In the "good old" bad old days of 1936 when homosexuality was nor only disapproved of but also prosecuted a conviction could, and invariably did, destroy the lives of gay men without them having committed a single wrong act.
What sounds like an obvious statement was the harsh reality for those who the police singled out for their merciless attention. ALLAN HORSFALL takes a closer look at what was probably the largest gay witch-hunt in British legal history.
In the mid 1930's a huge group prosecution devastated the lives of the men involved and placed a mark of "shame" upon the Cheshire town of Altrincham - around which it was centred - which was to persist for generations. Because of this, Altrincham became identified among a large section of the population as being synonymous with everything perverted. Whenever the town was mentioned in these circles it was almost certain that homosexuality would rear its head. And if homosexuality was discussed or - more probably - joked about, then the name of Altrincham would invariably be dragged in.
The vision was of a town populated entirely by predatory sodomites. "If you should drop a half-crown in Altrincham," people were solemnly warned, "don't ever try to pick it up."
I heard this warning repeated some time after the half-crown had given way to decimal coinage, demonstrating that this slanderous image of the place persisted at least into the 1970's, and there may well be areas where it lives on still.
Oscar Wilde said that the road to homosexual law reform would be "long and red with monstrous martyrdoms" and this was certainly the case in the years between 1885 and 1967 during which all male homosexual acts were outlawed.
But the pattern of prosecutions was uneven - and not only in relation to times and places. Although one might have expected that those who took the most risks would face the greatest danger, this was often not the case. A stereotypical gay man who consistently behaved outrageously might sail through life quite untroubled by the law, while for others whose conduct was discretion itself, Authority's heavy knock on the door might come - sometimes in the middle of the night - many years after the activity for which they were being hunted down. Such determination to pursue stale offences remained unequalled until the paedophile panic at the turn of the century.
The atmosphere was captured exactly by Dr R. W. Reid in a letter published in the Spectator on 3rd January 1958:-
"The pogroms continue, one in this neighbourhood having started with long and weary police court proceedings on the eve of Christmas, so that the festival may presumably be spent in contemplation of the Spring Assize.
"And this for a lad of seventeen. The pattern is much the same in all these cases. The police go round from house to house, bringing ruin in their train, always attacking the younger men first, extracting information with lengthy questioning and specious promises of light sentences as they proceed from clue to clue, i.e. from home to home, often up to twenty.
"This time the age range is seventeen to forty, which is about average. Last time a man of thirty-seven dropped dead in the dock at Assize. Just because this happens in country places and at country Assizes, it all goes largely unreported."
But it didn't go unreported when it happened in Altrincham. Although no famous names were involved, it was too big for the national press to ignore. Twenty-nine men were brought before the courts and the number was only limited because others, who had got wind of the police inquiries, had fled the country.
Such prosecutions, of course, had always been bread-and-butter to the Sunday gutter press, but this time the dailies and the broadsheets had to take notice.
There were no allegations of importuning or public indecency. The men had met, it was said, in cafes and bars in Manchester. It is extremely doubtful whether knew, and were known by, more than a few of the others, but they were seen by authority - as in nearly all similar cases - as a gang. "I am quite satisfied," said the judge "that the prisoners in the dock at this Assizes are a gang."
Gangs, of course, need to have leaders, and this role was invariably ascribed not to the oldest accused, but to the one facing most charges. I recall the label being pinned on to a 24 year-old man during a group prosecution in Bolton as late as 1963.
Viewed from today, the press were strangely inhibited in their reporting of the case. With the single exception of the salacious Manchester Evening News, there was no mention of gross indecency, and certainly none of buggery. The local Altrincham paper referred throughout to "improper conduct" and both national and local papers reported it simply as "The Altrincham Case," which is probably why the memory of it endured for so long to haunt the town.
Mr Alfred Keogh (prosecuting) said he "did not suppose that in the criminal history of the country had a batch of prisoners been brought before a court on such serious charges - certain of the charges were about the most serious which could be brought against any man. It was something just less than murder."
There had been no direct complaints to the police. The ages of the accused ranged from 17 to 59. The youngest "who was unable to work for several months did not make a complaint to anybody, but his employed dragged the truth out of him. As a result the prosecution spread, one prisoner incriminating another."
The defendants, who had been reported as looking drawn and dejected at the start of the preliminary hearing, had apparently brightened up considerably by the second day, as evidenced by the following: Defence counsel, Mr Backhouse (addressing the magistrates), said "However much you admire the Cheshire police, it is impossible for your worships to believe that one after another these men, against whom the police had no evidence, immediately volunteered statements which convicted themselves."
