More than 180 years ago, in 1835, Pratt & Smith were the last men executed in the UK for sodomy. This event resonates with me despite being so long ago. The UK has made considerable progress on LGBT and human rights, however in many other countries being gay is still a criminal offence. For instance, nearly three quarters of the Commonwealth still criminalises homosexuality – often a relic of colonial law and Victorian mores. I work with many BME people who have fled their countries fearing for their lives, many of them from the Commonwealth. The stories they tell me are as harrowing if not more than that of Pratt and Smith. Father Frank Ryan who has done an enormous amount of research regarding Pratt and Smith. I was both interested to know more about his motivation and reasons for spending so much time and energy in researching Pratt and Smith. So, this is a note of my conversation with Father Ryan.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Portlaoise in 1943 and reared in Dublin. There was ten in our family, and I had a wonderful childhood. I joined a missionary religious order (Oblates) because I thought they did great work helping the poor and disadvantaged, and I haven’t changed my mind. I was ordained nearly 50 years ago, and spent most of my ministry with young people in the UK, 17 years helping the homeless and migrants.
What drove you to research the case of Pratt & Smith?
Drove me is right…The execution of Mahmoud Asgari (16) and Ayaz Marhoni (18) in Iran in 2005 really shocked me. I wondered what kind of species we are when we ritually hang young people for showing affection for each other. God had a plan for them when he willed their birth, and it was not to be left dangling at the end of a rope, or any other kind of violent death. Authorities in Iran called us hypocrites for criticising them, because it was part of our history, too. What a loss to their parents, family, and community.
Why was it important for you to do this research?
For me, the word ‘buggery’ connotes everything that society historically despised and repudiated in men. What a family legacy to be known as the last people to be hanged for buggery. If only I could give them their good name back, if only I could successfully echo their cries of innocence as they mounted the gallows … even after 180 years. I believe the research proves the evidence was not there to bring a ‘guilty’ verdict, even by the standards of 1835. I believe they were killed by the State, because they were considered ‘bad apples’ with the potential to corrupt all the others. The death of Pratt and Smith should not be in vain: they were really the first liberators of the LGBT community, though thousands have been killed for their sexuality since. It must stop.
How much time have you spent on this research?
I have been interested in their case for over 25 years. Active ongoing research five years. I have visited every place (I discovered) they had been. I have visited many museums, consulted locksmiths, the police, walked where they walked, saw what’s left of what they saw, and got thrown out of places by people who were uncooperative. I even had an opportunity to visit the penitentiary in Van Diemen’s Land where Bonell was incarcerated and died. Much thanks is due to the staff in Kew National Archives for making all the documents available including spending many months scientifically restoring the original indictment. Grateful thanks too, to Professors Dr. Harry Cocks, Dr. Matt Cook, and Dr. Charles Upchurch, all experts in LGBT history, for their critical assessment.
What kept you motivated? What did you find frustrating?
Am I allowed to say ‘The Bastards?’ The story begins on a hot August weekend with a happy social encounter aided by a healthy measure of alcohol, but it goes so horribly wrong even Shakespeare would not have dreamed up the script. Britain’s justice system was the envy of the world, with independent layers of authority designed to protect justice. In Pratt and Smith’s case the ‘switches’ controlling those layers were in the ‘off’ position. I took the view that in their case a conspiracy (and it must have been) to pervert the course of justice amounted to a conspiracy to murder, and the perpetrators belonged to the upper-crust of society. I contacted the Royal Archives kept in Windsor Palace to see if the King kept notes on the faithful Privy Council meeting. No records of the meeting. Perhaps Lambeth Palace could help? No help there either. The index of the Prime Minister’ activity, Lord Russell, was held in Kew National Archives and they were prodigious. The amount of work and skill needed to pursue this aspect of their case was beyond my capacity, and the matter rests there. Perhaps most frustrating was failing to trace a next of kin. Even the Ancestry team based at Kew could not help.
What would you like to see happen with your work?
In spite of the changes in legislation, which overall has made society a healthier and safer place, the number of LGBT people being murdered is alarming. Often the brutal and sadistic manners are indicators of a pathological fault in society. This work is not just historical, but it holds a mirror to society which is relevant today. Their journey deserves to be remembered. The content would certainly make a good film or drama event. Perhaps we should be thinking about having an annual commemoration for all those LGBT people who have lost their lives for whatever reason because of their sexuality …… Nov 27th …… the date of their execution would be a good suggestion to start off with. I am sure the time will come when someone ‘famous and with influence’ will propose having a place or memorial where those affected with this kind of tragedy can come and find acknowledgement for their grief.
You considered yourself an ally of LGBT people. Why is it important for you to be an ally?
I hope the time will come, and not far away, when it is no longer appropriate to refer to organisations and people as belonging to the LGBT community because they are totally and indistinguishably part of a holistic society. The negative portrayal of their identity undermines their humanity. The desire to consolidate relationships as in ‘gay marriage’, indicates that equal rights should be available to all of us. History, as in the lived experience of the LGBT community will be the judge of these new steps that society is taking, same-sex marriage was one of them. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say “I walked with them”.
• The full story of Pratt and Smith is retold in the book, The law to take its course – Redeeming the past, securing our future. It is available as a self-printed manuscript from the author, Father Frank Ryan, for the cost of printing (about £14): [email protected]