Fifty Years of Innocence

06 December 2017

It’s hard to believe that not many years ago a person could be considered a criminal just because of their sexuality. As this year reminds us the huge progress we’ve made as a society, Archivist Helen looks at the historical records of Post Office’s employees.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at the records of homosexuality in the Post Office.

Diversity monitoring is a recent development so it is difficult to assess how many homosexual staff the Post Office employed in the past. The only way to trace them is when their sexuality resulted in criminal charges. Once an employee was charged with any criminal offence, the Post Office then had to consider what implications this had for their employment.

Diversity monitoring

The earliest case in the archive relating to homosexuality is that of Gustavus Cornwall. He was Secretary to the Post Office in Dublin from 1840-1885. At that time the whole of Ireland was under British control and Cornwall was employed by the British Post Office. In August 1884 Cornwall was tried for Felony (Sodomy) and conspiracy to “procure others to commit diverse lewd and filthy practices”. He was swiftly acquitted on the Felony charge, but the jury was unable to reach a decision on the conspiracy and he was retried and acquitted in October 1884.

Gustavus Cornwall © National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite his acquittal, Cornwall was forced to resign without a pension in August 1885. He had been suspended since July 1884.

There is little further mention of homosexuality in The Royal Mail Archive until the 1950s. At this time homosexuality was still illegal. A number of registered files discuss how the Post Office should treat staff who have been convicted of homosexual offences. In contrast to the treatment of Cornwall the Post Office now seemed willing to continue the employment of these men:

‘In general we would be inclined to favour retention of an officer with long and satisfactory service, whose offence was isolated and not too gross, and who seemed unlikely to repeat it, provided there was no great risk to staff and public complaint’ (POST 122/8047)

A table to assist decision making in cases of sexual offences POST 122/8049, date 1957

The files also recognise changing public attitudes:

‘It is evident that the Department’s views have broadened along with public opinion, particularly as regards those offences which do not intrude upon the privacy of others (e.g. homosexuality among adults).’ (POST 122/8049)

There was also some debate about whether homosexuality was a medical issue. In some cases, the opinion of the departmental medical officer was requested and retirement on medical grounds was considered. However, this practice was not consistently applied.

‘There is no evidence that homosexuality is in itself a disease and a person with homosexual propensities will not necessarily respond to medical or psychiatric treatment.’ (POST 122/8050)

Post Office Equal Opportunities Code of Practice c1995

In the 21st century, both Royal Mail and Post Office Limited welcome employees of all sexualities. Equal Opportunity or Diversity policies are commonplace.

Celebrating diversity 2016, Royal Mail LGBT Pride Postcard (2016-0094)

Support for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community is demonstrated through sponsorship of events such as Pride in London 2016.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist