Section 11 of this piece of legislation – the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 – was used to send Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895, for ‘committing acts of gross indecency with male persons’. Due to the ambiguity in the legislation about what constituted a homosexual act, men who engaged in any homosexual activity were very easily blackmailed and it became known as ‘The Blackmailer’s Charter’. The legislation (also known as the Labouchere Amendment) remained in English law until 1967.
In 1921 MPs attempted to add a clause to a new Criminal Law Amendment Bill being debated at the time which would have made lesbianism into a criminal offence: ‘Any act of gross indecency between female persons shall be a misdemeanour and punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885’.
However, this was ultimately dropped out of concern that legislation would only draw attention to the ‘offence’ and encourage women to explore their sexuality.
The journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchere (1831–1912) was a cynically witty journalist and politician who, in general, took a fairly open, libertarian attitude towards freedoms in society. He was, however, a strong opponent of homosexuality, and pushed for a penalty of seven years of hard labour to be introduced. In practice, as outlined here, the sentence settled on was two years. Hard labour entailed repetitive manual tasks such as walking a treadmill and picking apart the fibres from ropes. By the 1898 Prison Act – just too late for Wilde – it had been decided that two years of hard labour was excessively severe.
On 18 February 1895 John Sholto Douglas (1844–1900), ninth Marquis of Queensberry, and father of Wilde’s one-time lover Lord Arthur Douglas (1870–1945) (‘Bosie’ to his friends), left a Wilde a visitor’s card at his gentleman’s club, the Albemarle. The handwriting was unclear, but it either accused Wilde of being a ‘ponce and somdomite’ [sic] or of ‘posing as somdomite’[sic].
Wilde received the card ten days later, and, encouraged by Bosie, decided to take a warrant against the Marquis for criminal libel. Queensberry entered a plea of justification on 30 March, assembled a case against him with the prosecuting barrister Edward Carson (1854–1935).
Wilde was charged on 6 April, together with Alfred Taylor, owner of a male brothel he had used. His trial was on 22–25 May, and the trial included exchanges in which the achievements literary career – including works such as Dorian Gray – were quoted as evidence against him. The wit of his responses is recorded in Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde (2003), by his grandson, Merlin Holland. Wilde was found guilty on 25 May.
Wilde’s reputation and finances were ruined. The highly successful run of his play The Importance of Being Earnest was brought to a premature end, and his house at 16 Tite Street, Chelsea was given over to the bailiffs to pay legal costs. This meant that Wilde's family possessions, including his library, art collection, and even his children’s toys were sold quickly and cheaply. As a writer and lover of books, he particularly felt the loss of his library and papers. His experience of prison – and his realisation of how much his involvement in the Douglas family’s rows had led him there – is recorded in De Profundis, a long letter to Bosie of which the British Library holds the manuscript.