The Cleveland Street Scandal

The Cleveland Street story is not one of London's best-known scandals. 19 Cleveland Street, on the edge of the City of Westminster, is now part of the footprint of a new block of flats. The original house is long gone.

Just around the corner was once the Central Middlesex Hospital. Up the road is the former workhouse that Charles Dickens reputedly had in mind for Oliver Twist's fruitless request for seconds. The name of the road is taken from the Duchess title given to Charles II's mistress, Barbara Villiers.

Cleveland Street today

By the time the police observation took place in July 1889, the birds had flown. The poice report noted that a number of men "of superior bearing and apparently good position" had been seen visiting the property. But the cause for the observation comprised events elsewhere.

At the General Post Office West at St Martin's-le-Grand, the improbably named Henry Newlove, a teenage telegraph messenger boy, had been groomimg other boys to go and sleep with men at 19 Cleveland Street.

The Post Office building is long gone

One of the boys was Thomas Swinscow. When interviewed by police over the theft of money from the GPO, he was found to have fourteen shillings on him. He earned eleven shillings a week, and his admission of the source of his earnings triggered an investigation. 

The brothel-keeper at Cleveland Street, Charles Hammond, had fled abroad on being tipped off about the interview. Less fortunate was his associate George Veck, aka the Rev. George Veck, who had worked at the St Martin's-le-Grand GPO but had been sacked for improper behaviour with the boys.

In September 1889 Veck and Newlove were committed for trial for procuring boys to commit acts of gross indecency. Veck received a sentence of nine months hard labour, and Newlove four months. The maximum term was two years, so these were considered light sentences.  

Veck, Newlove and the other telegraph boys involved in the goings on (including the equally improbably named Charles Thickbroom) were pond life. It was the higher echelon characters, the alleged consumers of the rent boys' services at Cleveland Street, who aroused gossip in society and the attentions of the press.

Out of these, the one who got the most named attention was `Lord Arthur Somerset, Equerry to the then Prince of Wales and future Edward VII. On hearing of his name being touted around the Clubs of St James's, Somerset fled to Germany, and although he made some short return trips to England, he never settled again to face the music.

In contrast, another titled gentleman did face the music. The Earl of Euston, on hearing of an article alleging that he was a Cleveland Street visitor but had left for Peru, sued the editor of the magazine, Frederick Parke, for false and malicious libel, and won.

But these members of the aristocracy were not the characters who caused the scandal to run and run. The name never published (at least in the UK), but whispered around, was that of Prince Albert Victor, otherwise known as Prince Eddy, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and thus in line to become heir to the throne. 

Prince Eddy was a sad case, reputedly not bright, reputedly not enthusiastic about anything much in life, but nevertheless kind and thoughtful...and easily led. 

There is no decisive evidence that he was a visitor to 19 Cleveland Street, but it was thought that he might have gone there, and that has been enough for the conspiracy theorist commentators ever since.

It did not help Prince Eddy's notoriety that he was linked to the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Ripperologists have conjectured in various ways, one of the leading theories being that Eddy secretly married an East End prostitute and that other prostitutes had to be bumped off to stop them talking.

Eddy survived the scandal, but did not survive long enough to become heir to the throne. In 1892 he died of pneumonia after contracting flu whie out shooting.

At the time of his death he was engaged to Princess Mary of Teck, who went on to marry Eddy's younger brother George, the future King. It has been written that, having learnt more about Eddy after the engagement, Princess Mary was not unhappy about the outcome. 

What seems reasonably clear is that there was a reluctance by the authorities to prosecute above the level of the Vecks and the Newloves. Hammond could have been extradited from the Continent; a warrant for Somerset's arrest on gross indecency charges was only issued after he had cleared his affairs in England and had resigned his Army commission.

The residual impression is of an institutional desire to keep such matters out of the public domain, on the argument that publicity would be damaging to society. In the House of Commons in February 1890, the crusading MP Henry Labouchere accused the Government of deliberately hushing up the affair, but failed to force a vote in favour of a formal enquiry.

It might be fair to give the last word to the writer, H Montgomery Hyde, who has written in authoritative and measured tones on the story. Hyde described London of that time as:

- a world with its royalties and intrigues. of which the Cleveland Street affair was perhaps the most scandalous, a world which vanished with their lives - 

However, scandal is the stuff of life, so we can say confidently that Cleveland Street was merely a chapter in a much bigger story.

Colin Davey is a City of London Guide, City of Westminster Guide, volunteer National Trust Guide, and former City law firm partner.

This article was first published in Westminster News, the magazine of the City of Westminster Guide Lecturers Association. An expanded version of the article is available for delivery as a talk.