The Last Men Executed for Sodomy in England, 1835

NOTE: This page reviews the case of the last men to be executed for sodomy in England, which took place on 27 November 1835. The death sentence for sodomy was not officially abolished at that time; in fact for many years thereafter men were still sentenced to death for sodomy, but the sentence was always immediately reprieved and changed to transportation for life. In 1861, since executions had no longer been carried out for many years, the felony of sodomy was abolished, thereby officially abolishing the sentence of death. The 1835 case acquired its status as "the last hanging for sodomy" only in retrospect; at the time, it did not receive any special attention. Nevertheless it merits our special attention today.
          John Smith, a 40-year-old single man, and James Pratt, a 30-year-old married man, were spied having sex with each other in the lodging room of William Bonill, a 68-year-old widower, who was also present. Smith and Pratt (who some accounts say were aged 34 and 32 respectively) had met one another at a nearby pub on Blackfriar's Road, and went to Bonill's lodgings nearby in George Street, which Bonill apparently offered as a place where gay men could regularly meet. The landlord was annoyed at Bonill bringing men to his room, and spied on the men through the keyhole. The evidence against them was clear and detailed. Smith and Pratt were sentenced to be hanged, and Bonill was sentenced to 14 years' transportation. When the Judge sentenced them, they were required to appear separately lest their presence contaminate the other convicts also being sentenced for other crimes. They were also kept separate from other condemned prisoners while awaiting execution in Newgate Prison, where they were observed by the novelist Chalres Dickens. Smith and Pratt were hanged before a large crowd of spectators outside of Newgate Prison. Bonill was transported to Australia, and his convict records exist. He died there in 1841. The building where he lodged still exists, in the same street where Mary Wollstonecraft once lived, so it has a Blue Plaque! Some modern commentators suggest that the evidence is inadequate to prove the charge, but Smith admitted his guilt in a letter to a friend written while in prison, and it is also confirmed in Bonill's statement after ariving in Australia, so I think there is little reason to doubt the evidence given at the trial.
          This web page was first put up in 2014, but I have enlarged it with details about Bonill's convict career and photographs of his lodgings. See the full transcript of the Trial of James Pratt and John Smith on a separate page.

Trial at the Old Bailey
Third Jury, before Mr. Baron Gurney.
Case No. 1934. JOHN SMITH and JAMES PRATT were indicted for buggery at the parish of Christ Church, Surrey; and WILLIAM BONILL was indicted as an accessory before the fact.
          SMITH – GUILTY. – DEATH. Aged 40.
          PRATT – GUILTY. – DEATH. Aged 30.
          BONILL – GUILTY. Aged 68. – Transported for Fourteen Years.
(Proceedings of the Central Criminal Court, 21 September 1835, Eleventh Session, pp. 728–9.)

Particulars of the Execution of James Pratt & John Smith

JAMES PRATT, aged 30, and JOHN SMITH, aged 40, were convicted at the last September Sessions, at the Old Bailey, of an unnatural crime, committed in the Borough of Southwark. – Wm. Bonnell, aged 68, was also convicted of aiding in and procuring the commission of the said crime and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. – The evidence against these wretched men was so conclusive, that not the least shadow of doubt remained of their guilt. On their receiving sentence of Death, the Recorder directed that they should be brought up to receive judgment by themselves, as he felt it to be his duty to separate & distinguish them from the rest of the prisoners, who had been called upon to receive the dreadful sentence of the law, because he felt that, however great their crimes might have been, they would have been contaminated by the prisoners' presence. Feeling so satisfied respecting the verdict of the Jury, he could not hold out the least hope of his being of any use to them in the subsequent investigation which they cases would undergo before his Manesty, assisted by his Privy Councillors. He entreated them, therefore, to reflect upon their positions as men on the brink of a period when their lives would, perhaps, close, and when they would be called upon to render an account at a far more awful tribunal than that before which they were called to account by the law. He would not now aggravate their sufferings, but would at once proceed to pass upon them the awful sentence of the law which was, that they should be taken to the prison from whence they came, and from thence to a place of execution, where they should be hanged by the neck until they would be severally dead.
          The prisoners appeared considerably affected during this address, & left the dock in tears.
          After condemnation, every exertion was made by the Rev. Clergyman to bring them to a just sense of their awful situation & to acknowledge the justice of their sentence, which they did, devoting most of their time in prayer. On Wednesday Smith sent the following letter to a friend of his living in the neighbourhood where he resided, and through great interest we have procured a copy, which is as follows:–

                              Newgate, November 25, 1835.
          Dear William, – The awful period is nearly arrived when the offended laws of my country demand the forfeit of my life for the crime I have committed – a crime the most heinous & disgraceful. What possessed me, I am at a loss to conceive, nor can I attribute it to any thing but the baneful effects of liquor and bad company, which must have rendered me void of every feeling of decency. ~The grave will soon close over me, and my name entirely forgotten. But remember from the knowledge we had of each other, that I die a sincere penitent for my sins & feel confident that you will drop a tear for one who has disgraced himself as a Christian & a friend. Let your prayers be offered up to the Throne of Mercy for that forgiveness which I have anxiously prayed to receive, & when you think of my fate, may it check any growing evil on your part and be the means of rendering you a fit companion for that society I have so much degraded. That the Almighty may bless you is the sincere prayer of
          Your lost Friend
                    JOHN SMITH.

