08:44pm Tuesday 28 January 2020

The surprising truth about the lives of gay men in Victorian England

THE largest ever survey of court cases relating to the criminalisation of gay men has revealed some surprising finds.

Historian Jeff Evans, from Manchester Metropolitan University, has painstakingly sifted through more than 280,000 criminal cases at the National Archive at Kew which suggest that the supposedly prudish Victorians had a far more relaxed attitude to sex between men than their 1960s counterparts.

The records – which now form the biggest database of its kind – are believed to represent 64% of all indictable court cases relating to sex between men held in the Lancashire Assize and Quarter Sessions.

They show that outside of London, The Criminal Justice System in regions such as Lancashire simply weren’t interested in prosecuting gay men for their activities.

“Nor a priority”

Jeff said: “Between 1850 and the start of World War One, prosecutions of consensual sex between men in Lancashire are negligible – less than four or five cases per year. This suggests it was not a priority for police.

“Furthermore, when these cases actually got to court, more than half were thrown out. The Grand Jury apparently thought it was just none of their business.”

Jeff, who is one of the organisers of the First National Festival of LGBT History, which will take place in Manchester over Valentine’s weekend, chose to study the court records as they are independent and verifiable.
He says they show that even actions such as the Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Amendment Act 1885, which criminalised all types of sexual activity between two men, didn’t make an appreciable difference to the number of prosecutions.

“It was only in the 1960s that the records show an exponential rise in prosecutions,” he says.

New history

Jeff continued: “This is a relatively new area of historical investigation. What’s very interesting about this period is how the stereotypical readings of ‘gay history’ are about the brutality of law officers, but that isn’t borne out in these records.

“In the late 19th century punishment drops off from death or life sentence to a handful of years – we can’t quantify why, but can statistically say the ‘disgust’ of the crime wasn’t reflected in the sentencing.”

Jeff is also one of the organisers of the first national festival of LGBT history, which will be held in Manchester over the Valentine’s weekend.

He said: “The aim is not to see LGBT history as a silo – it enriches our island’s story by putting back history that is missing, and it’s a beautiful part – love! A quiet revolution is happening, a quite remarkable but very interesting revolution… a very English revolution.

“Civic change has allowed us the space to write that history – I could not do the work if that quiet revolution hadn’t happened to give me and others the opportunity to historicise that period.”

Notes to editors
For more information about the Festival of LGBT History, visit http://lgbthistoryfestival.org/


Jeff Evans is available for interview. Please contact Kat Dibbits in the Manchester Metropolitan University press office on K.Dibbits@mmu.ac.uk or ring 0161 247 5278.

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