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Book review: James and John: A true story of prejudice and murder by Chris Bryant

16 February 2024

Michael Wheeler reads a forensic study of how ’justice’ was meted out

A PRE-PUBLICATION subtitle for this angry book was The untold story of the last men to be hanged for being gay. James Pratt (who was married) and John Smith, both in service in London, were caught in flagrante by the landlord of their friend William Bonell on Saturday 29 August 1835. Arrested and taken before the magistrate, they became prisoners on remand at Horsemonger Lane prison before being transferred to the dreaded cesspit that was Newgate.

Having endured the briefest of “trials” at the Old Bailey (most hearings took less than ten minutes), they were herded together with other condemned prisoners to await final judgments. Only James and John were executed, however, on 27 November 1835. Prejudice, claims Chris Bryant, and judicial murder.

Shorthand writers at the Old Bailey recorded cases of “b-gg-ry” or “s-d-y”. Women were cleared from the court before cases of “unnatural crimes” were heard, and officials referred to “the crime amongst Christians not to be named”. Nervous readers should think twice before following the journey of James and John to the gallows. Furtive encounters in filthy corners of the East End contrast with upper-class male brothels up West. Stomach-churning descriptions of prison conditions abound. Officers of the law are shown to be bigots. Worse still, the condemned prisoners are vilified by their neighbours as they tramp in shackles between prisons. This is a very grim read.

Between 1806 and 1835, 404 men were sentenced to death for sodomy in England, of whom 56 were hanged. (Forty of the 56 died for acts between consenting adult men.) Many more were imprisoned or transported. “It was the harshest period in our history”, Bryant comments, “and we should never forget it.” Religion played a part, in his view. Once James and John arrived in Newgate’s death row, which Dickens visited, the Established Church was represented by the prison chaplain, the “portly-bellied, port-speaking-faced Dr Cotton”, as one prisoner described him.

Cotton relished his role, breaking down many prisoners and chastising the hardest of hearts. When all appeals had been heard, the condemned were ordered to kneel in a circle as Cotton entered the room, bearing the sheet of parchment inscribed with the final decisions on their fate. He had bad news for James and John, while 15 others were saved from the drop. All prisoners gathered in the chapel on the Sunday to hear the “condemned sermon” from Dr Cotton, in which the pair were reminded that they were to die next day “for the benefit of society”. The service was part of a grotesque routine for Cotton, who accompanied no fewer than 344 individuals to the gallows.

Sir Chris Bryant MP entered into a civil partnership with Jared Cranney in the Members’ Dining Room at Westminster in 2010, supported by 200 friends. An Anglican priest, he had left the ministry in 1991 because being gay and being a priest seemed to be incompatible. He lists the countries in which homosexual acts still carry the death sentence. His new campaigning book is the product of exhaustive archival searches, many of them made online during lockdowns, and is a serious contribution to social history of the most disturbing kind.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and the author of
The Year That Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845 (Books, 31 March 2023).


James and John: A true story of prejudice and murder
Chris Bryant
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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