The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden report, after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) was published in Britain on 4 September 1957 after a succession of well-known men, including Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, were convicted of homosexual offences.
Under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, any homosexual action between males was illegal. After World War II there had been an increase in arrests and prosecutions, and by the end of 1954, in England and Wales, there were 1,069 men in prison for homosexual acts, with a mean age of 37.:56 Following several sensational trials, notably that of Alan Turing and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the Conservative government set up a Departmental Committee under Sir John Wolfenden to consider both homosexual offences and prostitution.
The committee of 15 (three women and 12 men) was led by John Wolfenden (1906–85) who had previously been headmaster of Uppingham and Shrewsbury and in 1950 became Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading. He later became Director of the British Museum.
In addition to the chairman, the committee members were the following:
- James Adair OBE, former Procurator-Fiscal for Glasgow
- Mrs Mary G. Cohen, vice-president of the City of Glasgow Girl Guides, Chairwoman of the Scottish Association of Girls' Clubs
- Dr Desmond Curran MB FRCP DPM, senior Psychiatrist at St George's Hospital, London and psychiatric consultant to the Royal Navy
- Rev Canon V.A. Demant, Canon of Christ Church, Oxford and Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (an Anglo-Catholic)
- Mr Justice Diplock Recorder of Oxford and High Court judge
- Sir Hugh Linstead, Conservative MP for Putney, and pharmaceutical chemist
- Most Hon. the Marquess of Lothian, a Foreign Office minister
- Mrs Kathleen Lovibond CBE, chairwoman of the Uxbridge juvenile Magistrates' Court and member of the Conservative women's organisation
- Victor Mishcon, solicitor and Labour member of the London County Council
- Goronwy Rees, Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (resigned from the committee in April 1956)
- Rev. R.F.V. Scott, Presbyterian Minister of St Columba's Church, London (Church of Scotland) (resigned from the committee in March 1956)
- Lady Stopford; Doctor and Magistrate
- William T. Wells, Labour MP for Walsall North and Barrister
- Dr Joseph Whitby, general practitioner with psychiatric experience
The committee first met on 15 September 1954 and met on 62 days, 32 of which were used for interviewing witnesses. Wolfenden suggested at an early stage that for the sake of the ladies in the room, that they use the terms Huntley & Palmers after the biscuit manufacturers – Huntleys for homosexuals, and Palmers for prostitutes. Evidence was heard from police and probation officers, psychiatrists, religious leaders, and gay men whose lives had been affected by the law.
The estimated cost of preparing the report was £8,046 of which £735 represented the estimated cost of printing and publication. The secretary for the committee was W.C. Roberts (Home Office) and his assistant was E.J. Freeman (Scotttish Home Department).
Getting gay men to give evidence was of considerable difficulty for the committee: Wolfenden considered placing an advert in a newspaper or magazine, but the committee instead decided to locate three men willing to give evidence: Peter Wildeblood, Carl Winter and Patrick Trevor-Roper. Wildeblood had been convicted and sent to prison. Winter was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Trevor-Roper was a distinguished eye surgeon and brother of the famous historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. In order to protect their identities, Trevor-Roper was referred to as the "Doctor" while Winter was referred to as "Mr White".:41–42
The recommendations of the report
Disregarding the conventional ideas of the day, the committee recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence". All but James Adair were in favour of this and, contrary to some medical and psychiatric witnesses' evidence at that time, found that "homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects." The report added, "The law's function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others... It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour." The recommended age of consent was 21 (the age of majority in the UK then).
The report also discussed the rise in street prostitution at the time, which it associated with "community instability" and "weakening of the family". As a result, there was a police crackdown on street prostitution following the report and the Street Offences Act 1959 was passed.
The report's recommendations attracted considerable public debate, including a famous exchange of views in publications by Lord Devlin, a leading British judge, whose ideas and publications argued against the report's philosophical basis, and H. L. A. Hart, a leading jurisprudential scholar, who provided argument in its support.
In The Enforcement of Morals, Lord Devlin states that the Wolfenden Report "is recognized to be an excellent study of two very difficult legal and social problems". Devlin attacks the principle, derived from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, that the law ought not concern itself with "private immorality", saying that the Report "requires special circumstances to be shown to justify the intervention of the law. I think that this is wrong in principle".
The recommendations eventually led to the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, applying to England and Wales only, that replaced the previous law on sodomy contained in the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and the 1885 Labouchere Amendment which outlawed every homosexual act short of sodomy. The Act did not become law until a decade after the report was published in 1957.
The historian Patrick Higgins has described a number of flaws with the Report: "its failure to understand or appreciate (except in the most negative terms) the importance of the homosexual subculture".:89
It later became known that Wolfenden's son Jeremy Wolfenden was gay.
- LGBT rights in the United Kingdom
- Law reform
- Sodomy law
- Homosexual Law Reform Society
- Age of Consent
- Peter Wildeblood
- Victim – 1961 film starring Dirk Bogarde widely held to have contributed to the liberalisation of cultural and legal attitudes to homosexuality in the UK
- Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, 1957. Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
- Reprinted 1963 as The Wolfenden Report: Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. New York: Stein and Day.
- Eustace Chesser, 1958. Live and Let Live: The Moral of the Wolfenden Report. Taylor Garnett & Evans.
- Charles Berg, 1959. Fear, Punishment, Anxiety and the Wolfenden Report. George Allen & Unwin.
- Devlin, Patrick (1965), The enforcement of morals, London: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-285018-0, OCLC 1934003, 0192850180.
- Grey, Antony (1992), Quest for Justice, Sinclair-Stevenson
- Higgins, Patrick (1996), Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain, London: Fourth Estate, ISBN 1-85702-355-2.