Before Stonewall UK

The law gay culture had to face in the early part of the 20th century

A brief look at the laws of the 20th century affecting homosexuality.

In 1969 when the tragic events of Stonewall unfolded in New York, this side of the Atlantic ‘Gay life’ was completely different than what we see today.

Stonewall Inn

(above – Stonewall Inn, NYC circa 1969)

Homosexuality in England and Wales (1980 in Scotland and 1982  in Northern Ireland) had only just been decriminalised in 1967, under The Sexual Offences Act 1967, after over ten years of attempts to change the law. This didn’t mean that it was accepted by any means.

Two years before homosexuality was legalised in 1965 an opinion poll found that 93% of the population who responded saw homosexuality as an illness, this linked with the ‘Wolfeden Report’ that was published in 1957 and was commissioned in 1954 to take a look at the law, makes it hardly surprising how the 1967 law actually was not as progressive as some would have liked and others appear to think it was.

To understand why the law was the way it was in 1967 we need to look at previous laws.

Nineteen Fifty Four was not an overall progressive year and some events were even tragic or showed little advancement for gay rights at the time. However, 1954 was still a year that paved the way for progression further down the line, and in some cases as affected the way we look at equal rights up to the present day

Peter Wildeblood


Above – Peter Wildeblood

9 January 1954, Peter Wildeblood was arrested, his home in Canonbury, Islington searched for evidence of homosexual acts, he was later charged with the conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons.

The police are known to have tipped the press off, owing to the persons involved. The following day the scandal hit the headlines in the Sunday papers, forcing the trial to be front page news. Even though this trial was not by any means the last of its kind, it was certainly one of the most prolific, and gained high volumes of public interest.

In March of that year Wildeblood appeared in court with his co-offenders; Lord Edward Montagu, and Montagu’s cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers.

Wildeblood was in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, and after returning he pursued a career in journalism and worked for The Daily Mail.

Dramatically during the trail Wildeblood confessed to being homosexual and along with Montagu and Pitt-Rivers was sentenced. It is believed that Wildeblood is the first man to ever admit he was homosexual in Britain in a public forum.

Wildeblood received an eighteen month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs for acts of Gross indecency, using the Labouchere Amendment of 1885. It’s worth pointing out the law at this time stated up to two years imprisonment.

He wrote a book based on his experiences that highlighted the appalling conditions of the prison. This contributed to prison reforms and progression in equality for LGBT rights. Later he wrote another book on gay life in London that also received critical acclaim.

Furthermore, in this era the police actively enforced laws prohibiting sexual behavior between men. It was common place for dawn raids, such as Wildeblood’s experience, on suspected gay men’s houses. By the end of 1954, there were 1,069 men in prison due to laws against homosexuality in England and Wales, with an average age of 37. You also have to bear in mind when compulsory service was in place in 1938 these men would be on average 21 and would have fought through most of World War II for their Queen and Country. It is thought that 250,000 Gay and bisexual men served in the armed forces during World War II.

Since then very few men that served in world war two and served prison sentences for such acts have received any form of pardon.


Above – John Wolfenden

Another well documented case of this era was Alan Turing. Turing sadly took his own life on 7 June of 1954. Just like the men previously mentioned, he fought for his country in other ways during the war. It is known that his efforts at Berkeley Park saved many lives and must never be forgotten.  He was prosecuted for homosexual acts two years prior to his suicide, and rather than face a prison sentence, was injected with oestrogen treatments, that chemically castrated him.

In more recent years, Turing’s struggle has come to light once again, and was most brilliantly documented in a film portraying his life, The Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing).

In 2009 an official public apology by the British Prime Minister was announced, after an Internet campaign. In 2013, Turing was granted a posthumous pardon, which in this author’s opinion was well-deserved.

It took till October 2016 for posthumous pardons to be offered to everyone.

Because of the Montagu and Wildeblood trail the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe commissioned ‘The Wolfenden Committee’ which was to consider reform in the British law relating to homosexual offences and prostitution. This was in part due to pressure from the media and public scrutiny.

24 August, 1954, ‘The Wolfenden Committee’ was appointed, with fifteen members, and John Wolfenden as head. He is now considered to be an LGBT hero of Equal Rights. At the beginning of the trail Wolfenden suggested for the sake of the ladies in the room, that they use the terms “Huntley” and “Palmers” after the biscuit manufacturers – Huntley’s for homosexuals and Palmers for prostitutes. This reflected the mood at the time.

The committee met for sixty-two days and thirty-two of those days where used for interviewing witnesses, over the course of three years. Naturally it was hard to get homosexuals to come forward but nonetheless three did. Among those three was Peter Wildeblood, recently released from prison.

More on the main persons involved with the enquiry
1954 – Revisited: Three gay men 

Historians will look back and see 1954 as a very active and interesting year regarding LGBT and Equal Rights, although not much was positive. Even ‘The Wolfenden Committee’ has been criticized for not reflecting gay culture of the day.

Peter Tatchell made comments in 92 that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 led to more prosecutions of Gay and Bisexual men than ever before. True or false, what is apparent was it’s inequality and laws that followed it too.

Under the 1967 act gay men couldn’t even hold hands in the street or meet up in an hotel room. This was also backed up much later with other legislation in 1986, that led to young gay men being fined for kissing in public places due to nowhere to go, followed by Section 28 that prevented the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

When joining any armed forces everyman would have to declare that they were not homosexual under the 1967 legislation or subjected to later prosecution if discovered. No gay man could join the armed forces at all. This was very different to when World War Two broke out, when homosexuality was often turned a blind eye to.

Of cause one of the biggest issues with the act was the inequality of homosexuality. The age of consent for heterosexual sex was 16 and for lesbian activity nothing existed. This was due to there was no legislation against lesbianism at all. However this didn’t prevent attitudes towards Lesbians being any less hostile at times, simply they were never under threat of prosecution under previous laws.

A good article explaining Lesbian issues through the 18th to 20th century is 

No age of consent was ever drawn up till 2003 when campaigners won equality for all in the regards of age of consent.

Understanding what was happening in regards of laws does explain how the gay movement in the UK was still in it’s infancy just before Stonewall and makes it easier to understand why it had a deep impact on Britain.

Here is a few articles on the previous law that affected over 59158 men in UK alone, between 1885 and 1967 when it was replaced.

It’s worth pointing out this law was used in other countries of the British Empire too and still affects many today.

 Henry Labouchere – The MP who brought forward the Labouchere Amendment in 1885

A good article on the Labouchere Amendment and the man behind it is

Another good article  explaining previous laws and why it led to the Labouchere Amendment, The Offences against the Person Act 1861 


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