In late 2016 I was sent an article about James Pratt and John Smith, the last two men to be hanged for Sodomy in England; Scotland had long ceased to make men swing for their pleasures.
The author was Fr Frank Ryan, a Jesuit priest with a passion for justice and righting wrongs. It was a fascinating piece which took a forensic scalpel to the admittedly partial record of the trial and proved conclusively to me that the witnesses were lying.
There was an address in Southwark where the men had been arrested (45 George Street) and another in Deptford which had been the home of James Pratt, his wife and two children.
I decided to go in search of the two addresses. The one in Deptford, in Giffen Street, has long since gone. The whole street has gone having been bombed and replaced by the Wavelengths swimming pool. There was no trace of the name George Street.
Cue my friend Stefan Dickers in the Bishopsgate Institute, a mine of information on London history. The Institute had a machine on which you could overlay transparent versions of city maps of various dates and get a kind of palimpsest of the history of an area.
There was indeed a George Street in Southwark, just off Blackfriars Road, which had become Dolben Street, named after a local worthy, some hundred years before.
I went exploring and there on Dolben Street, with the same number, was the house where Pratt and Smith were arrested.
Not quite the same building due to bomb damage I think, but on the end of a row of Georgian houses which certainly would have seen Constable Valentine haul the two men off to the ‘nick’, a couple of hundred yards away.
There is a blue plaque on the wall of No 45, not to Pratt and Smith, though there certainly should be, but to the pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived in the house in the 1790s, unmarried but bringing up her daughter, Fanny.
Peter Ackroyd would have been delighted with the spirit of transgression in the house.
I met Fr Ryan, a delightful old priest with a distinctly anti-authoritarian streak. We visited the site together. And there I got the idea of doing an outdoor celebration community play on the spot where the arrest occurred, and also outside Wavelengths near where Pratt’s house had been.
It was coming up to Pride 2017, and Homo Promos needed to re-establish its connections with the LGBT movement.
I advertised on Mandy and Star Now websites. The Homo Promos company was depleted, and got together ten people.
I did more research and discovered Dickens had written about the men in very opaque language, in A Visit to Newgate in Sketches by Boz.
I cobbled together a script from the sources, plus I added some scenes to give motivation to the characters: James Pratt’s wife, ten years older than he, terrified of conceiving a child at the age of 40 and so refusing sex; William Bonell, nearly 70, eking out his pension by letting lads use his room for sex after they’d met at ‘The George’, the coaching inn.
George and Jane Berkshire, the landlords, worried that the house would get a bad name and other lodgers would leave.
At present, this material is somewhat undigested, although sufficiently factual and imaginative to be styled a docudrama.
I hope to return to it for a more sophisticated full-scale musical treatment on the lines of The Threepenny Opera at some point.
We rehearsed at the Albany in Deptford. The cast was as mixed in ability as you’d expect from a community cast; Pratt (Joe Street) and Smith (James Sheppard) were excellent, as was Anca Vaida as the Prosecutor. She is now doing very well in film.
Nicola Quinn’s shrill outrage as the landlady brought some much-needed relief, her partner Julian Sharpe an effective narrator. Others were less satisfactory. I mustn’t forget the brilliant ballad supplied by Peter Murphy on the accordion, his music nodding to Kurt Weill.
Despite the difficulties, some things worked very well. The sheer physical process of hanging someone quite turned stomachs and the ending litany of the other ‘martyrs’ murdered or killing themselves over the last thirty years was a moving conclusion.
The event was filmed by Tom Cordell, although there was not enough good footage to turn into a proper record of the occasion. We do have, however, the photos.
On the day, we were graced with a former Mayor of Southwark outside George Street, and the Mayor of Lewisham Steve Bullock in Giffen Street. We’d allowed two hours between shows and belted down from Blackfriars to Deptford.
At the first, we lit candles and laid wreaths on the steps of the house; it was met with complete indifference by the locals, despite extensive leafletting, but attracted a solid crown of HP supporters. In Deptford we were waylaid by a load of very rowdy alcoholics which rather spoilt the effect. The Mayor was diplomatically polite.
I am still hoping that one day a blue plaque to these two martyrs will go on the wall of 45 George Street to join Mary Wollstonecraft.
Wollstonecraft wrote: “It is justice, not charity, which is wanting in the world.” And also: “The beginning is always today.”
Peter Scott-Presland (April 2021)
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