Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform


This book examines changing perceptions of sex between men in early Victorian Britain, a significant yet surprisingly little explored period in the history of Western sexuality. Looking at the dramatic transformations of the era?changes in the family and in the law, the emergence of the world's first police force, the growth of a national media, and more?Charles Upchurch asks how perceptions of same-sex desire changed between men, in families, and in the larger society. To illuminate these questions, he mines a ...

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Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

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This book examines changing perceptions of sex between men in early Victorian Britain, a significant yet surprisingly little explored period in the history of Western sexuality. Looking at the dramatic transformations of the era—changes in the family and in the law, the emergence of the world's first police force, the growth of a national media, and more—Charles Upchurch asks how perceptions of same-sex desire changed between men, in families, and in the larger society. To illuminate these questions, he mines a rich trove of previously unexamined sources, including hundreds of articles pertaining to sex between men that appeared in mainstream newspapers. The first book to relate this topic to broader economic, social, and political changes in the early nineteenth century, Before Wilde sheds new light on the central question of how and when sex acts became identities.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a very important book. It may even be a historic book. . . . One reads this book with grateful amazement. . . . Breathtaking."--Huffington Post

"Fascinating and informative. . . . Upchurch has set a standard for depth and originality of research and creative social analysis."--Gay City News

"A meticulous study. . . . Illuminating."--Victorian Studies

"A powerful and persuasive account of male-male sexual relations in the age of reform."--Men & Masculinities

"A very fine book. Upchurch's sophisticated work instructively points scholars in new chronological and methodological directions."--Journal of the History of Sexuality

Huffington Post
“This is a very important book. It may even be a historic book. . . . One reads this book with grateful amazement. . . . Breathtaking.”
Gay City News
“Fascinating and informative. . . . Upchurch has set a standard for depth and originality of research and creative social analysis.”
Victorian Studies
“A meticulous study. . . . Illuminating.”
Men & Masculinities - Denis O'Donovan
“A powerful and persuasive account of male-male sexual relations in the age of reform.”
Journal Of The History Of Sexuality - pAuL r. desLAndes University of Vermont
“A very fine book. Upchurch’s sophisticated work instructively points scholars in new chronological and methodological directions.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520280120
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Upchurch is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University.

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Read an Excerpt

Before Wilde

Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

By Charles Upchurch


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94358-2


Families and Sex between Men

The anonymity of urban space has long been viewed as important to the history of sex between men in modern European history, but such anonymity was always limited. Moments of standing alone in a park at night, in front of a picture-shop window, or in a particular kind of public house in anticipation of a sexual encounter with another man were stolen from lives that were lived within family and community networks. Although there was a continuous homosexual subculture from the eighteenth through the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the evidence for sex between men preserved for the first half of the nineteenth century does not relate to it but rather to a much broader group of men whose sexual acts with other men, rather than being separated from the rest of their lives, were relegated to the "twilight moments" within them. For the majority of the existing evidence, the context is the family rather than the molly house.

The family was a site where the transgression represented by sex between men was assessed and where the consequences of those acts were decided. Many situations that eventually became court cases had first been debated and assessed within families, and family interventions long preceded increased state interest in this behavior. Families invariably condemned sexual acts between men when they were made public, and in all recorded cases they also worked privately to separate and sanction men known to be engaging in such acts; but family reactions also varied widely. By understanding patterns in the regulation of sex between men within the family, and how those patterns differed according to class, we can form a clearer picture of how society understood these acts. Although sex between men was almost always treated as a crisis when the families discovered it, its designation as "the worst of crimes" seems accurate only for a minority of the families examined and for a minority of individuals within those families.

Family connections and networks of mutual economic support were essential to individual survival and social status at all levels of British society, especially for the urban working class, whose existence was dependent on continuous wage labor. In an age of rapid economic change and severe limits on labor organizations, a family's economic situation could deteriorate rapidly for reasons beyond its control. Although workers clubbed together in friendly societies and other self-financed insurance programs to insulate their families from shocks in a laissez-faire economy, the most pervasive survival strategy was to employ the labor of wives and children.

Although this use of family economic resources was often a necessity, it undermined the authority of the father as the head of the urban working-class household. It also reduced fathers' already-circumscribed ability to control the marriage choices of their children. The ability to pass on artisan skills and tools, or to arrange for the employment of a son based on a father's position within the community, were both diminished in the urban capitalist economy. In rural communities, various forces had worked to regulate the marriage of the young, to ensure that any new household would be economically viable and lessen the risk that the children would become a burden on the parish. These forms of community supervision of marriage, based in part on the imperatives of a rural subsistence economy with limited geographic mobility, were not replicated in urban centers.

