rarely exist for anything other than what was then deemed criminal activity. Historical records reflect attitudes to and the treatment of homosexuality and many do not use modern-day LGBT terminology.

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’. These records show how homosexual activity was dealt with at that time.

In Surrey, several cases appear in the Quarter Sessions records, although survival of all evidence, from the arrest to the sentencing of prisoners, is incomplete. Many of the accused were acquitted through lack of evidence. For others, punishment was mainly the equivalent of a good behaviour bond. We have created online case studies to show their relevance to LGBT history.

Surrey LGBT personalities Edward Onslow, John Gielgud and Alan Turing all fell foul of the law. Onslow, an MP, of Clandon Park, went into exile in France in 1781, following an accusation of a homosexual affair; Gielgud was prosecuted for ‘cottaging’ and, humiliated by the ordeal, avoided Hollywood for over a decade for fear of retribution; and Turing underwent horrific chemical castration, termed as ‘rehabilitation’, which ultimately contributed to his suicide.

The Pillory Triumphant, 1765 (courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum).

The Pillory Triumphant, 1765 (courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum).

Cases of alleged homosexuality in Surrey Quarter Sessions records

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)

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.

Examination of David Dartnall, 16 March 1716 (SHC Ref.QS2/6/1717/Eas/87)

Examination of David Dartnall, 16 March 1716 (SHC Ref.QS2/6/1717/Eas/87)

Click here for a full transcript of the casetransparent_pdf.gif.


LGBT Legislation

  • Anglo-Saxon laws made no mention of same-sex desire or sodomy.
  • By the 13th century, a legal text called the ‘Fleta’ required ‘sodomites’ to be punished by being buried alive, whilst the ‘Britton’ advocated burning. No evidence exists that the punishments were ever carried out.
  • Sexual activity between men was first criminalised in the reign of Henry VIII through the Buggery Act of 1533, which declared that the crime be punishable by death.
  • In 1540, Walter, Baron Hungerford, was the first person to be executed under the Buggery Act. Hungerford was also accused of treason and witchcraft but the charges were politically motivated. Hungerford was executed with Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, on Tower Hill, London.
  • 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.

(Courtesy of Stonewall and Historic England)

For a post 1967 LGBT timeline see From Punishment to Pride – The Sexual Offences and beyond

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