BBC History Magazine

A hangman’s warning


On Saturday 29 August 1835, John Berkshire, a “respectabl­e tradesman”, squeezed into a small loft, removed a loose tile and peered into the room of his lodger, one William Bonell. Berkshire was shocked at what he saw and, hurriedly squirming from the loft, rushed down to tell his wife. On hearing the news, Mrs Berkshire raced to the offending room to verify the shocking report.

Strategica­lly avoiding the cramped loft, Jane Berkshire instead squinted through the keyhole. When later pressed at court, if this was really “a fit thing for a modest woman” to be doing, she responded that her only intention was to see whether there was anything untoward occurring inside. Well, for early 19th-century society, what was happening inside this small room in London was enough to lead to an execution – two, in fact.

In this riveting book, historian and MP Chris Bryant recounts a momentous historical injustice. He brings centre-stage three characters – William Bonell, John Smith and James Pratt – who all moved to London to escape poverty, and who all were tried for “an unnatural offence”.

John and James were spied upon having sex. James’s wife, Elizabeth, began an appeal petition but, while other alleged homosexual men were acquitted, by grave misfortune and injustice, James and John were marched from the Old Bailey, to prison, and then to the hangman’s noose. William was transporte­d to Australia as an accessory to the ‘crime’.

In telling this history, Bryant deftly illuminate­s a violently homophobic age. In the 1830s, the government abolished slavery, cracked down on child labour, and sought to clean up politics. Religion, revivalism and moral panic were the backdrops to a time of invention amid cries for freedom and reform. But, concerning homosexual­ity, laments for liberty fell on deaf ears.

The Buggery Act of 1533, which made ‘buggery’ a felony punishable by death, held sway. Between 1806 and 1835,

404 men were sentenced to death for ‘sodomy’ in England. Fifty-six of them were hanged. The last two of them were James and John.

Through painstakin­g research – mining poor law records, workhouse registers, prison calendars, court proceeding­s, press accounts and private correspond­ence – Bryant reconstruc­ts these lives noting, however, that a lot remains unknown.

This archival silence is echoed at the social level too, for ‘sodomy’ was seen to be so sinful that even the crime was rarely mentioned. But, as Bryant shows, homosexual­ity was a lived reality; and it was seen – spied upon by the police and the likes of Mr and Mrs Berkshire – making this as much their history as the history of William, James and John. And, as Bryant stresses, their execution serves both as a warning and a clarion call in the fight for justice and liberty today.

John Jacob Woolf, co-writer of the Audible series Stephen Fry’s Edwardian Secrets and Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets

 ?? ?? James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant
Bloomsbury, 336 pages, £25
James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant Bloomsbury, 336 pages, £25

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