Middle-class individuals were also highly dependent on family for securing their economic position, but here the mechanisms at work tended to increase the authority of middle-class fathers. At the start of the nineteenth century, middle-class men often did not monopolize either the capital or the labor that went into the building of their family enterprises: they relied on their wives to manage smaller businesses and oversee accounts and employees. They also depended on the capital resources and family alliances that women brought with them into a marriage. As the century progressed, however, the size and scale of businesses increased, marginalizing women's participation and increasing the control of the father over the economic life of the family. Likewise, a father's power over his children increased as a son's training in the family business or education for a profession became more dependent on the financial support of the father. Daughters were even more tied to the economic fortunes and good favor of their fathers, dependent as they were on dowries and having no other option for supporting themselves that would allow them to maintain middle-class status.

For the upper-class family, continuity was the overriding characteristic of their experience of the economic changes and urbanization in this period. Although the fear of social revolution was palpable in certain years, only in the 1880s did the broader economic and technological changes that altered the fortunes of so many others in society finally begin to affect the upper classes, primarily through the importation of cheap foreign grain. The expanding economy and empire offered opportunities for younger sons in the military and in the financial sectors, but otherwise it did not greatly affect the relationships within the upper-class family. With social position linked so closely to family connections, most individuals carefully guarded their status within the family. Upper-class individuals were among the few with the wealth necessary to live independently of the labor and support of a family, but almost no one seems to have made such a choice. Even within the anonymous city, therefore, almost no one lived without family connections for an extended period, and few were ever alone for long.

Even among the massive influx of new immigrants to the city, experiences were mediated through the family. For the whole of the period under study, the birth rate in London was lower than the death rate, so that London's steady increase in size over these years was sustained through migration from the countryside. Many working-class migrants practiced forms of serial migration, obtaining housing, social contacts, and information on employment from relatives and friends who had already moved to the city. In this way, cities like London "became studded with little districts, sharing common rural origins ... perhaps spread over two or three streets, as a system of mutual affection, sociability, and support." Professions such as domestic service and policing, unpopular with long-term city dwellers, eased the transition from rural to urban life, as they explicitly recruited employees from the countryside. For many otherwise unconnected rural migrants, these forms of paternalistic employment provided networks of support.

Likewise, prostitutes in central London, once thought to epitomize the isolation of the urban individual divorced from family networks, retained their ties to working-class families and communities to a much greater degree than previously assumed. They did so by separating their work both temporally and spatially from their family lives. The number of prostitutes in the West End of London was never higher than in the nineteenth century, yet many of these women lived elsewhere, mainly in the working-class communities south of the Thames. After engaging in prostitution for a number of years, often as a part of a calculated strategy to avoid more onerous employment in an economy that offered few desirable options to young women, these individuals often became wives and mothers. Scholars such as Judith Walkowitz have shown that the sentimentalized literary depictions of fallen women (replete with remorse, social ostracism, and tragic early death) cannot be taken as a guide to social experience in the early nineteenth century. For prostitutes as for new urban migrants, family ties have been shown to be more persistent and durable than previously assumed.

The effects of urbanization and economic change were also tempered by the persistence of many earlier forms of employment. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the single largest occupational category in London by far was domestic service, which was structured by social relationships that carried over from the eighteenth century. In many trades and professions, especially those catering to the luxury trades of the capital, the small workshop, the live-in apprentice, and the patriarchal relationship between employers and employees remained strong. As Raphael Samuel has argued, the persistence of labor-intensive building techniques extended long into the Industrial Revolution. Although the Crystal Palace was intended as a symbol of the new modern age and built at the midpoint of the century, it was realized largely with labor-intensive techniques such as hand-puddled iron beams and hand-blown glass window panels.

If such a spectacular argument for the modern world as the Crystal Palace was made in 1851, it was in part because only three years before, it seemed as if the lower orders might finally engage in a full-scale revolt against that modern industrial world, which up to that point seemed far more detrimental than beneficial to them. The disputed five million signatures on the Chartist petition of 1848, and the threatened march of tens of thousands of workers on Westminster in that year to demand political inclusion, challenged the viability of the current political structure in Britain and of the laissez-faire relationships that were eroding the previous social forms. That no revolution actually occurred should not diminish our appreciation of the political tensions of those years. There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the new economy in the first half of the nineteenth century and the new forms of social organization that came with it; many, even in the middle class, argued against its worst aspects.

