Back in 1977, the Newport branch of CHE (that is, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality) approached the town corporation with a proposal to distribute sex education information to schools. Although the branch had a good relationship with the council, even meeting in a room at the municipal hall, the question of providing sex education leaflets dedicated to lesbian and gay youth was one that had only one reply: ‘I’m afraid not’. CHE instead turn their attention to promoting safe environments in Newport, publishing their own newsletter, and working with the South Wales Argus and the local police to provide information in other ways. The episode was a reminder that although CHE had established itself in the town, Newport’s historic record (and, indeed, the county of Monmouthshire in general) on LGBT matters was much less positive.
When researching the article that I recently published in the journal Llafur on homosexuality in Wales across the twentieth century, I was struck by one repeated pattern: the severity of response by the police and courts in Newport and Monmouthshire to anyone caught engaging in ‘homosexual’ activity. This contrasted strongly with evidence elsewhere in Wales, even across the border in more populous Glamorgan. The distinction, it seemed to me, was that whereas crime in a town like Merthyr or Brecon or Carmarthen was tried in a Welsh court, serious crimes in Newport and Monmouthshire were tried by the Oxford Assize circuit. Having done more research, some of which is presented in today’s blog, the pattern I found previously is readily confirmed (albeit with some nuance, which I’ll come to). It seems, in short, that you had a worse time of it in Newport and Monmouthshire if you were caught, than pretty much anywhere else in Wales.
A necessary caveat, before moving on, is that the constabulary records for Newport and Monmouthshire (the town and the county forces, in other words) are much more sparse and less rich than those for Glamorgan, particularly the county constabulary. Annual reports, which provide useful statistical detail on crime, were only produced for Monmouthshire from 1950, for instance. Newport, by contrast, stretches back before the First World War (the set in Newport Central Library begin in 1909). With this in mind, it may well be that what was going on in Newport and Monmouthshire was less severe than the surviving record conveys, but there is no straightforward way of balancing out evidence that has been lost.
In keeping with many towns and cities across Britain – if not all of them – Newport’s police and magistrates were extremely keen to clamp down on drunken behaviour, prostitution, and homosexual activity (as they saw it). In the interwar years, for example, they were especially agitated by the appearance of cheap, high strength cider being imported from the West Country believing that its ‘particularly potent qualities’ were liable to cause public disorder. And during the Second World War, bemusement turned to concern when it was noted that women were attending pubs with greater regularity. This was a problem for landlords who had to build new toilets, but it unsettled the police for a time who believed that ‘women are not only doing men’s work, but are gradually acquiring the habits of men’. The shift proved temporary, however, and within a few years of war’s end, the number of women in Newport’s pubs declined to levels seen before the war.
Public drunkenness, however, got worse. From about 1950 onwards, the annual reports from Newport’s chief constable make continual reference to chaotic public disorder around Christmas and New Year. ‘The police observed many young people of both sexes who had had far too much to drink’, wrote the chief constable in 1950, ‘young women vomited in the main streets and many others had to be assisted along by friends. The usual friendly good humour of Christmas was absent and many people were quarrelsome’. Within a decade Christmas time in Newport was notorious for being ‘a time when people indulge beyond their capabilities’. In 1966, he went one further reporting that ‘some young people are increasingly interested in drug taking’. Similar trends were evident in other parts of Monmouthshire too. The reports there also yield an intriguing parallel with today’s habit of pints and kebabs:
[We have attended] brawls in the many Chinese and Indian restaurants which have opened in recent years. These are open until the early hours of the morning and attract the late night hooligans.
Nuclear-yellow lemon chicken anyone?
Conservative attitudes are, of course, to be expected from the police force, it’s not difficult to imagine the chief constable writing about the kinds of events depicted in Allan Sillitoe or Sid Chaplin novels with the same kind of frustration. And there is very little difference between the chief constable of Newport reacting to public drunkenness, fighting, and drug taking, and the reactions of his colleagues in Cardiff, Merthyr, Swansea, or Glamorgan county. But let’s turn our attention now to the statistics provided for crimes typically associated (certainly in the minds of the police) with homosexual activity. From 1920 to 1936, for example, some 38 individuals were arrested in connection with the two offences and subject to criminal proceedings. This contrasts with Cardiff where around 50 men were. The difference in population, however, provides the context: there were nearly 250,000 Cardiffians by 1931, but Newport was not even half that size. In Merthyr, no-one was arrested during the 1930s and in the 1920s it was little more than a handful of men. The reports are generally silent on this question, providing only the statistical information, so we have no official justification for the disparity. What is clear, however, is the trend remained consistent all the way down to decriminalisation in 1967 – with a particular emphasis in the 1950s and 1960s on attempted crimes.
Why this level of neurosis? It certainly stands out in comparison with the actions of the police elsewhere in Wales, all the more so given the good working relationship between CHE and the Gwent Constabulary in the 1970s and 1980s. (The Gwent force was formed from a merger of the Newport and Monmouthshire police). The 1950s are typically remembered, particularly in London, as the ‘intolerant period’ and it may well be that officers in Monmouthshire and Newport acted more in accordance with the Metropolitan Police than their counterparts across the border in Glamorgan. From 1950 until his death in a car accident in July 1956, the Chief Constable of Monmouthshire was Ronald Alderson. Born in Durham, Alderson had begun his career in Middlesbrough before being promoted to serve as inspector with the Lancaster Borough Force in 1934. In 1942 he was appointed as Chief Constable of the Macclesfield Police, and in 1944 moved to serve as Chief Constable with the Luton Borough Force. Merger between Luton and the Bedfordshire constabulary in 1947 saw Alderson appointed as assistant chief constable. The move to Abergavenny (where the Monmouthshire Force had its headquarters) in 1950 provided him with a return to the office of chief constable.
Although it may place too much emphasis on the chief constable, during his period in office the number of arrests and convictions for sexual offences in Monmouthshire rose sharply. In 1946 just seven men were sent to the Assizes for trial for sex crimes (including, of course, buggery). This expanded to eighteen committals in 1951 and fourteen the following year. The combined total of reports of unnatural offences, attempted unnatural offences, and indecency with other men between 1953 and 1956 stood at 269. The total number of offenders arrested was 113. It was an enormous rise in comparison with earlier periods and with other forces in Wales. In contrast to Matt Houlbrook’s findings in London, then, which ‘suggests that police activity peaked in the late 1940s and was […] actually being relaxed by 1953’ in Monmouthshire it was on the rise. (This should be read in conjunction with the caveats that Houlbrook applies to his evidence, namely that police practices did change and periods are not always directly comparable with each other – but is nevertheless a fascinating piece of evidence.)
To conclude then. It goes without saying that the attitude of the Newport and Monmouthshire police forces requires further examination and archival research, as does the entirety of Wales’s LGBT history. In my original assessment I had considered Monmouthshire to have a more negative record in the policing of homosexuality before 1967 than elsewhere in Wales. The evidence presented above suggests that was accurate and that it can be pushed a little bit more. It’s never a comfortable position to be in to make a negative judgement worse, but in light the evidence I find myself doing just that now that I’m able to fill in details that aren’t present in the Llafur article. For what it’s worth, as I said at the outset of today’s blog, Newport and Monmouthshire in the 1970s and 1980s did experience a shift in attitudes, and for a time in those decades Newport was a destination of choice for LGBT people after a good night out. That that was possible was because of more positive policing, engagement, and organisation amongst the LGBT community.