Father Frank Ryan casts new doubt on the 1835 convictions
The wrongful conviction and execution of James Pratt and John Smith for ‘buggery’ in 1835
by Father Frank Ryan
The last Saturday of August 1835 was a beautiful hot day. James Pratt (30) left his wife and two young daughters in Deptford, searching for work – promising to return by 6pm. He was a labourer and needed a better job.
Pratt first visited his aunt in Holborn, before heading to Blackfriars. His aunt thought he’d had too much to drink and needed a rest, but he pressed on. In an ale house he met John Smith, a labourer aged 40, and William Bonill (sometimes spelled Bonell), aged 68. Neither could offer him a job to improve his financial situation but their company was hospitable. Bonill invited Pratt and Smith back to his rented flat and they accepted.
Little did they know as they made their way to his premises in nearby George Street, that this encounter would result in their execution – and that Bonill would be banished to the penal colony of Australia – all within a mere three months.
The landlords of 45 George Street, Southwark, Jane and George (also known as John) Berkshire, were determined to curtail the activities of their tenant, William Bonill, who they regarded as an “old villain.” He had been bringing male “couples” back to his flat on a regular basis; sometimes two a day. George was determined to put a stop to this practice and get rid of what he regarded as a disagreeable and troublesome lodger.
Shortly after the three men arrived, the suspicious, antagonistic George spied into Bonill’s room through a nearby window. A little later, over tea, he told his wife that he saw Pratt sitting on Bonill’s knees and then on Smith’s. There was much laughing and conversation, he said. Jane slipped upstairs and peeped through Bonhill’s keyhole. After a brief look, she returned to tell her husband that she had witnessed sexual acts. He became enraged, went upstairs and also looked through the keyhole. He then burst into the room to confront Pratt and Smith, who were in a compromising position, according to George Berkshire.
At this point, Bonill, who had gone out for a drink, returned and entered the room. An effort to calm down Berkshire was unsuccessful. George went off to seek the police.
Pratt, Smith and Bonill were soon arrested and taken into custody. Pratt and Smith were charged with ‘buggery’ (anal sex) and Bonill as an accessory. They went on trial for their lives before Judge Baron Gurney at the Old Bailey on 21 September 1835.
The arresting police officer had no material evidence to support the charge. The account that Jane Berkshire told the jury is improbable. She said she watched for less minute but claimed to have witnessed the alleged sex acts, from the men undressing to laying on the floor and the “appearance” of anal penetration. She said she saw the men’s private parts but did not answer when asked whether either man had an erection. It seems doubtful that the keyhole could have provided the range of vision needed to see what she claimed.
The testimony of George was very similar to Jane’s. It had a whiff of coordination. His evidence supported the charge that buggery had taken place. However, he failed to testify if the men had an erection or if he had seen actual penetration; though he claimed to have sighted their genitals and their bodies in motion.
The anatomical description of intimacy described by George Berkshire would have been very difficult to witness. As in the case with Jane’s testimony, the keyhole probably could not have provided a sufficient angle of sight to provide the evidence he imparted to the jury.
Neither James Pratt nor John Smith were allowed to give evidence at their trial. Both pleaded “not guilty” to the charge. Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict.
The law against ‘buggery’ (not repealed until 2003) was based on an interpretation of the Bible that regarded homosexual acts as an abomination and worthy of death; a particularly evil sin that must be severely punished and eradicated. It was a capital crime.
The judge had no hesitation in sentencing James Pratt and John Smith to death. He warned them their chances on appeal were hopeless and they could expect no reprieve. They had to prepare, he said, to receive God’s judgement upon departing this life. Both men left the dock in tears.
William Bonill was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia. He died in Tasmania in 1841.
As well as Pratt and Smith, there were many death sentences for different crimes handed down during the autumn 1835. The process of petitioning for clemency and commutation began.
While being held in Newgate Prison, Pratt and Smith were visited by Charles Dickens who wrote they “had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown, their doom was sealed.” The turnkey whispered to Dickens that they were “dead men.”
John Smith, it seems, had no friends. But the friends of James Pratt commenced a vigorous campaign to save him. They gathered a substantial petition which included the trial prosecutor, former employers, neighbours and even George and Jane Berkshire, their accusers.
All the documents were prepared for a Privy Council meeting with the King, William IV, to be held in Brighton.
On 24 November, 12 men sentenced to death were reprieved by the King’s mercy. Pratt and Smith were not among them. Judge Baron Gurney’s warning had prevailed. In their case, the law was to be allowed to take its course.
News of the pending execution spread around London, confirmed by the erection of the scaffold outside Newgate Prison.
On Friday 27 November, the two prisoners were taken from their cells and brought to the place of execution, still protesting their innocence. Pratt was weak and had to be helped up the scaffold. The crowd began to hiss, possibly in disagreement with the execution. These were probably the last sounds the men heard. The hangman pulled the bolt and after a short struggle on the rope Pratt and Smith were dead.
They are buried in a common grave, with others executed at Newgate, in the City Cemetery, Manor Park, London E12.
In 2014, I petitioned the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling MP, to grant a posthumous pardon to James Pratt and John Smith on the grounds that even by the standards of those days their convictions were unsafe. Further, the ‘buggery’ law itself was unjust. Consenting adult homosexuality should have not been a crime.
In reply, the Justice Ministry regretted the men’s execution, acknowledging that it should never have happened, but said the conditions for granting a pardon had not been met. However, since the pardoning of Alan Turing for same-sex relations has established a legal precedent, hopefully the Justice Minister will, with further pressure, re-examine the case and grant a long overdue pardon to Pratt and Smith.
The full story of Pratt and Smith is retold in the book, ‘The law to take its course – Redeeming the past, securing our future’. It is available as a self- printed manuscript from the author, Father Frank Ryan, for the cost of printing (about £14): firstname.lastname@example.org
The book and this article are based on Ryan’s original research at the National Archives, British Library and London Metropolitan Archives, plus newspapers reports.
This article was written by Frank Ryan, with the assistance of Peter Tatchell.
- Rictor Norton (Ed.), Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 28 March 2015
- Trial at the Old Baily – Full Transcript
- Website Executed Today – 1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain