Offences against the person? Tracing hidden LGB histories through Berkshire court records and archives

Offences against the person? Tracing hidden LGB histories through Berkshire court records and archives

Amy Hitchings and George Stokes

For the past three weeks, we have been working on an undergraduate research internship: tracing hidden LGB histories through Berkshire County records from 1861 until 1919.

Our period covers some major changes to the statute book; the landmark Offences Against the Person Act 1861, now repealed by subsequent Sexual Offences Acts, reduced buggery from a capital offence to one that carried a custodial sentence only. It also introduced the offence of attempt to commit buggery. In addition to this, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (known as the Labouchère Amendment) introduced the offence of Gross Indecency – a charge that seemingly could be used for any ‘homosexual’ act and of which Oscar Wilde was convicted. Our project will use court records of people who had committed an offence of a ‘homosexual’ nature within the historic county boundaries and then attempt to trace their personal history using other records. In this way, we’ll seek to go beyond the criminality of the acts to build up a more rounded picture of the lives of these people.

Our first task was to compile a list of people who had fallen foul of the criminal justice system for ‘homosexual’ acts. These records are, for the most part, held by the Berkshire Record Office. The majority of our first and second weeks were spent scouring Calendars of Prisoners for the Berkshire Assizes and Quarter Sessions, the registers of Reading Prison, and newspaper reports from the period. These types of record usually gave the prisoner’s name, age, trade, and a (sometimes very) brief description of the offence. We ran into a few difficulties at this stage, primarily because of the phrasing of the offence; with Berkshire being a rural county, there was often ambiguity in the type of ‘unnatural offence’ – the 1861 Act uses the same section for buggery ‘either with Mankind or with any Animal’. We have found no mention of women in the records that we consulted.

From this initial list of names, we have begun to find court papers. The majority of cases were heard in the assize courts. These records are held by the National Archives and necessitated a day trip to Kew! Unfortunately, many of the records relating to our project were not kept; we had been hoping to find witness depositions but these usually only survive where they relate to more serious offences. However, we were able to find the indictments that were put to the men in our study, which we can use to establish trends over time. It will be particularly interesting to see whether there was a new impetus to prosecute after the Labouchère Amendment. Where there are no assizes records available, we are hoping to garner some information from the hearings of the petty sessions before the cases were sent to the assizes (roughly the modern equivalent of a hearing in the Magistrates’ Court before the case is transferred to the Crown Court).

In the second half of our project, we shall revisit the National Archives to finish collating all of the documents for the project. We’ll be uncovering biographical data and context about the individuals convicted of ‘homosexual’ offences in the period. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, same-sex desire was not seen as such a fundamental aspect of a person’s character as is the case today. It will be interesting to see how such harsh punishment for acts of a homosexual nature would have impacted the lives of these men after their sentence had expired. Did any of these men get caught a second time, or did they conform to the heteronormative expectations of the period?

Throughout our project, we’ve had the opportunity to work with original documents, as well as gaining an insight into the day-to-day work of an archive. We’ve been allowed access to the strongrooms, learnt about accessioning and cataloguing, and taken part in conservation. Researching has developed our time-management, data analysis, and team work, as well as getting to grips with nineteenth and early twentieth century social history and institutions.