When Homosexuality was Illegal: Samuel Butler and Harry Sidwell: Part One

Samuel Butler and Harry Sidwell were found guilty and sentenced to prison with hard labour. Text reads 'Guilty of attempting to commit an abominable crime.' | Warwickshire County Record Office reference QS26/1/140
Samuel Butler and Harry Sidwell were found guilty and sentenced to prison with hard labour.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference QS26/1/140
The charges against Samuel Butler and Harry Sidwell, laid out on a sheet of paper | Warwickshire County Record Office reference QS26/1/140
The charges against Samuel Butler and Harry Sidwell
Warwickshire County Record Office reference QS26/1/140

People are broadly aware of the historic criminalisation of male homosexual activity – cases of certain famous individuals like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing spring to mind. Until the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, gay couples who wished to make love consensually and privately risked imprisonment, or worse. In November 1835, in London, James Pratt and John Smith were the last two men in the UK to be hung for having sex together.

The criminalisation of homosexuality was as much a part of Warwickshire as it was the rest of the country. In the Calendars of Prisoners1 we find a number of cases of men convicted (or discharged) for sodomy. It is from these records that we know of the relationship between Samuel Butler and Harry Sidwell. These are two men whose names barely survive in the historical record; they were both simple labourers and have already faded into near-total obscurity. Were it not for their conviction in March 1888, their homosexual encounter would never have been known about.

The encounter

On January 28th 1888, somewhere in Leamington, Samuel and Harry had some kind of sexual encounter. By modern standards, both were consenting adults – Samuel was aged 39 and Harry was aged 18. We don’t know any further details of the event, but somehow they were found out and arrested. Three days later, the case was heard in the Petty Sessions2. Evidence was presented against them by Police-Sergeant Parkinson and a man named Thomas Hancox, a platelayer on the railway. Hancox lived nearby in Waterloo Street, a mere ten minutes’ walk away from both Harry Sidwell in Gordon Street and Samuel Butler in Warneford Terrace (now Althorpe Street)3.

In the newspapers4 5 it states that the accused ‘made statements incriminating each other’ while in custody, but when they came to face the magistrates both remained silent. Unfortunately no records survive of either their or the witnesses’ statements. They were allowed bail, with sureties of £30 each (something like £1700 in today’s money), and the case was taken to the Assize Courts in October.

An uncomfortable intimacy

When they came to trial for their actions, Samuel had not had any previous convictions. Harry had had a more turbulent youth, with five convictions relating to theft, damage to property, and aggressive behaviour. The earliest was at age 11 for stealing apples, and the most recent at age 15, when he set his dog on a boy who had been throwing stones at it. Sam was illiterate, while Harry could read and write imperfectly. It is with an uncomfortable intimacy that we, so far removed from these men’s lives, can read in a few simple lines the details of their encounter; we learn that Samuel was accused of ‘carnally knowing’ Harry, while Harry ‘permitt[ed] himself to be so carnally known’. They were found guilty of ‘attempting to commit an abominable crime.’ Samuel was given two years in prison with hard labour, while Harry, being younger, was given 12 months with hard labour.

But who were these two men? Do we know anything more about them, aside from this trial?

1 Warwickshire County Record Office, Calender of Prisoners, reference number QS26/1/140

2 Warwickshire County Record Office, Petty Sessions Minute Book, reference number CR1591/2

3 Census records, 1841-1911.

4 Birmingham Post, 31 January 1888.

5 Leamington Spa Courier, Saturday 17 March 1888

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