Rural Queer Lives in Berkshire Criminal Archives 1861-1967

The Broken Futures project was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2019 and seeks to explore the history of ‘ordinary’ men in Berkshire who were charged with buggery/indecent assault/gross indecency between 1861-1967 by training community volunteers in archival and genealogical research. The project is managed and delivered by Support U, the LGBT+ support and wellbeing charity in the Thames Valley. To find out more through our larger museum exhibition, seminar series, walking tour or toolkit, visit the Broken Futures website.

This exhibition outlines the legal history surrounding sex between men and how these developments affected the rural county of Berkshire. This project diversifies the traditional narratives that are preserved within archives and museums. This is the first time this research has been completed so extensively in Berkshire, and we invite you to find out more by clicking the images below.

The Broken Futures team are interested to know your thoughts on this exhibition, and the project in general, so please do fill out our feedback form on the Broken Futures website.

Logos for National Lottery Heritage Fund, Broken Futures, and Support U.

 

The Buggery Act 1533
The Labouchère Amendment
Regulating Sex Between Women: The Earl of Desart’s View
Portrait of Lord Wolfenden
The Sexual Offences Act 1967
Pardoning Sex Between Men: Alan Turing
Reading Assizes Court
The Judge’s Opinion
Calendar of Prisoners of the Berkshire Assizes
HM Prison Reading
The Registers of Reading Prison
Rural Queer Lives
Support U
The Buggery Act 1533

The Buggery Act 1533

Established during Henry VIII’s reign, The Buggery Act was the first time sex between men was criminalised in secular Law. The Act did not define what ‘buggery’ entailed, but it became used to prosecute for anal penetration, between men, a man and a woman, and a man and an animal. Similar capital provisions remained in force for nearly 300 years: the actual number of prosecutions and executions under this act is unclear. The Buggery Act was replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act in 1828, which lessened the burden of proof for buggery from emission of seed to penetration only. The 1828 Act was then replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which established the offence of the attempt to commit buggery on a statutory basis for the first time under Section 62.

British Library 506.d.33

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The Labouchère Amendment

The Labouchère Amendment

This is an annotated copy of s.11 Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885. This offence was introduced as a result of an amendment moved by the Liberal MP Henry Labouchère. There is some debate surrounding the actual change that the amendment made to the law surrounding sex between men, but it does appear that its introduction made it much easier for prosecutors to convict men for sexual acts with other men. The section introduced the offence of ‘gross indecency’, which seems sufficiently vague to cover most sexual acts, and this was the offence used to convict Oscar Wilde and many other ordinary people in Berkshire.

British Library 6485.aaa.6.

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Regulating Sex Between Women: The Earl of Desart’s View

Regulating Sex Between Women: The Earl of Desart’s View

Whilst sex between men was prosecuted through various laws, sex between women was never directly prosecuted in England. In 1921, an amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was proposed in the House of Commons to regulate ‘gross indecency’ between women. This amendment was passed in the Commons but was struck down in the House of Lords, as they feared it would actually alert women to the possibility of having sex with each other. The Hansard passage outlines the Earl of Desart’s disagreement to the Amendment. Whilst we can’t be sure which prosecution he is referring to that ‘attracted very great public attention’, it seems a fitting description of Wilde’s well-known trial and imprisonment.

House of Lords Debate, 15 Aug 1921, vol 43, col 57

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Portrait of Lord Wolfenden

Portrait of Lord Wolfenden

This is the official portrait of Lord Wolfenden, who was Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading from 1950-1963. During his tenure, he chaired a Home Office committee focused on the laws surrounding ‘homosexual offences and prostitution’. The committee took evidence from across society and recommended that Parliament should partially decriminalise sex between men. The report has been criticised for not pushing harder and for its moralising tone surrounding these offences, but it was instrumental in the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which made sex between men (in certain stringent circumstances) legal for the first time since the reign of Henry VIII.

University Art Collection UAC/10062

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The Sexual Offences Act 1967

The Sexual Offences Act 1967

The Wolfenden Report contributed to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised consensual sexual acts that took place in private between males over the age of 21. This, however, did not extend to certain common-sense private places like hotels or any event involving more than two participants. Some historians see the passing of the act as part of a wider move towards a permissive society under Harold Wilson.

The People Newspaper, 1 September 1968, pg. 3

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Pardoning Sex Between Men: Alan Turing

Pardoning Sex Between Men: Alan Turing

This is a statue of Alan Turing, sculpted by Stephen Kettle with slate from North Wales. Turing’s involvement in the Second World War effort has been well-documented, and he is featured on the new £50 polymer note. In 1952, Turing was convicted of gross indecency for a consensual sexual relationship with another man. He was pardoned posthumously in 2013, prompting calls for the pardon to be made universal. This posthumous pardon was granted in 2017 and applies to some of the men included in the Broken Futures research. Under the new legislation, living people convicted of ‘homosexual’ offences can apply to the UK Government to have their convictions disregarded or pardoned.

