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Chris Bryant's review of "James and John" explores the financial struggles faced by gay men living in 19th century London.

Chris Bryant’s review of “James and John” explores the financial struggles faced by gay men living in 19th century London.


In 1835, James Pratt and John Smith were executed in England for a heinous crime that was too taboo to be mentioned by name in newspapers. It was referred to as “b-gg-ry”. The two men were caught by a curious landlord and his wife, who took turns spying on them through the keyhole before alerting the authorities.

However, even these meddlers were surprised by the severity of the punishment imposed on their disobedient visitors. When the matter was brought before the Old Bailey, Mr. and Mrs. Berkshire begged the judge to be lenient – they prided themselves on running a reputable establishment, and hanging James and John was not their intention.

The Berkshires were not being deceitful. They had strong confidence that the lawsuit would never go to trial, or at least that it would be dismissed. In bustling London, where laborers often had to share a bed or urinate in public, many possible crimes could be justified as misunderstandings. And in situations where men were found guilty and given the death penalty, it was typically changed to exile.

In recent times, there has been a change in public attitudes towards sexual intercourse between men. While it was previously deemed immoral and unnatural, there has been a shift in beliefs and the most severe punishment is no longer seen as necessary, particularly in cases where no violence or theft was involved. It has been more than twelve years since the privy council authorized an execution for this offense at Newgate Prison.

It is difficult to determine exactly what set apart the situation of Pratt and Smith. Both individuals had no prior criminal record and were not generally disliked by the public. Pratt was a married man with children, and his wife remained supportive throughout.

The duo was also very cautious, as they hired a man named William Bonill to allow them to use his rented room from the Berkshires. Unfortunately, Bonill was later found guilty as an accomplice and was sent to Van Diemen’s Land, which is now known as Tasmania.

It is possible that Pratt and Smith were only blamed because they were poor. This was the belief of Hensleigh Wedgwood, the judge who had initially sent them to trial and, after their death sentence, wrote to the home secretary requesting mercy. Wedgwood noted that wealthy men had the means to rent private locations or bribe their landlords and servants to keep their relationships with other men secret. If arrested, these men could easily post bail and flee to other countries like France, Germany, or Italy.

Pratt and Smith, on the other hand, were subject to a harsh and unforgiving system that landed them in the foul-smelling Newgate prison – also referred to as “Hell above ground” – and swiftly led them to the executioner’s noose. In a mere 12 weeks since their apprehension, they met their demise.

Chris Bryant, a longstanding member of parliament who was the first to legally unite with his same-sex partner in the Palace of Westminster in 2010, recognizes the significance of sharing the story of Pratt and Smith for as long as there are countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, such as Saudi Arabia and Uganda. However, despite this noble intention, the lack of available information about Pratt and Smith is evident. With no diaries or letters left behind, their thoughts and feelings remain a mystery. Instead, Bryant paints a vivid picture of pre-Victorian London by examining public records. This includes detailed family trees for even the most minor upper-class characters and a rundown of all the shops on every mentioned street.

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The aim is to convey a particular level of social population in a world where gay men were unjustly killed. However, the overall effect is to remove the story of James and John from its appropriate position as the focal point of the narrative.

Source: theguardian.com