The tragic tale of the last two men to be executed for being gay in England

Pride month isn’t just a time for celebrations, but also when we reflect and remember those who faced the unimaginable simply for being themselves. Here’s the story of the last men to be executed in Britain for being gay.

It’s been said that the UK had the most shameful record in Europe when it came to sentencing people to death for the crime of sodomy, also called buggery.

Between 1806 and 1835, 56 gay men were hanged in England for sodomy, with more men hanged for gay sex acts in 1806 than those who committed murder.

Sodomy was thought so heinous that newspapers wouldn’t even use the full word. It wasn’t until 2003 that the offence was formally removed from the legislation of England and Wales.

Who were the last people to be executed for homosexuality in Britain? 

On 27 November 1835, a crowd of people gathered outside Newgate prison in London to watch its first hanging in two years.

James Pratt was a 30-year-old horse-groomer, who lived in Deptford with his wife and children. John Smith was a 40-year-old from Southwark, with some reports saying he was an unmarried labourer, while others claim he was married and worked as a servant.

On an afternoon in late August 1835, Pratt met Smith, and a man called William Bonill in a pub in Blackfriars. The three men returned to Bonill’s room that he rented in Southwark, from landlords George and Jane Berkshire.

They had no way of knowing that by that night they would all be arrested, and in three months two of them would be dead.

Men referred to as ‘degraded creatures’

Suspicious and nosey, the landlord and his wife kept an eye on Pratt and Smith and proceeded to peer through the keyhole where they reportedly caught the pair engaging in sexual behaviour. The landlord called the police and the three men were arrested.

Pratt, Smith and Bonill were tried on 21 September at the Central Criminal Court, before Baron Gurney – a judge who had the reputation of being independent and acute, but also harsh. It’s highly unlikely that either landlord could have witnessed what they testified to in court.

The magistrate who committed the three men to trial called them “degraded creatures” and said that “in this country mercy could not be expected of men like them”.

During the court hearing, Mr and Mrs Berkshire pleaded with the judge to show mercy, and claimed “they liked to run a respectable house, but stringing up James and John was not what they’d had in mind”.

Pratt and Smith both pleaded not guilty, but neither were allowed to give evidence.

The pair were visited by Charles Dickens while awaiting their execution

Pratt and Smith were convicted under the Offences against the Person Act 1828 and were sentenced to be hanged at Newgate prison which had been nicknamed “hell above ground”.

Bonill had left the room at the time of the alleged offence but was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to be transported to Australia – then a British penal colony – for 14 years. He died there in 1841.

Charles Dickens visited the pair as they awaited their execution, the Pratt and Smith. The author was told by the jailer that the two were “dead men”.

Dickens wrote about them in his Sketches by Boz, in which he said they “had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown, their doom was sealed”.

Pratt and Smith are buried alongside others executed at Newgate in a common grave.

It wasn’t until 2016 that they were pardoned under Turing’s Law, which sought to remove convictions of those criminalised by anti-gay laws that were no longer on the statute books.

It is estimated that anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 men were convicted under anti-gay laws between 1885 and 2003.

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