A Dissertation Project: ‘Sex and Speaker’s Corner’

An assessment of 10, 000 Speaker's Corner Image_1words can seem an extremely daunting process however, once the progress begins and you delve into your individual topic and research, it can become such a rewarding project. My research topic focused on the history of sexuality, and in particular homosexuality within urban spaces. My final research study became ‘Sex and Speaker’s Corner: Separating Law and Morality in 1950’s Hyde Park’.

During the 1950s, a notion emerged that challenged the existing criminal law system. It was believed by some that the criminal law should be separated from concepts of morality. The Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (the Wolfenden Report), created in 1954 and published in 1957 for example, publicly discussed this idea and highlighted the necessity to distinguish homosexuality from a criminal offence. The report raised the concern that homosexual acts were a crime due to their sinful nature, however this did not apply to all ‘sins’. Adultery and fornication were not criminal offences and yet were frowned on by the Church.[1] Although it was not until 1967 that homosexuality in private was legally acknowledged, the 1950s provides an essential decade to consider where both official and public views increasingly recognised and acknowledged ‘homosexuality’ through this separation of law and morality.[2]

As well as examining how the separation of law and morality impacted attitudes towards ‘homosexuality’, I aimed to explore this in relation to Hyde Park and how within a specific urban space, these shifting views and ideas could be recognised. Hyde Park has been known to be a key site for ‘homosexual’ men where individuals could follow their own desires and form their own relationships.[3] But significantly, this park was also intended to be a place of morality and civility, and to promote a ‘pure’ way of life.[4] Hyde Park thus provides an enticing space where different fragments of society came together, and so can be seen to represent a microcosm of London as a whole. Hyde Park mapped the interplay between law and sin; where the law, municipal actions, the public, and homosexual men themselves all met together and intertwined within one specific space. In this area of morality and civility, queer men reassigned meanings to redefine the space for their own desires and purposes, and thus the park was physically a space of both law and immorality.

In order to examine the separation of law and morality within this urban space, analysis focused on the work of the Public Morality Council (PMC). The PMC was formed in the late nineteenth century and aimed to re-establish London’s moral order and remove sexual dangers.[5] But a key sector of their work was a stand in Speaker’s Corner. Throughout the 1950s meetings were held on the PMC stand where the Council hoped to commence a way of life based on Christian ethics, and to work for all that was ‘beautiful and clean, and for life, health and peace in Hyde Park’.[6] The stand acted as a stage where public discussions reflected concerns of morality that echoed throughout the whole city. It can be identified that by the late 1950s discussions of homosexuality had entered public debate. The public were raising questions concerning the morality of homosexual men, and whether they should be accepted and allowed within society.[7] Previous historians have often argued that it was the Wolfenden report published in late 1957 that created a ‘watershed’ in public awareness and attention of homosexuality.[8] However, these sources demonstrate that as these topics were raised in early 1957, the same discussions existed in an environment outside of official discourse.

Using these discussions in Hyde Park, demonstrates not only the significance of the separation of law and morality, but also that an alternate public voice must be considered. Studies such as this enable an understanding of the social and cultural contexts that marginalised groups in society were received in that shaped their experiences for decades to come. Exploring these specific urban spaces enables a closer examination of how queer men experienced society and how the public created and redefined labels and stereotypes that shaped these men’s lives.

[1] [Chairman, Sir John Wolfenden] Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Secretary of State for Scotland, etc. (London, 1957) British Library, p. 10

[2] ‘Sexual Offences Act 1967’, legislation.gov.uk, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/60 [accessed: 21/02/15]

[3] Matt Houlbrook, Queer London. Perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis, 1918-1957, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006) p. 54

[4] Hilary A. Taylor, ‘Urban public parks, 1840-1900: design and meaning’, Garden History, 23:2, (Winter, 1995) p. 211

[5] Council Minutes’, 26/10/1950, Files relating to Hyde Park Meetings, 1944-1949, [also including 1949-1954] Public Morality Council, A/PMC/123, London Metropolitan Archives

[6] ‘Council Minutes’, 26/10/1950, Files relating to Hyde Park Meetings, 1944-1949, [also including 1949-1954] Public Morality Council, A/PMC/123, London Metropolitan Archives

[7] A. Jeans Courtney, ‘Letter to Mr. Tomlinson’, 7/04/1957, Files relating to Hyde Park Meetings, 1954-1961, Public Morality Council, A/PMC/124

[8] Roger Davidson, Gayle Davis, ‘‘A field for private members’: the Wolfenden committee and Scottish homosexual law reform, 1950-1967’, Twentieth Century British History, 15:2, (2004) p. 175