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The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.
The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.
A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.
These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?
What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.
Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.
In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market.
Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play. So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).
Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton. We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture. While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.
It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment. Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.
As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.
Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place. I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.
So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77? It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:
What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality
If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.
Recently we saw the killer of Sarah Everard receive a whole life sentence for her murder and with the sentence came the usual rhetoric from the politicians and media alike. I could tell you how I feel as a former police officer, but I just don’t think that really matters, others have said it but what they say, undoubtedly with conviction, seems rather hollow. What matters is that another life has been taken as a result of male violence, not just violence, male violence. I don’t disagree with those that want to make the streets safe for women, reclaim the streets, I don’t disagree with the ‘me too movement’, but somehow, I feel that the fundamental issue is being missed. Somehow, I think that all the rhetoric and calls for action concentrate too much on women as victims and looking for someone or some organisation to blame. There seems to be a sense created that this is a problem for women and in doing so concentrates on the symptoms rather than the cause. This is a problem for men and our society. Let’s not dress it up, pretend it could be something else, use terms like ‘not all men’, it is a fact nearly all violence, whether that be against women or men is perpetrated by … you guessed it, men.
I was watching a tv programme the other day about migraines and as it transpires there are millions of migraine sufferers around the world, most are women. It seems as a man I’m in the minority. One of the interviewees, a professor was asked why so little had been done in terms of research and finding a cure. He was frank, if it had been a male problem then there would have been more done. I’m not sure I totally subscribe to that because there are lots of other factors, after all prostate cancer a major cause of male deaths seems to have received comparatively little coverage until recently. But he made me think, if men, particularly those of influence accepted there was a problem would they be inclined to act? We call for more females in policing, we call for more females in the boardroom, predominately because we want to make things look a little fairer, a bit more even. We still have a massive gender pay gap in so many businesses and the public sector, we still have accusations and proven cases of sexual harassment. We still have archaic attitudes to women in so many walks of life, including religion. Words are great, useless but great. If you own the problem, you find solutions, men don’t own the problem and that is a problem.
So, it seems to me, that we are looking in the wrong place. Removing Cressida Dick as the head of the Metropolitan Police service isn’t going to change things. Blaming the police as an organisation isn’t going to change things. Look around you, look at all the scandals, all the sexual offences against women, against children. Look at where the perpetrators are placed in society, in positions of trust, as members of a variety of organisations, organisations that traditionally we thought we could turn to in our need. And look at the gender of those that commit those crimes, almost always men.
The solution to all of this is beyond me. As a criminologist I know of so many theories about why people commit crime or are victims of crime. Some are a little ridiculous but are a product of their time, others fit quite nicely into different circumstances, but none fully explain why. There are no real certainties and predicting who and where is almost impossible. Somehow, we need our leaders, predominately men, to grasp the mettle, to accept this a problem for men. If we owned the problem, we might start to tackle the causes of male violence, whatever they might be. Maybe then we might start to address the symptoms, society will be a safer place, and nobody will need to reclaim the streets.
My colleague @manosdaskalou’s recent blog Do we have to care prompted me to think about how data is used to inform government, its agencies and other organisations. This in turn led me back to the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), later to morph into what some authors called Administrative Management. For some of you that have read about NPM and its various iterations and for those of you that have lived through it, you will know that the success or failure of organisations was seen through a lens of objectives, targets and performance indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). In the early 1980s and for a decade or so thereafter, Vision statements, Mission statements, objectives, targets, KPI’s and league tables, both formal and informal became the new lingua franca for public sector bodies, alongside terms such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘blue sky thinking’. Added to this was the media frenzy when data was released showing how organisations were somehow failing.
Policing was a little late joining the party, predominately as many an author has suggested, for political reasons which had something to do with neutering the unions; considered a threat to right wing capitalist ideologies. But policing could not avoid the evidence provided by the data. In the late 1980s and beyond, crime was inexorably on the rise and significant increases in police funding didn’t seem to stem the tide. Any self-respecting criminologist will tell you that the link between crime and policing is tenuous at best. But when politicians decide that there is a link and the police state there definitely is, demonstrated by the misleading and at best naïve mantra, give us more resources and we will control crime, then it is little wonder that the police were made to fall in line with every other public sector body, adopting NPM as the nirvana.
Since crime is so vaguely linked to policing, it was little wonder that the police managed to fail to meet targets on almost every level. At one stage there were over 400 KPIs from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, let alone the rest imposed by government and the now defunct Audit Commission. This resulted in what was described as an audit explosion, a whole industry around collecting, manipulating and publishing data. Chief Constables were held to account for the poor performance and in some cases chief officers started to adopt styles of management akin to COMPSTAT, a tactic born in the New York police department, alongside the much vaunted ‘zero tolerance policing’ style. At first both were seen as progressive. Later, it became clear that COMPSTAT was just another way of bullying in the workplace and zero tolerance policing was totally out of kilter with the ethos of policing in England and Wales, but it certainly left an indelible mark.
