Finding LGB individuals in the archives

We have a guest item today from a small project that Reading University ran over the summer. I was lucky enough to join George and Amy on one of their research trips. Please come along to one of the events where they will be presenting their findings.

In recent weeks, the Supreme Court of India has legalised same-sex acts, overruling a regulation concerning ‘unnatural offences’. There are still advances to be made on this issue, but it is hugely significant. When celebrating our victories, it is often helpful to consider the victims of past prejudices and persecution. In the United Kingdom, the complete ban on same-sex acts continued until the Sexual Offences Act 1967 came into force. Even after this date, there were stringent conditions in which sexual relations between people of the same sex could be considered legal.

Before 1967, men (and they were invariably men: there was no desire to prosecute same-sex acts among women during the same period) who were suspected of having sexual relations with other men would be hauled before the courts and had their ‘transgressions’ examined by lawyers and reported in newspapers. The death penalty for same-sex acts remained in force until the Sexual Offences Act 1861. Even after this date, sex between men could be punished by up to ten years in prison. Men who were accused of intimate encounters with other men have been immortalised in the records of the justice system that criminalised them. The records for Berkshire are held by the Berkshire Record Office and the National Archives.

These records only document the individuals in their role as a perpetrator (or the person accused) of crime, however. They are full of condemnation: the acts are described as abominable, unmentionable and detestable. We wanted to delve deeper into the lives of these men and explore how their crime fitted into their broader story. In the course of our research, we uncovered heart-wrenching tales of heroism, persecution, deception, and resilience.

One such story is that of a man who was born just before the turn of the century. He was accused of committing acts of gross indecency with another man at the age of
17. His initial hearing took place at Wokingham Petty Sessions where he was indicted to
Berkshire Assizes. At the Court of Assize, he was found guilty and sentenced to three years
in a borstal institution. His sentence expired in 1915 and a few months later, he enlisted. He was in the army between January 1916 and July 1916, at which point he was discharged for being ‘mentally defective’. He is recorded in the 1939 register as living in Wokingham with relations. The parish death records show that he lived until his eighties.

There are many questions that are left unanswered by the records that were kept about this individual. It is impossible to tell the circumstances of the ‘gross indecency’ – was this a case of experimentation or the manifestation of a deeper and more lasting sexual desire? In any case, his punishment for gross indecency (a crime for which he would probably be pardoned for) would have been a formative experience for anyone of his young age, let alone for someone branded as ‘mentally defective’ by the state.

Join us at the events below to hear more of the stories we found and to explore the issues surrounding the punishment of individuals for same-sex desire.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE: THE LIMITS OF COMMUNITY

A free public exhibition at Reading Minster, RG1 2XH on Saturday 10th November 2018 from 10am–4pm

On Saturday 10 November, Reading Minster turns into an interactive exhibition space filled with studies on crime and criminal justice carried out by University of Reading researchers at the School of Law.

Can the use of criminal punishments prevent unwanted deaths? How has punishment changed over the years? What does history tell us about what and who should be criminalised?

https://esrc.ukri.org/public-engagement/festival-of-social-science/festival-events/events-in-south-east-england/criminal-justice-the-limits-of-community/

OFFENCES AGAINST THE PERSON?  DISCOVERING HIDDEN LGB HISTORIES IN BERKSHIRE COURT ARCHIVES.

A free teatime exhibition and discussion of our research at Berkshire Record Office, 9 Coley Ave, Reading, RG1 6AF on Monday 11 February 2019 from 4:30pm-6pm (exhibition and refreshments from 4:30pm, discussion from 5)

As part of LGBT History Month, join us to hear University of Reading students Amy Hitchings and George Stokes discuss the findings of their summer 2018 UROP (Under Graduate Research Program) research; to learn about some previously forgotten lives; to see some of the Victorian and Edwardian documents they used for research; and to enjoy tea and cake.

For tickets, please contact the Berkshire Record Office – arch@reading.ac.uk

George Stokes spent the summer working with Amy Hitchings on research into hidden LGB histories in Berkshire, covering the period 1861-1919. This research was funded by the University of Reading under its UROP scheme.

60 Years ago Today

60 Years ago today, Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden published his report which set the stage to legal changes that made gay love ‘not criminal’. To mark this occasion Katherine Harloe of Reading University and Jessica Stevens-Taylor of the Wolfenden Project have compiled a short blog. Please read it here.

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