I Male sex work in popular culture


Reframing the Cleveland Street

Scandal in England

Telegraph boys, the service economy,

Reframing the Cleveland Street Scandal in England: telegraph boys, the service economy, and compensated sex

Katie Hindmarch-Watson

In the summer of 1889, the Confidential Enquiry Branch of Britain’s General Post Office (GPO) discovered that telegraph boys from Londons Central Telegraph Office were selling sexual favors to elite men in a house ot assignation at 19 Cleveland Street, a Victorian town- house just oft Tottenham Court Road. The brothel’s owner, Charles Hammond, had obtained a supply ot teenage boys through various contacts at the GPO to service those gentlemen who arrived at his house without having already procured an escort. Chief among Hammond’s suppliers was Henry Newlove, a former telegraph boy who had recently been promoted to third- class clerk and “tracer” in the telegraph secretary’s office. According to unpublished statements taken by GPO constables, at least four telegraph boys had admitted to sexual encounters with Newlove in the basement lavatories of the Central Telegraph Office. After a series of these clandestine hook-ups, Newlove suggested to each of them that they could make money “going to bed with gentlemen” at 19 Cleveland Street. They took up his offer. When this came to light in July, Newlove was arrested and went on to implicate some of his more illustrious clients, including Lord Arthur Somerset, the son of the Duke of Beaufort and equerry to the Prince of Wales. This revelation set oft a chain ot events that led to the public exposure ot one of London’s most secretive cross-class underworlds.

As details of the confidential investigation into telegraph-boy rent with aristocrats were leaked to the radical Liberal press in September, scandalized commentators reinterpreted these sexual acts as vestiges of ancien regime debauchery forced upon respectable civil servants (the telegraph-boy lavatory encounters went unmentioned in the press). The Cleveland Street or “West End” Scandal generated three trials and countless headlines throughout the tall and winter ot 1889, finally winding down in the spring of 1890. The scandal resulted in the permanent exile ot Somerset and jail time for one of his lawyers, along with Newlove, an additional Cleveland Street procurer, and the radical journalist Earnest Parke, who publicly accused the Earl ot Euston ot being another Cleveland Street client and lost the resulting libel trial. The telegraph boys were dismissed but weathered the storm relatively well, depicted as innocent victims sacrificed to rich men’s vices.

The cast of characters that drove the Cleveland Street Scandal—aristocrats, radicals, MPs, and telegraph boys—were actors in a political showdown between the radical Liberal press and the Conservative government (Hyde, 1976; Simpson, Chester, & Leitch, 1976; Kaplan, 2005, chap 3; Weeks, 1981, chap 5; Aronson, 1996; Fisher, 1995; Cocks, 2003, pp. 144—153). Media accusations based on leaked police reports ultimately became the subject of parliamentary debate when the radical Liberal MP Henry Labouchere accused the Tory administration of orchestrating a cover-up on behalf of Somerset, Cleveland Streets most notorious aristocratic patron. Shortly after Labouchere’s parliamentary accusations in early 1890, all official sources pertaining to the Cleveland Street affair that had been kept out of the papers were rounded up and sealed by the government. No more leaked information appeared in the public arena, and “gross indecency” committed by debauched aristocrats became news again only in 1895, when Oscar Wilde’s own disastrous libel trial led to his incarceration. The 1889—1890 archives of police reports and evidence, government memos, trial transcripts, indictments, and correspondence remained closed to the public for 86 years, during which time commentators and historians who remembered the scandal or uncovered “Labby’s” accusatory speech were left uncertain of the validity ot these claims.

Modern research on the Cleveland Street brothel began with the Public Records Office releasing the files. When the records were opened in 1976, the scandal was quickly taken up by scholars intent on documenting the truth behind the accusations. What H. Montgomery Hyde’s The Cleveland Street Scandal and Simpson, Chester, and Leitch’s The Cleveland Street Affair revealed was a conspiracy of foot-dragging and buck-passing on the part of Treasury officials, the attorney general, the lord chancellor, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and the Department of Public Prosecutions (Hyde, 1976; Simpson et al., 1976). These studies were also published at a moment in historiography that outlined and heaped significance on an archaic Victorian sexual system, and Cleveland Street was proof positive of the era’s sexual prudishness, repression, and hypocrisy.