This was followed by a spontaneous outbreak of applause from all the defendants. I am quite certain that this early and previously unheard of demonstration of gay solidarity in adversity must have come as a profound shock to the prosecution and the Bench. And as quite an eye-opener to the defending solicitors as well, I should imagine.
There were signs too, that even some of the police did not regard the defendants as belonging to the general body of criminality. Cross-examining Detective Harris on his evidence, Mr Lustgarden asked, "Did you ever know a more accommodating crowd of defendants?"
Detective Harris: "No sir"
"They have an extraordinary urge to write statements?"
"They are not criminals, Sir."
The prosecution was not content to rest its case on the confessions of frightened and confused defendants. Dr W. H. Grace, pathologist at Chester Royal Infirmary, stated that he had medically examined 24 of the 29 prisoners. He came to the conclusion, as a result of his examinations, that 12 of them "had acted as receiving agents in the committal of a certain offence" (as the papers put it). He had made his examinations on the instructions of the police superintendent at Altrincham.
Strenuous efforts were made by the defence to have the trial held in Manchester rather than Chester. Mr Turner said his client lived in Stretford. He was a youth of 20 years of age and his widowed mother had raised money for his defence. It would be a great hardship if they were put to more expense than was necessary. Manchester Assize Courts were only a twopenny (tram)car ride from his client's house.
All the solicitors in the case and all the counsel, with the exception of one, were not in the Chester circuit. It would be beyond the means of the defendants to support their own defence if the case went to Chester. But to Chester it was sent!
The prosecution there followed the drearily familiar pattern of such cases. Seized letters and photographs, powder, lipstick, greasepaint; evidence of presents - slippers, flowers, chocolates. Hotel registers were produced to demonstrate who had stayed with whom and where and when. Evidence of nicknames - one of them had been known as the Queen Mother.
Perhaps worst of all, the mother of one of the defendants was put up by the prosecution to testify that her son had entertained a male friend while she was away on Good Friday.
A tiny beacon of 'humanity' flickered when the employer of one of the accused pleaded in court that if any treatment could be found for his workman as an alternative to imprisonment he would be willing to meet the full cost of it, including accommodation. This was he only defendant to be subsequently dealt with by way of a treatment order.
A handful were acquitted and a few were treated leniently, but brutality was the order of the day. Men were sent away for terms of two, three and four years and, in the most savage case, one man was sentenced to seven years penal servitude with eighteen months hard labour.
Paul Tench, writing about the case in the Sunday Empire News, produced a strange mixture of moralising and attempted explanation.
"Less than two years ago Herr Hitler started a campaign to eradicate this brand of vice from Germany. His method was drastic and sentences against those convicted ranged from the death sentence to life imprisonment.
"There is good reason for saying that the Altrincham round-up has touched only the fringe of the scandal rampant in other areas now receiving police attention."
But the writing was already on the (admittedly distant) wall for the German dictator in a war which served to concentrate British minds wonderfully on more important and worthwhile pursuits than legalised queerbashing.
And no subsequent trawl of gay men was to net so many victims at one go - not even when the British police were acting under post-war pressure from the American security services. So the Altrincham case remains unique in the breadth and intensity of its persecution - a pinnacle of cruelty in an 82 years long homosexual wilderness - the result, as the Empire News put it, "of one of the most searching investigations that have ever been undertaken in this respect with a large number of detectives working day and night.
Although it is easy now to portray these men as the victims which they undoubtedly were, there seems to be no ready way in which their suffering and the injustice of it can be commemorated in a form more permanent than this article.
And even here I have named nobody, although most, if not all of them will now be where publicity can do no further damage and where they stand in no need of protection from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.
But the time has surely come to lay the ghost so far as Altrincham is concerned. No city of vice, this pleasant, wealthy town, but merely - like some of its unlucky sons - the hapless victim of an unjust law and a capricious prosecution policy.
The town, in its turn, has a duty to help in rehabilitating the memory of its victims. Though it may not be exactly another Tolpuddle, fate has nevertheless awarded Altrincham a minor but undeniable place in the unhappy chronicle of martyrdom.
The trial requires a permanent memorial. A blue plaque on the courthouse or the library would be appropriate if nothing grander can be afforded. This idea, however, is unlikely to commend itself to civic leaders who, many years after the 1967 homosexual law reform, elected as mayor a men who, immediately before his installation to that office, prescribed "a bullet between the eyes" as appropriate treatment for gay men.
The political composition of he council has changed a little since that disgraceful comment was seen as no bar to high office in the borough, but perhaps not so much as to easily permit the act of atonement which is still needed.
But it might be worth a try