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Hugo Greenhalgh on the Remarkable Diaries of Mr Lucas

Posted on 4th June 2024 by Mark Skinner

Shining a fascinating light on the gay underworld of 1960s Britain, The Diaries of Mr Lucas records in riveting detail the life and exploits of a seemingly unremarkable civil servant in a society where homosexuality was a criminal offence. In this exclusive piece, journalist and author Hugo Greenhalgh, whose commentary brings insight and context to the diaries, paints a vivid picture of what life was like for those who had to keep their sexuality secret.   

October 18, 1950 (Wednesday): At 6p.m., I was a useful and respected staff officer taking a walk; at 7p.m., I was under arrest for an alleged indecent assault offence with a young German that reported me. So my career as an officer comes to an end, sordidly.

George Leo John Lucas (1926-2014) was a diarist like no other. An unremarkable man, he led a remarkable life. By day, a middle-ranking civil servant in the Board of Trade, but as the sun set over Marble Arch, he became, as he writes, a “furtive night crawler” seeking gay sex in dingy public lavatories and the ravaged parks of a bombed-out London.

Yet what he also does, in keeping a nightly diary, is trace the plight of gay and bisexual men in the pre-dawn days before gay sex was partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. A friend of Mr Lucas’s for more than 10 years, he left the diaries to me in his will, with express instructions for me to publish them in some form.

At times, the diaries are bawdy.  

April 15, 1963 (Monday – Easter Monday): Old fat Charles Niece is an intolerable nuisance at times with his phallomania. When I am told (as tonight) that “such-a-one has got a nice piece of meat” or “a big packet” or a “huge chopper”, my interest in the young man is at once quenched, however attractive in features or conversation.

At others, they are poignant, standing as a unique record of a lost queer London, detailing the plight of many at the time. And, as the opening quote tells us, Mr Lucas faced his own fate in a German park whilst serving as a commissioned officer in the British Army five years after the close of the second world war.

“Importuning with immoral intent” was the trap set at the time for gay and bisexual men. 

A parliamentary question in December 1953 by British Conservative MP William Shepherd to Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, then Secretary of State for the Home Department, revealed that in 1938 there were 822 attempts to commit “unnatural offences” – although this figure covers both indecent assaults and importuning. The same year, the police recorded 320 offences of gross indecency. 

By 1952, the number of reported cases had risen considerably to 3,087 and 1,686 respectively. Of the overall 5,443 offences, including those for sodomy and bestiality – both of which still carried a life sentence – Fyfe records that “about 600 offenders were sent to prison”.  

Attitudes remained fixed – and harsh. Replying to a further question of how many had received the maximum sentence for any of the charges, Fyfe was blunt: “There is no reason to think that these penalties are inadequate.” 

Mr Lucas was sentenced to six months in a military prison in Germany. He served three and was shipped back to Britain in disgrace, his military career indeed ending “sordidly”, as he notes. 

Secular laws policing same-sex behaviour stretch back to the Buggery Act of 1533, introduced under Henry VIII. With a penalty of death by hanging, sentences were carried out up until 1835 when James Pratt and John Smith were executed for sodomy.  

The death penalty was repealed in 1861 under the Offences Against the Person Act. But same-sex love remained very much against strict Victorian sexual mores (despite a heterosexual age of consent of 12 up until 1875). In 1885, Liberal MP Henry Labouchère introduced a last-minute change to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, designed to raise the straight age of consent to 16, bringing in a new charge of “gross indecency” that would stalk queer society for decades to come. 

What constituted gross indecency was left deliberately broad, covering everything except anal sex, and carried a potential sentence of up to two years with or without hard labour. It was under a charge of 25 counts of gross indecency that Oscar Wilde was prosecuted in 1895, eventually receiving the harshest possible sentence of two years’ hard labour. 

The diaries are awash with tales of lives ruined and lives lost under these harsh and unfair laws. But perhaps more pernicious is the climate of fear and prejudice they created within society, ensuring gay and bisexual men remained vulnerable and defenceless. 

There’s the case of George Brinham, the 46-year-old former chairman of the Labour Party, who picked up a 16-year-old in the Strand and “took him to his flat where he made a suggestion to him”, according to the Belfast Telegraph in 1962.

Brinham was later found dead in his basement flat in Kensington having been battered to death by the 16-year-old, Laurence Thomas Somers.

No one comes out of this trial well. Not Brinham with his hankering for young flesh; not the judge, Justice Gilbert Paull, who would eventually move to order the acquittal of the defendant; and certainly not the murderer, Somers himself, who would go on to sell his story in the most salacious – and presumably profitable – way possible. “Union chief is found beaten to death,” screamed the headline in the Daily Herald on November 23, 1962. 

But for Mr Lucas, writing at the end of the trial in January 1963, it was yet further recognition that British society at the time truly hated gay men – and that anyone who sought to harm, or even, kill them, could do so with full impunity. 

January 22, 1963 (Tuesday): We now have it from an eminent judge that for a man to put his arms round a youth and to say ‘give us a kiss then’ is provocation sufficient to justify killing him. Few homosexuals then, are really safe – indeed, it seems that many queers may be killed with impunity if the killer is fairly young. It is rather painful to realise that we are still, not merely subject to criminal prosecution ourselves, but virtually outside the protection of the law … in fact, if not legally, outlaws.

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