Discovering Life in Wartime London

Jason Green reveals some of his discoveries whilst working on the magistrates records

One of the tasks of the Speak Out London volunteers is to discover and index all offences relating to homosexual “importuning” or acts of”gross indecency” recorded in London magistrates’ records during 1939-1970.”‘Gross indecency” is a legal term taken from the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. Under this law, homosexuality became an illegal activity in the United Kingdom until it was partially decriminalised in 1967. Ironically, these magistrates’ books – and other similar legal records – are often the only documentary evidence we have for tracing the presence and lives of gay and bisexual men during these years. By cataloguing these offences, it allows us to slowly build up not only a map of activity in London, but also a picture of the men behind the statistics.

My starting point was two volumes from the Marylebone Magistrates. The first covered the months April, June and August in 1941; the second volume covered November 1941 and January and March 1942. The police recorders worked initially from loose sheaves of paper, and these were later bound in impressive leather registers. Why the books were bound with alternate months, rather than a simple chronological calendar order, is not known. A quirk of the English legal system?

The entries are handwritten, and usually follow a standard format. Information is recorded in columns. In the first column, the name of the arresting officer or complainant is recorded; in the next the name, age and occupation of the apprehended are noted; the nature of the offence and the relevant piece of legislation breached in the third column; in the fourth the plea recorded (G for ‘Guilty’, NG for ‘Not Guilty’) and in the final column comments are made by the Adjudicating Magistrate as to the outcome of the case. The handwriting is usually an elegant ‘secretary’ style. Standard, presumably legal, phrases are employed when noting the offence. Abbreviations or shorthand are employed. For example, ” DR & DIS” indicates the offender was drunk and disorderly; “3 mths H.L.” notifies a sentence of three months’ hard labour was given. Other notations such as “P.O.A.” are less obvious. (‘Proof of Age’? Grateful for any suggestions.)

One of the first aspects of the registers I noticed is their stiff, quaintly formal language – “therein”, “during the hours of darkness”, “to wit”, “feloniously” and my personal favourite, “burglariously”. In addition, some remarks are quite convoluted or clumsy – “stealing from the person of some person unknown” or “did unlawfully knowingly make a statement false in a material particular to wit”. After a while, however, you become accustomed to the style of language.

The volumes present a fascinating, partial glimpse of day-to-day existence in London during the early years of WW2. They also contain traces of a life now long vanished. For example, many of the occupations recorded are wonderfully old-fashioned – Furnace Man, Hosiery Merchant, Tailoress, Greengrocer’s boy – as well as reflecting a pre-automated age – Sheet Fitter, Pipe Bender, Coilwinder.

It is perhaps not surprising that theft is the principal crime recorded. Cigarettes, tinned goods (what is “beef extract”?), soap and chocolate are the property most frequently stolen, as well as – curiously – clothing, bedlinen and towels. I was initially puzzled by the theft of these last mundane articles. Why would you steal someone’s towels? But soon realised this showed the shortage of such items during a time of rationing and deprivation, as well as indicating a thriving black market for them. The suitcase of one man contained “six eggs, 4lbs 2ozs beef, 11ozs of mutton, three lbs of beef and other articles suspected of being stolen”. The two teenage women caught stealing bowls of facial powder and “rouge puffs” have my sympathy. The frequency in which pairs of gloves are stolen – even during the Spring and Summer months – particularly struck me, and shows how standards of dress back then are so different to our own. Ration books and National Registration Identity Cards also feature among those items most regularly received. Some of the more stranger items include two pairs of pince-nez in their cases, a music stool and an “elephant bell”. It is perhaps indicative of the desperation of many people that they had been caught stealing from their employers. William Whiteleys in Bayswater and Marks & Spencer near Paddington station were clearly popular targets for the light-fingered.

People were also taken in on the suspicion that they intend to commit a felony. Individuals or groups of men (it was overwhelmingly always men) are discovered in enclosed gardens or hanging around streets or squares during the night. Their ‘intent’ given away by carrying with them an assortment of “implements of housebreaking” such as crow bars, pliers, bunches of keys, and jimmys. Looting was also an issue with people found on premises exposed by war damage. On two separate occasions, men were caught breaking into Madame Tussards.

An aspect of wartime life which I was unaware was revealed by the registers. There was a nighttime curfew imposed on “foreign nationals” resident in London during this period. This was the result of the Aliens Movement Restrictions Order 1940. Between midnight and 6am, “aliens” were required to remain in their homes. The volumes are littered with entries recording those who were caught breaking this curfew. Interestingly, these allow us to have some idea of the many different nationalities living in London during this time – Indian, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, “Arab”, Polish and Hungarian, among many others – showing that London has always been a multicultural melting-pot.

Identity was obviously important during this time of suspicion and alertness about national security. There are a number of instances in the volumes of men ‘impersonating’ military personnel. In the words of one such case: “Wearing [the] uniform of [a] seaman calculated falsely to suggest that they were members of H.M. Royal Navy”.  According to another entry, one ‘officer’ has gone to the trouble of decorating himself with medals, in particular the “Distinguished Flying Corps ‘Palestinian Medal'”. A “Czecho-Slovakian” woman, and her male partner, are brought in on account of them trying to pass her off as presumably English with a fake English-sounding name. Men and women loitering or “wandering abroad”, and who were unable to give “a good account of themselves” (wonderful phrase!), are also taken in. Desertion or absenteeism from the armed forces is perhaps the second most frequently recorded offence during this time. While most of those detained are male, there are one or two cases of women who have not returned to their military duties.

Darker, more troubling offences also emerge on the pages, reflecting the very different social mores of the time. Suicide was illegal, and there are a few occasions in which people who have attempted to kill themselves have been brought in. Some of these unfortunate people were young male deserters, which makes you wonder what ordeals they had undergone. In another entry, a chemist and his assistant are arrested for using “an instrument upon one {name} with intent to procure her miscarriage”. Presumably this was an attempted ‘backstreet’ abortion, a medical procedure which was outlawed at the time. That the ‘instrument’ is not identified gives the sentence a chilling aspect. No information is recorded as to what became of the woman and her unborn child.

This information is all very good and well – and hugely interesting – but what about the original purpose of my searches? Well, I have to admit there were no ‘finds’ relating to homosexual ‘offences’ in either volume. The efforts of my co-volunteers searching similar records, however, were more fruitful. Mid-way I did start wishing someone – anyone – would be arrested for an ill-timed grope in a public lavatory, just so I could have some event to record. On the other hand, I was strangely grateful no-one was subject to any such unjust indignity on my ‘watch’. But turning the pages of each volume a vivid and often intimate impression of a busy city and its people striving to live and survive during an uncertain, chaotic and often frightening time is revealed. The importance of these documents – and many others like them – as invaluable social history is thus demonstrated, and it has been a privilege to read their ‘stories’.


2 thoughts on “Discovering Life in Wartime London

  1. Jason, POA is Power of Arrest.
    Though not in London I was a police officer from 1983 onwards in the Greater London area. For really good terminology, consider ‘an incorrigible rogue’ from the napolionic vagrancy act, and ‘perambulating surveyor’, the river police equivalent of a Police Inspector….!
    Best regards,


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