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three pairs of lovers with space



The history of Greek love in Great Britain in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries is a grim story of relentlessly increasing suppression, intensifying sharply towards the end.

Police surveillance, prosecution and hanging for sodomy, extremely rare in the preceding centuries, suddenly mushroomed at the beginning of the eighteenth and continued unabated.

So far as one can tell, the new ferocity was occasioned by the emergence in London of a sub-culture of mollies, effeminates who were seen to have an exclusive disposition to sex with other males and who thus threatened traditional gender role-playing.  This captured the public's imagination and indignation to the extent that its previous understanding of sodomy as a terrible sin that any ungodly person might to be tempted to commit with a boy was forgotten. Men were henceforth perceived as divided between a majority only inclined to the opposite sex and a small minority with an unnatural inclination to their own, while what had been understood as a passing phase on the part of the boy was now supposed to corrupt him into permanently joining this minority. Thus what little understanding there had been of Greek love as a distinct phenomenon was drowned in new misunderstanding. Far from being unique to London, this development occurred in all the largest cities of northern Europe and gradually spread globally.

All physical intimacy between males began to be associated with the molly, whether sexual or not.  As demanded by the anonymous author of the pamphlet Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England, ca. 1731, which summarises popular disgust, affectionate kissing as a greeting between males went quickly out of fashion.

The thinking behind the newly-intense animosity towards Greek love is made clear through the utilitarian counter-arguments of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty, written in about 1785, but left unpublished.

With so little known about how prevalent Greek love had been in the seventeenth century, at least outside high society, it is impossible to know how much rarer it became due to the new cruelty to those found involved in sodomy of any kind, but it probably went largely undetected in all-male environments such as the Royal Navy, schools and the universities (to which boys were admitted any time in their teens). For example, the diarist Dudley Ryder recorded being told by an Oxford man in 1715:

that among the chief men in some of the colleges sodomy is very usual and the master of one college has ruined several young handsome men that way, that it is dangerous sending a young man that is beautiful to Oxford.[1]

John Cleland's Fanny Hill, the first erotic novel in English, published in 1748-9, includes an extraordinarily realistic  graphic scene of sex between an older and younger youth. The professions of conventional disgust by the witness-narrator come across as only skin-deep. The author apparently knew what he was writing about and his characters are not mollies.

The more usual assumptions that finally prevailed are well illustrated by the case of James Nehemiah Taylor, a naval surgeon hung for sodomising a boy in 1809. Both Taylor himself, and a farmer who commented on the case in his diary assumed that having such a nature was implanted in the sodomite's nature, and none of those who commented saw any significance in Taylor's beloved being a boy rather than a man.

Yet, though the first decades of the nineteenth century were the period when public horror with sodomy reached its zenith, symbolised by record numbers of executions for it (in 1806 surpassing those for murder), even while such executions had come to an end throughout the rest of Europe. Yet, it was at precisely this time that Bettymania, a bizarre case of temporary public infatuation with a beautiful pubescent boy actor, demonstrated the timeless potential of the latent capacity of men in general to love boys to manifest itself, given a trigger. As much as anything else, the true pederastic source of the mania became clear from the sense of public shame shown once it was implicitly revealed to have no cause that could be admitted to.

The remainder of the nineteenth century might be thought to have offered some kind of relief in that the death penalty for sodomy (as for hundreds of other offences) fell into disuse.  Last inflicted in 1836, it was finally abolished (in 1861 in England and 1889 in Scotland), but the numbers whose lives were thus spared were trivial, while the number of prosecutions continued to climb steadily, largely due to a broadening of what could be prosecuted. In 1781 a judicial ruling had specified that the emission of sperm in the body was required for the offence of sodomy to be complete (without which a male could only be convicted of the lesser offence of attempted sodomy, but in 1828 this was reversed by the Offences Against the Person Act and the older rule (requiring penetration only) reinstated. Far though from disappearing as an offence, attempted sodomy became a far more common charge, mere groping being sometimes treated an early step in a conspiracy to commit sodomy, and more ominous developments were afoot.

Ironically, unleashed on foreign adventures, two of the greatest romantic national heroes of the first half of the century, the poet Lord Byron and Sir James Brooke, who set himself up as Rajah of Sarawak, had love affairs with boys, though of course the admiring public had no idea of this.

It was over the course of the nineteenth century that all ordinary physical intimacy between males gradually became taboo in England, so that by its end the Englishman stood in frigid contrast to his Mediterranean counterparts.  Friends stopped hugging when they met, or walking arm in arm, newly fearful of horrid suspicion. Boys were allowed to show their natural affection for only a little longer.

Given, however, that Greek love has always flourished most in societies where adolescent boys are homosocial, and considering also the association of nudity with sex, it may in retrospect seem surprising that it took those determined to suppress it so long to stamp out the ancient custom throughout Europe of boys bathing naked when with their own sex, but, even in England, this did not in fact happen until the middle of the twentieth century.  On Favouring Tradtional Sea-Bathing, 1882, a magazine article written by a mother with daughters, arguing strongly not only for boys to continue bathing naked, but for females not to be shielded from the sight shows not only a generous understanding of the joy nudity gave boys at the sea-side, but a positive consciousness of there being sexual implications.

James Campbell Reddie and the Margate boy, 1876 recounts the seduction of a boy of 15 by an author of erotica and his Italian companion, and illustrates how very easy it was for  men to befriend and seduce boys without arousing suspicion. The Italian also seduced the boy's mother, showing the survival of an old indifference to gender.

The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, a memoir by Jack Saul, published in 1881, though in fact partly fictional, offers fascinating glimpses into the lives of boy and youth prostitutes in London, as well as the various milieux in which Greek love was then prevalent.

Nowhere in Britain offered as much scope for Greek love to flourish as the boarding-schools then attended between the ages of about eight and eighteen by almost all boys of the upper class and many of the middle classes. In the schoolboy novel Tim, set at Eton in the 1870s and reviewed here, and in illustrations to children's literature, boys could still walk arm in arm.  The ominous repressive changes already underway are described in a chapter of the thoroughly-researched Boys Together: English Public Schools 1800-1864 by John Chandos. This includes detailed discussion of the Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, who betrayed a friend's secret that he was having a love affair with their headmaster (Harrow's greatest), Charles Vaughan, who was consequently obliged to resign in 1859. The Fall of Doctor Onslow is a fine historical historical novel, quite exceptional in its authentic evocation of the period, loosely based on this story. As Onslow, the fictional version of Vaughan, was made to observe a generation later, compulsory sports and supervision "by masters turned into moral policemen" had radically changed boarding-school culture, so that boys no longer held hands, were incapable of spontaneous feeling, and had a "hatred and fear of emotion which they call possession of a manly character." Symonds himself was, as a young man, a fervent though restrained lover of boys, one of whom later wrote to him on the vexed question of whether a classical education could incite Greek love, partly based on his own experience at public school. Without getting sexually involved himself, the 14th Lord Berners, in two memoirs, well described the feelings and attitudes at preparatory school and Eton in the 1890s.

Only partly at boarding-school, The Memoirs of a Voluptuary is a young man's reminiscences of his erotic adventures as a boy of 13 in the early 1890s. Perhaps too over-the-top for the anonymous author's claims to strict accuracy to be true, it is nonetheless unique and important as an authentic Victorian voice describing pederastic sex.

An entirely different milieu in which homosexuality was ubiquitous in the late 19th century, and Greek love when fear did not suppress it, was in the lives of tramps, as described in the 1915 edition of Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion, the first scientific study of homosexuality in English.

In 1885 the "Labouchere Amendment" to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, hugely increased the scope for persecution of homosexuality by expanding the prosecutable offences from just sodomy, long legally defined as pedication only, or attempted sodomy, to "gross indecency", which included every male homosexual act. Probably the most important result of this was to make it far easier to prove the law had been broken, so prosecutions again mushroomed.

This soon generated a number of scandals. The first important one was the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, in which a house in that street was found to be used as a brothel for trysts between teenage telegraph boys and some eminent men.  Montgomery Hyde's book about this is reviewed here..  One of those nearly implicated was no less than Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1864-92), the grandson of Queen Victoria who would have become King but for his premature death. His likely pederasty is discussed in a review of Theo Aronson's biography of him, Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld.

Ironically, this very era gave rise to a flowering of literature by a number of pederastic writers known collectively as the Uranians. This had its origins amongst students at Oxford University. The short book Boy-Worship anonymously published there in 1880 and the associated scandal involving six students with choirboys in 1884 may be considered as precursors. The best-known of these writers was Oscar Wilde, of whom biographies by McKenna and Edmonds are reviewed here. The Greek love poems of Lord Alfred Douglas are eight in number, published in 1893-6. (A widely-believed and now deliberately-promoted myth that Douglas was gay, rather than a lover of boys, is dispelled by his own explanation, as well as all the evidence as to his sexual activity.) The Priest and the Acolyte is a pederastic short story by Oxford undergraduate J. F. Bloxam that played an indirect role in the fall of Wilde, since he had contributed to The Chameleon, the periodical in which it was in 1894 published. The Oxford which gave birth to it was also the Oxford of the Oxford Movement, which took a romanticised and aestheticised view of Christianity, felt by some of its followers to be compatible with Greek love. Hence, for example, Bloxam became an Anglo-Catholic priest, while another Oxford man, the Reverend Edwin Emanuel Bradford also went into holy orders while publishing numerous volumes of fairly frank and surprisingly well-received Greek love verse. Also associated with the Uranians was the colourful academic Oscar Browning, of whom a biography by Anstruther is reviewed here.  The last of them is sometimes considered to be Ralph Chubb, whose life and writings are the subject of Ralph Nicholas Chubb: Prophet and Paiderast, 1892-1960.

The conviction of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency in 1895 made things worse still for the practise of Greek love. Not only did it and the Cleveland Street scandal outrage the public, increasing both its awareness and its hostility to homosexuality in general, but they drew attention to the corruption of the young in an age which believed that homosexuality was depraved and boys could be taught irrecoverably to become adepts of it.

Hence the twentieth century was even fuller of disasters occasioned by exposures of pederastic liaisons than its predecessor. The Tragedy of Sir Hector Macdonald, the story told by Cambridge Professor Ronald Hyam of the downfall of a British general and national hero over Greek love affairs in Ceylon in 1903, ushered it in characteristically.

As Britain was by this time one of the most repressive countries in the world towards Greek love, it is unsurprising that many British pederasts lived, or at least sought sexual and emotional relief, abroad. Despite Macdonald's fate, the British Empire offered considerably more sexual freedom than Britain herself. Such is the subject of Hyam's Empire and Sexuality, reviewed here, and a section of his Understanding the British Empire, reviewed here. These books included two of the three valuable accounts of the Paidikion, British army Captain Kenneth Searight's compilation of pederastic writings, which included an immensely detailed list of his many erotic encounters with boys from 1897 to 1917, mostly in India.  The other and first account of it was Paidikion: A Paiderastic Manuscript by Toby Hammond.

Other pederastic travellers who described their liaisons with boys around this time included the aforementioned Douglas, whose adventures in Algeria, 1895 and misadventure in Paris, 1900 are recounted from the primary sources, and Frederick William Rolfe in his Venice Letters. The Austro-Scottish writer Norman Douglas was notable for love affairs with boys in several European countries that evolved into deep, life-long friendships, but ran into serious trouble in London in 1916. Later, there was the journalist Michael Davidson, who was briefly imprisoned for a liaison in London and lived in numerous countries in Europe, Africa and Asia from 1920 until he settled in Italy in 1958, the playwright Joe Orton, who stayed for the last time in Tangier in 1967, both frequently expressing  disgust with the comparative sexual climate of Britain, the writer Angus Stewart, also in Tangier, and the teacher James Darling in three continents in the 1980s, his book about it, It’s Okay to Say Yes, being reviewed here.

Despite the arm of the state growing longer and more intrusive with every passing decade, Greek love continued to be practised quietly. ‘Dr. Bradford is obviously a lover of boys’. Early-20th-century reactions to the theme of boy love in the poetry of E. E. Bradford shows how remarkably tolerant the mainstream press could be of openly but tastefully expressed Greek love. Jack Robinson's autobiography of his childhood, Teardops on My Drum, (reviewed here), describes considerable pederastic activity in Liverpool in the early 1930s, without anyone encountering trouble. Similarly, in his memoir of his childhood in the 1920s, Cider with Rosie, often cited for its vivid portrayal of rural life in that era, Laurie Lee ended his list of the villagers' transgressions with the remark "and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers." This would have been unthinkable by the end of the century, when the merest friendship between a man and unrelated boy was likely to incite investigation. Jack and Jamie Go to War is a less temarkable sequel to Teardrops on My Drum, continuing Robinson's story until 1945, when he was 24 and had switched Greek love roles.

The memoir of Edward James, the future patron of surrealist art shows how an attractive adolescent in the 1920s was likely to be the object of frequent sexual interest from older males, in his case including a former cabinet minister believed to have committed suicide on account of the exposure of his attempt at seduction.

A vivid account of life in England in the same period from the point of view of a dedicated "lover of boys" is provided by the autobiography of the above-mentioned Davidson, of which the pertinent extracts are presented here in five articles: Lancing 1908-13, Early Sexual Experiences 1913-19, London and Oxford 1922-28, London 1936-37, and London 1941-46. Another evocative account of a liaison with two Cockney boys in 1937 was published in his Some Boys.

For the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Greek love continued to flourish in boarding-schools, despite continued efforts to suppress it. Recollections of experiences there as boys in the first three quarters of the twentieth century, before the popular panic over child sexuality began, include ones by eminent writers such as Joe Ackerley and Quentin Crisp, the diarist James Lees-Milne, the screenwriter Gavin Lambert, the novelist Simon Raven, the journalists Brian Inglis and Christopher Hitchens and the actor Stephen FryTaming Mr. Rudge is a repelled Robin Maugham's account of the liaison between a boy and master at his prep school around 1928, while his own experiences at his next school are recounted in Robin Maugham at Eton. To Be or Not to Be a School Tart at Eton describes the painful dilemmas involved in becoming a pederastic sex idol at Eton in 1946-7, while Eton by Sir Ranulph Fiennes describes the torment there a decade later of being considered a tart just because one was pretty. C.S. Lewis's memoir, Surprised by Joy contains observations by a perceptive non-participant in the Greek love practised by most of his schoolfellows. Memoirs of a Broomstick by Victor Rothschild is another observer's account, from the next decade, the 1920s, at Harrow, while George Hayim's Thou Shalt Not Uncover Thy Mother's Nakedness is a more nearly involved boy's acoount from the same school in the 1930s. Pederast by Angus Stewart, 1961 gives the point of view of one who loved boys both as an older boy in public school and a young schoolmaster in a prep school. A Little Learning by Evelyn Waugh both describes the Greek love culture at Lancing 1917-21 and gives a lively portrait of a prep school master sexually active with boys in the 1920s, and is supplemented on both points by his diariesFlannelled Fool by T. C. Worsley is valuable for the outlook of a school public master in the early thirties, probably typical of his time in being attracted to some of his pupils, but never quite getting sexually involved with them. George Orwell's Such, Such Were the Joys, an exaggerated attack on his prep school, includes a vivid account of the school authorities's vigorous repression of sex among the boys. Varied insights into Greek love practices between 1918 and 1982 at Eton, the most famous public school were given by thirteen of the interviewees in D. Danziger's Eton Voices, to which can be added the amusing recollections of Hallam Tennyson and Quentin Dodds. Brian Sewell's memoir, Outsider, includes pederastic goings-on in the 1940s at both his school, Haberdashers' Aske's and elsewhere. The first chapter of A Life with Entrances and Exits by Anthony Bacon gives not only a richly frank account of pederastic liaisons at unnamed boarding schools in the years 1945 to 1953, but also the life of a young and active boy-lover in the immediately following years, a story continued.

