Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer, takes a closer look at the private papers of Baron Shackleton cared for and kept by the Parliamentary Archives.
On May 12th 1960, Caxton Hall in Westminster was packed to the rafters. The building had previously held suffragette events & infamously occultist Aleister Crowley performed his ‘Rites of Eleusis’ within its environs. But on this balmy spring evening an unprecedented crowd of a thousand attendees were here for a public meeting of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS). It began with a letter published in The Times two years previously that called on the Government to introduce legislation in accordance with the recommendations of the 1957 Wolfenden Report to decriminalise homosexuality. Special credence was bestowed on the celebrated figures who were the letter’s signatories, including poet Stephen Spender & philosopher Bertrand Russell, with the political spectrum represented by the likes of Clement Atlee & Robert Boothby.
This forthright declaration aroused public opinion and HLRS was formed to act as both a reformist collective and a support system for the homosexual community. Their first chairman was leading sexologist, Kenneth Walker, with many of the Executive Committee coming from the worlds of the literary and ecclesiastical. Soon after the Albany Trust was founded with Chief Executive, Antony Grey coming to prominence for his ability to raise funds for this burgeoning pressure group. Such was the success of their initial parliamentary lobbying that Home Secretary, Rab Butler invited a HLRS deputation for a meeting to air their views.
The HLRS were not just a metropolitan concern and in 1959 they hit the road taking the question of homosexuality on a UK Tour. This campaign into the public domain coincided with a period where some of the nation’s newspapers attempted to quell the rising tide of reform with a number of ill-informed articles on homosexual culture. The provincial meetings were promoted in the new society paraphernalia, which now included a monthly periodical. They engendered a greater level of awareness, allowing potential supporters the opportunity to take up membership.
A collection box went round Caxton Hall on that May evening collecting a handsome sum of £110. The Bishop of Exeter began proceedings with much erudition as you would expect from an Oxford Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology, while the final speaker, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman produced a satirical take on the ‘Minority Problem’. The finale of the night was an almost unanimous vote for changes to laws on homosexuality. However just over a month later the House of Commons voted on the same question, it read, Ayes 99, Noes 213, included on the dissenter list was one, R.A Butler. Seven years later the Sexual Offences Act was passed with the HLRS certainly playing their part. By the turn of the decade there was a new agenda, to lower the age of the consent. This meant a change in name was acquired as the HLRS became the Sexual Law Reform Society.
To mark the 50 year anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act the Parliamentary Archives are putting on 2 talks in July. You can book here, https://soa19july.eventbrite.co.uk and https://soa11july.eventbrite.co.uk