Bodmin Assize Records from Kresen Kernow

Image Courtesy of the Archives and Cornish Studies Service, Kresen Kernow

Kresen Kernow maintains a sizeable archive of Cornish court and jail records (historically known as assize records). From these records, it is evident that a number of men were charged for the ‘crime’ of having same-sex relations right here in Cornwall. 

By studying these records, you can see the way in which cultural attitudes towards homosexuality have changed over time. For example, during the high profile trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, there is a notable increase in the number of cases brought to trial in Cornwall and an increase in the severity of punishments issued. This is an interesting parallel, and we can theorise that Oscar Wilde’s trial had a ripple effect felt by men all over the country, as seen here in Cornwall. 

Through these assize records, we uncovered many interesting and many heartbreaking stories, which demonstrate the cruelty of these historic laws. We have collated the stories of 10 men on trial for various charges in Cornwall between 1888-1916. These stories need to be heard, not only to remind us of the horrors that many queer people faced in the past, but also because the legacy of these barbaric laws still impact Cornish people today.

In 2017, the Turing law sought to pardon all those cautioned or charged with homoesexual acts before partial decriminalisation in 1967. However, Parliament stepped back from issuing a full pardon. They decided not to overturn the thousands of convictions for men charged with ‘importuning’ (being thought to seek out same-sex relations) – a charge that was used in a discriminatory way by the police to target and entrap men that they suspected as being homosexual. This oversight means that there might be as many as 50,000 men still alive today who were not granted a pardon under the Turing law. Given the lengthy bureaucratic process to personally appeal for a pardon, little over 200 people have been successful in having their antiquated and homophobic criminal record overturned. Consequently, there are still people in Cornwall today burdened with a criminal record for the ‘crime’ of being gay. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49730231

1888
Ernest Oke and William Davey 

In July 1888, the assize courts of Bodmin heard the case of Sergeant Ernst Oke and Private William Davey who were in the same battalion of the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. (3rd B.D.C.L.I.)

It is reported in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of July 1888 that Oke “seduced” Davey and although both were found guilty of “buggery”, leniency was given to Davey (age 18) who was sentenced to one year of penal servitude, whereas as the “instigator” of the affair, Sergeant Oke, was sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude. 

Homosexuality in the military was only decriminalised in the year 2000. The case of Oke and Davey is one of many where homosexuality in the army was a courtmartial offence, and indeed a criminal one. 

1892

Henry Plummer and Owen Ellis

Henry Plumber (18) was a shipbuilder’s apprentice and Owen Ellis (34) was a manual labourer who lived in Smithick Hill, Falmouth. They were both charged in Budock Parish with “gross indecency with another male” and sent to Bodmin Prison for 6 months hard labour.

1895
William Martin
William Martin was 45 years old, and a labourer from Penryn. He was charged with “attempted buggery” and sentenced to 18 months of hard labour at Bodmin Gaol..

1896
Richard H Uren
Uren was a soldier with the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry and a painter from Camborne. He was a follower of Weslyan religion. Richard Uren is an interesting case because it demonstrates the classism inherent in the legal system at this time. Uren was charged with “buggery” but his case was dismissed in June 1896, likely because he was listed as having “independent means”. There is a definite trend to be found in the assize records between the level of education / profession and the severity of the punishment given. It seems you were also more likely to be discharged if you were young, independently wealthy, and not seen as the “instigator” of the affair.

1897
Thomas Richards and William Burley 

Thomas Richards was born in 1842 and was 56 at the time of arrest. He was from Ashton in Helston and was listed as living with his parents Jon and Jane during the census in 1871. William Burley was born in 1861 and was 37 at the time of arrest. They were both charged with “acts of gross indecency with another male” and sentenced to 1 month hard labour in Bodmin Gaol. 

1898
William Collins 

Collins was only 17 when he was charged with buggery. He was a labourer from Carn Brae village and was of Weslyan religion. He was discharged without penalty, likely owing to his young age. 

1916
John Horace Whigham

On 15th June 1916, John Horace Whigham, a fair haired 22-year-old was visiting Falmouth. He was college educated and of independent means. Whigham happened to make the acquaintance of Duncan Davison, and the two were arrested for having sex. 

Whigham and Davison were both tried and found guilty of buggery. 

Because Whigham and Davison were both wealthy, they were given the option of escaping a jail sentence by paying a fine – £500 for Whigham and £1000 for Davison (roughly £43k and £86k today) – and agreeing to a stint in a mental asylum.

The court documents state that Whigham would be committed to be “prevented from contaminating other members of the community”. During this period, homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness – one that could be ‘cured’. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders did not remove homosexuality from its books until 1978 and the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1992. In 2017, the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a formal apology, saying: “There are no words that can repair the damage done to anyone who has ever been deemed ‘mentally unwell’ simply for loving a person of the same sex. For those who were then ‘treated’ using non-evidence based procedures by mental health professionals up until as late as the 1970s, the trauma of such experiences can never be erased.”

However, despite this apology, conversion therapy is still legal in the UK. 

It is important to look at these historical records, not only to remember our collective past and honour those who were forced to pay such a high price for being their authentic selves, but also to serve as a reminder for what there is still left to accomplish. Even though these ‘criminal’ records are over 100 years old, the homophobia that these historic laws were rooted in is still felt by our community today. Conversion therapy is still legal in the UK, gay men still have criminal records because they were targeted by the police for seeking companionship, and homophobia still causes grief and abuse to many. We may have come far, but the fight for equal rights is far from over.