For 400 years male homosexuality was a crime in Britain, punishable by years in jail, deportation or death. Many reputations and lives were ruined. But the Wolfenden Report, controversial at the time, helped change not only the law but public attitudes and acceptance.

What was the legal status of homosexuality before Wolfenden?

The Buggery Act of 1533, passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, is the first time in law that male homosexuality was targeted for persecution in the UK. Sex between men was punishable by death until 1861. Other sentences included imprisonment or transportation to Australia.  The last men executed for homosexual acts were James Pratt and John Smith in 1835.

Despite executions for homosexual activity being outlawed, discriminatory law took a new form in the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, outlawing any homosexual act – whether a witness was present or not. Amongst those prosecuted under the amendment was, most famously, Oscar Wilde in 1895.

Female homosexuality was never explicitly targeted by any legal legislation. 

Why was the Wolfenden Report commissioned?

Arrests and prosecutions for homosexual activity between men had increased since the end of World War II; for many in authority this was a worrying sign.

Authorities feared the possibility of homosexual members of the civil service being blackmailed into giving state secrets to the USSR. This paranoia was magnified with the discovery of the Cambridge Five – a ring of spies who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II – and the realisation that two of the group were gay. This was followed by the conviction of Alan Turing for ‘gross indecency’; at the time of his conviction his role in breaking Enigma was a highly-classified state secret.

Meanwhile, the case of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu – arrested in 1954 for ‘gross indecency’ – resulted in convictions for himself, as well as journalist Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers.

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 homosexuality and prostitution. The Committee published its report in September 1957, priced five shillings (about the cost of three pints of beer).

What evidence was the Report based on?

The committee first met on 15 September 1954 and had 62 meetings in total over three years. Half of these were used for interviewing witnesses. Finding gay men who were willing to give evidence proved difficult though, and an initial idea to place an advert in a newspaper or magazine was rejected in favour of focusing on three men who the committee had selected. These were Carl Winter, Patrick Trevor-Roper and Peter Wildeblood.

What did the Report recommend?

The Wolfenden Committee put together a report, after their three-year enquiry. It was 155 pages long and recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be considered a criminal offence’.

Wolfenden clearly took great care to avoid the sort of widespread prejudice of the time and to reach his conclusions impartially. He believed the law's role was to protect the public, not to interfere in private lives: ‘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 also had implications for street prostitution, with the subsequent passing of the Street Offences Act of 1959. This prevented loitering and soliciting in public places for the purpose of prostitution, and a major police crackdown followed.

The Report caused much controversy within society and amongst some members of the committee. Indeed, committee member James Adair from Scotland, felt compelled to disassociate himself from the recommendations, writing a lengthy response included in the final Report.

Adair expressed concern about the legalisation's ‘serious effects on the whole moral fabric of social life’, stating that ‘so soon after two world wars... is not a time when... the approval of homosexual conduct should be introduced’. Adair’s work would prove crucial in excluding Scotland from legislative change when the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report were implemented into law.

What happened in the wake of the Wolfenden Report?

The Government initially rejected the Report’s recommendations, with leading British judge, Lord Devlin arguing that the law should intervene in acts concerning morality, even if they are conducted in private.

On 7 March 1958, The Times newspaper published an article by academic Tony Dyson, calling for the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations relating to homosexuality to be reconsidered for implementation into law. It was signed by many important figures, including writer J.B Priestly, and brought together members of the Homosexual Law Reform Society which formed shortly after. This would prove to be key to galvanising parliamentary support, leading to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which applied in England and Wales.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland gay and bisexual men would have to wait until 1980 and 1982 respectively, for the same protection in law.


Click here to hear a British Library curator talk about the Wolfenden Report