No. 274: Cleveland Street, W1
Cleveland Street, London, W1. Photo © Roger Dean 2011
Mike Paterson writing in The London Historians’ Blog, 19 February, 2011:
Regular readers will be aware of the campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. But back in 1889, Cleveland Street became notorious for a scandal that involved the very upper echelons of Victorian Society, including – according to some - the strange-looking prince, Albert Victor, a man who would certainly have become king had his life not been cut short in 1892, aged 28, during the great influenza pandemic. “Eddy” to his nearest and dearest, was the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, hence Queen Victoria’s grandson. He was engaged to Princess Mary of Teck, who went on to marry his younger brother, later George V.
In 1889, a gay brothel at 19 Cleveland Street got busted by the police, led by Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline. What led to the bust was a routine investigation of theft at the General Post Office. Under questioning, one of the GPO clerks confessed that he also moonlighted as a rent boy at a brothel in Cleveland Street. It soon emerged that the GPO was a rich recruiting ground for clerks who were willing to earn something extra outside of working hours.
Brothels, gay or straight, were ten a penny in the Victorian era. What made this story different was the alleged clientèle of the Cleveland Street establishment. The Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Euston were the only aristocracy actually named, along with an obscure army colonel. Somerset fled the country, but Euston successfully sued reporter Ernest Parke of the North London Gazette, who received a 12 month sentence.
The question is whether this was a greater scandal than it appears, or whether we should take it at face value. The suspicion is that there was a closing of ranks among the Establishment on the grounds that: the story was not much covered in the mainstream press until the trial; the two rent boys who were prosecuted were given inordinately light sentences (under a year each, half the norm for these type of convictions); lack of effort to have Somerset either extradited or prosecuted, indeed the Prince of Wales himself attempted to have charges against Somerset dropped.
And Prince Albert Victor? He was never officially named as a visitor of the brothel, but Arthur Newton, the defence lawyer of Somerset and two of the rent boys is thought to be the rumour monger who acted to draw attention away from his clients. Most reputable historians dismiss totally the idea that the prince was in any way involved and certainly private correspondence among his friends and relatives vigorously attest to his heterosexuality. His reputation was impugned during the first half of the 20C by press and historians alike, but all based on circumstantial evidence or impressions, chiefly his rather fey appearance and personality. During his lifetime he was very popular in public and mostly in private too, and his death caused a huge outpouring of genuinely-held grief (his former tutor starved himself to death!).