Pratt and Smith

One hundred and eighty years ago, on 27 November 1835, a crowd gathered outside Newgate Prison in London to witness a macabre, notorious, and historic event - the hanging of the last two men in England to be executed for the 'abominable crime of buggery' (anal sex). Only three months earlier, in late August 1835, James Pratt (30) had said goodbye to his wife and two young daughters at their lodgings in Deptford, and headed off in a routine search for labouring work.

It proved a fruitless quest. Before returning home, Pratt paused for a drink in an ale house. There he met John Smith, also a labourer (40), and William Bonill (sometimes spelt Bonell), aged 68. Neither could offer him a job but their company was hospitable. Bonill invited Pratt and Smith back to his rented flat and they accepted.

Little did Pratt and Smith know, as they made their way to his premises in George Street, Southwark, that this get-together would result in their execution - and that Bonill would be banished to the penal colony of Australia - all within a mere three months of their chance encounter.

Bonhill's landlords, Jane and George (also known as John) Berkshire, disapproved of the behaviour of their tenant, Bonill, who they regarded as an "old villain."

He had been bringing men back to his flat on a regular basis; sometimes twice a day. George was determined to put a stop to these goings-on and get rid of what he regarded as a troublesome lodger.

Shortly after the three men arrived, a suspicious, antagonistic George spied into Bonill's room through a nearby window. A little later, over tea, he told his wife Jane that he saw Pratt sitting on Bonill's knees and then on Smith's. There was much laughing and conversation between them, he said.

Jane crept upstairs and peeped through Bonhill's keyhole. After a brief look, she returned to tell her husband that she had witnessed the men engaging in sexual acts. Enraged, George rushed upstairs and burst into the room to confront Pratt and Smith, who were in a compromising position, according to his account.

At this point, Bonill, who had gone out for a drink, returned and entered the room. An effort to calm down Berkshire was unsuccessful. George went off to seek the police.

Pratt, Smith, and Bonill were soon arrested and taken into custody. Pratt and Smith were charged with 'buggery' and Bonill as an accessory. They went on trial for their lives before Judge Baron Gurney at the Old Bailey on 21 September 1835.

The arresting police officer had no material evidence to support the charge. The prosecution rested solely on the evidence of George and Jane Berkshire. The account that Jane told the jury is questionable. She admitted that she watched the men for less than a minute but claimed to have witnessed them undressing, laying on the floor and the "appearance" that they were committing anal penetration.

She said she saw the men's private parts but did not answer when asked whether either man had an erection. It seems doubtful that the keyhole could have provided the range of vision needed to see what she claimed.

Anatomical descriptions

The testimony of George was very similar to Jane's. It had a whiff of coordination. His evidence supported the charge that buggery had taken place. However, he failed to testify if the men had an erection or if he had seen actual penetration; though he claimed to have sighted their genitals and their bodies in motion.

The anatomical description of intimacy described by George Berkshire would have been very difficult to witness. As in the case with Jane's testimony, the keyhole probably could not have provided a sufficient angle of sight.

Neither James Pratt nor John Smith were allowed to give evidence at their trial. Both pleaded not guilty to the charge. Nevertheless, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

The law against buggery (enacted in 1533 and not repealed until 2003) was based on an interpretation of the Bible that regarded homosexual acts as an abomination and worthy of death; a particularly evil sin that must be severely punished and eradicated. It was a capital crime.

The judge had no hesitation in sentencing James Pratt and John Smith to death. He warned them their chances on appeal were hopeless and they could expect no reprieve. They had to prepare, he said, to receive God's judgement upon departing this life. Both men left the dock in tears.

William Bonill was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia. He died in Tasmania in 1841.

As well as Pratt and Smith, there were many death sentences for different crimes handed down during the autumn 1835. The process of petitioning for clemency and commutation began.

While being held in Newgate Prison, Pratt and Smith were visited by Charles Dickens who wrote that they "had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown. Their doom was sealed." The turnkey whispered to Dickens that they were "dead men."

John Smith, it seems, had no friends. But the friends of James Pratt commenced a vigorous campaign to save him from the gallows. They gathered a substantial petition, whose signatories included the trial prosecutor, former employers, neighbours, and even George and Jane Berkshire, the men's accusers.

All the documents seeking clemency were prepared for presentation to a Privy Council meeting with the King, William IV, to be held in Brighton.

At this meeting, on 24 November, 12 men sentenced to death were reprieved by the King's mercy. Pratt and Smith were not among them. Judge Baron Gurney's warning had prevailed. In their case, the law was to be allowed to take its course. News of the pending execution spread around London, confirmed by the erection of the scaffold outside Newgate Prison.

On Friday 27 November 1835, the two prisoners were taken from their cells and brought to the place of execution, still protesting their innocence. Pratt was weak and had to be helped up the scaffold. The crowd began to hiss, possibly in disagreement with the execution. These were probably the last sounds the men heard.

The hangman pulled the bolt and after a short struggle on the rope Pratt and Smith were dead. They are buried in a common grave, with others executed at Newgate, in the City Cemetery, Manor Park, London, E12.

Petition for pardon

In 2014, Father Frank Ryan, who researched the case and has written a book about it, petitioned the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling MP, to grant a posthumous pardon to James Pratt and John Smith on the grounds that even by the standards of those days their convictions were unsafe. Furthermore, the anti-gay 'buggery' law was unjust. Consenting adult homosexuality should have not been a crime.

In reply, the Justice Ministry regretted the men's execution; acknowledging that it should have never happened but insisting that the conditions for granting a pardon had not been met. This refusal ignores the pardoning in 2013 of Alan Turing for same-sex relations, which has established a legal precedent.

The Justice Minister ought to now review the case and grant a long overdue pardon to James Pratt and John Smith. Justice for these two men has been long delayed but it should not be denied.


The full story of Pratt and Smith is retold in the book, The law to take its course - Redeeming the past, securing our future. It is available as a self-printed manuscript from the author, Father Frank Ryan, for the cost of printing (about £14): fmryan33@hotmail.com

The book and this article are based on Ryan's original research at the National Archives, British Library and London Metropolitan Archives, plus newspapers reports.

For more information about the Peter Tatchell Foundation's human rights work, to receive our email bulletins or to make a donation: http://www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org