The characterization of Victorian England as a specific sexual epoch coincided with a growing interest in gay and lesbian history. As historians noted, the Cleveland Street or “West End” Scandal was the first widely publicized case subject to Labouchere’s contribution to the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act: he authored Section 11, which invented and criminalized a new, broad category of male homosexual behavior labeled “gross indecency.” Numerous studies have illustrated its significance for late-Victorian and twentieth-century sexual cultures (Weeks, 1989; for a revised analysis, Upchurch, 2009). Cleveland Street has most commonly been evoked both as an example of late-Victorian male prostitution and as the backdrop tor Oscar Wilde’s fate six years later. More recently, historians of gay and queer sexualities have raked the sources of the Cleveland Street Scandal tor further evidence ot male homosexual subcultures and the processes of regulating sexual acts between men (Cook, 2003; Cocks, 2003; Brady, 2005; Kaplan, 2005).

The Cleveland Street Scandal has been analyzed as a government conspiracy, a case study in the efficacy of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and a window into homoerotic London. However, two major aspects of the scandal remain underexplored: the bureaucratic mechanisms by which the Cleveland Street brothel was discovered and the telegraph boys’ contributions both to the contours of the scandal and to Victorian homoerotic markets.

Addressing the first issue exposes a significant distinction: Post Office authorities, not the Metropolitan Police, discovered the house of assignation at 19 Cleveland Street. This fact tends to be obscured in the existing literature; the different police forces that tracked down the brothel’s clients are conflated, thus representing a unified state response. By disambiguating the

GPO police from the Metropolitan Police and other security forces, we can appreciate that a sophisticated network of GPO administrators, constables, and agents exposed the brothel and its patrons to pubic censure. This surveillance department, the Confidential Enquiry Branch, was a recent innovation in postal securitization. The GPO had been steadily expanding its internal police force since 1877, when the discovery of widespread prostitution among telegraph boys, and attendant conflicts with the Metropolitan Police, had prompted substantial administrative attention and more rigorous monitoring of both postal employees and information transferred through postal networks (Hindmarch-Watson, 2012). This leads directly into the second set of concerns. Telegraph boys were central not only in the Cleveland Street Scandal itself but also in the development of the means by which sexual markets between elite men and youthful urban workers were unearthed.

Understanding the relationship between telegraph-boy prostitution and the growth of communications policing demands a different set of theoretical approaches than those often relied on in queer history. The telegraph boys involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal left police statements but little other evidence of their thoughts on the matter. Questions relating to sexual subjectivity cannot form the basis of a thorough analysis of the telegraph boys’ contributions to the affair. We are left with the significance of the work telegraph boys did and what it represented to various administrative authorities and sexually intrigued men. These youthful telecommunications workers were the public face of Britain’s bourgeoning telegraph system, touchstones of technological progress and urban celebration. They were also youthful members of a rapidly expanding state communications bureaucracy. As Morris Kaplan has noted of telegraph boys’ contributions to Cleveland Street, “Much was made of the youths’ employment as uniformed messengers in the postal service; the implication was that their corrupters posed a threat to the nation itself” (Kaplan, 2005, p. 205). The GPO had worked hard in recent years to cultivate this respectable telegraph boy, one whose sexual corruption could actually pose a threat to a specific configuration of the nation (Hindmarch- Watson, 2012). But the potency of telegraph boys’ “corruption” at the hands of elites emanated from their particular labor regimes within modernizing information networks, and in many ways, the telegraph boys involved in Cleveland Street were “corrupting” agents in their own right, undermining assumptions about information transmission between consumer and worker.

