Cleveland Street and the Morally Delinquent Ruling Classes

A. K.  Hughes M.A. (June 2012) Re-edited May 2022

In 1889, GPO messenger boys in London were caught with pockets full of cash and a police investigation revealed a gay brothel at 19 Cleveland Street. Several aristocrats were accused of being customers, and even Prince Albert Victor’s name was brought up several times, by foreign press and domestic gossip. It was illegal for men to conduct sex acts with other men at this time and although some of the boys were prosecuted and imprisoned, the government was accused of a cover up to protect the names of aristocratic customers. The scandal perpetuated a public perception of male homosexuality being an aristocratic vice that corrupted poor, defenceless, common, young boys.  The GPO boys were presented as being exploited by the upper class gentlemen.

One particular participant, Lord Somerset, seemed to get away with his dalliance with rent boys. He avoided arrest and punishment, unlike the boys themselves. Various rent boys were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Lord Somerset was tipped off by the Prime Minister that his arrest was imminent and so he fled the country.  Colin Simpson discusses why Cleveland Street was such a big scandal and caused the problems it did for the upper classes. He claims that the dilemma arose not because of aristocrats corrupting young boys, or being above the law, but because of the gap between tolerance of heterosexual promiscuity and the horror of homosexual prostitution; the latter was not supposed to even exist in Victorian London.[1]  To back this up further Simpson describes the lack of shock in society for Lord Somerset’s father and his well-known liking for prepubescent girls. The peadophile joked horribly about how they were ‘un-ripened fruit’.[2]  F.M.L. Thompson says that the scandal in the eyes of the general public was not the extra marital sex, deceit or debauchery, but the public humiliation or exposure of one of those involved. [3]

A few months after the scandal broke, the front cover of the Police News magazine, widely read by the public, featured a cartoon including a reference to a newspaper editor in trouble for libel. It showed the poignant image of two upper class gentlemen entering the brothel.

Society’s rules of behaviour were taken very seriously at this time. Ranks of gentlemen, peers, esquires,  and new middle-class workers were all expected to comply with a Victorian code of honour; decent gentlemanly behaviour. A Lord and a patrician, above all, was looked up to set a good example and Somerset’s behaviour would have been compared to this code. The rules of manners, etiquette, respectability, accountability, good morals and character were essential to exist successfully. Being seen dallying with rent boys, and later running from the law as he did, is hardly a demonstration of good moral behaviour. ‘Each class had its own rules, standards, culture, and even terminology’ says Brett McKay. [5] They had their own internal hierarchy too. Michelle Perrott points out that respect for the law and good manners became central concerns even for middle classes. She states that ‘the debauchee, the alcoholic, the spendthrift, the deadbeat, the gambler and the swindler were undesirables’. Sanctions and punishments were expected. [6]  Whether Lord Somerset’s behaviour during the Cleveland Street scandal made him look bad as a man or whether it made the class he represented look bad, is difficult to quantify. It may well have made those reading the radical press at the time, questioned the integrity of certain peers and their failure to keep to the moral code.  Lord Somerset, his perverted father and the Earl of Euston had their names mentioned regularly at this time; although the latter successfully sued for libel.  The case study Lord Henry Arthur George Somerset, son of the 8th Duke of Beaufort, his behaviour and preferential treatment are integral to my argument about poor behaviour of the aristocracy, in particular the landed gentry and the hereditary, governing peerage.  

The corruption and conspiracy surrounding the trials relating to the Cleveland Street scandal were clearly documented in the press. Brothel keeper Charles Hammond escaped abroad with financial help from Lord Somerset’s solicitor; no doubt to stop him giving evidence. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, refused to start extradition proceedings from the United States. On 21 May, 1890, the Guardian reported: ‘In the Queen’s bench Division yesterday Mr Justice Cabe passed sentence of six weeks imprisonment on Mr Arthur Newton, solicitor who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defeat justice. It was alleged against the defendant that he had help secure the absence of certain persons from England in the interest of wealthy clients implicated in the Cleveland Street scandal.’[7]  The wealthy client referred to here was, of course, Lord Somerset.

