1835: Last Gay Men Executed in the United Kingdom

March 26, 2015 in General

On the last Saturday of August 1835, labourer James Pratt (30) left his wife and two young daughters in Deptford, south London to search for work – promising to return by 6pm. He needed a better job. Pratt first visited his aunt in Holborn, before heading to Blackfriars. His aunt thought he’d had too much alcohol and needed a rest, but he headed off to another pub instead. In an ale house he met John Smith (40), a labourer, and William Bonill (68). Neither could offer him a job to improve his financial situation but their company was convivial. Bonill invited Pratt and Smith back to his rented flat and they accepted.

This encounter would result in the execution of Pratt and Smith – and Bonill’s banishment to a penal colony in Australia – all within just three months. Bonhill had been bringing male ‘couples’ back to his flat on a regular basis; sometimes two a day. His homophobic landlord, George Berkshire, was determined to put a stop to this and get rid of what he regarded as a disagreeable and troublesome lodger, so he spied on them having sex. He went off to seek police assistance and they duly arrived and arrested the threesome. Pratt and Smith were charged with ‘buggery’ (anal sex) and Bonill as an accessory. They went on trial for their lives before Judge Baron Gurney at the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, on 21 September 1835.  As one might guess, the arresting police officer had no direct evidence to support the charge. The account Jane Berkshire told the jury is improbable. She said she watched for less than a minute but claimed to have witnessed sex acts including the men undressing, laying on the floor and the ‘appearance’ of anal penetration. She said she saw the men’s genitalia but did not answer when asked whether either man had an erection. It seems doubtful that the keyhole could have provided the range of vision needed to see what she claimed. George’s testimony was very similar to Jane’s. It had a whiff of coordination. His circumstantial evidence supported the charge that buggery had taken place.

Neither James Pratt nor John Smith were allowed to give evidence in their defence at their trial. Both pleaded ‘not guilty’. Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The law against ‘buggery’  was based on an interpretation of the Bible that regarded homosexual acts as an abomination and worthy of death; a particularly evil sin that must be severely punished and eradicated. It was a capital crime.   The judge sentenced James Pratt and John Smith to death. He warned them their chances on appeal were hopeless and they could expect no reprieve. They had to prepare, he said, to receive God’s judgment upon departing this life. Both men left the dock in tears.

William Bonill was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia, but  died in Tasmania in 1841, only six years later.

As well as Pratt and Smith, there were many death sentences for different crimes handed down during the autumn 1835. The process of petitioning for clemency and commutation began. F riends of James Pratt commenced a vigorous campaign to save him. They gathered a substantial petition which included the trial prosecutor, former employers, neighbors and even George and Jane Berkshire, their accusers. All the documents were prepared for a Privy Council meeting with then- King, William IV, to be held in Brighton. On 24 November 1835, twelve other men sentenced to death were reprieved by the King’s mercy. Pratt and Smith were not among them, for Judge Baron Gurney’s sentence had prevailed. The law was to be allowed to take its course.  On Friday 27 November, the two prisoners were taken from their cells and brought to the place of execution, still protesting their innocence and hung until dead. They are buried in a common grave. Attempts to provide a posthumous pardon have thus far been unsuccessful.

Recommended: 

Fr. Frank Ryan: “Read the tragic story of the last UK men hanged for gay sex: 1835″  Gay Star News: 25.03.2015: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/read-tragic-true-story-last-uk-men-hanged-gay-sex250315

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