‘Unnatural’ act of being gay saw teen lad hanged

Horsham 1860, courtesy of Horsham Museum
Horsham 1860, courtesy of Horsham Museum

On July 27 1967, The Sexual Offences Act received Royal Assent.

The act decriminalised homosexual acts between men over the age of 21 in private and only in England and Wales. This year has seen extensive celebration of this landmark act.
In light of it, readers might be interested in a trial that took place in Horsham some 182 years ago when a 19 year old lad was hanged.
John Sparshott was the second from last person hanged for the offence.
In 1835 the hot topic in Horsham was the maintenance or closure of Horsham County Gaol that stood in East Street – the 1859 Horsham to Pulborough Railway line runs over part of its site, for those wishing to get their bearings.
When built in the 1770s it was seen as cutting edge and a model gaol that other counties should follow.
But by 1835 it was expensive to run and debate ran in the press including in the very paper which reported on the hanging of John over its necessity.
John was hanged with a burglar called Richard Sheppard.
In William Albery’s A Millennium of Facts in the History of Horsham and Sussex 947-1947, published 70 years ago, Richard’s case is reported on in full with no mention of John, other than a note that he was hanged with Richard.
The assumption being John was also a burglar.
However due to an explosion of interest in gender studies and history, John’s case featured in a book called Sex in Georgian England by AD Harvey.
In going back to Albery’s original manuscript notes where he transcribed accounts from the local newspaper the following account is given.
“John”, according to the Brighton Herald of August 8: “Sparshott, 19, was also capitally convicted of an unnatural offence at Mid Lavant. When accused of this crime he had been told by his master that if he would leave the country he should not be given into custody.
“He left Mid Lavant but returning after a short time was apprehended for the offence and committed to Horsham gaol.”
The Brighton Herald, undated in Albery’s transcript, though late August, continued the story: “On Saturday last, Richard Sheppard and John Sparshott paid the extreme penalty of the law which was carried out in front of Horsham Gaol.
“Sheppard (since his condemnation) conducted himself with decorum but Sparshott showed no sign of contrition.
“At 11o/c both prisoners attended service in the chapel and received the sacrament.
“Shortly before 12o/c they were brought to the scaffold praying fervently after the chaplain, neither addressed the crowd of spectators, about 500.
“Both died together with one drop. Their bodies were delivered to their friends and placed in coffins covered with black cloth and taken away.”
However one of the ironies of John’s story is that The Times of the 25th of August recorded his punishment, not because of his crime.
As the Times relates: “The silly custom of passing the hands of the dead men over the necks of two or three females, as supposed cure for glandular enlargements, was upon this occasion had recourse to.”
The Brighton Herald quoted above goes into further detail: “Two young women ascended the scaffold for the purpose of having the hand of one of the dead men passed over.
“One of them, from Brighton, was married, 24 years of age. A Brighton physician had told her she was incurable but a veterinary Surgeon Wm Gilbert told her this method would cure her.
“The other woman was a Horshamite.”
This year the museum was contacted by a distant descendent of John – Julia Tolley – who had unearthed some further details including a copy of the indictment and another local newspaper account – the Sussex Daily News for August 24 1835.
Interestingly the Sussex Daily News changed John’s name from Sparshott to Spershott – typo error throughout the account or deliberate to avoid family upset?
Jane also told us that John lies buried in St Nicholas Mid Lavant because he came from a respectable family.
In the account it states that both attended the chapel in the gaol at 11 o’clock, then describes in some detail how both men prayed, falling on their knees.
It said: “On rising from their knees, every preparation being in readiness, the Rev chaplain commenced reading the usual service, and the procession moved from the press-room, up the staircase leading to the scaffold, which the miserable men ascended with the utmost firmness, repeating the service after the chaplain.
“The ropes having been adjusted by the executioner, in the midst of prayer, the drop fell, and they were launched into eternity, and died apparently without a struggle.”
The paper goes on to describe that Sparshott “appeared since his condemnation, and until within two or three days of his execution, indifferent to his fate. But from that period he became truly penitent and resigned. He was a native of Mid Lavant, near Chichester, and of respectable connexions.”
The paper also condemns the habit of passing the hands of the dead over ill people, saying: “Surely in the present enlightened state of society, the exhibition of such ribaldry at an execution, ought to be prohibited.”
The paper then carries an opinion piece by the committee of the society for the diffusion of information on the subject of capital punishments, arguing against it for burglary, but no mention of John’s case.
The transcription of the indictment shows the degree of disgust expressed at the time of homosexuality.
“The jurors for our Lord the King, upon their oath present, that John Spershott take of the parish of Mid Lavant in the county of Sussex, labourer, not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and reduced by the instigation of the Devil, and not regarding the order of nature, on the ninth day of July in the sixth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord William the Fourth, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, with Force and Arms, at the Parish aforesaid, in the county aforesaid, in and upon George Howard, the younger in the peace of God and our said Lord the King, then and there being feloniously did make an assault – and then and there, feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature, had a venereal affair with the said George Howard and him, the said George Howard, then and there feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature, did carnally know and that detestable horrid and sodomitical crime called buggery with him, the said George Howard, then and there feloniously wickedly and diabolically and against the order of nature, did commit and perpetrate to the great displeasure of Almighty God to the great Scandal and disgrace of all mankind against the form of the Statute in such case made and provided and against the peace of our said Lord the King his Crown and Dignity.”
Although the other person involved, George Howard, is mentioned, he was not hanged and disappeared from the press accounts
In checking the date of the Criminal Offences Act of 1967, the following contemporary accounts of the Parliamentary proceedings shows how it was then perceived.
The Times (July 28 1967) quoted Lord Arran: “I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. Any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful. [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done.”
Post script. John was hanged on August 22 1835. Seven days later, on August 29, in Southwark, London, James Pratt and John Smith were caught in the act, according to a publican who peered through a keyhole along with his wife.
They were arrested, tried and hanged were hanged in front of Newgate Prison on November 27.
All those who were to be hanged with them, 14 in total, had their punishments commuted. John and James were the last people lawfully killed for homosexuality in Britain.

Horsham County Gaol, view from East Street, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Horsham County Gaol, view from East Street, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Horsham County Gaol, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Horsham County Gaol, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Floor plan of Horsham County Gaol, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Floor plan of Horsham County Gaol, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Horsham County Gaol view from courtyard, courtesy of Horsham Museum

Horsham County Gaol view from courtyard, courtesy of Horsham Museum