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Lord Black reviews Chris Bryant's 'James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder'

A public execution at Newgate, London, late 18th century (artist: Thomas Rowlandson) | Image by: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

A harrowing and beautifully told story, Chris Bryant’s meticulously researched book about the last two men to be hanged in Britain for being gay makes for painful reading

The stench of injustice casts a shroud over public life at the moment. Horizon. Infected blood. Hillsborough. Grenfell. Windrush. So Chris Bryant’s superb book about the last two men to be hanged for an “unnatural offence” – being gay – is incredibly timely, chronicling one of the cruellest injustices in British political and legal history.

There are really two brilliant books wrapped into one here. The first is the heart-wrenching tale of two ordinary working men – James Pratt and John Smith – who committed, as one foreign observer put it, a “sin regarded in England as more abominable than any other”. (A third man involved, William Bonell, escaped the gallows but was incarcerated on Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania.) 

We journey with them through the horrors of their last months

At some point on 29 August 1835, Pratt met Smith, a labourer, for an “assignation” at a pub in London’s George Street. A suspicious landlord spied on them. The police were called and the pair arrested.

From that point, we journey with them through the horrors of their last months – vile jail conditions, a sham trial completed “in six or seven minutes” despite it being a capital offence, the death sentence, the terror of the “press yard” (death row), a confirmation hearing at the King’s “Hanging Cabinet” which rejected strong appeals for clemency (despite there being a majority of Whig “reformers” on it) and their appalling end on the gallows on 27 November. It is a harrowing story, beautifully told. It makes painful reading: the faint-hearted should beware. 

James & JohnThe second book is an exquisite social, legal, ecclesiastical and political history of Britain during a period that was both an “era of bloodthirsty prejudice” and of profound change. We learn about everyday life for domestic servants, the ignominy of the workhouse and the horrors of prison. We recoil at the injustice of the legal system, which only began to be reformed after the “judicial murder” of James and John, and took generations to complete. And we get intimately to know London in the 1830s – from Fagin’s Clerkenwell, to the slums of Deptford where James lived, via the “cruising areas” of Hyde Park, the scene of regular entrapment of gay men. It is a fascinating read, meticulously researched.

At the heart of this book is the most terrible injustice – that you were allowed to get away with such “crimes” if you had “high social standing”, but ordinary men like John and James went to the gallows with no legal process and no chance of clemency. 

We may think that such injustice is confined to history. But Bryant reminds us that “the freedoms we enjoy today carry no guarantee of permanence”. At a time when even the ECHR is disgracefully under threat from some in my own party, he is spot-on. We must also remember that in many other countries (some shamefully allowed to remain members of the Commonwealth), fellow human beings still face the death penalty for being gay. For them, as much as for the memory of James and John, Chris Bryant has done outstanding service.

Lord Black of Brentwood is a Conservative peer

James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder
By: Chris Bryant
Publisher: Bloomsbury

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