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.
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
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.
The Cleveland Street Scandal, H. Montgomery Hyde, WHAllen
Available from Amazon
The Cleveland Street Affair, Lewis, Chester et al, Weidenfeld&Nicholson
Available from Amazon