Mike Paterson’s article, ‘The Cleveland Street Scandal’, Rent Boys and the GPO, supports the theory that the closing ranks of the aristocracy created more of a scandal than the actual brothel and homosexuality itself.[8]   The behaviour and treatment of the aristocracy during this scandal, and Somerset in particular, is key to understanding how some of the upper classes saw themselves; superior and above the law. It is clear that the aristocrats named in this homosexual scandal, enjoyed preferential treatment. Simpson says two sides of the scandal damaged the aristocracy: The homosexual element that was almost too hot to handle, and the protecting of friends.[9]

Questioning social differences had already become part of Victorian Britain in the public voices of Edwin Chadwick, the Rowntree family, Charles Dickens and others. Dickens had a  socialist but amorphous message of reform in Oliver, Hard Times and David Copperfield. This could be seen as ‘at odds’ with the ‘Great Man Theory’ many years before Somerset. Peregrine Worsthorne states that since the Industrial Revolution, more people have been concerned about the welfare of the poor and underprivileged.[10]  The Cleveland sex scandal showed the pleasure-seeking aristocracy paying handsomely to fulfil their fantasies, while many Londoners were working long hours in poor conditions.  

Neil McKenna makes reference to the Cleveland Street scandal in, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, where he questions the ‘extraordinary lengths the government of the day went to avoid any whiff of a scandal involving Lord Somerset’.[11]  McKenna puzzles over the amount of letters and effort between various Government departments when dealing with the issue, almost to conspiracy levels. Senior Whitehall figures were running a prolonged and sustained debate over the matter. People from the Solicitor General to the Attorney General and the Home Secretary to the Direct of Public Prosecutions, all seemed to have a say in what was happening. One can ask whether or not Somerset’s close link to the royal family per se was holding some sway. However, McKenna acknowledged that it was actually far more serious than that. In September 1889, Arthur Newton, Lord Somerset’s solicitor announced that any prosecution of his client would result in a very important name being dragged into the scandal. Everyone knew that he meant Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor. The assistant Director of Public prosecutions wrote in a letter, ‘I am told that Newton has boasted that if we go on, a very distinguished person will be involved (P.A.V.)…and one never knows what might be said, be concocted or be true’.[12]

In more private circles Somerset had never denied that Prince Albert Victor was a regular visitor to 19 Cleveland Street but McKenna claims that the Prince of Wales himself was desperate not to see Lord Somerset prosecuted and questioned in court. He knew that this would result in his son Prince Albert Victor being dragged into the scandal.[13]  Somerset had made one or two suggestive remarks about the Prince having to go the brothel to receive things Somerset and the Prince could not help each other with. There was a reluctance to act quickly over the scandal.  Erastes Smith claims that police and government officials were so concerned about the high profile characters of certain alleged customers that they instead started searching for other ‘regular’ clients of the brothel first and that favouritism certainly hampered the investigation. [14]

There are a number of different angles to this scandal, including homosexuality, indiscretion and unfair justice. But the reputation of the aristocracy and its immoral link to Cleveland Street, gave a number of aristocrats a bad name. The public wanted to know if the aristocrats were getting preferential legal treatment and if they were paying boys for sex.  Katie Hindmarch-Watson says that the GPO boys were not blamed in the eyes of the public, who seemed sympathetic, with aristocratic debauchery seen as being forced upon fresh, youthful boys.[15] However, the plight of the boys seemed to have been overshadowed by the involvement of the glamorous aristocrats and what they were getting away with.

In London at this time, the GPO’s telegraphy boys and girls were very well respected, as part of the sexual underground. Homosexuality was portrayed as a seedy aristocratic vice by the press in the aftermath of the Cleveland Street scandal, and during several of the trials. It did much to ruin the reputation of the upper classes. The behaviour of the aristocracy may well have helped reinforce negative attitudes towards homosexuality in Victorian society. The behaviour of Somerset and the Earl of Euston, as well as doubts of the involvement of the Prince Albert helped tarnish the reputation of societies titled. The Earl’s name had been suggested as a regular visitor, although he sued for libel over the matter. Somerset had escaped from England after police interviewed a young man who said he had been paid for sexual activity by the aristocrat. Lord Salisbury had apparently tipped off Lord Somerset about his imminent arrest.

