In any publication celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wolfenden Report it is necessary to look at that less examined period between the publication of the report in 1957 and its almost complete enactment ten years later.
In 1958 Tony Dyson, then a lecturer at Bangor University, put together the Homosexual Law Reform Society to press for early legislation. Dyson was gay, and as soon as the new society was up and running he took a back seat because there was a determination both to demonstrate the HLRS was not a gay organisation and to ensure that it didn’t become one.
I was an HLRS supporter – it didn’t have members - from the beginning and I did what supporters were asked to do, which was to write to the press and lobby their MPs. I managed to get a couple of letters in the national press and found that my MP at that time, the late Sidney Silverman – a fearless maverick – openly accepted the case for reform, which put him in a very tiny minority within Parliament.
I found out when doing a little lobbying around the bar at the Labour Party conference in 1960 that there were other MPs who also accepted that the case for reform was sound, but who were so afraid of supposed constituency opinion that they considered it would be political suicide to publicly demonstrate their support.
I therefore decided to put down a motion in my local Labour Party in the hope of getting it on the agenda for the next national conference. It was a forlorn hope as I was soon to learn.
My ward party absolutely refused to discuss it, under the influence of a Guardian-reading magistrate of my own age from whom I expected better things. He was absent from the next ward meeting, having succumbed to the superior attraction of an evening football match, and I submitted the motion again with the threat that a repeat of the earlier performance would precipitate my resignation as ward secretary on the grounds that I could accept being defeated, but was not prepared to be suppressed!
They must have considered the prospect direr than it was, because they hesitantly agreed to let the motion go forward to the Constituency Executive without, as far as I can remember, actually endorsing it.
The first time it came up at the Executive it was received in exactly the same way as at its first outing in the ward – a complete and absolute refusal to discuss it. “Not the sort of thing which involved political parties,” they said. “Dealt with in the House, if at all, by private members,” they said, and “Not a matter which could be discussed in mixed company!”
I managed to persuade the Ward Committee to submit it again, on the grounds that the Executive had treated them shabbily, and I promised to ask the Executive Secretary to circulate the agenda in advance so that nobody would be drawn into a discussion the would rather avoid.
The next Executive meeting was marked by the presence of a large number of Councillors and Aldermen (remember Aldermen?) who were ex-officio members but who rarely appeared at routine meetings.
There had clearly been a secret caucus meeting and, after the same lame excuses were trotted out somebody moved next business – an old and well-used Labour evasive mechanism - and this was carried.
I wrote up the whole sorry tale in a three page article which New Left Review published under the title ”Wolfenden in the Wilderness.” New Left Review was much more influential in the Labour Party then than it appears to be today, but if the article lit a fuse it must have been an extremely slow-burning one because it took a further 14 years for the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights to emerge
The local paper did a piece about the NLR article which did not bring forth a single critical letter-to-the-editor which was about the only positive thing to emerge from the whole exercise.
I then resigned myself to what we used to call The Politics of the Long Haul with the prospect that, if Wolfenden did not actually disappear into the dustbin of forgotten enquiries, then we might get reform in twenty, thirty or even more years and maybe the police would re-adopt the wartime policy of a fairly tolerant approach.
Some Hope! There then erupted in Bolton – more than thirty years before the better known Bolton Seven case – a multiple prosecution of the worst pre-war type when eight men were prosecuted for private behaviour, none of which involved cottaging or multiple partners or what we would now regard as under-age sex. All were over 18 and all except one were over 21. Some of them met for the first time in the dock!
I wrote a letter of protest in the Bolton Evening News and this brought forth two letters supporting me – one from a the local Dean and another from a former Liberal Parliamentary candidate – and no letters supporting the prosecution.
On the basis of this I went in to see the editor to ask if he would find room for an article. He said he wouldn’t, since he didn’t approve of homosexuals, but he did volunteer the information that he had received a deputation from the police asking if the letters really did represent the general opinion in the town.
So, although all the men were convicted and one was imprisoned for 18 months, we did at least establish that the local police were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the role they were called upon to fulfil.
This doubt, I suspected, was not widely felt among other police forces and I determined to step up the pressure for the reform campaign to be broadened. I had no intention of starting a separate organisation. Indeed the idea had never even occurred to me.
I wrote to the Homosexual Law Reform Society urging them to establish local groups. Although the valuable work that they were doing was influencing what we would call “informed opinion” it was not reaching the places it was necessary to reach if we were to reassure MPs that it was safe for them to publicly support the cause and back it with their votes.
The response from HLRS was disappointing, to say the least. I received a letter from one of the joint secretaries – this was before the appointment of the excellent Antony Grey – which said, among other things:-
“I still stick to what I said about local committees. Unfortunately we have always found in this office that – as well as many splendid, able and willing volunteers – we always seem to get a percentage of crackpots and shifty types. I don’t understand why but the office acts like a magnet to them and one has to be very careful and vet everyone carefully. Our work is so valuable
we do not want to endanger it in any way by taking risks.”
Clearly, there was no possibility of progress via the HLRS but, through them I had got to know another supporter, the late Colin Harvey, who was senior social worker for the Manchester Diocesan Board for Social Responsibility.
Colin and I came to the conclusion that unless we made a move ourselves, nothing would get done, so we called a meeting at Church House on Deansgate in central Manchester by sending invitations to all the agencies on Colin’s mailing list and by leafleting all the gay bars and clubs – such as they were in those days.
The attendance was probably about half gay and half straight and was addressed by Colin and myself and Antony Grey who had taken over as secretary of HLRS by then.
Antony was personally in favour of local groups, but his Committee was still adamantly opposed.
He was licensed by them to keep in touch with us because, as one of them put it “that is the only way we shall know what they are up to.” I received a great deal of help and co-operation from Antony during the next few years to an extent which, I suspect, was unknown to his Committee!
We now had sufficient backing to go ahead. We collected a prominent and greatly respected lawyer as President and an influential group of Vice-presidents, including Ted Wickam, the Bishop of Middleton, who was Colin’s Chairman.
Ted kindly placed his Boardroom at our disposal for our committee meetings and we had quietly assumed – without any justification at all – that we should also be able to use his office for our postal address. Not so, for – as Ted pointed out – that would be several steps beyond what the more reactionary wing of the Church would be willing to tolerate.
So there we were, with the type for ten thousand high quality leaflets set up by the hot-metal process and unable to go to press for want of an address! We were aware that the use of a box number would give the organisation a somewhat furtive look and it was then that I – in a moment of impetuosity and recklessness - said that my own address could be used.
Nobody warned me that there could be unforeseen consequences from this move, though many must have thought it; and indeed there were unforeseen developments but all of them, somewhat surprisingly, were all positive and served to advance the cause.
The local press rushed to report the emergence of the new organisation under a front page banner-headline covering eight columns, giving my home address and informing readers that I worked for the National Coal Board, they having recently moved me from my employment in Burnley to a new post on the South Lancashire coalfield.
The house I lived in was one of a colony of miners’ cottages which I rented from the Coal Board. It soon became clear from office gossip that the Board was far from pleased by this development but, since there was apparently nobody in authority who was prepared to challenge me about it, their panic eventually died down.
The ten thousand leaflets were widely distributed and the tear-off membership applications soon came flowing in, including one from the late Alan Fitch, who was not only MP for Wigan and heterosexual, but was actually sponsored by the National Union of Mineworkers at a time when the miners’ MPs were almost solidly opposed to gay law reform and were perhaps the main stumbling block to progress in Parliament. So Alan promptly went on to the list of Vice-Presidents.
Gradually, the heterosexuals who had comprised around half of the attendance at the launch meeting dropped away as they saw that the organisation was strong enough to stand on its own feet and they – because of the nature of the original invitation process – being busy people with many commitments in other areas. So there we were, with a new gay organisation which had not exactly been designed or planned as such, but had “just grown” rather like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin!
And so we proceeded, trying to make our presence known and our arguments accepted through letters to the press, both local and national and by talking to such organisations as would accept a speaker. These varied from great university debates – which we always won – to small church hall meetings.
I remember addressing one meeting, at a vicarage in Ashton-under-Lyne, which had a man picketing the door and declaring that anybody from the Scouts would only enter over his dead body! Another time, when we were leafleting a Tory election meeting in the Cheadle constituency of one of the campaign’s chief opponents, members of the audience kept sending children out to request a leaflet, no doubt in the hope that we would give them one so that their parents could have something with which they could denounce us to the press.
I wrote to many local Labour parties, asking them to receive a speaker. None of them replied, except the new one to which I then belonged, who responded with the well-worn excuse that “this was not the kind of matter with which political parties involved themselves.”
The election of a Labour government under Harold Wilson, though with a pitiful majority, brought new hope. The government itself never gave any support to the proposed reform, but its more progressive Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins successfully argued in Cabinet that Parliamentary time should be allowed for a private member’s Bill, and such a Bill was introduced by Humphry Berkeley, the Conservative MP for Lancaster.
The voting on the early stages of this Bill showed some progress, but the hostility or indifference of many Labour MPs caused comment in the more enlightened sections of the press. Matthew Coady, who was the New Statesman’s Parliamentary correspondent, wrote on 18 February 1966:-
“Many Labour MPs – and most of them were absent on Friday – have no time at all for Mr Berkeley’s Bill……As they see it, homosexuality is not one of society’s problems. It is a vice practiced, extensively and exclusively, by the rich, the bizarre indulgence of some effete, lilac establishment where the favourite drink is hock and seltzer and all the coats are astrakhan.
“Back in the pits” said one of them last week, “we knew all about adultery,we knew all about fornication, but we knew nothing whatever about that.”
I replied in the New Statesman the following week:-
“Like Matthew Coady, I am appalled at the hostility of many mining MPs towards every proposal to liberalise the homosexuality law, and I am curious to know if they can justify their attitude by anything more scientific that the loaded questioning of the regulars at their local working-men’s club.
“For all except five weeks of its 18 month’s existence, the campaign mounted by this Homosexual Law Reform Committee has been conducted from one of a large block of miners’ cottages in Atherton, Lancs. which I rented from the National Coal Board, by whom I am employed.
“This fact was well known in Atherton and the surrounding mining towns from signed letters to the press and from a newspaper report a year ago, which appeared on the front page under a banner headline covering eight columns.
“There was no hostility from workmates or from neighbours or from local shopkeepers. There was no abuse. There were no opposing letters, either anonymous or otherwise and there were no snide remarks in the pubs.
“If the miners’ MPs can produce a shred of evidence to show that the mining community is particularly or even mildly opposed to this reform I should like to hear it. I know of none,”
Unfortunately, Berkeley’s Bill fell as Wilson called a general election rather than soldier on with an all-but-unworkable majority and Berkeley lost his Lancaster seat.
There were those who said that his loss was due to his support for gay reform, although the noted psepologist (and CHE vice-president) Michael Steed has pointed out that the national swing of votes away from the Tories would have taken Berkeley’s seat anyway.
However, each time a vote had been taken in the House there was a slight positive shift in attitudes, with some MPs moving from opposition into abstention and others moving from abstention to the support lobby.
In the year previous to the passage of the 1967 Act, we had held a large public meeting at a hall in central Manchester, the second of only two public meeting during the whole ten year campaign, the other having been in London.
Reg. Kilduff, the owner of the Rockingham, a Manchester gay club long since consumed by redevelopment and the Rembrandt, a still-existing gay bar, had been so fearful that trouble would erupt in and around the meeting that he had hired security men at his own expense, but there was no trouble and no demonstrations – a further indication that the public was becoming calmer about the prospect of change.
Nevertheless, the position in Parliament remained on a knife-edge until the final successful vote but, because those of us who had been involved in the campaign had recognised for some time that eventual success was inevitable, the result was received with quiet relief and gratitude rather than elation.
There had been an unspoken early assumption that the work of the Committee would be over once the Wolfenden recommendations were enacted, but the 1967 Act fell short of fulfilling all Wolfenden’s intentions and the victory opened up the prospect of further advances which, until then, had been considered far beyond the reach of practical politics and some of which (like gay marriage) had not even been dreamt of.
But it was decided that the campaign should continue, which it did, first as the Committee for Homosexual Equality and later as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. The possibility of employing full-time paid staff opened up and the first of these was Paul Temperton who bravely gave up a good job to embark upon something which was, at that time, still rather precarious.
However, the organisation went from strength to strength with membership exceeding 3,000 and, almost inevitably, there was pressure to move the office from Manchester to London and, after considerable argument, this took place.
The rest, as they say, is history – although a history that has been more widely recorded than what I have written here. But I think we need to pay tribute to the late John Frederick Wolfenden and his Committee – except, of course, the dissenting member, James Adair, O.B.E., who had argued, among other objections that “The presence in a district of, for example, adult male lovers living openly and notoriously under the approval of the law is bound to have a regrettable and pernicious effect on the young people of the community.”
Sir John Wolfenden’s personal views on the matter under consideration remained hidden, as his duty required, but he clearly suffered some vulnerability from the fact that he had a son, Jeremy, who was not only gay, but also outrageously camp. If this fact had become publicly known, Wolfenden would have been accused of being hopelessly biased in our favour and would no doubt have felt obliged to resign from the Committee.
His report, when it was published in September 1957, sold more copies than any previous enquiry and was a real trailblazer in that, any reform campaign started at that time, without being able to build on the basis of the report, would inevitably have been destroyed by the gutter press. Even with the report, Express newspapers ran a leading article the day after its publication urging the government to “slap down the pleas of perverts.”
Wolfenden wrote of his task in his memoirs (“Turning Points” The Bodley Head, 1976) “I have been asked a good many times why this particular lot fell on me. I have replied, with perfect truthfulness, that I don’t know adding, with equal truthfulness that it cannot have been because I was an expert…” and “From time to time facetious gossip-column writers asked if we were undertaking first-hand experience in the relevant fields. For my part I thought it prudent to avoid public lavatories in the West End.”
His was a difficult job, well done, which made possible – ultimately and only after much struggle – the good things that have followed.
Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden, we salute your memory.