As discussed in my post from over a week ago, we need to talk about prostitution, homosexuality, and the Victorian Post Office.
These stories and quotations all come from Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas (2012). And it will soon become evident why the postman in this illustration is giving you some serious bedroom eyes.
In 1889, there was a London scandal called the Cleveland Street Affair (also known as the West End Scandal). “Not only was it […] a national sensation, but it also occasioned the first high-profile prosecution under Britain’s first ever law against homosexuality: the Criminal Law Amendment Act, Section 11. This law, which was passed in 1885, was the same alw under which [Oscar] Wilde would be prosecuted ten years later” (40).
“The events comprising the Cleveland Street Affair came to light because of an irregularity in another circulation system: currency. On 4 July 1889, one of the General Post Office’s internal policemen, P.C. Luke Hanks, interrogated a fifteen-year-old Boy Messenger named Charles Swinscow who had been found with an amount of money disproportionate to his meager wages as a telegraph delivery boy.
“There had been a theft in the Central Telegraph Office [….] On the trail of a thief, the suspicious Hanks asked Swinscow to account for his possession of 14 shillings. But Hanks caught a different fish altogether. Swinscow, it turned out, was not a thief, but a rent-boy. He had the unusual amount of money because he had been working as a prostitute in a West End brothel, on Cleveland Street.
“His tale thoroughly implicated the Post Office. Not only was Swinscow one of several Post Office boys involved in the brothel, but they had also been procured, and some of them even had sex, on the Post Office premises. Swinscow himself had been seduced on the Post Office premises by another Boy Messenger called, aptly, Newlove.
“Interviewed by a senior officer in the Confidential Inquiry Bureau, John Phillips, Swinscow described how: ‘Soon after I got to know him he asked me to go into the lavatory at the basement of hte Post Office building — we went into one water closet and shut the door and we behaved indecently together — we did this on other occasions afterwards” (43-44).
“Henry Newlove persuaded Swinscow to go to the Cleveland Street house where the proprietor, Charles Hammond, sent him to bed with a customer. Swinscow gave the names of two other Boy Messengers involved in the brothel: George Alma Wright and Charles Ernest Thickbroom (another implausibly diverting name), who were both seventeen. Wright’s story is another tale of seduction by Newlove:
“‘He persuaded me on several occasions to go to the lavatory in the basement with him. It was about 4 months that I first made his acquaintance. We used to go into the water closet together and behave indecently. On one or two occasions certainly more than once, Newlove put his person into me, that is to say behind only a little way and something came from him. I never did this to him. One afternoon I met him in the corridor of the Post Office during my dinner hour he said to me “I know a gentleman I go with sometimes and if you like to come I will shew [show] him you. He wants to have a game at spooning about with you“‘” (44).
Obviously, this all blew up in the national news, and the idea of ‘telegraph boys’ came to be synonymous with homosexuality. In fact, in 1890, “The Scots Observer published a review of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray [which, as we remember from the post on terrible book covers, was a novel with explicitly homosexual characters] that attacked Wilde for ‘grubbing in muck heaps‘ and ‘writing stuff that were better unwritten‘.
“It concluded: ‘Mr. Wilde has brains, and art, and style; but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals'” (39).
I would like to point out, childish though it is, that not only are two of the young male prostitutes named Thickbroom and Newlove, but that one of the academics listed in the footnotes of this book, who talks about homosexuality in the nineteenth century, is named Harry Cocks. I’m sure this poor guy has had this joked about millions of times, but I feel compelled to mention it here, given how on point all of the other names are.