The protected space of the family was consistently invoked as a bulwark against the abuses and excesses of the modern world. The middle-class home, as celebrated in the late eighteenth-century poetry of William Cowper and embraced by the Evangelical middle class, was seen as a refuge from the complexities and immoralities of the modern world. The home preserved the religious and moral values that were under threat elsewhere in society. A properly constituted family, sanctioned by the state and the church through marriage, and secured by the income earned through diligent work in the world, could insulate itself from outside intrusions.

The concept of the home was less private and less inviolate for the working class, but working-class families aggressively resisted attempts by outside authorities to impose regulation on them. Lacking the financial resources that would have allowed more social functions to occur within the home, they placed a higher value on community, with celebrations such as Christmas and Easter being community rather than private family rituals. Yet the working class also invested in rituals of the home, such as the creation of the parlor, when resources allowed. The workhouses were seen as egregious in part because they broke up families, an action justified by the state on the grounds that when individuals abrogated the responsibility of supporting themselves, they lost the right to a private family life as well.

The right of a family to protect its members from the intrusions of the law was also enshrined for the upper classes. The most prestigious families in the realm were entitled to special treatment before the law. Their debts were treated differently from those of others, and their other transgressions before the law might be heard before special juries, drawn only from men of similar status. All levels of society, therefore, in some respects manifested the idea that belonging to a functioning family accorded the individual a degree of protection from the intrusions of the state. The ideal of English liberty was strong: that ideal included the conviction that the power of the state should be limited, and that a wide range of behavior, especially within families, was outside its purview. This was an era long before the extension of state regulation into the sphere of the functioning family, such as in the Education Act of 1870, which sent inspectors into working-class homes. In the first half of the nineteenth century the state was only just beginning to regulate even the level of violence in society that fell short of grievous bodily injury. Involving the state in physical assaults within the family was rare, and most domestic abuse within a marriage was not recognized as criminal. Many of the physical disputes and moral transgressions that happened within families stayed within them and were settled within them.

Because so little attention has been given to the families of the men who engaged in sex between men, it is worthwhile to work through a number of examples. Doing so not only shows the variation between reactions of families of different classes but also illustrates the divisions and conflicts that arose over how to respond once sex between men was brought to light. Sometimes fathers and sons were united in their responses; at other times their reactions were starkly different. At many points wives, mothers, or sisters took the lead in resolving these crises, which seemed to undermine masculine status and power.

These differing responses both within and between families of different class backgrounds can be seen in the series of letters left by the Franklin and Geldart families, written in the months before and after the state ended the relationship between their sons. Thomas Franklin was a railway inspector, and, like many fathers of the time, he attempted to ensure that his seventeen-year-old son Henry would be placed "in an honorable way of getting a living." Thomas had great difficulty in finding a position for his son, though, and could ultimately do no better than obligating him to serve aboard a merchant ship for five years. Henry Franklin was apparently very dissatisfied with this arrangement, and within a short time he had deserted his ship, sold his clothing, and taken to living on the streets in London. Friends of the family reported this outcome to Henry's parents, who had recently moved to Scotland.

The father especially felt that it would be best "to leave him a little time in adversity to see if it would bring him to a sense of duty." It came as something of a shock to the parents when they heard again from London friends that their son was seen to be very well dressed and enjoying a comfortable life. This sudden improvement in Henry's circumstances "created serious suspicion" in the parents, and Henry's mother set off for London to discover what exactly was going on.

The fact that their son seemed to be living beyond his means made his parents "fear evil has befell him, and he has become badly associated." Although they may have worried that he had fallen in with a band of thieves or other rough individuals, the mother's fears were not allayed when, after some effort, she found Henry, and he told her that it was "a gentleman [who] had taken compassion on him." She told her son that "all this looked suspicious, [and] she would not be satisfied until she had seen this gentleman." When the two actually came face to face, the mother's attitude toward the man, Joseph Geldart, mingled cordiality and suspicion. She asked him for his full name, occupation, and address, saying that "if a gentleman, [he] will give me credit for my duty as a caring mother, it carries with it a great suspicion."


Excerpted from Before Wilde by Charles Upchurch. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables


1. Families and Sex between Men
2. Class, Masculinity, and Spaces

3. Law and Reform in the 1820s
4. Public Men: The Metropolitan Police
5. Unnatural-Assault Reporting in the London Press

6. Patterns within the Changes
7. Conclusion: Character and Medicine

Select Bibliography


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