For 400 years male homosexuality was a crime in Britain, punishable by years in jail or hanging. Many reputations and lives were ruined. But this report, controversial at the time, helped change not only the law but public attitudes and acceptance
Wolfenden Report, 1957, conclusion
Copyright © The British Library Board
What was the legal status of homosexuality before Wolfenden?
Male homosexuality was made a capital offence in England under the Buggery Act of 1533. (Female homosexuality was never specified.) The first man to be convicted was playwright and schoolmaster Nicholas Udall in 1541, who was imprisoned for a year. The law became permanent in 1563 until replaced by the Offences Against the People Act of 1828.
The death penalty was the punishment until 1861 (1889 in Scotland), though it was only exacted a few times, such as when Methuselah Spalding was hanged for sodomy in 1804. Thereafter punishment became imprisonment for between ten years and life.
Then the law became stricter: the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual act illegal, even in private. Amongst the prosecutions was, most famously, that of Oscar Wilde in 1895.
Why was the Wolfenden Report commissioned?
Arrests and prosecutions for homosexuals had increased since the end of World War II. For example Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped break the German Enigma code and who is generally recognised as the father of modern computer science, was victimised for his homosexuality. Charged with 'gross indecency', he had to choose between prison or hormone treatment. He also lost his job. His death in June 1954 was treated as suicide.
The trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu made headlines the same year. He was found guilty and imprisoned for 'gross offences', though he always maintained his innocence.
This and other cases led the Conservative government to set up a Departmental Committee under Sir John Wolfenden, Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, to consider both homosexual offences and prostitution. The Committee published its report in September 1957, priced five shillings (about the cost of three pints of beer).
What did the report say?
Wolfenden's main conclusion was direct and clear: "We recommend (i) That homosexual behavious between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence".
The second recommendation was: "[We recommend] that questions relating to "consent" and "in private" be decided by the same criteria as apply in the case of heterosexual acts between adults."
Wolfenden clearly took great care to avoid the sort of widespread prejudice of the time, and to reach his conclusions dispassionately. He believed the law's role is to protect the public, not to interfere in private life: "There must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business", he wrote.
The Report caused much controversy and polarisation of views. Indeed, one of the committee members, James Adair, felt compelled to disassociate himself from recommending legalisation. He wrote a lengthy response, included in the final report. He believed that "so soon after two world wars... is not a time when... the approval of homosexual conduct should be introduced", worried about legalisation's "serious effects on the whole moral fabric of social life", and so on.
Other committee members attached their own brief observations at the end, though these were about the details of punishment for various offences in specific circumstances.
What happened in the wake of the Wolfenden Report?
Various individuals, led by Tony Dyson, formed the Homosexual Law Reform Society in March 1958. The government continued to be cautious and a proposal by Kenneth Robinson in June 1960 to enact the Report's recommendations failed by 213 to 99. It was not until February 1966 that Humphrey Berkeley's Sexual Offences Bill was passed in a free vote by 164 to 107. It became law in England and Wales in July 1967.
Homosexuality was not legalised in Scotland until 1980 and Northern Ireland until 1982. The age of consent has since been reduced and is now 16 in England, Wales and Scotland, and 17 in Northern Ireland.
The 2004 Civil Partnership Act allowed same-sex couples who unite in a civil partnership to receive the same pension and tax benefits, immigration, inheritance and property rights as married couples.