Cleveland Street Scandal

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Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence

The Cleveland Street Scandal was a social scandal in Victorian Britain. The scandal promoted the notion that male homosexuality was a vice common in aristocratic circles that corrupted the youth of the lower classes. This view was also supported by the 1895 scandal involving Oscar Wilde.

In 1889, a brothel for men was discovered by the police in Cleveland Street, London. At that time, sexual acts between men were forbidden by law in Britain and were perceived as a moral transgression by large sections of the population. The brothel’s customers faced both prosecution under the law and social ostracism if discovered. It was rumored that one of the customers was Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the British throne. Officials were involved in the cover-up to keep the name of both the Prince and other dignitaries out of the scandal.

One of the brothel’s customers, Lord Arthur Somerset, was a major in the Royal Horse Guards of the Prince of Wales, but like the brothel’s owner, Charles Hammond, he managed to escape abroad before being apprehended. The teenage prostitutes, who also worked as messenger boys for the Post Office, received only relatively lenient sentences, while none of their johns were convicted. After the story appeared in the press, one of the alleged clients, the Earl of Euston Henry James FitzRoy, successfully sued the press for libel and cleared his name. Prince Albert Victor’s name was never mentioned in the British press, but after his name appeared in the rumours surrounding the scandal, biographers were always keen to pick up the former.

Male brothel

Thomas Swinscow

In July 1889, Constable Luke Hanks investigated the theft of some cash from the central London telegraph office. During the investigation, cash was found on the 15-year-old messenger boy Charles Thomas Swinscow. The value of the money, 14 shillings, was equivalent to several weeks’ wages at the time. Constable Hanks suspected the boy of being involved in the theft and brought him in for questioning. After some hesitation Swinscow finally admitted to having earned the money as a hustler in a brothel at 19 Cleveland Street. The owner of the brothel, he said, was a certain Charles Hammond. According to the boy’s testimony, he was introduced to Hammond by Henry Newlove, his 18-year-old accomplice. He also named two other messenger boys who also worked for Hammond, George Wright and Charles Thickbroom, both 17 years old. The statements of Wright and Thickbroom corroborated the information and with these findings Constable Hanks was also able to obtain a confession from Newlove.[1]

The constable reported these events to his superiors, and the case was assigned to Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline. Abberline visited the brothel on 6 July, carrying with him a warrant for the arrest of both Hammond and Newlove for offences against Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. This enactment criminalised all homosexual acts between men, including attempts at such acts, with a sentence of up to two years’ penal servitude with or without hard labour. Abberline found the house locked, but was able to apprehend Newlove at his mother’s house in Camden Town.[2] The police also managed to take custody of the other boys named by Swinscow.

Well-known customers

Newlove immediately named Lord Arthur Somerset, the royal equerry to the Prince of Wales, as well as the Earl of Euston and a colonel in the army named Jervois as visitors to the Cleveland Street house.[3] A guard was posted outside the now empty house, and a warrant issued for the arrest of George Veck, another accomplice of Hammond. The latter had also previously worked in the telegraph office, but had been dismissed for “improper handling” of the messenger boys.[4] As a result of a tip-off received by the police from a youth they found in his lodgings, Veck was arrested at Waterloo station in London. Letters from one Algernon Allies were found in his pockets. Abberline sent Constable Hanks to question Allies at his family home in Sudbury, Suffolk. Allies admitted receiving money from Lord Somerset, having a sexual relationship with him and working for Hammond in Cleveland Street.[5]

The details of the case were passed back and forth between various government agencies, and although Somerset was interrogated twice, denying any involvement, nothing was initially done. The authorities took a long time to respond to and investigate the allegations.[6] The matter was covered up at the highest level to protect upper class clients, Somerset was given enough time to flee to the continent by Augustus Keppel Stephenson, the head of law enforcement.

For their cooperation, Newlove and Veck received reduced sentences of four and nine months of hard labor, respectively, on September 18, after pleading guilty to indecent exposure. These sentences were considered very lenient by the standards of the time.[7] Hammond managed to escape to France and from there to Belgium, possibly continuing his escape to the United States. On the advice of the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, no extradition request was made, and the charges against Hammond were quietly dropped.[8]

Somerset returned to Britain on 30 September, with no action taken on his behalf. A few days later, his grandmother died, and he attended her funeral.[9] Rumours of his involvement in the scandal grew, and he fled back to France on 19 October. Lord Salisbury was later accused of warning Somerset of his imminent arrest by Sir Dighton Probyn, having met him the previous evening.[10] The Prince of Wales wrote to Lord Salisbury expressing his satisfaction that Somerset had been enabled to leave the country. The Prince also asked whether Somerset would remain unmolested if he ventured again into England,[11] but Lord Salisbury was also pressed by the police to prosecute Somerset. Finally, on 12 November, a warrant was issued for Somerset’s arrest.[12] By this time Somerset was safe on the Continent and the warrant was barely noticed by the public.[13] Somerset spent the rest of his life in his self-imposed and comfortable exile in the south of France.[14]

Public reactions

The affair would have quickly faded from public consciousness had it not been for journalist Ernest Parke, as the press barely covered the story. Parke, the editor of the disreputable and radical weekly The North London Press caught wind of what was happening when one of his reporters told him of Newlove’s conviction. Parke began to question why messenger boys had to serve relatively light sentences instead of the usual two years for “gross indecency” and how Hammond had managed to evade arrest. His curiosity aroused, he found that the boys had accused prominent aristocrats, and on 28 September published an article in which he made allusions to this but did not mention any specific names. On November 16 he published a sequel to the story, naming Euston as a party to the “indescribably detestable scandal in Cleveland Street.”[15] He speculated that Euston may have gone to Peru, and that he had been allowed to escape to cover up the involvement of an even higher-ranking nobleman.[16] Some believed that person to have been Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales.[17]

The Earl of Euston was indeed still in England, and promptly denounced Parke for libel. During the trial the Earl admitted that while walking across Piccadilly he had been slipped a card by an advertiser which read“Poses plastiques. C. Hammond, 19 Cleveland Street.” Believing that Poses plast iques referred to the display of naked women, Euston confessed to having paid a pound and gone into the house. On entering he had been disgusted by the indecent behaviour and had left the house immediately. The defence witnesses contradicted each other, could not clearly describe Euston or identify him. Parke was found guilty and he was sentenced to twelve months in prison.[18] An important historian who studied homosexuality, H. Montgomery Hyde, later wrote that there was little doubt that Euston had been telling the truth and had really only visited Cleveland Street in error because of the map.[19]

The career of Justice Henry Hawkins, like that of the lawyers involved, was exceedingly positive. The two prosecuting solicitors, Charles Russell and Willie Mathews were later appointed Lord Chief Justice and Head of Prosecutions respectively. Defence counsel Frank Lockwood was later appointed Crown Prosecutor, and his assistant Herbert Henry Asquith became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 20 years later.[20]

While Euston was cleared of suspicion by Parkes’ conviction, Parkes’ accusation that Newlove and Somerset’s lawyer Artur Newton had colluded to obstruct justice was upheld in a trial that began on December 12. It was alleged that he had warned Charles Hammond and helped him flee the country to prevent his giving evidence against customers of the brothel
Newton was defended by Charles Russell, the prosecutor in the Parkes case, while the prosecutor was represented by Sir Richard Webster, the Attorney-General. Newton pleaded guilty to one of six charges against him, claiming to have aided the escape only to protect his clients from possible blackmail attempts.[21] The jury accepted his plea and the judge, Mr Justice Cave, sentenced him to six weeks in prison.[22] It was also suggested that Newton had started the rumours about Prince Albert Victor to protect his clients from prosecution by forcing a cover-up by the authorities through the Prince’s alleged involvement.[23] State documents and files on the case, however, provide no evidence of the prince’s involvement other than Newton’s threat to expose him.[24] Personal letters from Somerset to his friend Lord Esher confirm that Somerset was aware of the rumors. He wrote: “I can understand that the Prince of Wales is angry because his son’s name is associated with the matter…. We have both been accused of frequenting this place, but never together…. I wonder if it is really a fact or just a fabrication.”[25] If the story really had been invented by Newton, the tactic was successful. Sixty years later, King George V’s official biographer, Harold Nicolson, learned through Baron Goddard, who had been a 12-year-old schoolboy at the time of the scandal, that Albert Victor “was involved in a matter with a brothel for men and that the lawyer had to commit perjury to keep him out.”[26] The rumors led later biographers to believe that Albert Victor had been bisexual,[27] though this account is strongly contradicted by others who describe him as a “fiery heterosexual” and consider his inclusion in the rumors “unfair.”[28]