          The prisoners having been conveyed from their cells early in the morning, were at the usual hour conducted to the fatal spot, and soon after launched into eternity, amidst the yells & groans of the supectators.

The magistrate Hensleigh Wedgwood, who had committed the three men to trial, had written to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, arguing for the commutation of the death sentences:

It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted.

Monday 23 November 1835

On Saturday the Recorder made his report to his Majesty, at Brighton, of the undermentioned capital convicts under sentence of death in Newgate, convicted at the September and October sessions of the Central Criminal Court: – . . . Robert Swan, 28; for robbery. John Smith, 49, and James Pratt, 30, for an unnatural crime. . . . to all of whom his Majesty has extended his royal mercy, except John Smith and James Pratt, who are left for execution on Friday next. (London Standard)

Saturday 28 November 1835

THE RECORDER'S REPORT – On Friday the Recorder made his Report to his Majesty in Council at Brighton, of the prisoners who were capitally convicted at the September and October Sessions of the Central Criminal Court: – viz James Pratt and John Smith, for a nameless offence, committed in the borough of Southwark; Robert Swan, for extorting money from Thomas Reynolds, a Quaker, under a threat of accusing him of a nameless offence; R. Lavender, D. Ward, B. Vines, M. Collins, J. Coleman, and M. Harris, for burglary; . . . [and others] all of whom his Majesty was graciously pleased to respite, except James Pratt and John Smith, upon whom the law is left to take its course, and who were ordered for execution yesterday. The Council were in deliberation a considerable time on the case of Robert Swan, and did not break up until half-past eight o'clock in the evening. The Recorder came immediately to town by post, and made known the result of the Council to the Governor of Newgate, who lost no time in communicating it to the convicts whose cases had been reported. (Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette; virtually the same report appeared in the Derby Mercury for 25 Nov. 1835, the Manchester Courier for 29 Nov. 1835, and many others)

Charles Dickens, in his essay "A Visit to Newgate" published in Sketches by Boz in 1836, describes his visit to the press-room of the condemned ward of Newgate where he saw Pratt and Smith awaiting their execution, together with Joseph Swan who would eventually be transported rather than executed (for extortion involving the threat to swear sodomy against someone – see Newspaper Reports for 1835). All three men were kept separate from the other condemned men because of the sodomitical nature of their offences, and Swann also distanced himself from Pratt and Smith because he was a blackmailer of sodomites rather than a sodomite himself.

In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners [Swan] was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two [Pratt and Smith] had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. 'The two short ones,' the turnkey whispered, 'were dead men.'
          The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape [i.e. Swan], was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them [probably Smith], who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other [probably Pratt] was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man [i.e. Swan] was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step – he had been a soldier in the foot-guards – and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues.

Saturday 28 November 1835

Yesterday morning, at the usual hour, the sentence of the law was carried into effect upon James Pratt, aged 32, and John Smith, aged 34, who were convicted at the September Sessions of the Central Criminal Court of a capital offence. The Sheriffs arrived at Newgate about half-past seven o'clock, and immediately proceeded to visit the prisoners, whom they found engaged in prayer with the Rev. Mr. Cotton, the chaplain of the gaol, and Mr. Baker. Both the culprits appeared in a very weak state, and when eight o'clock arrived, the hour of execution, it was found necessary almost to carry them from their cell to the press room. Pratt, especially, appeared dreadfull weak and dejected. While Smith was being pinioned, Pratt appeared to suffer dreadfully. His groans resounded through the prison, and while he was pinioning he repeatedly exclaimed, "Oh God, this is horrible, this is indeed horrible." He at this time was so weak that the executioner's assistants found it necessary to hold him in their arms to prevent him from falling to the ground. All the preparations having been completed the melancholy procession proceeded to the scaffold, and in the room leading from the debtors' door, as it is called, the ceremony of delivering up the prisoners to the Sheriffs of Middlesex was performed by Mr. Cope, the Governor of Newgate. Smith was the first who ascended the scaffold, and immediately afterwards Pratt was also assisted up the steps and placed under a beam. The moment the culprits were perceived they were received with groans and hisses, which lasted during the whole of the time the hangman was making the necessary preparations. These having been performed the bolt was drawn, and after a very short struggle the culprits ceased to exist. Pratt was a married man, the other culprit was single. (Morning Post)

Sunday 29 November 1835

EXECUTION. – On Friday morning, at the usual hour, the sentence of the law was carried into effect upon James Pratt, aged thirty-two, and John Smith, aged thirty-four, who were convicted at the September session of the Central Criminal Court, of an unnatural offence. There were very few persons present at the execution. Both the wretched men to the last moment denied their guilt; they were convicted on the testimony of their landlady. The soldier, Swan, has been respited. (The Examiner)

