In the Victorian era, male homosexuality was seen as an aristocratic vice that corrupted lower-class youths. The Cleveland Street scandal reinforced that perception.
An unidentified Post Office Messenger Boy of the time. Public domain
In 1889 a homosexual brothel at 19 Cleveland Street, London was discovered by Police. Sex acts between men were illegal, and the brothel’s clients faced possible prosecution and certain social ostracism if discovered. It was rumoured that Prince Albert Victor, (Prince Eddy), the second-in-line to the British throne, was a client. Prince Eddy was sent off to India on a lengthy tour of duty. The government was accused of covering up the scandal to protect the names of aristocratic patrons.
The scandal came to light by accident when Luke Hanks, PC 718 of the General Post Office Police, stopped and interviewed a 15-year-old telegraph boy called Charles Swinscow, who worked at St Martin’s Le Grand mail office. He had been found carrying 18 shillings. This was the equivalent of two months’ wages, and he was immediately accused of stealing.
Swinscow revealed that he had earned the money by “going to bed with gentlemen” at the rate of four shillings a time at Number 19 Cleveland Street, and several other telegraph boys did the same to supplement their wages. Scotland Yard put the house under watch, and reported that “a number of men of superior bearing and apparently good position” were frequent visitors.
The house at 19 Cleveland Street was a four-storey town house furnished with velvet curtains, antique furniture, oil paintings, Dresden china, silk bedding and a grand piano. Champagne flowed. It was considered safe enough by titled aristocrats. None of the boys were coerced against their will to work there. Quite the reverse – they were sexually experienced and had experimented with each other in the basement toilets of the General Post Office!
One of the clients, Lord Arthur Somerset, was an equerry to the Prince of Wales. He and the brothel keeper, Charles Hammond, managed to flee abroad. The head boy Henry Newlove fingered three eminent patrons of Cleveland Street: Lord Arthur Somerset, the Earl of Euston and Colonel Jervois. Lord Arthur was allowed to obtain leave from his regiment and discreetly disappear to the Continent, even though he had been positively identified by some of the Post Office telegraph messenger boys found in the brothel, while none of their clients were prosecuted. Henry Newlove and George Veck, who had tried to escape dressed as a vicar, were found guilty of procurement but received light sentences of less than a year. Lord Arthur Somerset was charged in absentia with “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons”. He never returned to England to face the charges and spent the last 37 years of his life in a villa in the South of France with his companion Andrew Neale.
Henry James FitzRoy, the Earl of Euston, was named in the press as a client and successfully sued for libel.
The Cleveland Street scandal was debated in the House of Commons in 1890. Lord Salisbury’s government was accused of “a criminal conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice”. A demand for an inquiry was defeated by 206 votes to 66.
The property used as a brothel at 19 Cleveland Street still stands; it has since been renumbered on the Land Registry, and has been converted into flats.
The famed historian H Montgomery Hyde has written a book about The Cleveland Street Scandal.