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Past & Present 190 (2006) 121-146

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Safeguarding Civility:

Sodomy, Class and Moral Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century England *

Birkbeck College, London

On 13 September 1806 three men convicted of sodomy at the summer assizes ascended the scaffold at Lancaster castle. Samuel Stockton, John Powell and Joseph Holland, from Warrington and the surrounding area, were part of a group of twenty-four men who had been arrested for sodomy and other homosexual offences the previous May, of whom nine were eventually tried.1 Two weeks later a Manchester artisan named Thomas Rix was hanged at the same place, alongside Isaac Hitchin, the keeper of the 'infamous house' where the men met. The manner of Rix and Hitchin's dispatch was barely recorded, but, according to the local press, Stockton, Powell and Holland had performed the appropriate roles of the condemned. Stockton 'appeared much agitated [and] his trembling limbs appeared almost inadequate to their task'. Powell was also 'much affected', without displaying 'such dejection as the former'. Holland, however, was the image of the repentant sinner. He 'appeared in a state of the greatest agitation, the contrition of his countenance truly indicating the penitence of his mind', and seemed to 'implore the pardon of mighty God with greatest fervency'. At length, when an 'awful silence prevailed, these poor wretches were precipitated into eternity'.2

Brutal punishments such as this have suggested two things to historians. First, death or persecution was a likely fate for a 'sodomite' at this time who, moreover, was easily distinguishable from the rest of the population by his status as an identifiably [End Page 121] effeminate 'molly'.3 Second, moral campaigns and concern with the enforcement of the law have been identified as part of a process by which Britain's ruling elite was remade via the reformation of manners and an accompanying ethos of public and national service.4 It is certainly the case that more men were executed and imprisoned for sodomy and other homosexual offences in the early nineteenth century than in any previous era of English history.5 Moral reform in the shape of vice or prosecution societies is usually seen as the agent in this process of disciplining unruly desires. The Warrington case would seem to lend itself to this pattern of explanation, apparently showing how efforts to reform manners functioned as one way of remaking the authority of a newly aggressive and culturally confident landed elite after 1789. In Warrington, it seems, a coalition of gentleman magistrates and the Home Office presented a unified front of central and local power in order to exert traditional authority over apparently lawless cities, and at the same time to stamp out a potential moral contagion.6

However, I suggest that, in spite of the fate of Powell and the others, the Warrington case demonstrates not the broad extent of campaigns against immorality, but rather the selective character and exceedingly narrow limits of such policing. Nor did the case cement relationships within the northern elite. Instead it opened rifts between friends and neighbours which resulted in [End Page 122] part from the new demands which these campaigns placed upon the magisterial bench. On the one hand, JPs were expected to adhere to ties of class and locality, while on the other, they were more significant than ever as the instruments of central government. In this case, the situation was complicated by the fact that the prosecutions and the apparent involvement of the wealthy encouraged the belief among the populace and the magistrates that some of the ruling elite might be involved. Because sodomy was an offence which transcended class in ways that other crimes such as theft or violence did not, its prosecution was problematic because it often created rumours which were difficult to control and, as at Warrington, threatened to implicate members of a ruling elite. This was especially true when a trial proceeded, as most of those conducted at Lancaster had done, on the basis of evidence supplied by men who were acknowledged accomplices to the acts in question, and...


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pp. 121-146
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Archived 2007
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