Monday 30 November 1835

Brighton, Sunday. – On Friday, his Majesty held a Privy Council, at which the Recorder attended, when two miserable convicts, John Smith and James Pratt, was ordered for execution on Friday next. In the evening, the Ministers and a large party dined with their Majesties. – This morning, their Majesties attended Divine Service in the Palace chapel. In the afternoon, the Queen attended at St. George's chapel. (Salisbury and Winchester Journal)

Monday 30 November 1835

The two wretched culprits, James Pratt and John Smith, suffered the last penalty of the law yesterday morning in front of Newgate. (Salisbury and Winchester Journal)

Wednesday 2 December 1835

EXECUTION. – Yesterday morning, at the usual hour, the sentence of the law was carried into effect upon James Pratt, aged 32, and John Smith, aged 34, who were convicted at the September sessions of the Central Criminal Court, of an unnatural offence. Thursday night Pratt was visited by a respectable Dissenting Minister. The Rev. gentleman exhorted him to repentance, and he confessed his guilt. The Sheriffs arrived at Newgate about half-past seven o'clock yesterday morning, and immiedately proceeded to visit the prisoners, whom they found engaged in prayer. While Smith was being pinioned, Pratt appeared to suffer horribly. His groans resounded through the prison, and while he was being pinioned he repeatedly exclaimed "Oh, God, this is horrible; this is indeed horrible!" He at this time was so weak that the executioner's assistants found it necessary to hold him in their arms, to prevent him from falling to the ground. All the preparations having been completed, the melancholy procession proceeded towards the scaffold, which was first ascended by Smith with a firm step, but his companion needed support to the last moment. The executioner with amazing celerity adjusted the ropes, and cause the plank to fall which closed the world upon them. The crowd was excessive, but exceedingly decorous. (Hereford Journal)

Thursday 3 December 1835

Saturday morning the sentence of the law was carried into effect upon James Pratt, aged 32, and John Smith, aged 34, who were convicted at the September session of the Central Criminal Court, of an unnatural offence. Both denied their guilt up to the last moment. (Worcester Journal)

Saturday 5 December 1835

EXECUTION. – James Pratt and John Smith, for unnatural offences, were executed on Friday morning, the 27th ultimo, in the Old Bailey. . . . (Preston Chronicle)

William Bonill

William Bonill was convicted of being an accessory to the fact, insofar as he supplied the room in which Pratt and Smith had sex together, and was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. His name is included in a letter of 6 November 1835 authorising the transport of 290 male convicts aboard the ship Asia (4), due to sail on 21 February 1836 bound for Van Diemen's Land, Australia (Assignment lists of convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land, CON13/1/8 Image 17). In the Conduct Registers of Male Convicts [arriving during the period] 1 Jan 1803–31 Dec 1843 (Series CON31/1/3, Hobart MOW 6 1, Copy No. 22546, View online CON31-1-3 Image 88), aboard the Asia (4) on 26 February 1836, it was recorded that he was "Convicted for Felony, Case Report: not known, Hulk Report: Orderly. Stated this offence, 'Keeping a Room for unnatural purposes, I was sent out by a fellow servant for some Beer and while I was gone, he and a man, whom he brought with him, were detected in an unnatural situation, they were convicted.'" He was recorded as a widower, with four children.

According to the Appropriation Lists of Convicts (CON27/1/2 Image 68 & 71), he was 5 ft 5 in tall, age 72, had been a Gentleman's Servant for 46 years, and was a native of Wolverhampton. At his arrival, he was "appropriated 'Sick'." The description given by the Principal Superintendent of Convicts upon his arrival (Dexcription List, CON18/1/4 Image 92) gave further details: "Complexion Fresh / Wolverhampton / Head large, oval / Hair silver / Whiskers ditto / Forehead High, wrinkled / Eyebrows Grey / Eyes Brown / Nose long / Mouth wide / Chin large / Remarks Breast heavy, Stout made."

Soon after his arrival in the penal colony, on 18 September 1837, he was charged with misconduct in pulling down a portion of the roof from the carpenters' shop without leave, and given 24 hours' solitary confinement. He died at New Norfolk Hospital on 29 April 1841 (Memo of Principal Superintendent, 1st of May 1841), a hospital built especially to house the mentally ill.

Bonill's Lodgings

The house in which Bonill lodged, and Pratt and Smith had sex together, has been identified by gay historian and playwright Peter Scott-Presland: George Street, Southwark, was renamed in 1911, and the house is now 45 Dolben Street, SE1 0UQ. This happens to be the street in which Mary Wollstonecraft lived in 1788–1791, so a Blue Plaque marks the location! The building on the very corner that is there today is 20th century, but the attached terrace of three houses (Thompson House) is original from the late 18th century, built in 1776.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Last Men Executed for Sodomy in England, 1835", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 12 September 2014, updated and expanded 19 November 2021 <>.

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