Henry du Pré Labouchère (right) with Charles Bradlaugh

After Newton’s confession, it was proposed in Parliament that the Parkes allegations be further investigated for a cover-up. Henry du Pré Labouchère, a member of Parliament from the radical wing of the Liberal Party and an inveterate homophobe watched this movement with great interest. Having successfully led the campaign to insert the “gross indecency” amendment(Labouchere Amendment) into the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, he was convinced that the conspiracy necessary to cover up the scandal reached far higher into government circles than generally assumed. Labouchère explained his suspicions to Parliament on 28 February 1890, and while he doubted that a very senior member of society – presumably he meant Prince Albert Victor – had been involved in the scandal in any way, he accused the government of conspiracy. It had circumvented the regular course of justice by allowing Somerset to escape, had obstructed the investigation, had delayed the trials, and had not pursued the case with the vigour it deserved. Despite a considerable and often passionate debate, during which Labouchère was expelled from Parliament for insulting the Prime Minister by refusing to withdraw his remark, the proposal was rejected by a large majority.[29]

Consequences of the scandal

Public interest slowly waned. The scandal promoted the notion that male homosexuality was a vice common in aristocratic circles, corrupting the innocent youths of the lower classes represented by the messenger boys. This view reached its height during the 1895 scandal involving Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years hard labour for gross indecency after an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.


  • Theo Aronson: Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld. John Murray, London 1994, ISBN 0-7195-5278-8.
  • Sarah Bradford: King George VI. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1989, ISBN 0-297-79667-4.
  • Lewis Chester, David Leitch, Colin Simpson: The Cleveland Street Affair. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1977, ISBN 0-297-77113-2.
  • Andrew Cook: Prince Eddy. The King Britain never had. Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud Gloucestershire 2006, ISBN 0-7524-3410-1.
  • H. Montgomery Hyde: The Other Love. An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain. Heinemann, London 1970, ISBN 0-434-35902-5.
  • H. Montgomery Hyde: The Cleveland Street Scandal. W. H. Allen, London 1976.
  • James Lees-Milne: Harold Nicolson. Chatto & Windus, London
    • Vol. 1: 1886-1929. 1980, ISBN 0-7011-2520-9;
    • Vol. 2: 1930-1968. 1981, ISBN 0-7011-1602-7.

Web links

Notes and individual references

  1. Theo Aronson: Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld, London: John Murray, 1994. pages 8-10. ISBN 0-7195-5278-8
  2. Aronson, pages 11, 16-17
  3. Aronson, page 11
  4. Aronson, pages 11, 133
  5. Aronson, pages 134-135
  6. Aronson, page 135
  7. Aronson, page 137
  8. Aronson, page 136
  9. Aronson, page 140
  10. Aronson, page 142
  11. From the biography of Edward VII by Sir Philip Magnus, 1964. Quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde: The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain, Heinemann, 1970. p. 125. ISBN 0-434-35902-5
  12. Aronson, page 144
  13. Aronson, page 150
  14. Aronson, page 175
  15. North London Press, 16 November 1888
  16. Hyde, The Other Love, page 125 and Aronson, page 150
  17. Hyde, The Other Love, page 123
  18. Aronson, pages 151-159 and Hyde, The Other Love, pages 125-127
  19. Hyde, The Other Love, page 127
  20. Aronson, page 153
  21. Aronson, page 172
  22. Aronson, page 173
  23. Channel 4: Prince Eddy: The King We Never Had.
  24. Cook, pp.172-173
  25. Lord Arthur Somerset to Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher on 10 December 1889
    “I can quite understand the Prince of Wales being much annoyed at his son’s name being coupled with the thing…we were both accused of going to this place but not together…I wonder if it is really a fact or only an invention.” Quoted in Andrew Cook: Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006, ISBN 0-7524-3410-1, page 197.
  26. Lees Milne: “Harold Nicolson: had been involved in a male brothel scene, and that a solicitor had to commit perjury to clear him“, page 231, quoted in Aronson, page 177
  27. Aronson, pages 116-120, 170, 217
  28. Sarah Bradford: King George VI. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989, ISBN 0-297-79667-4, page 10.
  29. Aronson, page 174