Sex and power: The story of Gustavus Cornwall

Archivist Helen investigates an early case of criminalisation of homosexuality of Post Office's employee Gustavus Cornwall.

The archives of the postal service may not be the first place you think of when researching LGBTQIA+ history. Yet alongside the financial and operational records, are records of employees. As with any other sector of society postal staff had various sexualities. As information about sexuality was not routinely collected until the late twentieth century for earlier periods the records which include the clearest references to homosexuality usually relate to disciplinary or criminal investigations.

One such high profile case is that of Gustavus Cornwall. Cornwall was first appointed to the Post Office in 1840, starting work in the Money Order Office in London.  In August 1841 he moved to the Secretary’s Office, finally taking up the role of Secretary to the General Post Office in Dublin on 29 April 1850.

Gustavus Charles Cornwall (later Cornwall-Dalyell) by Camille Silvy, 1861 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Page 103 of an Establishment Book. There is the heading ‘Dublin’ above a table. The left hand column is headed ‘Date of appointments’ and below that is ‘M.O.O., Lon.. Dec. 1840; S.O., Lon., Aug. 1841; Secretary, Dublin, 29 Apr. 1850.’. The middle column is headed ‘Name’ and below that is ‘Secretary. £800, increasing by £50 per annum to £1000. G. C. Cornwall’. The right hand column is headed ‘Salary’ and below that is £1000

Establishment book 1869

The majority of Cornwall’s career was uneventful. In April 1884, after 44 years working for the Post Office, he applied for a six month leave of absence prior to his retirement.

Handwritten document reading ‘Ireland. Min no 743/84. The Postmaster General. Mr Cornwall has applied to me for six months leave of absence preparatory to his retirement. In view of Mr Cornwall’s long service, viz. 44 years, I submit his request be complied with. Mr Cornwall’s leave will commence at the beginning of June. SAB. April 10. 1884

Application for leave of absence, 1884 (POST 120/58)

Things changed in May 1884 when ‘United Ireland’ published two articles relating to Cornwall. In the first article published on 10 May 1884 the newspaper alleged that Cornwall was associated with James Ellis French (head of the Criminal Investigation Department at Dublin Castle) and challenging him to bring a libel action against the publication. ‘United Ireland’ had previously published articles alluding to French’s sexual relationships. In response to that article French had lost a libel case. By associating Cornwall with French, ‘United Ireland’ was implying that Cornwall was involved in the same offences as French. The second article, published on 24 May 1884 referred to communication from Cornwall’s Solicitors threatening legal action.

In addition to the nature of the offences being implied, it is worth remembering that as Secretary to the General Post Office, and a senior official in Dublin Castle, Cornwall and French were key figures in the British administration of Ireland at this time. ‘United Ireland’ was founded by Charles Parnell, a prominent individual in the campaign for Irish independence from British rule. As such there was clearly some political motive for targeting those involved in the British administration.

In response to the ‘United Ireland’ articles Cornwall launched his own libel case. This case reached the court on 2 July 1884 and Cornwall lost. Cornwall was then suspended from the Post Office. He was also arrested and charged with Felony (Sodomy) and conspiracy with Martin Kirwan (of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers) to

procure others to commit diverse lewd and filthy practices.

 

The trial took place in August 1884 and Cornwall was swiftly acquitted on the Felony charge, but the jury was unable to reach a decision on the conspiracy. The charge was retried in October 1884 when Cornwall was acquitted.

Based on the outcome of the criminal trials Cornwall then attempted to have the earlier verdict of the libel case overturned. In May 1885 the felony aspect of the libel case was overturned but the misdemeanour aspect was allowed to stand.

Handwritten document. In the top left corner is the word ‘copy’ and in the top right ‘The Binns Linlithgow. 18 August 1885’. The main body reads ‘Sir, In response to your letter of 17th instant, I beg leave to inform you that it is wholly beyond my power for want of means to take any further legal steps in the libel action of “Cornwall v O’Brien” and again ask that I may be permitted to retire upon a Pension. I should have been able to meet further law expenses had not the late Government arrested and brought me to trial for felony. Now that portion of the Verdict of the libel trial imputing “felony” has been unanimously set aside by the High Court of Appeal in Ireland, thus proving that I was brought to trial without just cause. I have etc (signed) G C Cornwall’. In the bottom left hand corner is ‘S A Blackwood’.

Request for a pension, 1885 (POST 120/65)

At this point, the Post Office needed to make a decision with regard to Cornwall’s employment. He had been suspended for almost a year and had been acquitted of all criminal charges. However, the fact that the libel case had been partially upheld continued to pose reputational risks for the Post Office. After much correspondence, which survives in the archives, it was decided to allow Cornwall to resign but not to award him a pension. There was also the question as to whether he should be paid for his period of suspension. This was complicated by the appointment of H C Cresswell to the role of Secretary on 8 Aug 1885 and not wanting to pay the two people for the same role. In this case, Cornwall was allowed full pay until 31 July 1885.

This was a very sad outcome for a long serving official who was acquitted of all criminal charges. The activities he was accused of are no longer crimes, although the Republic of Ireland did not decriminalise homosexuality until 1993.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

Further information:

Records of the Gustavus Cornwall case are available in the archive at The Postal Museum. Details of how to arrange a visit are available here. The reference numbers for the relevant files are POST 120/58-65. This podcast gives more information on the political context of the Cornwall and French cases.

Guidance on researching sexuality and gender identity history is available How to look for records of gay, lesbian and bisexual history (nationalarchives.gov.uk).


Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.