Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Heritage Spotlight : The Galleries of Justice

In a couple of months the award-winning Galleries of Justice in Nottingham will be relaunched as the National Justice Museum. Before it undergoes some physical transformations the last exhibition at the Galleries was held earlier this month. It was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act which partly decriminalised homosexual acts.

The Galleries of Justice are housed in the former Nottingham County jail, Shire Hall and county police headquarters. The current building dates from 1770 but there was a court house on this site from before 1375. The oldest surviving part of this early building at the caves underneath the building which were used as prison cells from 1449.

The recent exhibition at the Galleries also commemorated the 120th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s release from Reading Jail. Oscar Wilde was no stranger to Nottingham himself. His first boyfriend was the son of a local vicar and he later gave several lectures in the city. There’s no evidence that he set foot in the Galleries of Justice while it was the Shire Hall and county court. However, several items in the Galleries’ collection are very solidly connected to him. First is the actual door of his cell from Reading Jail which has been housed at the Galleries of Justice for several years, as well as the dock from the old Bow Street magistrate’s court behind which Wilde stood when charged with gross indecency. This is the same dock behind which Sir Roger Casement stood when accused of treason.

One more physical link to Oscar Wilde is his grandson and biographer Merlin Holland who is a patron of the Galleries of Justice and has visited several times.

In 1902 a man called John Wood was appointed as a court bailiff. His son was Karl Wood (1988-1958), one of the thousands of men who were convicted of homosexual offences before the Sexual Offences Act came into force in 1967. Just 4 weeks ago a pardon was granted to all of them and Karl was pardoned posthumously along with Oscar Wilde. For a decade Karl actually lived 100 meters away from the Galleries of Justice before he volunteered for service in World War I.

Karl Wood’s trial was held in Lincoln because he was living in Lincolnshire at that time, but Nottingham has seen more than its fair share of prosecutions against local gay men.

In 1910 two men were charged with gross indecency at the Nottingham assizes held at the old Shire Hall. One was a local navvy (a general manual labourer) and the other was a 20-year-old Music Hall entertainer who went by the stage name of Mysterious Mabel. Fortunately, it took the jury an hour and a half to find them both not guilty.

Not so fortunate were a group of men who were convicted en masse in the largest group prosecution ever held in the England for gross indecency. A total of 23 men pleaded guilty in court on 21st November 1963. Sentences ranged from 3 years in prison to 1 year’s probation. The men were all visitors to a house in a local town in which regular gay parties were held. The men’s ages ranged from an un-named 16-year-old to a retired 70-year-old. One of those convicted was a cousin of my ex-partner.
The Galleries of Justice in Nottingham.
On a more pleasant note the Galleries of Justice is staffed by a group of people who are enthusiastic about revealing the hidden history behind England’s court system. One of the current employees, Rebecca Buck, is also a successful novelist and has used the Galleries of Justice as a setting.

Rebecca’s novels are historically-based romantic lesbian novels, generally set in the period of Jane Austen and the Brontes. One novel called “The Locket and the Flintlock” is set in my own old stomping ground of North Nottinghamshire and involves the love story of a young noblewoman and a masked highwayman who turns out to be a woman (another personal link here, in the research into my above-mentioned ex-partner’s family tree I discovered he had an ancestral uncle who was hanged as a highwayman just a few short miles from where Rebecca’s novel is set, and during the same period).

As parts of the Galleries of Justice close down for the transformation into the National Justice Museum we commemorate the building’s place in lgbt history and celebrate in the pardon granted to all those men who stood in the dock accused of nothing more than being themselves.

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