Summary: The Cleveland Street Scandal occurred in 1889, when a male brothel in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, London was discovered by the police. At the time, sexual acts between men were illegal in Britain, and the brothel’s clients faced possible prosecution and certain social ostracism if discovered. It was rumored that one client was Prince Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and second in line to the British throne. The government was accused of covering up the scandal to protect the names of its aristocratic patrons.
The Scandal: In July 1889, Police Constable Luke Hanks was investigating a theft from the London Central Telegraph Office. During the investigation, a fifteen-year-old telegraph boy named Charles Thomas Swinscow was discovered to be in possession of fourteen shillings, the equivalent of several weeks’ wages. After being brought in for questioning, Swinscow admitted he had earned the money working as a prostitute for a man named Charles Hammond, who operated a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street. According to Swinscow, he was introduced to Hammond by a General Post Office clerk, eighteen-year-old Henry Newlove. After obtaining corroborating statements from two seventeen-year-old boys, Constable Hanks was able to obtain a confession from Newlove.
On the way to the police station, Newlove named Lord Arthur Somerset and Henry FitzRoy, Earl of Euston, as visitors to Cleveland Street.Somerset was the head of the Prince of Wales’ stables. Although Somerset was interviewed by police, no immediate action was taken against him, and the authorities were slow to act on the allegations of his involvement.
On 19 August, an arrest warrant was issued in the name of George Veck. Veck had worked at the Telegraph Office, but had been sacked for “improper conduct” with the messenger boys. A seventeen-year-old youth found in Veck’s London lodgings revealed to the police that Veck had gone to Portsmouth and was returning shortly by train. When the police arrested Veck at Waterloo Station, in his pockets were letters from Algernon Allies of Suffolk. Allies admitted receiving money from Somerset, having a sexual relationship with him, and working at Cleveland Street for Hammond. On 22 August, police interviewed Somerset for a second time, after which, Somerset left for Bad Homburg in Germany where the Prince of Wales was taking his summer holiday.
On 11 September, Newlove and Veck were committed for trial. By this time, the press was referring to “noble lords” implicated in the trial. After pleading guilty to indecency on 18 September, Newlove and Veck were sentenced to four and nine months’ hard labor respectively, lenient sentences for the time. Hammond escaped to France, but the French authorities expelled him after pressure from the British. Hammond then moved to Belgium from where he emigrated to the United States, Somerset’s solicitor paying for Hammond’s passage. On the advice of the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, no extradition proceedings were attempted, and the case against Hammond was quietly dropped.
When Somerset returned to Britain to attend the funeral of his grandmother, Emily Somerset, Dowager Duchess of Beaufort, the Commissioner of Police, James Monro, was pressed to take action against Somerset, but Lord Halsbury, the Lord Chancellor, blocked any prosecution. Because of rumors of Somerset’s involvement in the scandal, on 19 October, Somerset fled back to France. Lord Salisbury was later accused of warning Somerset that a warrant for his arrest was imminent, an accusation Salisbury denied.The Prince of Wales wrote to Salisbury expressing his satisfaction that Somerset had been allowed to leave the country and asking “if Somerset should ever dare to show his face in England again, he would remain unmolested by the authorities.” But Salisbury was also being pressured by the police to prosecute Somerset. On 12 November, a warrant for Somerset’s arrest was finally issued. By then, Somerset was safely abroad, and the warrant caught little public attention. Somerset lived out the remainder of his life in comfortable exile in the south of France.
The affair would have faded quickly from public memory if not for journalist Ernest Parke, the editor of the obscure political weekly The North London Press who began to question why the prostitutes had been given such light sentences relative to their offense (the usual penalty for gross indecency was two years) and how Hammond had been able to evade arrest. His curiosity aroused, Parke found out that the boys had named prominent aristocrats. He subsequently ran a story on 28 September, hinting at their involvement, but without detailing specific names. It was only on 16 November that he published a follow-up story specifically naming Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, in “an indescribably loathsome scandal in Cleveland Street.” He further alleged that Euston may have gone to Peru and that he had been allowed to escape to cover up the involvement of a more highly placed person, who was not named but was believed by some to be Prince Albert Victor. (In September 1889, the prince went on a seven-month tour of British India to avoid the press and trials.)
In fact, Euston was still in England and immediately filed a libel suit against Parke. At the trial, Euston admitted that when walking along Piccadilly, a “tout” had given him a card which read: “Poses plastiques. C. Hammond, 19 Cleveland Street.” Euston testified that he went to the house believing he was to see a display of female nudes. Upon entering the building, Euston said he was appalled to discover the improper nature of the place and immediately left. The defense witnesses contradicted each other and could not describe Euston accurately. The final defense witness, John Saul, was a male prostitute who admitted to earning his living by leading an immoral life and “practicing criminality.” The defense did not call either Newlove or Veck as witnesses and could not produce any evidence that Euston had left the country. On 16 January 1890, the jury found Parke guilty, and the judge sentenced him to twelve months in prison. H. Montgomery Hyde, an eminent historian of homosexuality, later wrote that there was little doubt Euston was telling the truth and only visited Cleveland Street once because he was misled by the card.
Aftermath: Public interest in the scandal eventually faded. Nevertheless, newspaper coverage reinforced negative attitudes about male homosexuality as an aristocratic vice, presenting the telegraph boys as corrupted and exploited by members of the upper class. This attitude reached its climax a few years later when Oscar Wilde was tried for gross indecency as the result of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.
Oscar Wilde alluded to the scandal in The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1890.In a clear reference to the Cleveland Street scandal, one reviewer called it suitable for “none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.” In 1895, Wilde unsuccessfully sued Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for libel. After the failure of his suit, Wilde was charged with gross indecency, found guilty, and subsequently sentenced to two years’ hard labor.
Prince Albert Victor died in 1892, but society gossip about his sex life continued. Some biographers have contended that the prince was bisexual. However, this is strongly contested by others who refer to him as “ardently heterosexual.”
*Abberline was to investigate the Jack the Ripper murders.
This edited and revised post was taken in its entirety from a Wikipedia article about The Cleveland Street Scandal.