"Alan Turing" Christopher_Hawkins CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Reading Assizes Court

Reading Assizes Court

Built in 1861, the Reading’s Assizes Courts from 1867 held the Berkshire’s Assizes and Quarter Sessions. Assizes Courts appeared in main county towns and were presided over by visiting judges from London’s higher courts. Numerous ordinary men were placed in the dock here on a charge relating to sex between men and the outcomes of these trials can be found within the Calendars of Prisoners now held by the Berkshire Record Office. These are the records that have been used by the Broken Futures history group to find individuals tried for sex with other men.

Berkshire Record Office D/EZ112/1/6

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The Judge’s Opinion

The Judge’s Opinion

In 1885, the Reading Assizes Courts heard the case of John and James, each charged with buggery in connection to the other. The Judge warned the Jury that unless the case was clear, then it would be better not to bring this into the public eye. ‘No Bill’ was found by the Grand Jury, which meant the case did not proceed to a full trial – presumably the Grand Jury followed the Judge’s advice.

To learn more about the use of newspaper research to locate further context beyond the archival documents, please visit the toolkit on the Broken Futures website.

Oxfordshire Weekly News, 22 April 1885, p.6

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Calendar of Prisoners of the Berkshire Assizes

Calendar of Prisoners of the Berkshire Assizes

This is a calendar of prisoners tried at the Autumn Assizes in Reading on 4th November 1905. We have chosen to obscure the surnames of the two individuals who were accused of buggery, gross indecency, and inciting sodomy; but they are printed in the original document and are a matter of public record. The fact that two men were charged for acts performed on one another appears to indicate that this was a consensual relationship. Further information on the case can be found in local newspapers, in which Francis’ landlord gives evidence about how he was able to spy on the men, using a ladder and a carefully positioned hole in the bedroom ceiling.

To learn more about the Calendars of Prisoners as a source for recovering queer stories and the ethics and practical considerations relating to this, please visit the Broken Futures website.

Berkshire Record Office Q/SMC/14

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HM Prison Reading

HM Prison Reading

Built in 1844, HM Prison Reading still stands today in the centre of the town. After Abingdon’s prison closure in 1868, HMP Reading became Berkshire’s County Prison. The prison used the ‘separate system’ that had previously been used in Pentonville Prison in 1842. This kept prisoners in their cells for 22 hours a day and was designed to prevent suspected corruption resulting from prisoners mixing. The prison closed in 2014 and for many LGBT+ people is a site of queer heritage. The prison is famous for the well-documented story of Prisoner C.3.3, Oscar Wilde, who served two years for gross indecency, during which he wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

To find out more about the history and future of Reading Gaol, listen to our online seminar series by visiting the Broken Futures website.

Special Collections P DX322 PH1/DL/95

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The Registers of Reading Prison

The Registers of Reading Prison

The Prison Registers for HM Prison Reading, held at the Berkshire Record Office indicate that numerous ordinary and rural men were sentenced to time in the prison for gross indecency, buggery, and indecent assault between 1861-1920. Research volunteers also uncovered how men court-martialled during their military service for ‘Indecent/Disgraceful Conduct’ were transferred transferred to Reading Prison to serve their sentence. The biographical material provided by the Prison Registers is invaluable for genealogical research to humanise the lives that these documents fleetingly record. The Berkshire Record Office also holds photographic records of the inmates of Reading Prison. If you’d like to read more, please see our research toolkit.

Berkshire Record Office P/RP1/1

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Rural Queer Lives

Rural Queer Lives

Finding rural queer lives in criminal archives requires care and attention to navigate ethical and practical issues. The Broken Futures project, through our community-based history group, has found heart-wrenching tales of same-sex desire, family unity, and stories of people trying to simply live an ordinary life in the face of huge societal condemnation. We’ve found evidence of sex between men throughout the county of Berkshire, from the poorest agricultural labourer to the landed gentry. These people cannot fit neatly into our own contemporary categories of sexuality, but they have been reclaimed by the LGBT+ community as evidence of the diversity and queerness of Berkshire’s past. HM Prison Reading has also become a site of queer heritage for the LGBT+ community, with current campaigns for it to become a community hub. The new addition to the prison walls by Banksy may demonstrate the strength of feeling towards this site.

A photo taken by Support U on 1 March 2021

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Support U

Support U

Support U is the LGBT+ support and wellbeing charity in the Thames Valley, which opened in 2011 and celebrates its ten-year anniversary in 2021. The charity provides frontline, counselling and group support to the LGBT+ community and is made up of a fantastic group of 30 staff and volunteers who support over 5000 enquiries every year. Throughout its history, Support U has remained passionate towards understanding Berkshire’s place in queer history and has ran two successful projects with the National Lottery Heritage Fund: Hidden Voices in 2015 which recollected the hidden voices of Reading’s queer subculture in the 70s, 80s and 90s; and the Wolfenden 60 project in 2018, which investigated the impact of the Report.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this exhibition, we’d love to know your thoughts, so please do provide us with your feedback or get in touch with us at hello@brokenfutures.co.uk!

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