On 16 November 1889, the North London Press printed the latest episode under the title The West End Scandals. The wheels of justice continued in the absence of Lord Arthur Somerset, who was charged in absentia with ‘committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons’. After one fleeting visit, when he wrongly thought the heat was off, he never returned to Britain. He did not face the charges and spent thirty-seven years in his French villa. The charges against him were never lifted.  He ignored pleas from his father to return to England to face the music. Paul Smith claims in his article on the scandal that ‘in the Victorian era, male homosexuality was seen as an aristocratic vice that corrupted lower-class youths. The Cleveland Street scandal reinforced that perception’. [16] As it continued, the preferential treatment of Somerset emerged as the key concern. It demonstrated how ‘special’ the aristocracy really was and how they were treated differently.

The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon was a controversial series of newspaper articles in 1885, serialised in the Pall Mall Gazette.  The sensational headlines made the editor W.T. Stead into a Victorian journalistic hero. A state of moral questioning and panic developed after headlines appeared such as "The Violation of Virgins" and "Strapping Girls Down".  The result of this new sensationalist journalism was the age of consent for girls increasing from 13 to 16, and the re-criminalising of all homosexual acts in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885. The crucial part of this series of articles was the element that blamed the very wealthy men who abused and raped these children. This added to the commoners’ negative attitude towards the rich and privileged, although not directly related to the aristocratic link to Cleveland Street, and a few years before, it certainly gave common folk something to think about. It did nothing to popularise the ruling classes. 

The Cleveland Street scandal, sometimes called the West End scandal, made the newspapers all over the world, demonstrating the seriousness and magnitude of the story.  It made reference to the involvement of the aristocray and called for an openness into court proceedings and an equal treatment of everybody involved. [17]  It was not just Lord Somerset that gave the upper classes a bad name during this scandal. The finger was also pointed at the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. The Radical Northampton MP Henry Labouchere began to investigate Salisbury's role in assisting Somerset escape the judicial process. Referring to the prosecution of Arthur Newton, the solicitor who paid for the brothel keep Newlove to skip the country, and was jailed for perverting the course of justice, Labouchere called for an investigation into Lord Salisbury and others, for letting this happen. As far back as 1862 Lord Salisbury, the aristocratic Prime Minister during the Cleveland Street scandal, had strangely written an article in the Saturday Review, outlining his thoughts on how it was acceptable to lie in order to assist a friend in trouble or a fugitive in danger. Now, during this scandal, his words came back to haunt him. His words, bordering on perjury, demonstrated the low morals of the upper class to the people of Britain.

Labouchere’s line of questioning left no stone unturned. According to Andrew Roberts, Labouchere wanted to know why Salisbury had met with Lord Somerset’s colleague and confidante Sir Dighton Probyn, on 18th October 1889, to warn him that Somerset’s arrest warrant was about to be issued.[18] Scandal developed when people learned that Somerset skipped the country the next day, and once safely out of the way the warrant was issued without any urgency. Somerset’s solicitor Arthur Newton tipped off the brothel-keeper Charles Hammond, who also fled Britain. At trial Newton only got six weeks jail and was not struck off. According to Roberts, Labouchere wrote in his own magazine Truth, that if Newton had been prosecuted, then so must Salisbury and Somerset.[19] Meanwhile, in another example of the aristocracy openly assisting its own, and operating above the law, Salisbury wrote to the Hone Secretary. In this letter he clearly stated that he could see no reason for a case of extradition for Lord Arthur Somerset. Labouchere clearly explained the unfairness of the aristocratic element of the scandal being treated one way, and commoners, a different way. Was Lord Somerset really above the law? This is the picture he was painting for all to hear. ‘I can well understand that there might be an indisposition to bring scandals of this kind before the public, but it must be borne in mind that Ministers have no dispensing powers with regard to the English law, and I hold that they were utterly false to duty when they did not make every effort to bring to justice a man whom they had reasonable ground to believe was guilty of such an offence. It must net be forgotten what has taken place in regard to this case. Two men have been sent to prison, but they are poor’. [20]

