LGBTQ+ Voices in history - executions under the Buggery Act

Published
01.07.2021

For the final part of our quartet of blogs looking at LGBT history around the country, we turn to Deptford in South London, where the tragic events that led to the last two executions conducted under the Buggery Act in 1835, unfolded.  

 

In late August 1835, James Pratt, aged 30, said goodbye to his wife and two young daughters at their lodgings in Deptford and headed off in a routine search for labouring work. It proved a fruitless quest.

Broadsheet reporting the execution of Pratt and Smith 1835

Before returning home, Pratt paused for a drink in an ale house. There he met John Smith, also a labourer, aged 40, and William Bonill, aged 68. Neither could offer him a job but their company was hospitable. Bonill invited Pratt and Smith back to his rented flat and they accepted.

 

Little did Pratt and Smith know, as they made their way to his premises in George Street, Southwark, that this get-together would result in their execution – and that Bonill would be transported to Australia.

 

Bonill’s landlords, Jane and George Berkshire, disapproved of the behaviour their tenant, William Bonill, who they regarded as an ‘old villain.’ He had been bringing men back to his flat on a regular basis; sometimes twice a day.

 

Shortly after the three men arrived, George spied into Bonill’s room through a nearby window. He told his wife Jane that he’d seen Pratt sitting on Bonill’s knees and then on Smith’s and there’d been much laughing and conversation between them.

 

Jane then crept upstairs and peeped through Bonill’s keyhole. After a brief look, she returned to tell her husband that she had witnessed the men engaging in sexual acts. Enraged, George rushed upstairs and burst into the room to confront Pratt and Smith, who he later claimed were in a compromising position.

 

At this point, Bonill, who had gone out for a drink, returned and entered the room. An effort to calm down Berkshire was unsuccessful. George went off to seek the police.

 

Pratt, Smith and Bonill were arrested and taken into custody. Pratt and Smith were charged with ‘buggery’ and Bonill as an accessory. They went on trial for their lives at the Old Bailey on 21 September 1835.

 

The arresting police officer had no material evidence to support the charge. The prosecution rested solely on the evidence of George and Jane Berkshire. The account Jane told the jury is questionable and it seems doubtful that the keyhole could have provided the range of vision needed to see what she claimed.

 

The testimony of George was very similar to Jane’s and supported her accusations. Neither James Pratt nor John Smith were allowed to give evidence at their trial. Both pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charge. Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

 

The law against ‘buggery’ was a capital crime and they were sentenced to death (it remained a capital offence until 1861, when the maximum sentence was reduced to life imprisonment). Both men left the dock in tears. William Bonill was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia and died there in 1841.

 

John Smith, it seems, had no friends. But the friends of James Pratt commenced a vigorous campaign to save him from the gallows. They gathered a substantial petition, whose signatories included the trial prosecutor, former employers, neighbours and even George and Jane Berkshire, the men’s accusers.

 

All the documents seeking clemency were presentation to King William IV, but without success. Seventeen individuals had been sentenced to death at the September and October sessions of the Central Criminal Court for offences ranging from burglary to attempted murder. All had their death sentences commuted except for Pratt and Smith.

 

On Friday 27 November 1835, the two prisoners were taken from their cells and brought to the place of execution, still protesting their innocence. The report of the execution in ‘The Morning Post’ stated that when the men were led onto the scaffold the crowd began to hiss, and this continued until the moment of their execution.

 

James Pratt was reportedly too weak to stand and had to be held upright by the executioner's assistants while preparations were made to hang him. After a short struggle on the rope Pratt and Smith were dead.

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