While there are many places around the world where homosexual activity is punishable by death we in the UK think ourselves lucky that the death penalty was lifted in 1861.
A lot of gay men executed
in England may never be identified but the final ones have their names
perpetuated in the nation’s memory. They were James Pratt and John Smith and
they were both executed on this very day in 1835.
There isn’t a great deal
of new information I can find concerning the trial as it is covered by various
historians online. You can do no better than go to the website of Rictor Norton
where you will find a transcript of the trial itself.
Although James Pratt and
John Smith both protested their innocence they were both found guilty. Even
though their executions proceeded as arranged there were calls for clemency and
remission from the death sentence. This article will take a look at those
appeals and the people involved in them and their attempts to change the
sentence passed down at the trial.
During his sentencing the
judge, Sir John Gurney (1768-1945), declared that Pratt and Smith had no hope
of lodging an appeal or of being reprieved. Judge Gurney had a reputation for
being independent and not susceptible to political pressure. He was, however,
very severe in his judgements, particularly early in his career. Therefore his
sentence and his opinion on a reprieve were not out of character.
In his later years he
mellowed, relatively speaking. There is one court case where he didn’t pass the
death sentence on a murderer, which he would undoubtedly have done a few years
earlier. In his lifetime Judge Gurney was also known to be an extremely
charitable man, giving several hundreds of pounds every year to various worthy
The local magistrate who
took the case of James Pratt and John Smith to trial was also charitable. He
came from a family with strong humanitarian and philanthropic convictions, the
Wedgwoods. Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891) was the police magistrate at the
Surrey Magistrates Court in Southwark, the district in which Pratt and Smith
Wedgwood had trained as a
barrister but never sought a position above that of a magistrate. He resigned
this position shortly after the execution of Pratt and Smith, partly on grounds
of conscience. He turned to his great passion – etymology and philology, words.
He also became heavily involved in the Victorian craze of Spiritualism and
After Pratt and Smith’s
trial Wedgwood wrote to the Home Secretary urging him to commute the death
sentence. Even though he described Pratt and Smith as “degraded creatures” he
wrote that their crime was also practised by many rich men. Because rich men
had the money to pay for secure private premises for their activity, or carry
them out in the privacy of their large properties, they escaped the punishment
that went to poorer people like Pratt and Smith, whose only crime was that they
were caught. Wedgwood wrote that the crime of consensual sex between men does no
harm to anyone, and in that respect was the only harmless crime punishable by
The Home Secretary who
received Wedgwood’s letter was Lord John Russell (1792-1878) who would later go
on to become Prime Minister. He was an advocate of parliamentary and social
reform and was the chief architect of the Reform Act 1832 which extended voting
rights and redistributed parliamentary constituencies to reflect the population
movement resulting from the Industrial Revolution. There’s no real evidence of
his thoughts about acts of sodomy but his career was dominated by matters
affecting the whole of society rather than individuals.
Two surprising people who
urged the dropping of the death sentence were the married couple who caught
Pratt and Smith having sex in one of their rented rooms, George and Jane
Berkshire. They put their names to a petition that was collected by friends of
James Pratt. Even the Crown Prosecutor at the trial, Mr. Bonill, added his
Various other documents
and letters were prepared for a meeting of the Privy Council to be held in
Brighton Pavilion, the residence of King William IV. The Privy Council met
regularly to decide which appeals against convictions would receive what was called
the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The Council itself was made up of various
politicians, officers of state and clergy and it was on their advice that the
king would make his decision. Then, as now, the sovereign has little actual
choice – the decision of the Privy Council, like parliament, is effectively
binding and any sovereign who wants to keep the crown does not challenges them.
The Privy Council met on
21st November 1835 and the cases of 17 men on death row were considered. All
but James Pratt and John Smith had their death sentences commuted to either
imprisonment or transportation. King William IV’s personal opinions on same-sex
relationships are not known, but he was a supporter of Home Secretary Lord John
Russell’s parliamentary reforms.
Pratt and Smith were
informed of the Privy Council’s decision several days later on the morning of
their execution. Presumably, they had already guessed what the decision was
when they heard the noise of the scaffold being constructed outside their jail.
Hangings were rare in those days and they were the only ones awaiting execution
in that jail.
James Pratt and John Smith
were hanged simultaneously at 8 a.m. on Friday 27th November 1835. No one knew
it at the time, because the death penalty for sodomy wasn’t lifted until 1861,
that they had become the last men who would be hanged for a homosexual act in
England and Wales.