James Pratt and John Smith were the last two men hanged in England for sodomy. Homo Promos, London’s oldest LGBT theatre company, continues its series of Zoom performances this Tuesday with The Keyhole, in ballad form, which follows the journey of James Pratt from his home in Deptford one hot August day, to the house in Blackfriars where he and Smith were caught in flagrante and arrested for buggery. The trial was hasty and the defence botched, and later Dickens visited the condemned men at Newgate Prison. Director and writer Peter Scott-Presland tells us more about the events at 45 George Street in August 1835.
If you turn left from Blackfriars Station and walk towards Elephant and Castle, you come to a modern-looking pub called The Prince William Henry. Turn left down the next street through a new council estate, and Nicholson Street turns into Dolben Street. There on the corner of Chancel Street is No. 45.
The whole area was trashed by bombs in the Second World War, but a little terrace of three Georgian houses survives next to No.45; that house obviously lost its top storey – the window frames are 1950s – but was rebuilt to scale with some of the original bricks. This is the house where James Pratt and John Smith, the last two men to be hanged for sodomy in England, were arrested on 29th August 1835. It was called George Street then.
Imagine a blazing day in an August heatwave. The stench would have been unbearable – this is pre-Bazalgette sewers, and London is bursting with new arrivals; the population has doubled in thirty years and now stands at almost two million. No. 45 had its own stables, so the horses would have added to the stink. But here came 30-year-old James Pratt, who had walked the four miles from Deptford – the house is demolished, but was opposite what is now the Wavelength Leisure Centre – in search of work. He had left at home his wife Elizabeth, ten years older than him, and two kids. On the way he had stopped for a drink or two and met John Smith, also ten years older, an illiterate labourer. I like to think they met at The George Inn in Borough, the equivalent of a bus station, always a popular pick-up place for gay men.
No. 45 was a House of Multiple Occupation ruled over by the managing agents George and Jane Berkshire, who lived on the premises; one of the rooms was rented by William Bonell, 68, who let out his room as an occasional knocking shop. ‘Do James and John need a room? I have just the place…’ No pensions in those days, difficult for older men to get work, you have to make a living somehow…
The Berkshires shopped them, and their evidence was gained by looking through a keyhole into the room – hence the title of the play, The Keyhole. The trial records are preserved, but chaotic, and the examination of witnesses is full of stuff about semen and shit-stained shirt tails and whether such things could have dried in the time available.
The only thing is, it cannot be true, because you could not see what the Berkshires claimed to have seen through a keyhole positioned like this. This makes for an ideal script for a Zoom performance, because the camera acts as a key hole, with its limited view, and the audience can see exactly what the Berkshires could and couldn’t have seen. We will also be testing whether the shit could have possibly dried in the way they said…
The trial lasted less than an hour. There was no defence to speak of. James and John were sentenced to hang, Bonell to fourteen years transportation to Australia, which at the age of 68 is the equivalent of a death sentence. The Judge, Justice Gurney, sentenced an additional eight people to death that day, five of them under eighteen.
The Keyhole fills out the scanty details we have. We know Charles Dickens visited them the night before the hanging in Newgate, though he doesn’t mention them by name in Sketches by Boz:
‘They had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world.’
But any reader would have known who they were and what their crime was. They were as notorious as Dr. Crippen, and their crime regarded as rather worse.
We performed the play originally outside the house as part of Southwark LGBT Pride in 2017, laying flowers and lighting candles outside. The ex-Mayor of Southwark gave a speech in which she promised to support a campaign to get a blue plaque on the wall of the house. This has yet to happen, but there is another plaque already in place – to the pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived here forty years previously, raising a daughter born outside of marriage.
Peter Ackroyd has a theory that there are certain houses or areas which carry a kind of genie of the place, and also form ley lines of similar activities or atmospheres across the city. 45 George Street is clearly in that tradition, a locus of subversion and transgression.
Wollstonecraft said, ‘The beginning is always today’. The martyrdoms continue, in a different form. Come and experience this 185-year-old sacrifice in its up-front and pitiless reality.
The Keyhole is performed on Zoom on Tuesday April 27th at 7.30pm. For technical reasons latecomers will not be admitted.
To watch the performance please use this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88907899633