“Yesterday morning, about five minutes before 8 o’clock, Ensign Hepburn, and —— White, the drummer, a lad, only 16 years of age, for the perpetration of an unnatural crime, were brought on the scaffold, in front of the Debtors’ door, Newgate, and executed pursuant to their sentence. Their conduct since condemnation has been such as to evince a sincere contrition, and a just sense of the heinousness of their offence. They behaved in a manner becoming their unhappy situation; and after spending a few minutes in fervent prayer and devotion, with the Rev. Dr. Ford the Ordinary of Newgate, were launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators.” (Morning Chronicle, Issue 13051)
Two centuries ago today, two men were hanged at Newgate Prison for ‘buggery’ as a result of one of 19th century England’s most notorious anti-gay police raids.
Homosexuality had been a criminal offence for centuries; sex between two men had been a capital crime since 1533. Gay men wanting to meet and have sex with other men risked imprisonment, violent beatings and death. One option was to hang out at open spaces like Moorfields, then on London’s northern fringe, where ‘sodomites’ could recognise each other… But the uncertainty and discomfort of outdoor cruising wasn’t for all.
To cater for the underground community of gay men in London, a network of secret clubs evolved, known as ‘molly houses’, where gay parties could be held, often featuring dancing, cross-dressing, sometimes marriages (some officiated at by mock clergymen); there would also be rooms for sex…
Though highly illegal, sometimes a blind eye might be turned, thanks to bribery, or depending on the moral obsessions of the times. But the mollyhouses were always vulnerable to being informed on by paid informers, and raids by the authorities.
In July 1810, Bow Street Runners raided a molly house, at the White Swan in London’s Vere Street (off Clare Market, just north of today’s Aldwych). Twenty-seven men were arrested. The club had been operating for less than six months, having been set up in early 1810 by two men, James Cook and one Yardley, who realised the lack of gay brothels in the city offered a business opportunity for them (Yardley claimed to be straight with a wife and purely in it for the money). And fuck you, David Cameron – The Reverend John Church (a genuinely ordained minister, the first gay clergyman ) was said to have performed same sex marriages at the White Swan (though he denied it).
“POLICE. Bow-Street, July 9. – In consequence of its having been represented to the Magistrates of the above office, that a number of persons of a most detestable description, met at the house of James Cooke, the White Swan, in Vere-street, Clare-market, particularly on a Sunday night, a privy search-warant was issued, and was put in execution on Sunday night last, when 23 persons, including the landlord of the house, were taken into custody, and lodged in St. Clement’s watch-house, till yesterday, at eleven o-clock,w hen they were brought before Mr. Read for examination; but the circumstance having transpired, a great concourse of people had collected in Bow-street, and which was much increased by the mob that followed the prisoners when they were brought from the watch-house. It was with the greatest difficulty the officers could bring them to and from the Brown Bear to the Office; the mob, particularly the women, expressing their detestation of the offence of which the prisoners were charged.
The following persons were first put to the bar, and gave their names and description:-
Esau Haycock keeps a shop near the Yorkshire Stingo, New Road.
James Amos, alias Fox, lodger, at the White Swan, (the house in question) a servant out of place, disabled in the arm. N.B. He was convicted and pilloried some time since for unnatural practices.
William Thopson, waiter at a hotel in Covent-garden.
Henry Toogood, servant to a gentleman in Portland-place.
Robert Aspinall, lodger, at No. 1, Brewer’s Court, Great Wild-street, taylor.
Richard Francis, a corporal in the 3d Regiment of Foot Guards.
James Cook, landlord of the house, and Philip Hot, the waiter.
Samuel Taunton, the officer, who had the execution of the warrant stated, that he and other officers went last night to the house about eleven o’clock, and apprehended the before-named persons, except the landlord and waiter, in a back parlour.
Two of the Patrole gave an account of their being in the house last night previous to the execution of the warrant [i.e. as infiltrators in disguise], and stated the particulars of the conversation and actions that passed while they were in the parlour, but it is of too horrible a nature to meet the public eye.
These witnesses also stated their having seen similar proceedings in the same parlour on the night of Sunday week, and identified several of the Prisoners as having been present at that time.
They were ordered to find bail for the misdemeanour, and in default were committed to prison.
James Spittle, a servant, in Chancery-lane; Matthew Saunders, of Duke-street, Aldgate; James Done, of Curran-road, shoreditch, bricklayer; William Barrow, of Furnival’s-inn; John Reeves, of Castle-street, Leicester-fields, traveller with goods, James Griffiths, Union-court, Holborn, servant out of place (well known at Bow-street); Edward Quaiffe, a soldier in the 3d Guards; George Boat, a waiter, out of place, lodging at the White Swan; John Clarke, Union-court, Holborn, a servant out of place; Timothy Norris, of Temple-street, Whitefriars, a servant out of place; Bernard Hovel, a soldier in the 1st Guards; Thos. Dixon, a soldier in the 3d Guards; Michael Hays, a servant out of place.
All these prisoners, except Dixon and Hays, who were in a dark kitchen, were found in a room on the first floor, but there being no evidence of what took place, they were all discharged except Done, who was proved to have been in the back parlour with the others, on the night of Sunday se’nnight. He was committed.
The crowd had, by this time, become so great in Bow-street, particularly facing the Office, that it was almost impossible to pass, and most of those who were discharged, were very roughly handled; several of them were hunted about the neighbourhood, and with great difficulty excaped with their lives, although every exertion was used by the constables and patrole to prevent such dangerous proceedings; and, in doing which, many of them were very roughly treated.
The press labelled the apprehended ‘sodomites’ the Vere Street Coterie. Eight men were eventually convicted. Two of them were hanged and six were pilloried for this offence.
Robert Holloway wrote a notoriously unreliable and sensationalist account of the Vere Street coterie, Phoenix of Sodom, “a lasciviously queer-loathing account of the Coterie’s misadventures and of “he vast geography of this moral blasting evil infesting London”:
“The fatal house in question was furnished in a style most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds were provided in one room – another was fitted up for the ladies’ dressing-room, with a toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c. A third room was called the Chapel, where marriages took place, sometimes between a “female grenadier”, six feet high and a “petit maitre” not more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! There marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of “bridesmaids” and “bridesmen”; the nuptials were frequently consummated by two, three or four couples, in the same room, and in the sight of each other. The upper part of the house was appropriated to youths who were constantly in waiting for casual customers; who practised all the allurements that are found in a brothel, by the more natural description of prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.
It seems the greater part of these quickly assumed feigned names, though not very appropriate to their calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina a Runner at a Police Office; Blackeyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; Lady Godiva, a Waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Duchess of Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion, and a very natural one, that the prevalency of this passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings only: but this seems to be, by Cook’s account, a mistaken notion; and the reverse is so palpable in many instances, that Fanny Murry, Lucy Cooper, and Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf Tyre-Smith: the latter of these monsters has two sons, both very handsome young men, whom he boasts are full as depraved as himself. These are merely part of the common stock belonging to the house; but the visitors were more numerous and, if possible, more infamous, because more exalted in life…”
16-year-old regimental drummer named Thomas White was not arrested on the initial raid or included on the pillory… he was dobbed in by a fellow-drummer, James Mann, for having been a White Swan regular … and in fact, “an universal favourite … very deep in the secrets of the fashionable part of the coterie.”
Mann himself was apparently also a well-known Vere Street attendee, trying to avoid ending up being pilloried or hanged by turning ‘king’s evidence’. His testimony to the magistrates got White and his alleged ‘partner in vice’, Ensign John Newbolt Hepburn hanged for sodomy…
Some contemporary accounts of the trials and the carrying out of the sentences:
“MIDDLESEX SESSIONS, SEPTEMBER 22: Seven of the detestable club of Vere-street, viz. Wm. Amos, alias Fox, James Cooke, Philip Islett, Wm. Thompson, Richard Francis, James Done, and Robert Aspinal, were tried for conspiring together at the Swan, in Vere-street, Clare-market, for the purpose or exciting each others to commit a detestible offence. Mr. Pooley stated the case for the prosecution, and the witnesses against the prisoner were Nichols, and another of the Bow-street patrole, who were sent to the house by the Magistrates, to watch the proceedings of persons assembled there. They gained admittance into the back parlour, which was the principal rendezvous of these miscreants, and were considered as persons of the same propensity, and treated without reserve. For three nights they witnessed such disgusting conduct and language, as to place beyond all doubt the intentions of the company. They gave information of all they had seen, and the prisoners, with a number of others, were brought before the Magistrates. The evidence being closed, Mr. Gurney, who had cross-examined the witnesses while giving their testimony, said that he was placed in the aukward [sic] situation of Counsel for the defendants, and had undertaken that task because he felt himself bound to do so by his oath, and duty as an advocate. In the course of the evidence he had done that duty to the best of his judgment, by giving the defendants every benefit of cross-examination. But he found the testimony so clear and uncontradicted, as to leave no ground of palliation upon which to make any appeal to the Jury, upon circumstances, which, if true, would go to excite an idea that the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah were revived in London. He must therefore decline trespassing on the time of the Jury, and leave them to form their own conclusions. If the prisoners had any thing to offer in their defence, he had no doubt they would meet with every indulgence. The prisoners being then called on, each told his story, but it could have made no impression on the minds of any discerning Jury, and all the prisoners were found Guilty. Amost, having been trice before convicted of similar offences, was sentenced to three years imprisonment, and to stand once in the pillory in the Hay-market. Cooke, the keeper of the house, Islett, Thompson, Francis, and Done, were sentenced to two years imprisonment, and the pillory in the same place; and Aspinal, to one year’s imprisonment only.
On sentence being pronounced they were all handcuffed, and tied to one chain in Court, and ordered to Cold Bath-fields prison. On leaving the Court, a numerous crowd of people, which had collected at the door, assailed them with fists, sticks, and stones, which the constables could not completely prevent, although they were about 40 in number. The prisoners perceiving their perilous situation, immediately ran in a body to the prison, which they reached in a few minutes, and the constables, by blockading the streets, prevented the most fleet of their assailants from molesting them during their inglorious retreat. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Issue 2996)
26 September 1810: An exhibition on the pillory of one of the wretches recently convicted at Clerkenwell took place yesterday, at 12 o’clock, opposite the Mansion-house when this human monster suffered all that could be inflicted by mud, rotten eggs, and potatoes.
The concourse of people collected upon this occasion was immense. Amongst other places particularly crowded was the ballustrade surrounding the Mansion-house, which, notwithstanding the exertions of constables placed there to keep off the crowd, was filled with spectators, some of whom had melancholy reason to regret their too eager curiosity as several of the rails and a great part of the coping stone gave way from the great weight of those clinging to it, and falling on some of the persons beneath, severely injured three, one of whom is not expected to recover; they were all taken to the Hospital. (The Times, Issue 8098)
On 27 September 1810, “William Amos, alias Fox, James Cook (the landlord), Philip Bell (the waiter), William Thomson, Richard Francis, and James Done, six of the Vere-street gang, stood in the Pillory, in the centre of the Hay-market, opposite Norris-street. They were conveyed from Newgate in the open caravan used for the purpose of taking the transports [i.e. those sentenced to transportation] to Portsmouth, in which they were no sooner placed, than the mob began to salute them with mud, rotten eggs, and filth, with which they continued to pelt them along Ludgate-hill, Fleet-street, the Strand, and Charing-cross. When they arrived at the Hay-market, it was found that the pillory would only accommodate four at once. At one o’clock, therefore, four of them were placed on the platform, and the two others were in the meantime taken to St. Martin’s Watch-house. The concours of people assembled were immense, even the tops of the houses in the Hay-market were covered with spectators. As soon as a convenient ring was formed [i.e. a space around the pillory], a number of women were admitted within side, who vigorously expressed their abhorrence of the miscreants, by a perpetual shower of mud, eggs, offal, and every kind of filth with which they had plentifully supplied themselves in baskets and buckets. When the criminals had stood their allotted time, they were conveyed to Coldbath-fields Prison. At two o’clock the remaining two were placed in the Pillory, and were pelted till it was scarcely possible to distinguish the human shape. The caravan conveyed the two last through the Strand, then to Newgate, the mob continuing to pelt them all the way. Notwithstanding the immense concourse of people, we are happy to learn that no accident occurred.
The horrible exhibition of yesterday must prove to every considerate spectator the necessity for an immediate alteration in the law as to the punishment of this crime. It is obvious that mere exposure in the pillory is insufficient; – to beings so degraded the pillory of itself would be trifling; it is the popular indignation alone which they dread: and yet it is horrible to accustomed the people to take the vengeance of justice into their own hands. We avoid entering into the discussion of a crime so horrible to the nature of Englishmen, the prevalence of which we fear we must ascribe, among other calamities, to the unnecessary war in which we have been so long involved [i.e. the Napoleonic Wars]. It is not merely the favour which has been shown to foreigners, to foreign servants, to foreign troops, but the sending our own troops to associate with foreigners, that may truly be regarded as the source of the evil. For years we have observed with sorrow the progressive revolution in our manners; and we have uniformly and steadily opposed all the innovations that have been admired in our theatres and our select places of amusement, as destructive of their character of the country.
Many of the most illustrious persons who at first charged us with illiberality, are now convinced of the right view which we took of the subject, and are zealously disposed to exert themselves in stemming a torrent of corruption that threatens to involve us in the gulph of infamy as well as ruin. We trust that the very first object of Parliament, on its meeting, will be the revision of this law.
Thursday, 6 December 1810, OLD BAILEY: These Sessions commenced yesterday before Mr. Justice Grose, Mr. Baron Graham, the Lord Mayor, Recorder, and Common Serjeant.
Thomas White and John Newball Hepburn stood capitally indicted for having committed an unnatural offence on the 17th of May last.
It was formerly mentioned, that the two delinquents were apprehended, shortly after the discovery of the detestable society in Vere-street, upon the accusation of a drummer, named James Mann, belonging to the 3d Regiment of Guards.
It appeared, from the testimony of Mann, that the Prisoner Hepburn accosted him on the Parade in St. James’s Park, a few days before the day on which the offence charged was committed: he told him that he was very anxious to speak to the boy who was then beating the big drum, meaning White, and said he would reward him if he would bring the lad to his lodgings, at No. 5, St. Martin’s Church-yard. Mann said he would tell White what he had said, and they then parted, Hepburn presenting him with half-a-crown. In the evening Mann and White went to Hepburn’s lodgings, who received them with great cordiality, and informed them that he belonged to a veteran regiment and was shortly going to the Isle of Wight. – Mann then went on to state that Hepburn invited them to dine with him on the ensuing Sunday at his lodgings, but to this White objected, observing it was not a good place, and proposed at the same time that they should meet at the Swan, in Vere-street. To this Hepburn agreed, and an appointment was accordingly made, which was punctually observed by all parties. On their arrival at the Swan, on Sunday, they were shewn into a private room where they had dinner; before and after which, conduct the most vile and disgusting passed between the two prisoners, the particulars of which it is impossible to detail without a gross violation of decency. It was on the detection of the monsters in Vere-street that Mann communicated the facts already stated to his Drum Major [presumably Mann had been linked to those arrested at the White Swan, and had agreed to testify against White and Hepburn to save his own skin], in consequence of which information White was instantly confined, and an officer was sent to the Isle of Man for Ensign Hepburn, the particulars of whose apprehension have already been stated.
The charge was most clearly and indisputably proved, and the Prisoners were both found Guilty – DEATH.
Hepburn and White were both hanged on Thursday March 7th, 1811. “White came out first; he seemed perfectly indifferent at his awful fate, and continued adjusting the frill of his shirt while he was viewing the surrounding popoulace. About two minutes after Hepburn made his appearance, but was immediately surrounded by the Clergyman, Jack Ketch [i.e. the hangman], his man, and others in attendance. The Executioner at the same time put the cap over Hepburn’s face, which of course prevented the people from having a view of him. White seemed to fix his eyes repeatedly on Hepburn. After a few minutes prayer, the miserable wretches were launched into eternity. Hepburn spoke to the Shieriff in a very firm and impressive manner, stating that the person who had sworn against him had perjured himself, and that every inta [? piece of evidence?] that he (Hepburn) had said, to prove the perjury, was perfectly correct…” (Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, Portsmouth, Issue 596)
EXCESSIVE GRIEF. — The mother of White, the Drummer, who was executed on Thursday, with Hepburn, the Ensign, died of a broken heart on the day subsequent to her son’s untimely end. She never left her bed after having taken farewell of the culprit on the evening previous to his execution. (Morning Chronicle, Issue 13055)
The Buggery Act 1533 was repealed and replaced by the Offences against the Person Act 1828: buggery remained punishable by death. The last two men to be executed in Britain for this ‘crime’, James Pratt and John Smith, were arrested in August 1835 in London after being spied upon while having sex in a private room; they were hanged on 27 November the same year. In 1861 the death penalty for buggery was abolished. A total of 8921 men had been prosecuted since 1806 for sodomy with 404 sentenced to death and 56 executed.
Sources above were taken from Rictor Norton’s excellent compilation: Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Vere Street Club, 1810”, Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 7 May 2008, updated 7 September 2008
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.