Today (September 4) in London History – the Wolfenden Report

The Wolfenden Report recommending the decriminalisation of homosexuality was published on September 4, 1957. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

He made a difference. An important difference. And yet he’s hardly known at all. Oh sure, his name will live on. But it’s just the floater – the buoy – attached to the lobster pot down below. And what really matters is the pot – creel as it’s known in Scotland – and what it holds.

Ok, his name was John Frederick (Jack) Wolfenden. Baron Wolfenden as he became in 1974.

To borrow Noel Coward’s line, he was the very model of a modern major-general of the establishment, that oh-so-useful term coined by his Magdalen colleague, the historian A. J. P. Taylor.

Anyway, today – September 4th – is the day. Let’s call it Wolfenden Day.

The famous – and controversial at the time – Wolfenden Report was published on September 4th, 1957.

The Wolfenden Report was the outcome of a so-called committee of inquiry on homosexual offences and prostitution which Jack Wolfenden, educationist and public servant par excellence, chaired (from 1954 to 1957) and saw through to fruition.

The eponymous committee of inquiry was set up in the wake of a series of homosexual scandals and in response to the considerable controversy about the rise of “street offences” by prostitutes.

The Wolfenden Report’s recommendations about the regulation of prostitution breezed through. They were adopted immediately and went on the books as statutory law. 

Different story for the report’s recommendations on homosexuality. 

But first, some background.

Some background. In 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act made homosexual acts between men  illegal. By 1954 the number of men imprisoned for homosexual acts had risen to over a thousand a year. 

Enter the Wolfenden Act.

It took ten years and some modifications but finally the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 got home. 

The committee was classic British establishment – it was made up almost entirely of the great and the good. It was very British. It took evidence from a range of people, including, very sensibly, gay people themselves.

How does that old Irish joke go? A tourist asks an Irish farmer how do you get to Cork (for example)? The farmer replies, “well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Well, in the case of the Wolfenden report they started from the right place. And that was down to Jack Wolfenden. In the words of his biographer, there can be no doubt that the philosophical framework and the practical proposals were strongly shaped by Wolfenden himself. 

The starting point for the committee’s recommendations was a belief that it was not the function of the law to lay down a moral code applicable to everyone. Rather, the function of the law was to set standards for public order. Standards which might change over time. What happened in the private sphere, however, should be free of regulation so long as it did not harm the participants. This did not amount to approving forms of private behaviour which stood outside the norms of society. But such a position led to pragmatic (if ostensibly contradictory) recommendations: the law on street offences should be tightened (because it created a public nuisance), while male homosexual acts in private should be decriminalized.

In the exact words of the report, there ‘must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business.’ What follows from that is homosexual acts between two consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence.

The philosophical underpinnings of the Wolfenden report – making a clear distinction between public order and private morality – have stood the test of time. Three generations on – 65 years later – that solomonic distinction still shapes debates around moral issues.

A little bit of biography. Jack Wolfenden was born in Wiltshire but the family roots were very Yorkshire. That’s where he grew up. In his autobiography, he describes his family as “taciturn Yorkshire folks” firmly committed to an ethic of self-improvement, rooted in Methodism.

He was a grammar schoolboy. Won a scholarship to Queen’s College Oxford. Had a distinguished educationist career. But also got over the wall. For example, he did a turn as the director and principal librarian of the British Museum. It was his final post and again he made his mark there, set a long-term stamp on the British Museum. It was Jack Wolfenden who redefined the museum’s acquisition policy – said its purpose should be to represent the documentation of human achievement.

But back to the Wolfenden report.

At the time all forms of male homosexual activity were illegal, whether in private or public.

So report’s findings were a watershed, an important game-changer.

Perhaps all the more impressive because the man at the helm, Jack Wolfenden, was resolutely traditionalist in his personal morality. Indeed, in his autobiography he confessed that he had little personal knowledge of homosexuality.

Though that remark should be taken with a grain of salt. Baron Wolfenden knew that his eldest son was ostentatiously gay. That personal side of Baron Wolfenden’s life is a sad counterpoint to his towering achievements in public life. His son, Jeremy, had shown brilliant promise. But an erratic lifestyle, bad career decisions – he was believed to have spied for both the British and the Soviet secret services – and, in the end, the bottle did for the younger Wolfenden. He died early, of alcoholism. His father’s response was stoical. In the words of Jeremy’s biographer Sebastian Faulks, Jack Wolfenden “felt that his son had been given a chance, a great chance, and that now there was no more to be said.”

Life, it’s a mixed bag.

One final note about today, September 4th. Has to be a coincidence but it does give pause – you do wonder sometimes.

Three years to the day before the Wolfenden Report was published, September 4th 1954, bridegroom Violet Ellen Katherine Jones and her bride 21-year-old Joan Mary Lee £25 each. They’d made a false statement to get a marriage certificate and had had a white wedding in church. It was a less tolerant world a lifetime ago. Jack Wolfenden changed it for the better.

A for a Today in London recommendation – one for the diary.

Next summer’s pride in London takes place in July 2023. It’ll be a happy time, a lot of good things going on.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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