Why was "vice" and sexual scandal a public worry in 1950s London

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HIST30101- Prof. Frank Mort                                                                                                      7334419

Why did “vice” become such a significant focus for public anxieties about London during the 1950s?


There was a significant increase in public anxiety towards “vice” in post-war Britain. In London and Britain there was a widespread perception of a moral and ethical decline. “Vice” was very much a part of this observation. It is necessary to define “vice” as a concept in terms of 1950s London, before a thorough analysis of the increase in public anxiety. “Vice” in terms of 1950s London was the increased prevalence of both the prostitute and the male homosexual. Mort describes ‘London’s notoriety as the “vice capital of Europe” centred on transgressive sexuality.’ The prostitute and the male homosexual were the embodiment of London’s unsavoury reputation in the 1950s.

There are particular characteristics of sexual London in terms of public anxiety which this essay will address. Firstly, the emergence of a sexual geography of London is important for an understanding of the increase in public anxiety in the 1950s. The concept of “vice” and its invasion of public space was an enormous public worry during the period. Urinals, alleys and parks all became a stage for sexual transgression deemed an unacceptable “vice” in the capital. Secondly, the development of sensationalism in the popular press heightened public anxiety of “vice” in the 1950s London. Notable cases of homosexuality and prostitution became a central element of social culture in the post-war capital. Such cases included Lord Montagu, Peter Wildeblood, Michael Pitt-Rivers, Sir John Gielgud and William J. Field, all of which were convicted of committing homosexual acts in the 1950s. Not only did the press seek to out sexual scandal; they actively attempted to define the male homosexual, often in a derogatory way which exacerbated public anxiety in London. Finally, it is also important to consider the impact of both the Wolfenden committee and its subsequent report on prostitution and male homosexuality. The Wolfenden committee is vital because it was the official political response to the perceived problem of “vice” in the capital. Its background and the evidence the committee considered before publication of the official report are significant because it detailed much of the growing public anxiety in 1950s London.

“Vice” and public space

The invasion of prostitution and male homosexuality into London’s communal space was of great concern to the public in the 1950s. The ‘sexual geography’ of London was mapped extensively in the post-war period; the spread of “vice” was perceived as an abhorrent disease, of which a cure was immediately necessary. Gordon Westwood described public opinion of male homosexuality;

The British view homosexuality with the same moral horror today as they always have. The attitude has hardly changed in hundreds of years. It is considered to be something so degraded that even its existence is only acknowledged in the form of pornographic humour or disgusted scorn.

This view was crystallised by public opposition to the sexualisation of London’s streets and public places. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Festival of Britain were noted for their close proximity to London’s “vice” culture. The public urinal, the London park and the West End alley became the focus of popular hostility in the 1950s.

Some of central London’s most well known areas; Kensington Gardens, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park, Victoria, Soho, Bloomsbury and the Strand, provided a platform for “vice” and served to accentuate the perceived moral decline of the capital. Mort highlights these key areas through evidence given from Sir Lawrence Dunn, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate and Sir John Nott-Bower, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to the Wolfenden committee. Dunne described vividly how homosexuals gathered at ‘public lavatories and urinals’ in Soho and Piccadilly, grouping together in ‘nests’. The disgust with which Dunne and Bower described their experience of homosexuality in the public spaces of London was characteristic of a wider public anxiety. Dunne and Nott-Bower consistently pursued the eradication of “vice” in the public sphere of 1950s London.

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Jeffrey Weeks’ statistical analysis of cases of prostitution and homosexuality is also evidence of a purge of sexual London as a consequence of public anxiety. Street offences increased from 2,000 in the early 1940s to over 10,000 in 1952 and 12,000 in 1955. The number of indictable male homosexual offences increased from 134 cases in 1938, to 670 in 1952 and 1,074 in 1954. This dramatic increase was noticed not only through the publicised investigation of the Wolfenden committee, but also through the press sensationalism which developed during the decade. It was also noticed through the social experience of living ...

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