The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England:
The Case of Captain Jones, 1772

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

In July 1772 Captain Robert Jones was convicted at the Old Bailey for sodomizing a thirteen-year-old boy, and sentenced to death. The sentence was respited for further consideration, and in October Jones was granted a Royal Pardon on condition he leave the country. During the months of August and September the case of Captain Jones was very widely discussed. Numerous Letters to the Editor were sent to mainstream newspapers such as the General Evening Post, the London Evening Post, the Morning Chronicle and the Public Ledger; reports appeared in a few provincial newspapers, and the government was attacked for the pardon in some political newspapers such as The Craftsman. No other homosexual case was so widely reported and discussed until the case of Oscar Wilde more than a hundred years later. The following essay is based on a review of about 50 newspaper reports and about 45 Letters to the Editor (all of which I reproduce in full on separate pages). I examine the breadth of coverage of the reports; the major points of the debate; the major homophobic attitudes expressed during the debate; and some of the social context of the debate, including its effect on the literary world.

The legal argument for Jones’s pardon was (1) that the boy had consented to sex on several occasions, (2) that had the boy been just a year older he would himself have been prosecuted as a particeps crimen (the age of consent for males was fourteen), and (3) that the evidence came solely from the boy, who may have been coached to insist that anal penetration had taken place (the evidence for masturbation is clear, but that would entail only a conviction on the misdemeanour of ‘assault with intent to commit sodomy’, rather than conviction on the capital felony). All of the legal arguments were discussed in great detail in the newspapers, and a very full summary of the trial was published in three newspapers. Aside from arguments about the facts of the case, many contributors to the debate also contrasted the British legal system regarding sodomy to the legal systems of other countries, from ancient Rome to modern France, and calls were made to reform the penal laws.

The debate also covered many extra-legal topics: from advocating Christian intolerance to homosexuality, to a defence of the rights of homosexual men who were deemed to have an inborn propensity. The context of the debate also has much of interest: Captain Jones was a well-known character in the fashionable world, famous for popularizing ice skating and fireworks, and this affair was connected with an attack on David Garrick as a sodomite which also occurred in 1772, when Garrick’s supposed lover Isaac Bickerstaffe had to flee to France. (This collection of scandals seems to have prompted several prosecutions and suicides in 1772.) I have a separate essay on all these subsidiary scandals, titled "The Macaroni Club", together with subsidiary pages which reproduce half a dozen satires and about 35 newspaper items.

Everyone in London (and probably most people in the rest of Great Britain) who read a newspaper during August–September 1772 – that is, not only the entire literate class, but even labourers who had newspapers read to them at taverns – would have been made fully aware of homosexuality: from explicit detailed descriptions of anal intercourse and masturbation; to legal, religious, and social attitudes to homosexuality; to supposed characteristics of homosexual men; to its prevalence across society. The attitudes to homosexuality reflected in the newspapers ranged from simple stereotypical homophobia (hell-fire rant against execrable sinners), to more complex attitudes which included a defence of homosexuality on the grounds that it was a natural trait.

A reader has objected that my page here is misleading because I do not adequately emphasize that this is not so much a case of homosexuality as a case of pedophilia – that is, it does not concern consenting adults but what we today would classify as child sex abuse. My interpretation of the trial of Captain Jones is that the boy offered to have sex with Jones in the hopes that this would be of financial benefit to the business of his father. That is, the boy freely offered himself for sex, and initiated the encounter. I felt that placing this case within the modern framework of "child abuse" or pedophilia would have created a distorted historical perspective on it. The case is important for the history of homosexuality (rather than the history of child abuse) because Captain Jones was a name frequently conjured up whenever people discussed sodomy between men during the period, and the public discussion that his trial provoked concerned the subject of sex between males in general, as well as sex between adults and boys and the issue of the age of consent. Also, I wouldn't feel easy classifying Jones as a pedophile, because his contemporaries classified him as a "sodomite" and specifically grouped him together in a "club" with other sodomitical "macaronies", particularly Samuel Drybutter, who was a bit effeminate and loved soldiers (rather than boys or children). Elsewhere on my site I have discussed instances of child abuse, namely featuring older and rather creepy schoolmasters who force their attentions upon quite young boys, as young as the age of 9, often playing spanking games with them and physically abusing them. But it's clear that Jones doesn't really match that type of person or fit into the category of a regular child abuser. Unlike the schoolmasters in the eighteenth-century records, it is not likely that Jones narrowly desired only young boys, nor it is likely that he regularly exercised undue force or violence towards his partners. Jones was flamboyant and exhibitionist, and associated with other sodomites, and very probably had sex primarily with older adolescents rather than children.

Primary documents from the debate, totalling more than 40,000 words, have been published on my website, as follows:

A very extensive literature of satire against gay men classified as ‘macaronies’ grew up as a result of the Captain Jones affair. The Macaroni Club contains links to numerous reports and satires, particularly in relation to other scandals concerning prominent men, which gave people the opportunity to lament the degeneration of morals in the present age.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England: The Case of Captain Jones, 1772", The Gay Subculture in Georgian England, 19 December 2004, updated 10 May 2014 <>.

Return to The Gay Subculture in Georgian England, or go to Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook,
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