 Labouchere’s Commons speech in February 1890 accused Lord Salisbury’s Government of a criminal conspiracy, calling the cover up over the aristocracy’s alleged involvement at Cleveland Street, ‘a criminal conspiracy by the very guardians of public morality and law’.[21] I would argue that Labouchere’s speech, widely reported in the press, did a lot of damage to the long term reputation of the government. He pointed out the real unfairness of the triadic system, educating the nation that Lord Somerset, while a fugitive, remained a magistrate in two counties (using the fact to gain employed on the run on the Continent), and called for the prosecution of the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (himself an aristocrat), for tipping off Somerset that an arrest warrant was going to be released. [22]  Labouchere said ‘ministers have no dispensing powers with regard to the English law’ and reinforced the different treatment between aristocrat and non-aristocrat. He told the house ‘It must net (sic) be forgotten what has taken place in regard to this case. Two men have been sent to prison, but they are poor. Their confidant (Somerset) was left alone’. Labouchere accused Lord Salisbury of being criminal and foolish and that foreign newspapers were calling Britain a nation of hypocrites. Finally, Labouchere, before being expelled from the House for his accusations, announced that the working men of the country ‘are angry that justice has not been handed down fairly, but there is a difference because of rank and social position.’ [23]  Lord Salisbury denied that he had helped Lord Somerset by tipping him off about his arrest warrant. Salisbury’s statement ‘I am quite certain that I never said, as he has been imputed to me, that a warrant was about to be issued the next day…I certainly conveyed no secrets’. [24] Weeks later Sir Dighton Probyn wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to drop the case against Lord Somerset because he was out of the reach of British law and was probably mad anyway. [25] Somerset’s father publicly said he should come back and prove his innocence, as long as there is a thorough and fair trial. This came after several young boys had already had their day in court and their jail terms handed out. Somerset’s father’s public support of his ‘innocent son’ was in stark contrast to the young brothel boys’ custodial sentences. Euston and Somerset’s lack of trial or punishment came despite several young rent boys telling authorities that they frequented the house at Cleveland Street. It must have looked like the commoners’ words were not as respected.  It must have been noticed that only the GPO boys were being punished, not the upper-class customers.

According to the radical newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette, the following morning, Labouchere had accused the Government of hushing up a scandal and making bargains, and questioned officials who had ‘discouraged the police from taking action in the case of Lord Arthur Somerset’. [27] He even accused the Prime Minister of indirectly tipping off Somerset that a warrant for his arrest was about to be issued, allowing him time to escape from England. To reinforce the gravity of the alleged homosexual offences, he reminded the House that ‘Hammond induced boys to come to his house, took them into a room and handed them over to the creature who was going to assault them. I should say that that was being an accessory to an indecent assault’. [28] Many would have assumed that the term creature would have been aimed at Lord Arthur Somerset. Eventually, this radical’s language was deemed to disrespectful and he was suspended form the House.

 There is a third category that needs consideration when examining Somerset’s behaviour. It was not just a slur on him as a man, or on his class as a whole, which we have already established is difficult to separate. The third category is the military. He was a Major in the Royal Horse Guards and one could argue that his bad behaviour brought the army into disrepute. This concern was brought up by Northampton MP Henry Labouchere in February 1890. First he accused high ranking officials of closing ranks to protect Somerset, despite the prosecution of several rent boys. [29]  The Aberdeen Weekly Journal reported he had told the House that, Lord Arthur was a Major in one of Her Majesty’s regiments. Yet he was allowed to resign his commission, and therefore leave the service honourably. He told the House he thought this was ‘an insult to every officer in the army and to every man in the county.’[30]  Labouchere said that the country was anxious the army should remain an honourable and honoured profession.[31]

The public perception of Lord Salisbury, Lord Somerset and the Earl of Euston was no doubt being affected by the radical press, including the Northern Star, the Pall Mall Gazette and The Star. The facts were clear, that an aristocrat who was accused of a crime had escaped abroad, while the commoners in the case had been prosecuted. H.M. Hyde says at that time, the new journal the North London Press, was edited by an intense radical called Ernest Parke who was good at reporting sensational news stories and at providing a ‘ventilation of grievances’ for the lower classes.[32]  Parke questioned the light sentences for the ‘commoners’ in the scandal and suggested a conspiracy theory. Parke had written in his newspaper on 28 September 1889 that two aristocrats had fled the country.[33]  They were named by association as Lord Euston and Lord Somerset; the former sued Parke for libel for writing ‘these men have been allowed to leave the country, and defeat the ends of justice ’.[34]  In fact, Lord Euston travelled abroad but did not flee like Somerset. The damage to the reputation of the aristocrats had been done! The long-term damage to the aristocracy, in these declining years, is difficult to fully assess. To make matters worse, the North London Press further spelt out the unfairness of the situation, to all its readers. In its article ‘Charges of Abominable Crimes Against Peers and Officers’, it was quite forthright. Although the newspaper only had a small circulation, bigger newspapers picked up the story and re-ran it in various forms. In September 1889, it stated… ‘It was a scandal and a disgrace that these things should be …the poor and the humble should have the barest measure of mercy meted out to them. Whilst if only a man be a peer…if he does not evade punishment altogether, it is made light for him as it is possible to make it’. [35]

