Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

'Gross Indecency' in South Wales

A review of The Abergavenny Witch Hunt: An account of the prosecution of over twenty homosexuals in a small Welsh town in 1942 by William Cross

(Published by the author through Book Midden Publishing, Newport, NSW, 2014) (12.00 paperback, 310 pages, illustrated)

In 1942 police began rounding up homosexuals in the small Welsh border town of Abergavenny. By the end of the year, one young man had thrown himself under a train, two more men tried but failed to kill themselves, and 24 men had been brought to trial on charges ranging from corrupting youths to buggery and homosexual relations between consenting adults, i.e. "gross indecency". Fourteen of the men, their lives effectively destroyed, were given prison sentences ranging from twelve months to ten years' penal servitude. As a result of the scandal, for many years afterwards, Abergavennny was the butt of coarse jokes: throughout South Wales, "a man had only to bend over to tie his shoelace for someone to say, 'You wouldn't do that in Abergavenny'."

William Cross has scoured the legal records and newspapers and assembled an exhaustive chronicle of how this "vice ring" came into being, and how its members were hunted down in a virtual "witch hunt". Cross has used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to previously unopened files in the National Archives to reveal a story that is full of both human interest and sociocultural significance.

To some extent this was a circle of predatory homosexuals who exploited the boys and young men over whom they had some control. Although all of the "victims" participated with consent, some of the youngsters undoubteldy feared losing their jobs if they did not comply with their employers' wishes, and some of the abused boys were below the present legal age of consent, so some of the men would have been convicted and perhaps labelled pedophiles even today. But most of the victims were young men acting as "trade" for some economic benefit to themselves, and most of the cases today would not be prosecuted because they involved adult males engaging in consenting sexual relations in private.

At the centre of the circle was the town's cinema, the Coliseum, and its 43-year-old manager George Rowe. He was charged with committing "gross indecency" with some seven 15- to 17-year-old youths, most of whom he employed as page boys at the cinema. Abergavenny was shocked by the revelations of the private life of a man respected for his charitable activities and for raising funds for the war effort. Rowe seems to have been an opportunistic "groomer" of youths needing employment. The evidence given by the Coliseum page-boys soon revealed a wider network of Rose's acquaintances, and a circle of men who used the services of a particular 15-year-old page-boy who became a police informant. After being arrested, Rowe tried to hang himself and also took poison, but he survived – only to have the crime of attempted suicide added to the list of charges against him.

Youths who were not below the age of 16, such as an 18-year-old factory worker, were prosecuted (and convicted) as participants in the sexual offences. Rowe had shared his boys with another "sexual predator", a 31-year-old clerk named Holly, who passed the youths on to yet other men. Eventually, besides the youths, the police uncovered a network of homosexual men who knew one another, including a farmer (age 20), an RAF airman (age 28), a hairdresser (27), a clerk (31), a hotel porter (22), an actor (27), an electrical engineer (19), a paper mill worker (18), a miner (28), two chefs (39 and 49), a railway worker (49), a cafe assistant (27), a factory worker (18), a grocery store manager (50), a bank clerk (39), a window dresser (43), and others. Cross follows each case in the order in which it was prosecuted at the committal proceedings and then at the trial. This is not necessarily the clearest way of telling the story, though admittedly it can be very confusing to unravel all the inter-relationships of the men and youths involved. If Cross's method is not altogether statisfactory, there is nevertheless no doubt that he has presented us with all the data, well supported by documentation, and we can choose to re-analyse it if we wish.

Many of the stories are of compelling interest. Some of the men had been friends and lovers over the past few years, and some were even living together as a couple when they were charged with abusing one another. Most of the men were not married. Nearly all of them were openly part of a homosexual network rather than furtive solitary haunters of public toilets. Some of them collected and exchanged photographs of naked men and even shared typewritten erotic stories, an indication of the kind of gay subculture that was emerging outside large cities such as London. An accomplished female impersonator had joined theatrical circles in Cardiff and elsewhere in hopes of finding other men similar to himself. A search of some of the men's flats turned up powder puffs and cosmetics, bottles of scent, and jars of vaseline. Some interesting details also emerge about the life of straight "trade". For example, two teenagers shared a luxury flat in London, where they provided sexual favours to the owners of the flat and their guests. The several 18-year-olds who were prosecuted had obviously been very active in making themselves amenable to the Abergavenny "vice-ring". Most of the youths received cigarettes and alcohol and small sums of money, and some of them engaged in small-scale blackmail.