The torment already in the 1950s suffered by a boy-lover realising that the only but real corruptive harm posed by acting on his love came from society was captured well by the novelist T. H. White. Contrarily, Alan Turing illustrates how those who took and suffered the consequences of disregarding the risk, but could otherwise serve as models for 21st-century  mythology, have since had their histories dishonestly rewritten. Also in the 1950s, the friendship of the composer Benjamin Britten and David Hemmings, a boy of 11 to 13, as recounted by both Hemmings himself and witnesses to it, offers valuable insights into a boy's experience of a serious but perhaps chaste Greek love affair. Monty's Little Swiss Friend and Other Boys is accounts by boys of their chaste but unquestionably special friendships with the widowed Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein. There are indications that the eminent British admiral and statesman, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, murdered in 1979, was also sexually involved with boys.

In The Twisting Lane (1969), sociologist Tony Parker gave vivid voice to some sex offenders, illustrating how oppressive the state could be even before the rise of public hysteria over child sex: one of these stories, “A Boy Scout Whistles And Smiles”, concerns a youth of 18 imprisoned for three years for pedicating a 14-year-old in a love affair with him. The Child-Lovers, a study by psychologists conducted in 1978-9, included interviews with six men involved in Greek love, including one, "John", who had managed, on the very eve of the age of intense repression,  the incredible feat of having two fully-involved, deeply-committed and long-lasting love affairs with boys, made possible with tacit parental consent.

Despite the constant threat of being caught by the police, which was likely to ruin a boy's life as much as a man's, boy prostitution was a regular feature of British cities until stifled by the rapidly expanded surveillance state in the last quarter of the century. Richie McMullen's memoirs Enchanted Boy (reviewed here) and Enchanted Youth (reviewed here) tell the story of a rent boy aged 14 to 16 in Liverpool and London between 1957 and 1960, while in Breakfast in Brighton the story is told of a boy in the same era who began selling himself aged nine in Brighton and fled to London to do so with less restraint at 14. There are interesting similarities between the two boys' stories: at the outset, both were seeking solace from violent fathers and were clearly motivated by lust, adventure and rebelliousness more than money; they later made being rent boys their way of life with the knowledge based on experience that it was more satisfying than their home lives.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, principally occasioned by the general adoption of the contraceptive pill by women of fertile age in 1961-3, brought none of the temporary relief to men and boys who were or would have been receptive to Greek love that it did for a while in other countries in northern Europe. Perhaps the latter's willingness to be more liberal-minded about it was in part a reaction to their experience of the National Socialist yoke, and the British simply had no cause to. At any rate, the boy-lover Michael Davidson, looking back over his life in 1969, noted that pederastic affairs had come to be punished with far greater severity despite or because of the legalisation of sex between men in 1967.[2]

The repression continued to worsen considerably thereafter, even while obviously consensual Greek love became de facto legal in the Netherlands and Scandinavia for more than a decade, and most other countries in western Europe dropped their ages of consent to allow at least some of it. The historian John Mackenzie wrote in 1990:[3]

As 'freedoms' are now being reinterpreted in the light of particularly narrow bourgeois tastes, intolerant, philistinish and culturally blinkered, the British are again becoming the social fundamentalists of Europe, if not of the world, bent upon infringing the civil rights of minorities, inhibiting the arts, and transforming human sexuality once more into an area of tension, fear and ignorance.

In conclusion, Great Britain and Ireland were probably the only European countries of which it can be said that never in their modern history could a man and adolescent boy engaged in a genuine love affair or merely enjoying consensual sex hope to avoid dire consequences if they were exposed. 


[1] The Diary of Dudley Ryder, 1715–1716 edited by William Matthews (London: Methuen, 1939), entry for 1 December 1, 1715, p. 143.

[2] Michael Davidson, Some Boys, American edition, 1971, pp.245-6. This legalisation applied only to men over 21 in England (including Wales). Sex between men remained illegal in Scotland until 1981.

[3] In his introduction to Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, Manchester, 1990,  p. 9.




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