To commemorate Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Trans History Month, BPMA Archivist Helen Dafter examines the Post Office’s past attitudes to homosexuality and homosexual employees.
When thinking of The Royal Mail Archive most people immediately think of stamps, or how letters got from one place to another. It is less common for people to consider how the materials in the archive might reflect wider social history. One aspect of this social history is how the issue of homosexuality was dealt with by the Post Office.
Conduct of staff and how this may reflect on the image of the Post Office was a matter of concern. This was particularly the case with senior members of staff-whose position would have a more direct impact on the overall reputation of the Post Office. One such was the Prosecution of Gustavus Cornwall, Secretary to the General Post Office in Dublin in the late nineteenth century. In July 1884 Cornwall lodged a libel claim against the publication United Ireland for articles printed in May 1884 implying that he was associated with James Ellis French (head of the Criminal Investigation Department in Dublin Castle), and guilty of the same crimes alleged against Ellis. The pattern of this case was similar to that of the case of Oscar Wilde a decade later.
Gustavus Cornwall lost his case for libel on 7 July 1884 and was suspended from duty in the Post Office – a suspension which lasted until his compulsory resignation in August 1885. Shortly after the libel action Cornwall was prosecuted for Felony (Sodomy) and conspiracy with Martin Kirwan (of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers) to “procure others to commit diverse lewd and filthy practices”. He was swiftly acquitted on the Felony charge, but the jury was unable to reach a decision on the conspiracy and he was retried and acquitted in October 1884.
In light of his acquittals Cornwall requested a new trial for the libel case. This was refused in November 1884 and Cornwall appealed. Finally a new trial was granted in May 1885. This trial was only to consider whether the original claims of felony were libellous, it did not address the claims of conspiracy. At this point Cornwall decided that he did not have sufficient funds to pursue a new libel trial and thus failed to take it further.
It was decided that given the circumstances it would not be appropriate to allow Cornwall a pension – despite 45 years of employment by the Post Office. He was advised to resign and offered full pay for the period of his suspension up to 31st July 1885. This decision reflects the impact accusations of this nature could have. Although Cornwall was acquitted of all charges, the fact that the initial libel trial had found against him, combined with the fact that the acquittal on the conspiracy charge was due to insufficient evidence, damaged his reputation seriously enough for the Post Office to cease all association with him, lest it also be tarnished.
Seventy years later the Post Office was still struggling with issues associated with “sexual perversion and indecency”. These issues were wide ranging as outlined in the Ritson Report on Discipline in the Civil Service circa 1955 (POST 122/8049). This report defines sexual offences as “these offences include homosexual offences, indecent assault, indecent exposure, and rape”. Files from this period reflect changing societal attitudes at this time. The shift towards a medical approach to sexual offences begins to emerge, although in correspondence relating to the case of Mr A F Gardner in 1958, a postal employee convicted of “gross indecency and publishing obscene photographs” and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, states that “there is no evidence that homosexuality is in itself a disease, and a person with homosexual propensities will not necessarily respond to medical or psychiatric treatment” (POST 122/8050). These discussions were occurring against the backdrop of the Report of the Department on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Wolfenden Report), published in September 1957 and recommending that homosexual activity, in private, between consenting adults should be decriminalised, and stating that homosexuality should not be regarded as a disease.
While The Royal Mail Archive cannot be said to have a wealth of LGBT material, the material it does hold provide an interesting insight into the attitudes of the Post Office and the wider Civil Service towards homosexuality.