A hidden history

Issue: 125

Colin Wilson

Charles Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (University of California Press, 2009), £30.95

This fascinating and important book focuses on the history of sex between men in the first half of the 19th century.

Upchurch sets his story in a broader historical context. This period saw the development of many features of modern capitalist society as Britain became an urban, industrial country. The franchise was extended from landowners to middle class men. The state increased its power, with the Metropolitan Police established in the 1820s and the first modern prison built in 1810. Newspapers expanded their readership from a third of London’s population to five out of six people.

Class conflicts between the aristocracy, the middle class and workers were reflected in practice and thinking about sexuality. Middle class people valued self-restraint and respectability. The family was an almost sacred domestic space, where men protected women and children from the harsh world of work and business.

The middle classes rejected what they saw as aristocratic hedonism. George IV had divorced Queen Caroline in 1820, for example, for adultery with an Italian servant. Middle class people saw such scandals as typical of more general corruption, which made the aristocracy unfit to hold absolute power.

They were also horrified by workers’ sexuality. Industrialisation had undermined working class family structures. In many families low pay meant that women and children went out to work, and the authority of the father as head of the household declined. Many young working class women found things so bad that their best option was to work as prostitutes for a period before becoming wives and mothers. Some working class men, particularly those in the army, also turned to casual prostitution, while others blackmailed rich men who wanted sex with them. Middle class observers argued that workers lacked thrift and self-control—if they were poor, it was because they drank their wages away in the pub. If they tolerated sex before
marriage, this was no better than endorsing general promiscuity.

Upchurch’s account is drawn from court records and hundreds of articles from the newly popular newspapers of the period. No one in these sources ever refers to the idea that a minority of people are homosexual, that desire for one’s own sex is limited to a minority across all classes. Asked why they had propositioned another man, those accused often replied that they were drunk, had acted “on the impulse of the moment” or had “forgotten themselves”. Courts regularly accepted such arguments: upper and middle class men were able to gather witnesses to their “good character”, and these generally outweighed evidence, no matter how strong, about actual propositions or sexual acts.

Changes in this overall picture took place during the 19th century. In the 18th century prosecutions had been rare and sensational. The law and the number of prosecutions both changed in the 1820s. Attempted sodomy and even “soliciting” sodomy—chatting someone up—were criminalised as well as sodomy itself. A two-year sentence was typical. The 1822 Vagrancy Act also allowed police to arrest prostitutes and others for “suspicious loitering”.

In some ways the legal changes of the 1820s, with their introduction of “attempted sodomy”, can be seen as a link between the punishment of sodomy alone in the 18th century and the criminalisation of all sex between men after 1885. It is also interesting to see the appearance in this period of the idea that a certain “type” of man might seek other men for sex.

But the ideas of the early 19th century differ radically from the later concept of “the homosexual”. The idea that same-sex desire was congenital in a minority was a concept initially adopted with most enthusiasm by middle class men—unlike the views adopted earlier in the century, it provided a way for them to explain their desires which was not associated with moral weakness, foreigners or the lower classes. Upchurch’s wealth of evidence shows just how novel that idea was.