Since the introduction of the Buggery act of 1533 many men fell foul of the law, both in the United Kingdom and the many countries governed by the British. This article is devised to help to understand the reality they had to face. In order to understand the life these men had to face because of their sexuality we must reflect on the punishments that the ”crime” of buggery would hold. We can then try to understand what dangers these men faced when they were simply being themselves.
The buggery act 1533 wasn’t really used in the 16th century and 17th century and never used without other prosecutions, which many believe this was due to politics and was used as a tool to seize assets and humiliation purposes.
Within the 18th and 19th centuries, even though the act of buggery would condemn you to death other sentences could also be handed out. This was usually because there had to be clear evidence for a death sentence to be handed out and other homosexual acts were not technically punishable until much latter(1885). It wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to die whilst serving their sentences for minor related crimes.
A prisoner that was sentenced to stand in the pillory would face hostility from the crowds on his journey from the prison to the pillory itself. The fishwives of Drury Lane had a reputation throughout the area for their maximum cruelty. During this time period the population was very aggressive towards any man who was convicted of sodomy. It wasn’t uncommon that within ten minutes of his journey to the pillory a young man would be so covered with filth that it would be hard to tell if he was facing you or had his back to you.
He would be pelted with mud, fish, dead animals, rotten and spoilt food, and also stones. The police would be present but would do little to protect them; even though they were not condemned to die, frequently it was the case due to intensive injuries.
One infamous Molly house owner, Margaret Clap, was tried for keeping a “Sodomutical house” and was sentence to stand in the stocks at Smithfield Market, paying a hefty fine as well as two years imprisonment. It is believed that Margaret Clap died from the injuries induced by the crowds, after fainting several times and falling from the pillory once. It wasn’t unheard of at this point in history that the crowds induced such vicious injuries that the alleged criminal lost their lives whilst in the stocks.
Five members of the infamous Vere Street Coterie were also placed in the pillory at The Haymarket, having been arrested after the raid on a Molly house called The White Swan. The crowds were so fierce the authorities began to question their tactics against the arrested. It wasn’t until much later an Act of Parliament on the 30 June, 1837 that the use of the pillory was abolished. It became accepted that the sentence was often an unfit and tragic death in some cases. When debated in parliament, one MP pointed out of a short man being strangled by the stocks, with no care from the authorities present. It wasn’t uncommon for large crowds to form as it was considered entertainment for them.
Public hanging also formed crowds to witness such events outside of gaols and courthouses. One incident in Nottingham (unrelated to buggery charges) witnessed members of the crowds crushed to death on the tight streets in front of the courthouse. This led to an inquiry and then helped to enforce in future the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868. In the amendment it was made clear that the defendant would be hung in the grounds of the gaol, and the remains burnt. Prior to this it wasn’t uncommon for an executed prisoner to be placed in a hanging cage, otherwise known as “Gibbet”, covered in tar for preservation and left to ward of other law breakers, while crows would peck at their exposed bodies.
It is worth pointing out a few facts out about the death sentence in the UK at this point in history, bringing it in context with other crimes that warranted hangings. In the 1600s there were only about fifty offences listed, but this soared by 1750 with up to 160, and by 1815 it was over 200
By the 1800s you could receive a hanging for simply writing a threatening letter, stealing a cow, pick pocketing, being out at night with a blackened face, damaging Westminster bridge, and even impersonating a Chelsea pensioner. Death sentence for petty thief was repealed by 1805.
Between 1791 and 1892 over 10,300 executions for all crimes had taken place, including one of a fourteen year old boy. The last execution in the UK was in 1964, and abolished the following year, however it wasn’t until 1998 that they lifted being hung for treason.
Between 1806 and 1861 (before the death sentence was repealed), over 400 men had been sentenced for buggery.
One consequence of the Vere Street raids on The White Swan came from a regimental drummer boy who tipped off the police of another drummer boy and his partner being frequent users of the Molly house. The drummer boy was sixteen, Thomas White, and his partner was forty-six, John Hewbolt Hepburn. The drummer boy that tipped them off escaped prosecution whilst the named offenders hanged a year later for their “crimes”. It is said that White’s mother took to her bed with a broken heart and died days after her sixteen year old son’s death. White was literate and wrote of his accounts, these accounts have provided a great insight into the life of Molly houses.
It is worth pointing out that heterosexual girls commonly worked as prostitutes from the age of twelve in this time period. The age of consent for heterosexuality wasn’t increased until the second part of the 19th century, after much public outcry for change.
Many others would have received prison sentences. Reverend John Church, spent a year in prison after an alleged incident awhile after the Vere Street raids, he continued to preach after his release.
It wasn’t until Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, that there was real prison reform. She made it public knowledge how poorly the prisons were managed, and the state of the inmates there, in particular those of the women’s prisons.
The last two men hung for homosexual acts was in 1835. A third man was put on trial at the same time and was sentence for his “involvement”, though he received deportation. His name was William Bonill.
Bonill was one of 290 prisoners transported to Australia on the ship Asia, which departed England on 5 November, 1835 and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania on 5 July, 1836. Bonill died in Van Diemen’s Land on 29 April, 1841.
Deportations were also very common instead of hanging. Prisoners would find themselves in Penal colonies, first in America but then Australia after the War of Independence. Many prisoners lost their lives on the journey in squalid conditions, if not at the destination through the back-breaking work and treatment.
After 1861 hanging was replaced by life imprisonment, and after the passing of the Labouchere Amendment in 1885, by up to two years’ incarceration. The last person receiving a death sentence for sodomy was John Spencer, being found guilty in July 1860, following three separate trials, however, the sentence was not carried out.
On reflection it was a different time and a tough one too. Poverty was common place and Dickens himself commented that it would be different if the men hanged were wealthy, as they wouldn’t have been spied upon like they had been when caught. If they were rich they would have more privacy. There is also strong evidence that many wealthy men bribed the police at this time to escape prosecution.
Incredibly, it took 132 years after the last hangings for homosexuality to become decriminalized in England, and still later in other parts of the uk. Other acts emerged in the 1800s changing the face of general prosecution throughout the Victorian period, but that is a story for another time.
Here is an interesting article on the last two men hanged for homosexual actswas by Peter Tatchell…..