On the final afternoon of the trial, after a very few men had been acquitted or discharged, the remaining eighteen men surprised the Court by pleading Guilty. So many youths had become police informers on condition that they would not be prosecuted themselves, that any defence would have been hopeless. The jury was therefore dismissed, and all that remained was the sentencing. As each man came up for sentencing, he asked that many other offences be "taken into consideration" – their activities had been much more extensive than those on the charge lists. The counsel for the defendants mainly tried to mitigate the sentences while acknowledging the offences. For example, the defence counsel for one man who faced seventeen charges, cross-examined the youths (aged 16 to 18) and got them all to acknowledge that they had never raised any objections to such practices, which they fully consented to.

The judge had a reputation for hard sentencing. One man, Holly, collapsed in court when he heard that he faced ten years' penal servitude. Another man was also sentenced to ten years, one to seven years, one to six years, two to five years – felt to be unusually harsh in many people's opinion. Those men who were most severely punished were men whom the court perceived to be unrepentant congenital inverts (in the understanding of the day). One man who said he had consulted a psychiatrist and had striven to overcome his homosexuality was treated very leniently by the court and simply bound over on the promise of good behaviour, while another man who said that "homosexuality was practised in other countries and that there was no harm in it provided that it was mutual" was given ten years' penal servitude.

Similarly, a female impersonator was given five years' penal servitude. One 18-year-old, who was involved with many of the men, said he had no homosexual tendencies, but had been led astray by effeminate men he met in public houses – the judge put him on probation for two years so he could have a chance to make a man of himself. One very effeminate 22-year-old hotel porter, whom today we might perceive as a transgender individual, was given fifteen months' imprisonment to stiffen his character. One of his partners, a 40-year-old hotel chef who was also markedly effeminate, was given seven years' penal servitude, even though he hadn't corrupted anyone who was not already homosexually inclined. (He was convicted on 6 cases of gross indecency, and asked that an additional 26 cases be taken into consideration.) Many soldiers (mostly aged 25 to 30) stationed in the army town of Brecon close to Abergavenny also had sex with these men, but virtually none of them were prosecuted or even called in evidence. There are suggestions that the "witch hunt" ended when it became obvious that the military would be brought into disrepute.

Cross's attitude to these men is mixed: although he argues that the witch hunt resulted in many gross injustices, he nevertheless seems to have little sympathy for many of the men. I feel that Cross has uncritically accepted the discourse of the law, and too often uses the terms "abuse" and "corruption" and "molested" where I would have been more careful to use neutral terms to simply acknowledge that sex between males had occurred. The ideology of "abuse" too often obscures the fact that full consent was given. To call someone a "sexual predator" or "serial abuser" is rather unfair when their "victim" was a blackmailer or in effect a prostitute who actively solicited sex. It is downright ludicrous to describe an effeminate 22-year-old hotel porter as the "target of abuse" of a 37-year-old effeminate hotel chef, who regularly got it on together. Cross says that several of the men "can be seen as much older men with voracious instincts, craving sexual activities with each other and with a predatory side for corrupting and seducing younger men and with a particular proclivity for abusing Indian soldiers", and even that one man's contracting syphillis "was the price he paid for his debauchery" – there are so many sex-negative clichés to unpick here! This really does seem to be a prejudicial way of describing sexually active gay men. Cross in fact wholeheartedly approves today's much more liberal law and attitudes to homosexuality, so it is a pity that he is not more sensitive to the language he uses.

The book is self-published and exhibits some of the drawbacks of not having benefited from the attentions of a professional copy-editor: irregular spacing of words and punctuation, odd layout, unnecessary repetition, and occasional errors of grammar and spelling – my favourite malapropism is the statement that someone "is not of fey" with police procedures, when he means "not au fait". The book is also rather confusing in its organisation. A survey of law reform from the 1950s onward is given before we launch into the 1942 case, and a complete list of all 24 men involved in the 1942 case (with details of their ages and occupations etc.) is given before we are given a general overview of the case – throwing the reader into the deep end at the beginning. Then 26 pages later this list is repeated verbatim once we get into a review of the committal proceedings. Finally, much of the material from the committal proceedings is repeated when we review the actual trial proceedings.

The story is well placed within its historical context, with a brief history of the laws relating to homosexuality in Britain and psychiatric attitudes to what was considered to be "arrested development"; some comments on the social disruption caused by military life up to 1942; and some speculation about the effect the Abergavenny case may have had on the eventual decriminalisation of homosexual offences. For example, the well-known literary editor Joe Ackerley sent a famous letter of protest about the prosecution to The Spectator, a letter which was ghosted by the famous novelist E. M. Forster. The Abergavenny case and other prosecutions such as the Lord Montagu case of 1954 prompted the Wolfenden Committee to prepare its famous Report urging law reform, which eventually took effect in 1967 – long overdue, as Cross ably demonstrates.

(The book is available direct from the Author.)

Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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