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It's not just modern day Parliaments that are surrounded by sex scandals. 128 years ago this month, on the 16th November 1889, newspaper The North London Press published a sensational story which implicated members of the House Of Lords in a rent boy scandal based in a male brothel in Cleveland Street just off Tottenham Court Road. As the story unfolded the Royal Family became involved, and such was the outcry, indecency laws passed as a result criminalised gay sex. That law was only repealed in 1967.
The Cleveland Street Scandal, which implicated several prominent members of British society in a homosexual prostitution ring, prompted a cover-up that extended to the highest levels of government and the second in line to the throne, writes gay historian Liz Highleyman.

The scandal, along with the subsequent trials of Oscar Wilde, contributed to an anti-homosexual panic that shaped British public attitudes to gay men for years to come.

In the summer of 1889, while investigating a theft at a London post and telegraph office, police came across a teenage delivery boy with 18 shillings in his pocket - more than someone in his position might be expected to earn.

Prince Eddy, second in line to the throne, and widely presumed to be the reason for the establishment cover-up of those involved in the rent boy scandal.
Upon questioning, the boy revealed that he and others had been moonlighting as rent boys, working out of a building at 19 Cleveland Street in London's West End. A detective assigned to watch the house reported "a great many gentlemen" coming and going.

In July, police went to the Cleveland Street house to arrest proprietor Charles Hammond and his accomplices, bearing a warrant charging that they "did unlawfully, wickedly, and corruptly" conspire to procure young men "to commit the abominable crime of buggery." Hammond had already fled, but the police arrested Henry Newlove, an 18-year-old clerk. Newlove - who divulged that the clientele of the Cleveland Street brothel included several highly placed men - was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four months at hard labour.

Initially the case received little attention, but Ernest Parke, editor of the radical North London Press, soon took an interest in the matter. Just four years earlier, Member of Parliament Henry Labouchere had inserted a provision into the Criminal Law Amendment Act decreeing that "any male person who, in public or private, commits or is party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of any act of gross indecency with another male person" shall be imprisoned for up to two years.

Parke wondered why Newlove had gotten off with such a light sentence, and began to suspect a cover-up. In November, he published an article naming Lord Arthur Somerset (supervisor of the Prince of Wales' stables) and the Earl of Euston as clients of the Cleveland Street operation. "These men have been allowed to leave the country and thus defeat the ends of justice," wrote Parke, "because their prosecution would disclose the fact that a far more distinguished and more highly placed personage than themselves was inculpated in their disgusting crimes."

Fearing prosecution under the gross indecency statute, Lord Somerset had indeed fled to Europe. But the Earl of Euston remained in England and filed libel charges against Parke, claiming he had only been to the Cleveland Street house once - mistakenly believing he would see a female nudie show - and had left immediately. Unwilling to reveal his sources, Parke was limited in the witnesses whom he could call in his defence, and he was convicted and sentenced to 12 months in prison. Suspecting that the cover-up extended to the highest levels of government, M.P. Labouchere called for an inquiry in February 1890, but his motion was defeated by a large margin.

Many assumed that the "more highly placed personage" Parke referred to was none other than the Duke of Clarence, Prince Albert Victor (familiarly known as Eddy), the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, and the grandson of Queen Victoria. The 25-year-old Eddy was a dull-witted man given to impeccable dress and personal indiscretions. In addition to the Cleveland Street Scandal, rumours also connected Eddy and his associates to the 1888 Whitechapel murders, in which several female prostitutes were savagely killed and disemboweled in London's East End slums. Some who have studied the events have claimed that Eddy himself was Jack the Ripper, while others have fingered Eddy's coachman, the royal family's physician, and Eddy's tutor (who was also reputedly his lover). After Eddy died in 1892, his father had his letters destroyed, and the mystery remains unsolved.

None of the prominent men implicated in the Cleveland Street Scandal were ever punished, and some of the rent boys were reportedly paid to leave the country. The affair had a major influence on British attitudes toward homosexuality, reinforcing the perception that decadent aristocrats were corrupting working-class youth. The scandal, and its sensational coverage in the press, sustained a sex panic against "buggers" that would culminate in Oscar Wilde's trials in 1895. Labouchere's gross indecency law remained in effect until 1967.

More Reading:

The Cleveland Street Scandal, H. Montgomery Hyde, WHAllen
Available from Amazon

The Cleveland Street Affair, Lewis, Chester et al, Weidenfeld&Nicholson
Available from Amazon

 

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