I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Number 19 Cleveland Street was in the area of central London known as Fitzrovia. It’s a little north of Soho, which has a concentration of sleazy establishments catering to every imaginable taste, and more than a few unimaginable ones.
In 1889 and for several years before, a man called Charles Hammond ran a male brothel at the location. His clientele was the British aristocracy; his employees were teenagers who had day jobs as telegram delivery boys.
Post Office Robberies
The Royal Mail ran the telegraph business in the United Kingdom. It employed boys to deliver telegrams and urgent messages all over the city. The job did not pay very well and, when money disappeared from the Central Telegraph Office, suspicion fell on the lads.
Police Constable Luke Hanks was given the job of investigating the thefts. In July 1889, he stopped and searched 15-year-old Charles Swinscow, a telegram delivery boy.
“What’s this son?” the constable might have asked when he found Swinscow to be carrying several times the value of a week’s wages. “You’d better come along with me.”
As the questioning unfolded, the telegraph boy spilled out his story. After his day job, he worked as a prostitute for a man called Hammond. He said he was recruited by another telegraph boy called Henry Newlove and named a couple of other accomplices, one of them with the wonderfully Dickensian name of Charles Ernest Thickbroom.
Signed confessions from the four boys were enough to get a warrant for the arrest of the brothel keeper on a charge of homosexuality. By an 1885 act of Parliament, homosexual acts were illegal and carried a sentence of up to two years in prison; until 1861, the punishment included the death penalty.
When the police arrived at 19 Cleveland Street they found the house locked and there was no sign of Mr. Hammond. It seems Newlove had tipped off the brothel keeper that the game was up.
The house was put under surveillance and “A number of men of superior bearing and apparently of good position have been seen to call there …” (Police report).
A “Mr. Brown,” identified by Swinscow and Thickbroom as a customer, was observed calling there but not gaining entry.
“Mr. Brown” was followed as he returned home, which turned out to be the barracks of the Royal Horse Guards. “Mr. Brown” was no mere commoner but none other than Lord Arthur Somerset, younger son of Henry Charles Somerset, the 8th Duke of Beaufort. He was also equerry to Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII.
When the Prince of Wales heard that police were recommending charging his aide with gross indecency, the future monarch was incredulous: “I won’t believe it,” he said. “Any more than I should if they accused the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
Other names bubbled to the surface as habitués of 19 Cleveland Street; a Colonel Jervois of the 2nd Life Guards, and Henry FitzRoy, Earl of Euston.
Also, rumoured to be a regular visitor was Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale, and grandson of Queen Victoria. It was deemed prudent to send the prince off on a seven-month tour of India, departing September 1889.
Keep it Quiet
Lord Somerset lawyered up with a solicitor named Arthur Newton, who contacted Sir Augustus Stephenson, the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The solicitor told Sir Augustus that if his client was charged he might have to say some unpleasant things in his own defence. Names might be dropped; names from high up in the royal household. Names, such as the Duke of Clarence, second in line for the throne and currently inspecting the colonies on behalf of Her Majesty.
The Director of Public Prosecutions decided, with help from his political masters, that haste was not needed in the matter. By mid-October 1889, Lord Arthur Somerset had crossed the English Channel and began a lengthy exile. He spent the rest of his life on the French Rivera, where he died in 1926.
The boys received no such accommodations from the justice system. They were hauled into the Old Bailey and found guilty of gross indecency. Newlove got four months with hard labour, the others drew nine months.
The authorities might have congratulated themselves that they had swept the unsavoury business under the rug and ordered another round of vintage port at their clubs. But, they reckoned Ernest Parke, journalist by trade.
He thought it unfair that the toffs got away scot-free with their reputations intact while their playthings served hard time in prison. In late September 1889, he published a story in the North London Press which alluded to aristocratic carryings-on in a house of ill repute. In November, he named Lord Somerset and the Earl of Euston, and dropped broad hints about a royal personage.
Somerset was safely tucked away in France, but the Earl of Euston felt he had to defend his honour. He sued for libel.
On the witness stand, the earl admitted to being at 19 Cleveland Street, but it was all a mistake. He was, you see, under the impression there was to be a tableaux plastique (women posing in the nude). Once the true nature of the establishment became apparent to the earl he left.
Parke produced a self-confessed male prostitute who gave testimony about services he had rendered to the earl in the place.
However, in another victory of the upper crust over the common herd, Parke was found guilty of libel and sentenced to a year in prison with hard labour.
Lord Arthur Somerset had an older brother, Lord Henry Somerset. In 1879, he fled to Florence after a scandalous affair with a young man named Harry Smith.
The detective in charge of the Cleveland Street affair was Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline. A year earlier, in 1888, he had been the lead investigator in the Jack the Ripper case.
Lord Arthur Somerset’s solicitor, Arthur Newton, was convicted of perverting the course of justice by aiding in getting his client out of England. He was given six weeks in prison but allowed to keep his legal standing. In 1895, he acted on behalf of Oscar Wilde in his own trial of gross indecency with other men. A scandal that ensnared Lord Alfred Douglas.
Charles Hammond, the brothel keeper, was on the run in France and Belgium before going to the United States. The British government did not seek to extradite him because they did not want him giving embarrassing testimony in open court.
The house at 19 Cleveland Street was demolished in the 1890s to make way for an expansion of the Middlesex Hospital.
- “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.” Neil McKenna,
- The Cleveland Street Scandal.com
- “Gay History: The Cleveland Street Scandal.” Tim Alderman, January 27, 2016.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor