Henry Labouchere: The Non-Progressive Progressive

Henry du Pre Labouchere

Henry du Pre Labouchere

The history of gay rights is blotched with all sorts of setbacks and failures, one of the worst occurred in Britain in 1885.  The proximate cause was an addendum to The Criminal Law Amendment Act proposed by the MP Henry du Pre Labouchere. Originally the 1885 law was designed to  address  the problem of under age prostitution.  It raised the age of consent to sixteen and criminalized attempts to pimp young girls.

The editor of “Truth”, as well as a member of Parliament, Labouchere was a seriously rich man.  He had inherited not one but two banking fortunes, being connected to the Baring Bank founders, and he had had a chequered career.  Labouchere was a republican who detested the royal family, a liberal, almost a radical, where politics were concerned, but this ex- diplomat, financier, and semi-professional gambler turned politician, had his prejudices.  He was anti-semitic, convinced that women were,”mentally flighty” and therefore should not have the vote, and he detested homosexuality. 

So on the evening when the The Criminal Law Amendment Act was being debated, he proposed an addition which criminalized all sexual acts between men.  Sodomy had long been against the law in Britian, but other sexual practices between consenting men

The Labouchere Amendment's most famous casualties. Oscar Wilde and his lover Bosie

The Labouchere Amendment’s most famous casualties. Oscar Wilde and his lover Bosie

were not banned until 1885, when most unluckily, Henry Labouchere’s amendment became law.  It rapidly became known as “The Blackmailer’s Charter” because any sexual act between men became punishable by two years in prison with or without hard labor.  This was the law under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted in 1895, and it remained on the books in Britain for 82 years.

Strangely though, Henry Labouchere was not a reactionary.  He was, on the contrary, defiantly democratic in a  Britain that resembled a grand staircase of classes, with the Royal Family at the top. In such a place and at such a time very few people could be

independent enough to ignore those gradations. Labouchere, with his enormous wealth however, could. He was the author of a witty rewrite of God Save the Queen, pointing out in lyrics like a series of pinpricks to the royal balloon, just how many royals her majesty’s fecundity had added to the Civil List. The resulting fizzle from the inflated royal reputation annoyed the Queen into remarking on how much she disliked “that dreadful lying Labouchere”.

Labouchere and Truth were also unsparing of aristocratic privilege during The Cleveland Street Scandal, which uncovered a male bordello in downtown London.  The revelation sent several grandees and catamites scurrying for sheets, and set newspapers to printing more sheets than the Salisbury government could tolerate.  Accordingly, Cleveland St.’s underage boy staff were sent to prison,but its upper crust clientele went to their clubs.  Even the most persistently identified long term client, Lord Arthur Somerset, the prince of Wales’ equerry, was allowed to escape from England rather than be prosecuted.  Labouchere hated this development, just as he hated the government’s determination to hush the scandal up.

Yet this firebrand of the left was not willing to allow females to vote, or allow a decriminalized sexual life for gay men.  Today, and perhaps unfairly, Labouchere is known almost entirely for his amendment, although he may have been ahead of his time on democratic issues, and labor laws.  Sometimes reputation seems to be attached to the worst and not the best of endeavors.

4 thoughts on “Henry Labouchere: The Non-Progressive Progressive

  1. There are a number of instances
    where history is rethinking its position on various people. Robert E. Lee is a case in point. While he could be gentlemanly and well-mannered, the fact is that he was a slave owner and essentially a traitor to his country by taking up arms against it. We need to avoid glorifying – and excoriating – these people and remember they were human in all their inexact capabilities. We should not excuse nor mythologize any of history’s famous few – just accept them for who they were.

    • Henry Labouchere was a very mixed bag, way ahead of his time on divorce law liberalization, but behind it on women’s suffrage, and he was homophobic, but so was all of society in Britain. There were a few exceptions, George Bernard Shaw for example, but by and large, the “love that dare not speak its name” had to stay mute.

  2. As far as I know the only biography of any consequence of old Labouchere is the one written by Hesketh Pearson in the 1930s. Notably, in the 1930s Pearson barely mentions the legislation for which Labouchere is best known today.
    Labouchere was disappointed that the maximum penalty under the new law was only 2 years.
    Sexual minorities are still persecuted in Britain by the so called “progressive left” – it’s just their targets change. In 2008 the Blair Labour government, specifically Jack Straw the minister for justice, a former hard left leader of the National Union of students, finally passed legislation which exists nowhere else in any similar “liberal democracy” aimed at criminalizing people into adult BDSM. Among those dragged through the courts by it over extremer images have been homosexuals

    • I have never run across the biography of Labouchere, but now may look at it, so thank you. Most of my information came from reading biographies of Wilde, Hall Caine, etc.

      The news that legislation aimed at criminalizing certain sexual practices was still being passed in Britain as recently as ’08 is surprising – and a bit disquieting.

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