The Wolfenden Report: A Turning Point for Gay Rights in Britain

Katy Maydon

4 mins

06 Jan 2020

Officially called ‘The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution’, the Wolfenden report was published on 4 September 1957. The report recommended an end to the criminalisation of homosexuality and reform on prostitution laws in Britain.

The 1954 committee

A departmental committee consisting of 11 men and 4 women was set up to consider:

The law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences.

and

The law and practice relating to offences against the criminal law in connection with prostitution and solicitation for immoral purposes.

After World War Two there was a rise in prosecutions for crimes related to homosexuality in Britain. In 1952 there were 670 prosecutions for sodomy and 1,686 for gross indecency – along with these came an increase in publicity and public curiosity.

The decision to form this committee, which was tasked with producing a report, came after a number of high profile arrests and prosecutions.

High-profile prosecutions

Two of the ‘Cambridge Five’ – a group who passed information to the Soviet Union during the war – were found to be gay. Alan Turing – the man who cracked the Enigma code – was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952.

Alan Turing, pictured at age 16, was prosecuted for homosexual acts (Credit: Public domain)

Actor Sir John Gielgud was arrested in 1953 and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was prosecuted in 1954. The establishment was under pressure to re-address the law.

Sir John Wolfenden was appointed as chair of the committee. During the time the committee sat Wolfenden discovered his own son was homosexual.

Actor John Gielgud was arrested on 20 October 1953 (Credit: Public domain)

The committee first met on 15 September 1954 and over three years sat 62 times. Much of this time was taken up with interviewing witnesses. Interviewees included judges, religious leaders, policemen, social workers and probation officers.

The committee also spoke to homosexual men, particularly Carl Winter, Patrick Trevor-Roper and Peter Wildeblood.

An instant bestseller

Unusually for a government report, the publication was an instant bestseller. It sold 5,000 copies in hours and was subsequently reprinted a number of times.

The report became an instant bestseller (Credit: Public domain)

The report recommended decriminalising homosexuality. Although it condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive, it concluded that the law’s place was not to rule on private morality or immorality.

It also said that outlawing homosexuality was a civil liberties issue. The committee wrote:

It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.

The report also refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness – but did recommend further research into causes and possible cures.

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In addition to its recommendations on homosexuality, the report recommended increasing penalties for soliciting street prostitutes and making male prostitution illegal.

Becoming law

The recommendations made by the report on prostitution came into law in 1959.

It took a lot longer for the committee’s recommendations on homosexuality to follow suit. The idea of decriminalisation was widely condemned, especially by religious leaders, politicians and in popular newspapers.

The report was commissioned by Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (Credit: Public domain)

Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, the home secretary who had commissioned the report, was not pleased with its outcome. Maxwell-Fyfe had expected the recommendations to tighten control on homosexual behaviour and he took no immediate action to change the law.

The House of Lords held a debate on the subject on 4 December 1957. 17 peers took part in the debate and over half spoke in favour of decriminalisation.

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In 1960 the Homosexual Law Reform Society began its campaign. Its first public meeting, held in Caxton Hall in London, attracted over 1,000 people. The society was most active while campaigning for the reform that finally came into being in 1967.

The Sexual Offences Act

The Sexual Offences Act passed in Parliament in 1967, 10 years after the publication of the report. Based on the Sexual Offences Bill, the Act relied heavily on the Wolfenden report and decriminalised homosexual acts between two men who were both over the age of 21.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was brought in under Harold Wilson’s government (Credit: Alan Warren / Creative Commons)

The Act applied only to England and Wales. Scotland decriminalised homosexuality in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.

The Wolfenden report began an important process that ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.