As chief officers pushed the responsibility for meeting targets downwards through so called Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), managers at all levels became somewhat creative with the crime figures and manipulating the rules around how crime is both recorded and detected. This working practice was pushed further down the line so that officers on the front line failed to record crime and became more interested in how to increase their own detection rates by choosing to pick what became known in academic circles as’ low hanging fruit’. Easy detections, usually associated with minor crime such as possession of cannabis, and inevitably to the detriment of young people and minority ethnic groups. How else do you produce what is required when you have so little impact on the real problem? Nobody, perhaps save for some enlightened academics, could see what the problem was. If you aren’t too sure let me spell it out, the police were never going to produce pleasing statistics because there was too much about the crime phenomenon that was outside of their control. The only way to do so was to cheat. To borrow a phrase from a recent Inquiry into policing, this was quite simply ‘institutional corruption’.
In the late 1990s the bubble began to burst to some extent. A series of inquiries and inspections showed that the police were manipulating data; queue another media frenzy. The National Crime Recording Standard came to fruition and with it another audit explosion. The auditing stopped and the manipulation increased, old habits die hard, so the auditing started again. In the meantime, the media and politicians and all those that mattered (at least that’s what they think) used crime data and criminal justice statistics as if they were somehow a spotlight on what was really happening. So, accurate when you want to show that the criminal justice system is failing but grossly inaccurate when you can show the data is being manipulated. For the media, they got their cake and were scoffing on it.
But it isn’t just about the data being accurate, it is also about it being politically acceptable at both the macro and micro level. The data at the macro level is very often somehow divorced from the micro. For example, in order for the police to record and carry out enquiries to detect a crime there needs to be sufficient resources to enable officers to attend a reported crime incident in a timely manner. In one police force, previous work around how many officers were required to respond to incidents in any given 24-hour period was carefully researched, triangulating various sources of data. This resulted in a formula that provided the optimum number of officers required, taking into account officers training, days off, sickness, briefings, paperwork and enquiries. It considered volumes and seriousness of incidents at various periods of time and the number of officers required for each incident. It also considered redundant time, that is time that officers are engaged in activities that are not directly related to attending incidents. For example, time to load up and get the patrol car ready for patrol, time to go to the toilet, time to get a drink, time to answer emails and a myriad of other necessary human activities. The end result was that the formula indicated that nearly double the number of officers were required than were available. It really couldn’t have come as any surprise to senior management as the force struggled to attend incidents in a timely fashion on a daily basis. The dilemma though was there was no funding for those additional officers, so the solution, change the formula and obscure and manipulate the data.
With data, it seems, comes power. It doesn’t matter how good the data is, all that matters is that it can be used pejoratively. Politicians can hold organisations to account through the use of data. Managers in organisations can hold their employees to account through the use of data. And those of us that are being held to account, are either told we are failing or made to feel like we are. I think a colleague of mine would call this ‘institutional violence’. How accurate the data is, or what it tells you, or more to the point doesn’t, is irrelevant, it is the power that is derived from the data that matters. The underlying issues and problems that have a significant contribution to the so called ‘poor performance’ are obscured by manipulation of data and facts. How else would managers hold you to account without that data? And whilst you may point to so many other factors that contribute to the data, it is after all just seen as an excuse. Such is the power of the data that if you are not performing badly, you still feel like you are.
The above account is predominantly about policing because that is my background. I was fortunate that I became far more informed about NPM and the unintended consequences of the performance culture and over reliance on data due to my academic endeavours in the latter part of my policing career. Academia it seemed to me, had seen through this nonsense and academics were writing about it. But it seems, somewhat disappointingly, that the very same managerialist ideals and practices pervade academia. You really would have thought they’d know better.
When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate. I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground. I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going. Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers. And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.
The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic. Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.
This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend. During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me. Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions. Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform.
Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful. ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply. Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around. Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether. After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.
The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever. I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station. Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course. From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.
What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge. We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read. We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently. Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.
As a twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify with the people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but its roots are little longer
Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.
So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….
But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;
‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)
Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:
‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)
It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.
You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives were firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.
This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.
McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:
- National Archives in Kew
- British Library/British Newspaper Library, London
- Metropolitan Police Service Archive, London
- Wellcome Institute, London
- Parliamentary Archives, London
- Libraries of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, London and Edinburgh
- National Archives of Scotland
Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.
It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..
McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), ‘Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]