Monday, 23 April 2012

A Scandal on Cleveland Street

The House on Osborn Street, which features prominently throughout 1888, did not really exist, although many such places really did by the later half of the 19th century.

 I knew it would be necessary for some sort of mutual meeting place to be introduced in Whitechapel, where people could come and go frequently, and where I could tie several character's stories together.

The most interesting way of doing this, was for the meeting place to be a bar for gay men, (although, it would be almost a century before the term "gay" was widely applied to such men, and even the word "homosexual" was virtually unheard of in Britain - an issue I avoided by never having any of the characters identify themselves in any way at all in regards to their sexuality.)

1888 deals with such a wide range of differing sexual identities, it was impossible to resist yet another attack against hypocritical Victorian morality, and thus, The House on Osborn Street was born.

Far and away the most famous example of an establishment for homosexual men, is that of the house at 19, Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, a wealthy district in central London.

Unlike the one on Osborn Street, the Cleveland Street House was a brothel, catering towards upper class gentlemen, and supplying them with working class young men, (for a fee.) The House served spirits and opium and enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest establishments of its kind in all of London, (among those who even knew it existed, of course.)

Homosexual acts between men had always been illegal in Britain, but an 1885 amendment to the standing law, meant that prosecution would be made much simpler and established penalties for those caught perpetrating this crime, (up to two years imprisonment, which may include hard labour.)

In 1889, following a chance revelation from one of the prostitutes working at the House, a team of police officers, led by Inspector Frederick Abberline, (who of course, had made his name the previous winter, by failing to catch Jack the Ripper), raided the Cleveland Street House, and arrested everyone in the building.

The sentences that were eventually handed out, proved to be far more lenient than they could have been, but reputations across London were left in ruins. The scandal became a national sensation, as details of the rich and well connected gentlemen involved in the raid became popular gossip. Lord Arthur Somerset and the Earl of Euston, were two such men claimed to have been regular clients. Rumours whispered that Prince Albert Victor, was another.

Very quickly, the belief arose that homosexuality was a vice of the rich; another means with which to exploit the poor to satisfy the desires of the wealthy. However, the scandal on Cleveland Street was by no means the first such raid - it was simply the one to garner the most attention.

For years similar pubs, clubs and brothels had been raided and countless lives had been ruined by innuendo and speculation. Meeting places such as The House on Osborn Street, knew that in order to survive, a low profile must be maintained.

As its Whitechapel location would imply, The House on Osborn Street is a much more egalitarian affair, catering more to the men of London who are not in such positions of privilege, and while the men who worked and patronised the House, may seem to be among the least likely suspects as far as Jack the Ripper is concerned, they had every reason to fear the police, and hope for their safety that Autumn.

Yours truly,
Charlie Revelle-Smith.

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