(BLSB) - Popular Attitudes toward Intergenerational Male Homosexual Encounters in Interwar London

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Battersea Power Station alongside the River Thames, Battersea, 1933, when it had just two chimneys. London, England, United Kingdom.


From Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957 by Matt Houlbrook (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Footnotes omitted.

If the opposition between “rough” and “bitch” highlights the gendered organization of working-class sexual practices, it was not the most common pattern of behavior. Differences of class and age were similarly gendered, structuring a hierarchy of masculinities that opened up further erotic and emotional possibilities. Age differences, for example, were mapped onto the opposition between masculine and feminine, dominant and subordinate. In working-class neighborhoods, one man recalled, “opinion . . . was that homosexuality consisted of older men taking young boys as female substitutes . . . I don’t think that people regarded it as a homosexual act. It was a homosexual situation satisfying a heterosexual need.”

This easy equivalence between youth and femininity was played out in everyday encounters in London’s streets, parks, and lodging houses. In 1927, passing Commercial Buildings in Lambeth, thirteen-year-old J. M. L. was approached by the older Walter S.:

He got hold of me and dragged me down the alley said, “come along with me how would you like had with a lady—how would you like [to be] my wife?” He said the other two blokes had a girl.

In inviting J. M. to be his “wife,” Walter clearly equated him with the “girl” his friends had picked up. Defining the desirable younger man as subordinate—thereby womanlike—made him a legitimate sexual partner. In the physically aggressive manner of his approach Walter enacted his own manliness. Above all, his willingness to approach J. M. L. around the “two other blokes” suggests an easy acceptance of his actions.

Such interactions were particularly associated with the lodging houses and public spaces occupied by tramps, casual laborers, and the unemployed. Within this itinerant milieu, Orwell heard that “homosexuality is general.” In part, this “homosexuality” took the form of casual mutual masturbation. But it also included more enduring relationships between older and younger men. In his “Homosexuality among Tramps” (1897) Josiah Flynt thus described “a number of male tramps who had no hesitation in declaring their preference for their own sex . . . particularly for boys.” They were “abnormally masculine . . . always tak[ing] the active part.”

[...]

Outside of school, overcrowded housing and the desire to escape supervision meant boys’ social interactions and play focused on the street or park. Public space was also an important economic resource, where falling fruit could be picked up from passing vans, errands run for local tradesmen, or shopkeepers subjected to petty thefts. Street life offered excitement, allowed boys to contribute to the family economy, and opened up the possibility of accessing further commercial pleasures. The cultural geography of boy life was reinforced by the unskilled labor market, which absorbed fourteen-year-old school leavers into an array of delivery jobs. Working-class boys thus encountered adult men constantly, their interactions constituting age as a category of gendered and social inequality. Youth could mean relative poverty, physical subordination, and vulnerability. Youth could also mean desirability, and therefore the power to exploit an elder. In such encounters, danger and possibility existed in an ambiguous, perhaps irreconcilable, tension.

[...]

In working-class neighborhoods, the attitudes of parents and other adults to intergenerational encounters were equally ambiguous. Certainly, physically coercive advances generated considerable anger—the lengths to which men often went to ensure boys’ silence testifies to that. Many parents, moreover, turned to the police to punish such acts, even when their sons had been willing participants in ongoing sexual relationships. In 1937, for example, a schoolmaster and photographer were arrested for their encounters with a fifteen-year-old pageboy over several months. It was not the page’s complaints that brought the men under police scrutiny. Rather, his mother “wanted a cigarette and hunted through her son’s pockets for one [and] came across [a] letter and read it.” When confronted by an angry mother, the page made a formal statement.

Other parents reacted very differently. Fourteen-year-old John D. first met Charles R. in 1922 while delivering groceries to his Battersea rooms. From then he

used to go and see [him] nearly every week . . . I used to help clean up . . . He used to be with me in the bedroom and play about with my privates. He used to undress me and used to undress himself . . . He used to put his private up my back passage.

This relationship lasted almost six years. When John was unemployed Charles gave him ten shillings on every visit, reducing this to 6/- when he was working. He loaned him £20 to buy a motorbike, and another £10 when he was unemployed. Their relationship was never hidden. John’s mother Annie was well aware of his movements and his relationship with Charles, who was a familiar figure in the family home. The money generated through John’s sexual practices was, moreover, integral to the household economy. When John’s father was unemployed, Charles loaned Annie money and paid her to clean for him. She gave him coal and chickens during the General Strike. There was, Annie remembered, “no secrecy . . . [Charles] has always been very kind to me and to my boys.”

Annie’s easy acceptance of John’s relationship with an older man is striking today. It suggests, in part, a very different understanding of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Having entered the labor market at fourteen, boys were clearly considered to be approaching adult status and attributed with a degree of independence, responsibility, and strength, rather than being viewed as weak and in need of protection. It suggests that the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable intergenerational encounters were partially articulated as the difference between coercion and consent—there was no automatic assumption that such encounters were dangerous. It underscores the definitions of masculine “normality” discussed above. It suggests, finally, the demands that poverty placed on the family economy during the interwar period. Within this cultural landscape, sexual encounters between men and boys could elicit little or no response as often as they generated outrage.

[...]

While many people disapproved of relationships between men and boys, however, those encounters possessed meanings that are very different from those today. Indeed, certain relationships were accepted in working-class neighborhoods, as I suggested in chapter 7. Even if other encounters generated considerable danger, they were considered dangerous for very different reasons. Given contemporary attitudes to childhood sexuality, it is challenging to recognize that the assumption that intergenerational sexual encounters always involve a predatory and dangerous adult—the pedophile—coercively “abusing” an innocent child emerged only in the 1920s and acquired hegemonic status as late as the 1950s.

In interwar London responses to intergenerational sex were ambiguous. Church Army Captain Hanmore’s The Curse of the Embankment (1935) was, in part, an exposé of destitute youths acting as trade in London’s public spaces. For Hanmore, their older sexual partners were the “wreckers of young lives.” What he labeled “the corruption of the young” was thus “a canker and a curse . . . a plague . . . to be greatly feared” because it endangered a future generation of Britons. Despite this, Hanmore could not see these boys as simply innocent victims since they had chosen to engage in homosex. Such complicity was a sign of their delinquency and viciousness. In a language normally reserved for “fallen” girls, he demanded a rural home for their “rescue, redemption and restoration,” outside London’s temptations, under medical supervision and under the guidance of “a Christian man with military training”:

8 hours regular work per day would go far towards overcoming most weaknesses . . . Many young men could be usefully employed . . . working towards their own salvation . . . Christlike kindness and firmness has . . . by the grace of God, turned many from the evil of their ways and made them true MEN.

Hanmore’s notion of “corruption” apportioned moral guilt—“evil” and “weakness”—to both parties involved in homosex, regardless of age. The assumed delinquency of youth on which this depended was enshrined in the stated aims of the South London Committee for the Protection of Children: to help “victims of indecent assaults, children with specific diseases and children with bad habits, immoral tendencies or living in immoral surroundings.” Child “victims” and those with “immoral tendencies” were considered equivalent categories of problematic deviance.

These ambiguities were reflected in the sentencing policies of the Hampstead Petty Sessions, a court at the same jurisdictional level as the Metropolitan Magistrate. In 1918, for example, Joseph B.—a fifty-one-year-old dock laborer—and William B.—a twelve-year-old schoolboy—were arrested having sex on the Heath. Both were charged with outraging public decency. Joseph was fined £5. While William was found not guilty, he was remanded in a home for three weeks, before appearing before the Children’s Court charged with “wandering and having a parent who does not exercise proper guardianship.” He was convicted and sent to an industrial school until he was sixteen. The court’s punitive actions simultaneously reflected William’s presumed delinquency and an underlying assumption that his age somehow lessened his moral guilt. Together with the strikingly light sentences passed on adults—only a fine in this case—such patterns highlight significant differences in interwar attitudes towards intergenerational sex. The relationships between boys and men, as Steven Maynard suggests, were regulated “not to protect innocent victims from abuse and exploitation by homosexual psychopaths but to prevent frivolous boys being led astray by fallen men.”


A group of naked boys jumping into the Serpentine Lake at Hyde Park during a heat wave (1926). London, England, United Kingdom.

See also