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.

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 3 April 2007 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/jones1.htm>.


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