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

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

Katy Maydon

06 Oct 2021
A gay pride march in 1974.
Image Credit: History collection 2016 / Alamy Stock Photo

Officially called ‘The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution’, the Wolfenden report was published on 4 September 1957.

While the report condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive, it ultimately recommended an end to the criminalisation of homosexuality and reform on prostitution laws in Britain.

The report’s recommendations on decriminalising homosexuality came into law in 1967, after facing fierce backlash from certain politicians, religious leaders and the press. The report’s publication marks a pivotal moment in the fight for gay rights in the UK.

Here’s the story of the Wolfenden report.

The 1954 committee

In 1954, a British 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.” It was also tasked with examining “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’. With this rise in prosecutions came an increase in publicity and interest in the topic.

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

High-profile prosecutions

Famous mathematician Alan Turing depicted on an English £50 note, 2021.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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.

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.

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

The front cover of the Wolfenden Report.

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use

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 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.

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

Historian Stephen Bourne, author of 'Fighting Proud', discusses the role of gay servicemen in the world wars and the challenges of publishing gay history.
Watch Now

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.

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.

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 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.

Dominic Sandbrook comes on the podcast to talk through the early 1980s in all their gaudy glory and why this period marks a decisive turning point in Britain's recent history.
Watch Now

Katy Maydon