We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done. — Alan Turing (1912-1954)


While Mika and I were enjoying our two weeks holiday in England last month among the sites we toured was Bletchley Park. This was especially of interest to Mika as he has a degree in computer science and mathematics from Queen’s University. Bletchley Park was the seat of British Intelligence, Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS or GCCS, later renamed Government Communications Head Quarters GCHQ), during the Second World War where Axis radio transmissions were intercepted and decrypted. Those who worked there in the strictest secrecy and security made an invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort. Of those who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War was a mathematician and pioneering computer scientist named Alan Turing. It is held that “Turing’s brilliant ideas in solving codes, and developing computers to assist break them, may have saved more lives of military personnel in the course of the war than any other.” (Turing Biography) He is commemorated at Bletchley Park for his service to his King and country with a sculpture and a copy of the Letter of Apology from the British Government for the injustice he suffered following the war for having been identified as a “known homosexual,” an injustice that ruined his career, reputation, health and led to his suicide.

Of course male homosexuality was proscribed in British law at the time. From 1885 to 1967 (until its repeal) the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (48 & 49 Vict. c.69) was in effect. Section 11 of the Act, in particular, a clause known as the Labouchere Amendment applied to male homosexuality. In short, the clause provided for a term of imprisonment “not exceeding two years”, with or without hard labour, for any man found guilty of gross indecency with another male, whether “in public or in private”. In spite of this proscription in law against male homosexuality, the law was enforced sparingly and selectively; however, the consequences of arrest and conviction could be devastating. John Gielgud very nearly saw his career as an actor come to an abrupt end in 1953 when a scandal arose over his arrest for ‘persistently importuning male persons for immoral purposes’ (caught trying to pick up a man in a public washroom). He was fined £10 and news of the arrest found its way to the press, causing him a most personal humiliation and refusal of a visa to travel to the United States with his company to perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The theatre going public saw fit to forgive his momentary indiscretion and he continued his acting career both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the period this law was in effect, there were a number of gay men who, like Alan Turing, enriched British society and culture with their achievements in the art, music, literature, science and economics. The world of theatre and music was well represented by the likes of Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Benjamin Britten, who lived openly with his companion Peter Pears. Famous authors of the period included Brian Howard, Harold Acton, Siegfried SassoonRaymond Mortimer and E.M. ForsterJohn Maynard Keynes is of course remembered for his contribution to the science of economics. Oliver Baldwin, who was the son of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, had a long career in politics, first as a Labour MP, then as Parliamentary Secretary to the Secretary for War. These men lived out their lives, enjoying success in their respective careers, because they were able conduct themselves with discretion in the gay subculture that existed in Britain at the time. A gay man living in this period of English history had good reason to be discrete. In 1953 the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyffe, referred to male homosexuality as a “plague over England,” and vowed to wipe it out.

In contrast to the stated aim of the Home Secretary, the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was convened in 1954 with John Wolfenden as chairman. The Committee heard evidence from a plurality of witnesses, including police and probation officers, psychiatrists, religious leaders, and gay men whose lives had been affected by the law. The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (commonly known as the Wolfenden Report) was published in 1957. In brief, the recommendations included in the Wolfenden Report asserted that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”. The report added, “The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others […] It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.” (Wolfenden Report as cited in Wikipedia)

Attitudes toward male homosexuality changed and the Labouchere Amendment was repealed in 1967. Alan Turing may have foreseen this change in attitudes, but unfortunately, he was open about his sexuality at a time when gay men were still convicted and imprisoned under the auspices of the Labouchere Amendment. He was arrested and charged for violation of the Labouchere Amendment in 1952 when he revealed to the police details of his relationship with Arnold Murray during the investigation of a burglary in his home. Alan Turing and Arnold Murray were brought to trial on 31 March 1952, where Turing was convicted and Arnold Murray was granted a conditional discharge. Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to cure him of his homosexuality. He accepted the option of treatment via injections of estrogen; this treatment was continued for the course of one year. The estrogen treatment, read quackery, notes David Leavitt in his book The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer, “had the effect of chemical castration. Worse, there were the humiliating side effects. The lean runner got fat. He grew breasts.” (Leavitt (2006), p. 268)

Following his conviction, Alan Turing’s career with the Government Communications Head Quarters was finished. He was stripped of his security clearance as known homosexuals working in the civil service were considered a risk to state security during this period of the Cold War, in that it was thought they were susceptible to blackmail and could pass state secrets to agents of the Eastern Bloc. He was barred from entering the United States, where he had spent time in the past, notably at Princeton University. His friends, acquaintances and colleagues were to become persons of interest to MI5. In the last year of his life he suffered the loss of his career, reputation and health. This proved more than he could bear and he took his own life, biting into an apple he laced with cyanide. His body was discovered on the 8th of June 1954. Andrew Hodges sums up Alan Turing’s character describing him as “eccentric, solitary, gloomy, vivacious, resigned, angry, eager, dissatisfied — these had always been his ever-varying characteristics, and despite the strength he showed in coping with outrageous fortune, no-one could have safely predicted his future course.” (Alan Turing: a short biography).

Posted by Geoffrey

2 thoughts on “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done. — Alan Turing (1912-1954)

  1. Pingback: Alan Turing to be honoured on new Bank of England 50-pound note – Well Good Creations

A blog is nothing with out feedback, please give me some!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s