Ben Bethell

In 1877, the noted penal reformer William Tallack published a remarkably frank open letter to England’s senior prison administrator, Edmund Du CaneIn it he warned that ‘unnatural crime (especially by men with lads) is committed in several convict prisons’, and alleged that prison warders ‘jocularly called certain convicts by female names as having been the objects of unnatural crime.’ England’s convict prisons had by this time existed for almost 30 years; they held prisoners sentenced for serious offences who until the middle of the century would have been transported to Australia. Among these prisoners, men sentenced under the sodomy laws were regarded as the very worst kind of criminal. Though the last executions for sodomy took place in 1835, it  remained a capital crime until 1861, after which it carried a maximum sentence of penal servitude for life and a ten-year minimum sentence. Attempted sodomy, indecent assault, and assault with intent, which in practice might include any sexual act between men, all carried a maximum sentence of ten years’ penal servitude.

Fremantle Prison photographed in 1971: built by English convicts in the 1850s, it remained in use until 1991.
Fremantle Prison photographed in 1971: built by English convicts in the 1850s, it remained in use until 1991. (Wikimedia Commons)

The disciplinary problem of convicts having sex with one another was therefore complicated by the presence of men sentenced in the first place for having sex with other men. This led to calls for men sentenced under the sodomy laws to be confined permanently to the individual cells in which all convicts slept and ate. However,  penal experts understood  a year to represent solitary confinement’s safe limit; any longer might risk a prisoner’s sanity. Convict administrators therefore faced a dilemma they found difficult to acknowledge: either permit men convicted of sodomy to mix with others or concentrate them in a segregated group. Their response was to adopt an unofficial  policy of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Unlike most of those sentenced to penal servitude before 1875, men sentenced under the sodomy laws were dispatched, along with other ‘dangerous men’, to the English penal system’s surviving overseas outposts:to prison hulks on Bermuda, until these were closed in 1861; to the fledgling penal settlement at Fremantle in Western Australia, until colonial authorities succeeded in 1863 in preventing their transportation there; and, until its closure in 1875, to the convict prison at Gibraltar. 

Paradoxically, contact and communication between prisoners was far easier in these overseas establishments than in domestic convict prisons. At Gibraltar, for instance, rather than single cells, prisoners slept in large dormitories, leading the prison’s superintendent to remark, in reference to ‘unnatural crime’, that as ‘many convicts are in this prison for the commission of this actual offence’ the arrangement was ‘the worst sort of imprisonment to which they could be subjected.’  Sailing ships chartered to carry convicts to Western Australia provoked particular anxiety. Giving evidence to an 1863 royal commission on penal servitude, a former convict prison deputy governor described the ships  as ‘a source of pollution to convicts in every possible way, and of the most horrible description…I have been informed by convicts over and over again that convict ships are nothing but schools of unnatural crime’. Believing that convicts taught one another ‘unnatural’ sexual practices, Western Australia’s colonial authority demanded the removal of men sentenced under the sodomy laws from convict transports. The issue came to a head at the 1863 royal commission: asked by its chairman whether he thought it ‘particularly objectionable to send out men who have been convicted of such offences’, the colony’s governor replied that he thought it ‘objectionable to send them anywhere amongst Christian people’. The commission agreed with him, eventually ruling that anyone ‘convicted of unnatural crimes’ was ‘manifestly unfit to be sent to a colony’. 

Gibraltar c.1880, photograph by George Washington Wilson (1823-1893): built within the harbour walls, the convict prison closed in 1875.
Gibraltar c.1880, photograph by George Washington Wilson (1823-1893): built within the harbour walls, the convict prison closed in 1875. (Wikimedia Commons)

With Western Australia now closed to them, there remained, beyond the mother country’s shores, only one spot in the entire empire where  men sentenced under the sodomy laws could be sent: the Gibraltar convict prisonThe convict service began decommissioning this decrepit establishment in the late 1860s; by 1874, only 268 convicts were still left there. Misconduct and insubordination were rife, and, though difficult to prove, allegations of sex among convicts frequent and thought credible by prison authorities. Two separate informants, both believed to be reliable, estimated that between 50 and 60 prisoners participated in what the prison chaplain referred to as ‘practices of an abominable character’. They would be among the very last to leave the prison: in a report made in advance of its closure a year later, its superintendent confirmed that he had finally ‘receive[d] authority to remove to England all prisoners suspected of unnatural crimes or indecent acts’. Buried in the Convict Directorate’s 600-page report for 1874, this statement clearly indicates a policy of overseas concentration. 

To comprehend the horror with which penal administrators and reformers viewed the potential spread of ‘unnatural crime’ in domestic convict prisons, it is useful to recall that sodomy and bestiality were prosecuted alike under the 1533 Buggery Act. The distinction between these offences was by no means clear cut, and for some they were virtually synonymous. In his evidence to an 1878 royal commission on penal servitude, the governor of Portland convict prison spoke of inmates ‘who had committed unnatural crimes, not only with beasts but with men.’ The prison’s chaplain was ‘shocked’ that a prisoner who had ‘committed sodomy, and then … bestiality with an ass’ could describe the offences as ‘trifling’. Writing the same year, a former convict observed that men sentenced for ‘crimes of gross sensuality’ were drawn ‘chiefly from the ranks of the uneducated’, their offence ‘evidence of a peculiarly degraded and brutal nature’. This echoed complaints made by Western Australia’s governor two decades earlier of ‘brutalized being[s] convicted of unnatural crime or bestiality – unfortunately a numerous class.’  Such remarks suggest that sex between men was seen not only as immoral, but  as a mark of low intellect and social status (the received image of middle-class metropolitan homosexuality notwithstanding). It was ‘unnatural’ because it was bestial, in the sense of being animal-like: unthinking, uninhibited, unrestrained and ‘brutal’. Of course, there were other crimes considered equally ‘brutal’, as well as other contexts in which sex between men was viewed in this way: Henry James, for instance, famously described Oscar Wilde as an ‘unclean beast’. But convict prisons were already places where men were treated as little more than working animals; the prospect of their also engaging in ‘bestial’ sexual activity was unacceptably hellish. 


Bethell pic 2016Ben Bethell is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, researching English convict prisons before 1914, and an Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. He is the author of ‘Prison Sex in English Convict Prisons, 1850-1880’ in Sean Brady & Mark Seymour’s forthcoming Same-Sex Relationships in History: International Perspectives.

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