In July 1889, Police Constable Luke Hanks was summoned to investigate a reported theft at the main Telegraph Office in London. During his inquiries a telegraph boy by the name of Thomas Swinscow was found to have 18 shillings on his possession, an unusually large amount of money for a boy of his age and the equivalent of more than three weeks wages. Hanks also knew that it was against company policy for the boys to carry money on their person and so immediately suspecting Swinscow of the theft he brought him in for further questioning.
Swinscow was clearly nervous and evasive when questioned but he vehemently denied any involvement in the theft. It was only when it appeared that he was about to be charged with the crime that he owned up to where the money had come from. He had not stolen the money, he said, but had earned it working as a prostitute.
His employer, he told the police, was Charles Hammond who ran a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street in plush Fitzrovia.
He had been encouraged to sell his body for sex by Charles Newlove, an eighteen year old post office clerk, along with two other telegraph boys, George Wright and Ernest Thickbroom, who also worked there.
Prior to legislation passed in 1861 the punishment for ‘buggery’ was death and the last men executed for indulging their homosexuality were James Pratt and John Smith hanged at Newgate Prison on 27 November 1835 but since then prosecutions for the act of sodomy, often seen as a rich man’s crime, had languished but campaigns by organisations such as the Society for the Prevention of Vice was to see it effectively re-criminalised and so homosexual encounters between men, consenting or not, in private or not, had been outlawed by the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 and could be punished by up two years in prison with hard labour.
The case of the Fitzrovia Vice Ring was handed to Detective-Inspector Frederick Abberline who had been prominent in the Jack-the Ripper investigation of the previous year.
On 6 July he visited the premises at Cleveland Street with warrants for the arrest of Hammond and Newlove. Neither man was present though Newlove was later arrested at his mother’s house in Camden Town whilst Hammond was at the time staying with his brother in Gravesend.
Further investigations uncovered the brothels client list and the police were shocked at some of the names that appeared on it. These included Lord Arthur Somerset, Equerry to the Prince of Wales, Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Euston, two Members of Parliament and a number of Military Officers and rumours soon began to spread that Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and heir presumptive to the throne, had also been a regular visitor to Cleveland Street.
The Police did their best to suppress these rumours but they would not go away.
There is little doubt that Prince Albert Victor was unusual. Some described him as being other worldly, others as having a child-like demeanour, and he certainly appeared to enjoy the seamier side of life.
He was known to have associated with what were euphemistically termed “theatrical types” during his time at Cambridge University where he regularly attended transvestite clubs. Later he was to frequent the East End of London enjoying the Music Hall and would later be implicated in the Jack-the-Ripper murders. It would also emerge that he was being blackmailed by two female prostitutes.
He was to die on 14 January 1892 aged 28, in the great flu pandemic though he had earlier been diagnosed with venereal disease. The death of the Prince, so unlike his sober and dull younger brother George and perhaps too much like his libertine father, was convenient to say the least and the Royal Family among many others breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Following his death his personal papers were destroyed at the request of the Prince of Wales.
On 19 August, a warrant was issued for the arrest of George Veck, an associate of Charles Hammond who had been fired from his position at the Central Telegraph Office for improper conduct with boys. He had also often posed as a clergyman to lure young boys to the brothel in Cleveland Street.
Veck was arrested in Portsmouth on his return from the Continent where found on his person were letters that implicated a man named Algernon Allies. He was arrested and under questioning admitted to being paid to have sex with Lord Somerset. Somerset was subsequently called in for questioning but upon his release fled abroad.
On 1 September, Newlove and Veck went on trial charged with gross indecency. Their Defence was led by Lord Somerset’s solicitor Arthur Newton.
Newton was an experienced and wily lawyer who knew full well that it would be the fall-out from any scandal that would preoccupy the Authorities not the prosecution of the accused and he let it be known that there were people who were willing to testify that the Duke of Clarence had frequented the brothel, and that he would if necessary call them to the witness stand.
Inspector Abberline was to write to a colleague:
“I’m told that Newton has boasted that if we go on then a very distinguished person will become involved (PAV).”
The Cleveland Street Scandal as it soon became known was being reported daily in the newspapers but it was what they weren’t writing rather than what they were that permitted the gossip surrounding it to become deafening.
The Prince of Wales now intervened to ensure that the rumours involving his son went no further and the Courts hastened to conclude the case as quickly as possible. Both Charles Newlove and George Veck were given relatively light sentences of 9 and 4 months respectively after pleading guilty. Likewise, the boys involved were given the minimum punishment though they did lose their jobs.
It appeared that Newton’s threat to escalate the scandal had worked.
Lord Somerset, who had since returned to England, was advised by Newton that the possibility of his arrest was a real one and that he should return to the Continent at once. In the meantime, the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury intervened to ensure that no extradition warrant was issued. He also acted to ensure that the case against the brothels owner Charles Hammond was quietly dropped.
Lord Somerset later returned to England to attend his mother’s funeral. Hearing of this the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir James Monro demanded that he be arrested and the Chancellor Lord Halsbury had to intervene to block an arrest warrant from being issued.
It seems odd despite his close relationship with the Prince of Wales, whose own reputation was as a licentious libertine, that such lengths were undertaken to protect one errant aristocrat. Unless of course it was felt that the conviction of any one would implicate many others.
Despite the Chancellor’s intervention the Government was coming under increasing pressure to act. Finally, on 12 November papers were filed for the arrest of Lord Somerset. Prior to this however Somerset had been warned to flee by the Prime Minister himself. By the time the warrant was issued he was again safely abroad.
Despite reporting the scandal the mainstream press had remained largely deferential in tone. It was the Editor of the North London Press, Ernest Parke, who raked the dirt and shredded the nerves of the Establishment.
He suggested that the Cleveland Street Brothel had been run specifically for the benefit of the ruling elite. That it allowed them to pursue their personal perversions whilst pretending to maintain the highest moral standards at home.
He also questioned the lenient sentences passed on Newlove and Veck, and wanted to know why the case against Hammond had been dropped. Receiving no response he then demanded that the brothel’s client list be published and wanted to know why no one else had been prosecuted even though their names were known to police. Despite at first refusing to name names he eventually pointed the finger at Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Euston.
Fitzroy immediately brought a case of libel against Parke. He testified in Court that he had indeed visited the brothel at Cleveland Street but realising it was a house of assignation and ill-repute he immediately left never to return.
Parke was found guilty of libel on 16 January 1890 and sentenced to 12 months in prison.
The fall-out from the Cleveland Street Scandal was successfully suppressed by the Authorities but it was to emerge again in the Trial of Oscar Wilde five years later which served to reinforce the widely held view that homosexuality, or sodomy as it was known at the time, was essentially an aristocratic vice and that those purveyors of it would use their wealth and privilege to corrupt innocent lower-class youths.