Christine L. Krueger discusses the public perception of Cleveland Street further, stating how people saw the boys as victims of abuse, and that men like Somerset were central to these allegations. Krueger even suggests the importance of evidence showing the rich and powerful men attempting to bribe their victims to drop charges.[36] Public perception of Lord Salisbury, not forgetting his aristocratic position and the help he supposedly gave to Lord Somerset, was not always positive even before the Cleveland Street scandal. Two years before he was portrayed by Punch magazine as the Greek mythological character Sisyphus, who was punished for being deceitful, forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill, watch it roll all the way back down again, and then repeat it over and over again. [37]  

Overall, the special treatment given to Lord Somerset did nothing to improve the image of the aristocracy as a whole or hereditary peers. In an age of developing democracy and increasing accountability, Cleveland Street played its part in the long-term decline of the aristocracy as a respectable ruling class.



[1]  Colin Simpson et al. The Cleveland Street Affair (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013),11.

[2]  Ibid., Simpson, 11.

[3]   Francis Michael Longstreth, The Rise of Respectable Society, a Social History

       of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 (London: Fontana press, 1988), 308.

[4]   “West End Scandal,” in Police News, (London, 1890), 20/8/2013).

[5]   Brett McKay & Kate McKay “Manly Honor: Part III — The Victorian Era and the

       Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor,” 6 Nov 2012, (accessed


[6]    Michelle Perrot, “The Family Triumphant,” in A History of Private Life from the Fires

        of Revolution to the Great War, eds. Philippe Aries and Georges Duby (Massachusetts:

        Belknap Press, 1990), 149.

[7]  “Summary of Domestic News,” in The Guardian, (London 21 May 1890). (accessed 18/8/2013).

[8]    Mike Paterson, ‘The Cleveland Street Scandal, Rent Boys & the GPO in London

         Historians, 19 Feb2011, (accessed 16/6/2013).  

[9]   Op.Cit., Simpson, 3.

[10] Worsthorne, Democracy Needs Aristocracy, 12.

[11] Neil McKenna, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (London: Arrow, 2004),190.

[12]  Ibid., McKenna,191.

[13]  Ibid., McKenna, 192.

[14]  Erastes Smith, Scandal: Cleveland Street, Unusual Historicals, Apr 2009, (accessed 1/6/13).

[15]  Katie Hindmarch-Watson, “Male Prostitution and the London GPO,”  Journal of British

      Studies 51 (2012), 594.

[16] Paul Smith, “The Cleveland Street Scandal”, May 2012, 

       (accessed 20/5/2012).

[17] “The West End Club Scandal,” in The Otago Daily Times, Issue 8654 (New Zealand,

     1889), (accessed 21/8/2013).

[18] Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: the Titan, revised edition (London: Faber and Faber,

       2012), 546-7.

[19] Roberts, Salisbury, 546-7.

[20] “Commons Sitting, 28 Feb,” Third Series, vol. 341,

        (accessed 10/7/2013).

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  Ibid.

[23]  Ibid.

[24]  “Lord Salisbury’s statement to the House of Lords,” Oct 1889, in H.M. Hyde, Cleveland 

          Street, 94.

[25]   “Sir Dighton Probyn correspondence,” in H.M. Hyde, Cleveland Street, 96.

[27]   “The Government and Mr Labouchere,” in the Pall Mall Gazette, 1 March, 1890,  
   (accessed 5/8/2013).

[28]   “Commons Sitting, 28th Feb,” (accessed 1/8/2013).

[30]  “The West End Scandal, an Extraordinary Scene,” in Aberdeen Weekly Journal (Aberdeen,

         1st March, 1890), (accessed 18/8/2013).

[31]   Ibid.

[32]    Hyde, Cleveland Street, 107.

[33]  “Charges of Abominable Crimes against Peers and Officers,” North London Press, 28   

         September 1898, in Hyde, Cleveland Street, 106-7.

[34]    Ibid., 106-7.

[35]    Ibid., 110-111.

[36]    Christine L. Krueger, Reading for the Law: British Literary History and Gender Advocacy

          (Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press, 2010), 176.