Thursday 5 January 2017

Out Of Their Trees: A Report on the Wolfendens

For the first of this year’s themed articles I want to look at the family whose name was given to the parliamentary committee which paved the way for the Sexual Offences Act 1967. This Act partly decriminalised homosexual activity in England and Wales and was influenced by the recommendations made in the final report from that committee – the Wolfenden Report.

The chairman of the committee was John Wolfenden (1902-1985), at that time he was Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and later became Lord Wolfenden. I’ll give a full account of his report and the Sexual Offences Act in July. But for today I want to look at one aspect of his life which is not generally known and which surely had some influence on his opinion. John Wolfenden’s own son was gay.

Jeremy Wolfenden was born in 1934 He was the only son of John Wolfenden and his wife Eileen. Jeremy was open about his sexuality at Eton college. While he was working as the Daily Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent he found himself trapped between East and West double-espionage, having been blackmailed by both MI5 and the KGB into spying for them in return for the non-disclosure of his sexuality. Jeremy was later transferred to Washington DC where he died just after Christmas 1965.
Jeremy Wolfenden
Jeremy’s ancestry reveals large amount of legal heritage apart from his father’s contribution to the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Lord Wolfenden’s ancestry is very firmly based in Yorkshire. They were solid working-class folk who worked in the flour and cotton mills around Leeds and Halifax. Lord Wolfenden’s father George worked his way up from working class roots to become a college registrar to the local government education authority. It shows the fluidity of social mobility in England whereby George Wolfenden, a man whose father was a working-class cotton mill worker can have a son who went on to have a seat in the House of Lords.

George’s wife Emily Hannah Gawkroger (1880-1956) brings a personal link between myself and the Wolfendens. Even though I cannot find any conclusive information beyond her grandfather, Joseph Gawkroger of Sowerby near Halifax, there is little doubt that he belongs to the same family from which I, myself, descend (as do both Presidents Bush and lgbt Olympic swimmers Mark Chatfield and Susan Gray McGreivy).

Back to Jeremy Wolfenden. His mother, Lady Wolfenden, came from a different social background. She was born Eileen Le Messurier Spilsbury (1908-2004) and her ancestry could not be more varied. Her own mother was the English-born daughter of a Turkish merchant who became a naturalised British citizen in 1847.

The Spilsburys were no stranger to international geography. Eileen’s ancestor Thomas Spilsbury (1734-1795) was a member of a family of printers and engravers. Thomas’s younger brother John printed maps and is credited as the inventor of the jigsaw. In fact, the very first jigsaw was of Europe with all its nations as the interlocking pieces. On that jigsaw you can just make out the little island group which supplied the ancestry of Lady Wolfenden’s grandmother – the Channel Islands.

Lady Wolfenden’s grandmother was born Marie Susannah le Mesurier in Islington but her ancestors can be traced back for over a thousand years in Guernsey. The le Mesurier’s ancestors included highly influential people from the Saumarez, Dobree, Carye, Blondel, de Havilland and de Beauvoir families. These ancestors provided Lady Wolfenden and her son Jeremy with dozens of men who held legal offices across several of the Channel Islands. Dozens of them were appointed as jurats.

In the legal systems of Guernsey and Jersey a jurat is a judge of the royal court. The Channel Islands are not part of the UK (they are possessions of the crown, not the state) and aren’t subject to UK laws. In the time when Jeremy Wolfenden’s ancestor held these positions they were held for life (they aren’t today). Jurats didn’t need any official legal training. Their job was to determine just the facts of a legal case and make judgements on the advice of a qualified clerk or a presiding judge or island bailiff. The earliest ancestor of Jeremy Wolfenden I can find as a jurat is Guillaume de Beauvoir in the mid-1400s (incidentally, this is not the same family to which the French lgbt philosopher Simone de Beauvoir belongs).

Last year the UK celebrated the 950th anniversary of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. We should also celebrate the fact that the Channel Islands are the only part of the medieval duchy of Normandy which still belongs to the British crown. The heritage of a bloodline through the Channel Islands and their legacy within the islands’ legal system flowed down to Jeremy Wolfenden. Lord Wolfenden’s contribution to the sexual reform committee was surely influenced by the homosexuality of his son. History could have turned out very different if a less-than-enlightened chairman of the committee, one who had no known homosexual family member, had produced a report that didn’t reflect the changing attitudes to sexuality in the 1960s.

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