The Cleveland Street Scandal

The Cleveland Street Scandal


Words Darren Hawes

Illustrations Luke Stuart


“And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom…”

In 1891 Sherlock Holmes appeared in a short story called Scandal in Bohemia, where the detective races against the clock to smooth over what could become an international incident. Less than two years before Sherlock’s encounter a real scandal with true political implications struck at the heart of London. Hidden away down Cleveland Street, an outrage of titillating realisations had occurred.

It came to light in 1889 that 19 Cleveland Street was housing a dark secret. Far from the legitimate businesses you can now find along the streets of Fitzrovia, the proprietors were in search of decadent delights, hushed away from public knowledge and even downright illegal – for a Mr Charles Hammond had, for quite some time, been running an illicit male brothel.

At this time, Constable Luke Hanks, investigator of a supposed theft at the London Telegraph Office, came across a 15 year old messenger boy, Thomas Swinscow, who was in possession of something much more damning than his bag of letters… he had, in his coin purse, money to the princely sum of fourteen shillings (equivalent to around £300 in today’s currency!).  Of course, there was little to be suspicious about young men carrying out this work, but, at this time, it was illegal for them to even carry around their personal allowance. It seemed to be unequivocal evidence of the boy’s guilt. Hanks must have thought he’d got his man!

Here the plot thickens… It is reported that, in his statement, Swinscow was adamant to profess that he “got [the money] doing some work away from the office…  [for] a gentleman named Hammond.” And the story takes a turn. Let us remember that in 1889 Cleveland St was a relatively unimportant place of nondescript houses, its only claim being that Charles Dickens’ childhood home was at number 22. Swinscow admitted that he “…got the money for going to bed with gentlemen at [Hammond’s] house.” And the fate of Mr Hammond was sealed. Of course, it was not only Hammond who was indicated in the crime. The statement also reads, “[Henry Newlove] asked me to go into the lavatory at the basement… we went into the water closet and shut the door and we behaved indecently together.” Of the names that later came to light in the ensuing investigation there are some that stand out greatly, people with direct links to the British establishment. Naturally, those I am about to list are largely alleged to have been clients of Mr Hammond’s.

Allow me to introduce somebody whose links to the surrounding area live on today: Henry James Fitzroy, Earl of Euston.  His involvement came out through an article by Ernest Parke in a radical newspaper at the time, The North London Press. Lord Euston admitted upon trial that he had indeed visited the premises of 19 Cleveland Street simply on the presumption that it was housing a display of artistic nudes – the sign on the door read Posés plastiques. Euston’s innocence was proven, based on contradictory accounts by the defence failing to correctly identify or formulate an indicative narrative of his guilt.

Poor Euston never managed to stake claim to the area that surrounds Fitzroy Square since he died before he was able to inherit his father’s land. Instead, it passed to his younger brother, Alfred, later the Duke of Grafton, adding to the rich tapestry that is now a centre for creativity, Fitzrovia.

Two more names stand out on the list of the accused: Lord Arthur Somerset and, most scandalous of treats, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, grandson of Queen Victoria. Interestingly, the former was a client of the brothel named by none other than Lord Euston himself during an account of his visit. Amongst a growing mountain of evidence, and some strong anecdotal accounts, Somerset’s hand was against him. Through contacts and dealings, Lord Somerset (allegedly) was able to convince the Home Secretary of the time to put a halt to court proceedings and delay the time until action would be taken.

Seizing his chance, Somerset fled to Germany on the 22nd August 1889. Upon returning to England, he was tipped off that his trial was imminent and that he would be unable to evade prosecution. With this knowledge, the not-so-noble-lord fled again, this time to France, and commenced travels that took him as far as Constantinople (Istanbul now), before settling back in France, where he was to die at the age of 74 in 1926, 37 years after evading justice.

And so, I’ve left the juiciest tidbit until last, the curious case of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Was it mere rumour that spread across Old London town, as these things so often do? Was it a fabrication of Lord Somerset, in the hopes that it would take some of the focus off himself? Was it just another episode like that of Lord Euston?

Many historians deny that the Prince had any involvement in the scandal, continuing the narrative that it was raised to merely try and deflect some of the darker charges from other culprits. Regardless of truth, the inclusion of the Prince’s name gave the case further infamy. This was the moment it would change from a scandal to a cultural phenomenon where homosexual acts and despicable deeds became viewed as aristocratic vices, proof that the very pillars of the establishment were embroiled in decadence of morality, and outright debauchery. Almost a gift to the speculation, Prince Albert’s inclusion led to something most unheard of… The Prince of Wales himself took a key interest in the case, intervening personally to put a stop to the degrading of his son’s character. To the outside eye this could quite easily be seen as an attempt for a cover-up. Indeed, it led to much speculation.

The buzz in the air caused by this scandal did not die down within a few weeks. It became the spark to light the fuse, resulting in an explosion of anti-homosexual activism. The stories surrounding Cleveland Street became legend fast, just another moment to be bandied about in court with regards to ‘gross indecency’.

A review in the Scots Observer asks of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), “Why go grubbing in muck heaps? … [Wilde] can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.” This reputation was to come to a head in 1895 at Wilde’s trial. Suffice to say, the release of his novel so close to the scandal led to an inextricable link. Upon verdict, it is reported that a cry of “Shame!” ran through the courtroom and, when the accused looked to the judge and asked “May I say nothing my lord?” the so-called honourable Justice Wills waved a hand at the warders merely to stop the man from fainting to the ground.

The ultimate verdict was that “you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind.” So it was to be that on the 25th May, 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted for gross indecency and received the maximum sentence for his crime: two years hard labour.

All that is left to say about the Cleveland Street Scandal is that it has gone down as a cultural keepsake. And although if you were to venture down Cleveland Street now, a search for number 19 would be in vain (the address was stricken from the land register in 1894), the energy of the area lives on in various guises. In Fitzrovia, experience meets art and creativity takes many forms – from sheep in Fitzroy square, to a public-lavatory-turned-coffee-house.

Filmed in Fitzrovia

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Filmed in Fitzrovia