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Male Prostitution and the London GPO: Telegraph Boys’ “Immorality” from Nationalization to the Cleveland Street Scandal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2012


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Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 2012

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1 In almost every discussion of the Cleveland Street Scandal, historians focus on the network of peers involved or on the behind-the-scenes agonizing of government officials on how best to deal with arresting one of their own. For a sampling of the extensive historical evocations of Cleveland Street, see Hyde, H. Montgomery, The Cleveland Street Scandal (London, 1976)Google Scholar; Simpson, Colin, Chester, Lewis, and Leitch, David, The Cleveland Street Affair (Toronto, 1976)Google Scholar; Weeks, Jeffrey, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (London, 1981), chap. 5Google Scholar; Aronson, Theo, Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld, 2nd ed. (London, 1996)Google Scholar; Fisher, Trevor, Scandal: Sexual Politics in Late Victorian Britain (Stroud, 1995)Google Scholar; Cocks, H. G., Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2003), 144–53Google Scholar. A notable exception is Kaplan’s, MorrisSodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY, 2005), chap. 3Google Scholar.

2 Joyce, Patrick, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (New York, 2003), introductionGoogle Scholar.

3 See Joyce, The Rule of Freedom; Otter, Chris, “Making Liberalism Durable: Vision and Civility in the Late Victorian CitySocial History 27, no. 1 (January 2002): 115CrossRefGoogle Scholar, “Civilizing Slaughter: The Development of the British Public Abattoir, 1850–1910,” in Meat, Modernity, and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse, ed. Lee, Paula Young (Durham, NC, 2008): 89106Google Scholar, and The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910 (Chicago, 2008)Google Scholar.

4 Joyce, , The Rule of Freedom, 2. See also Michel Foucault’s conceptualizations of governmentality expressed in “Governmentality,” trans. Rosi Braidotti, in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Burchell, Graham, Gordon, Colin, and Miller, Peter (Chicago, 1991), 87104Google Scholar.

5 Joyce, The Rule of Freedom, 4.

6 Otter, Chris, “Making Liberal Objects: British Techno-Social Relations, 1800–1900,Cultural Studies 21, no. 5 (September 2007): 570–90, quote at 572CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Ibid., 572.

8 Ibid., 575.

9 Ibid., and Otter, The Victorian Eye, esp. chaps. 1 and 4.

10 For a comparable study of late Victorian telegraph boys in the United States, see Downey, Gregory, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850–1950 (New York, 2002)Google Scholar. Downey looks at the Nationwide Western Union system across the span of 100 years and argues that telegraph messengers “served different functions at different moments—sometimes working as technological components themselves, sometimes being sold as commodities along with the telegrams they carried, and sometimes acting as agents of change within the technological network itself” (7). This article takes inspiration from Downey in fleshing out the wider significance of telegraph boy labor and the wider machinations of the telegraph system. In the British case, however, the contours of the telegraph and its labor force are bound with the state’s investment in the system (in the United States the telegraph was never nationalized). And in London, the telegraph system, thanks to its messengers, served a unique role in urban male homoerotic communities, an arrangement absent from Downey’s evidence.

11 Houlbrook, Matt, “Soldier Heroes and Rent Boys: Homosex, Masculinities, and Britishness in the Brigade of Guards, 1900–1960,Journal of British Studies 42, no. 3 (July 2003): 351–88, quote at 353CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 For discussion of youth street culture, see Childs, Michael J., Labour’s Apprentices: Working-Class Lads in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Montreal, 1992), chap. 5.Google Scholar; Hendrick, Harry, Images of Youth: Age, Class, and the Male Youth Problem, 1880–1920 (Oxford, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Koven, Seth, “From Rough Lads to Hooligans: Boy Life, National Culture and Social Reform,” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Parker, Andrew, Russo, Mary, Sommer, Doris, and Yaeger, Patricia (London, 1992)Google Scholar; Davin, Anna, Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street in London, 1870–1914 (London, 1996)Google Scholar.

13 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Hurley, Robert (1978; New York, 1990)Google Scholar.

14 To avoid a lengthy historiographic summary, what follows is a handful of the most influential works on the history of Victorian British male homosexuality, with an emphasis on more recent contributions: Weeks, Jeffery, Sex, Politics and Society, and Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual Men, 1885-1967 (London, 1990); Eve KGoogle Scholar. Sedgwick, , Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley, 1990)Google Scholar; Mort, Frank, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830 (London, 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cocks, Nameless Offences; Cohen, Ed, Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities (London, 1993)Google Scholar; Cook, Matt, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914 (Cambridge, 2003)Google Scholar; Brady, Sean, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861–1913 (New York, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Upchurch, Charles, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (Berkeley, 2009)Google Scholar.

15 Foucault, “Governmentality;” Joyce, The Rule of Freedom; Otter, , “Making Liberalism Durable,” “Civilizing Slaughter,The Victorian EyeGoogle Scholar, and “Making Liberal Objects”; Gilbert, Pamela, Mapping the Victorian Social Body (Albany, NY, 2004)Google Scholar; Poovey, Mary, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Gunn, Simon, The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class: Ritual and Authority and the English Industrial City, 1840–1914 (Manchester, 2000)Google Scholar. In addition to Joyce and Otter, see Morus, Iwan Rhys, “The Nervous System of Britain: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age,British Journal for the History of Science 33, no. 4 (December 2000): 455–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for foundational texts on technology and culture, see Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge, MA, 1993), and “Technology Is Society Made Durable,” in A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, ed. John Law (London, 1991), 103–31.Google Scholar

16 Perry, C. R., The Victorian Post Office: The Growth of a Bureaucracy (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1992), chap. 4.Google Scholar

17 Robinson, Howard, The British Post Office: A History (Princeton, NJ, 1948), 403Google Scholar. See also the Reports of the Postmaster General, 1869–1879, British Postal Heritage Museum and Archive (hereafter BPHMA).

18 Perry, The Victorian Post Office, chaps. 4–5.

19 Daunton, M. J., Royal Mail: The Post Office since 1840 (London, 1985), 214Google Scholar.

20 Ibid., 142.

21 Report by the controller, London Postal Section, on the appearance of boy messengers, 27 November 1891, BPHMA, POST 61/7.

22 Letter from metropolitan district surveyor to London controller, 26 January 1876, BPHMA, POST 30/295A, file 4: telegraph messengers’ uniform.

23 See Hilton, Matthew, “‘Tabs,’ ‘Fags,’ and the ‘Boy Labour Problem’ in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain,Journal of Social History 28, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 587607CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hilton argues that working-class boys’ smoking became a serious concern in the 1880s and 1890s after cigarettes became cheaper and widely available. This example demonstrates that boy smoking had a longer history. This telegraph boy was likely smoking a pipe rather than a cigarette.

24 Christmas Boxes,Moonshine, 8 January 1887, 21Google Scholar.

25 “Our Sportsfolio,” Licensed Victualler, no. 21, 20 May 1890.

26 A Telegraph Boy’s Story,Boys Own Paper, no. 697 (1892), 539Google Scholar.

27 For the rules governing telegraph boys’ deliveries, see, e.g., Telegraphs: Instructions for Messengers in London, 1887, BPHMA, POST 68/778.

28 Durham, John, Telegraphs in Victorian London (Cambridge, 1959), 30Google Scholar.

29 A Visit to the Central Telegraph Office,Chums no. 9 (1892), 141Google Scholar.

30 Baines, F. E., Forty Years at the Post Office: A Personal Narrative, 2 vols. (London, 1895), 2:75; “A Visit to the Central Telegraph Office,” 141Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., 2:74.

32 Daunton, Royal Mail, 203.

33 Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, introduction and chap. 1. See also Hindmarch-Watson, Katie, “Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London,GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, no. 1 (2008): 6998, esp. 77, 92, 93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Memorandum to Postmaster General regarding Metropolitan Telegraph Circuits, Rearrangement of 1869 Plan, 8 February 1876. British Telecom (hereafter BT) Archives, POST 30/289B.

35 John Manners to John Tilley, 26 May 1875, BPHMA, POST 35/365, Secretary’s Minutes to the Postmaster General, vol. 143, minute 3368.

36 John Tilley to John Manners, 5 September 1876, BPHMA, POST 35/365, Secretary’s Minutes to the Postmaster General, vol. 158, minute 5521.

37 Response of Postmaster General, 5 September 1876, BPHMA, POST 35/365, Secretary’s Minutes to the Postmaster General, vol. 158, minute 5521.

38 Upchurch, Before Wilde, chap. 4.

39 Cocks, Nameless Offences, introduction and chaps. 1 and 2; for reflections on this phenomenon in relation to Victorian masculinities, see Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain.

40 Petrow, Stefan, Policing Morals: The Metropolitan Police and the Home Office, 1870–1914 (Oxford, 1994), 130CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 “Telegraph Boy Messengers. Immoral Conduct. Reply to Report from the Home Office,” 10 November 1876, BPHMA, POST 35/365, Secretary’s Minutes to the Postmaster General, vol. 158, minute 6898.

42 “The Immoral Conduct of Boy Messengers. Assessment of Mr. Jeffery’s Report,” 5 January 1877, BPHMA, POST 35/368, Secretary’s Minutes to the Postmaster General, vol. 161, minute 149.

43 “Immoral Conduct and Dismissal of Certain boys,” n.d., BPHMA, POST 35/368, Secretary’s Minutes to the Postmaster General, vol. 161, minute 549.

44 Jeffery, “Immorality among Boys. Mr. Jeffery’s Report and Recommendation,” 31 March 1877, BPHMA, POST 30/1052, file 1: Telegraph Messengers, London, Immorality among Boys.

47 This is a standard trope referred to by Victorian historians. For a study detailing specifically with the sexual contexts of environmental contagion, see Mort, Dangerous Sexualities, introduction, 49–54, and 64–66.

48 Jeffery, “Immorality among Boys. Mr. Jeffery’s Report and Recommendation,” 31 March 1877, BPHMA, POST 30/1052, file 1: Telegraph Messengers, London, Immorality among Boys.

53 Ibid. For analyses of late Victorian London’s streets as portals to social and sexual underworlds, see, e.g., Walkowitz, Judith, City of Dreadful Delight (Chicago, 1992), chaps. 1, 3, and 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nord, Deborah, “The Social Explorer as Anthropologist: Victorian Travelers among the Urban Poor,” in Visions of the Modern City: Essays in History, Art, and Literature, ed. Sharpe, William and Wallock, Leonard (Baltimore, 1987), 122–34Google Scholar; Pike, D. L., Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture , 1800–2001 (New York, 2007)Google Scholar.

54 Jeffery, “Immorality among Boys. Mr. Jeffery’s Report and Recommendation,” 31 March 1877, BPHMA, POST 30/1052, file 1: Telegraph Messengers, London, Immorality among Boys.

59 See Cocks, Nameless Offences, 35–36, 61–63.

60 For more examples and analysis of how both those accused of sodomy and the legal system grappled with issues of evidence and corroboration, see Cocks, H. G., “Making the Sodomite Speak: Voices of the Accused in English Sodomy Trials, c. 1800–98,Gender and History 18, no. 1 (April 2006): 87107CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1–3, 89–90.

62 Ibid., 2.

63 A. K. Stephenson to Liddell (Home Office solicitor), 8 February 1877, The National Archives (TNA): HO 144/20/58480A.

65 A. K. Stephenson to Liddell, 23 February 1877, TNA: HO 144/20/58480A.

66 Central Criminal Court April 11,The Times, 12 April 1877, 11Google Scholar.

67 James Smith, first petition to the home secretary, 28 April 1877, TNA: HO 144/20/58480.

69 A. C. Hepburn, memorandum, 16 April 1877, TNA: HO 144/20/58480A.

70 “Telegraph Messengers, London, Immorality among Boys,” “Telegraph Messengers: Eastern Central District Office and Central Telegraph Office,” “Telegraph Messengers. Metropolitan District. Selection of Candidates,” “Telegraph Messengers. Additional Inspector, Appointments Branch, Secretary’s Office for Enquiring into Character and Antecedents of Candidates,” 1877, BPHMA, POST 30/1052.

71 Correspondence re: Badcock, Bruce, Ogilvie et al., 1905–1907, BPHMA, POST 30/903A, Telegraph Messengers Drill: Award of Chevrons, file 4.

72 See, e.g., Deborah Nord, “The Social Explorer as Anthropologist.” For a recent example of the intersections between slumming and sexuality, see Koven, Seth, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton, NJ, 2006)Google Scholar.

73 See BPHMA, POST 120 series.

74 For a broader description of covert police activity in this period in which the Missing Letter Branch/Confidential Enquiry Branch participated, see Porter, Bernard, The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch before the First World War (London, 1987)Google Scholar.

75 Correspondence between Henry Cecil Raikes, Arthur Blackwood and the Treasury, 18–22 November 1889, BPHMA POST 1/219, Treasury Correspondence, vol. 112/270.