Britain’s telegraph system depended on the cheap labor of these adolescent males. As telegraph wires went underground in urban spaces and the complex work of transmitting coded electronic language went on within grand GPO edifices, telecommunications developed as a state service whose cost-effective telegraph boys made the largely intangible electronic technology manifest and understandable. Telegraph boys were a new kind of working-class public servant. They were meant to be ubiquitous urban messengers, expected to cross boundaries between all kinds of public and private spaces as a matter of course. The vast majority of telegram deliveries took place between this young, economically vulnerable workforce and wealthy men. This intersection of space, class, and gender meant that telegraph boys had to combine established forms of personalized deference with new demands for accessibility, standardization, and expertise. Sexual encounters between teenage working-class messengers and elite information consumers were a direct consequence of this balancing act.

In engaging in and, more importantly, confessing to sexual acts with elite men, telegraph boys disrupted orderly flows of information. They conflated different forms of service, informational and sexual, and in doing so, they broke down carefully maintained Victorian boundaries between free intercourse and private discretion. They undermined assumed relationships between elites and personal service providers, and the force of this betrayal ushered in an increasingly authoritarian approach to communications surveillance.

Why was the delivery ot telegrams so symbolically resonant to the late Victorians? Telegraph boys were key laborers in what Patrick Joyce has termed the “self-regulating city” of Victorian liberal capitalism (Joyce, 2003; Hindmarch-Watson, 2012, p. 595). Joyce has developed this concept by fusing a version of actor network theory—the attribution of agency to things as well as to people in complex “sociotechnical” networks—with Foucault’s “governmentality” to describe how nineteenth-century British state authorities conceived of, rationalized, and regulated their subject populations (Joyce, 2003, pp. 6—7; Law, 1994; Foucault, 1991). For Joyce and other British historians and political theorists receptive both to aspects of actor network theory and to governmentalities at work in physical as well as discursive realms, the material world has proven a fruitful lens for analyzing the indirect power and subsequent durability of Victorian liberalism, a system in which “rule [was] ceded to a self that must constantly monitor the very civil society and political power that are at once the guarantee of freedom and its threat” (Joyce, 2003, p. 4). This “liberal materialist” approach complements other recent scholarly enquiries into Victorian sociopolitics. Literary critic Elaine Hadley has explored some of the internalized features ot liberalism, the “principles of cognition” or thought organization emanating out of practiced “disinterest, impersonality, and individuality” (Hadley, 2010, p. 19). These cultivated mindsets “sought to formalize” an increasingly heterogeneous public sphere (Hadley, 2010, p. 36). What emerges from Hadley's work and other studies is a compelling portrayal of a self- regulatory' state ot mind and an elaborately coded, exclusionary mode of knowledge accumulation, and thus a style and a way ot being, that preserved elite political control while presenting a veneer of democratic access.

Many of the scientists, engineers, administrators, and politicians who created the infrastructural systems that emerged in Victorian Britain, including telecommunications, strove to enable such liberal subjectivities. The telegraph system in Britain was nationalized in 1870 at the behest of elite businessmen and MPs who, frustrated with the expensive, uneven patchwork of private networks, demanded seamless, reliable, and cost-effective channels ot information in order to intensify domestic and imperial commerce (Perry', 1992, chap 4). As Edwin Chadwick put it in advocating for nationalization, “The saving ot time; the stuff of which business as well as life is made [depends on] . . . the cheapness ot communication and its completeness in pervading the whole country” (Chadwick, 1867, p. 222). Other commentators spoke of the “nervous sy'stem” of the Empire, and historian Rhys Mortis Evans has elucidated how the Victorian telegraph was indicative of culturally embedded regulatory' powers, expressed in metaphors of bodily circulation and flow (Morus, 2000). However, at a shilling a telegram until 1885, and even with the rate of six pence per ten-word telegram thereafter, the vast majority of Britons were priced out ot telegraphy. The telegraphic public remained overwhelmingly elite, commercial, and administrative.

For both overseers and consumers, the telegraph network resounded with productive, unresolved tensions inherent to thresholds ot public and private spaces, information, and mentalities. The division between the private realm of individual cultivation and the public world of productive, remunerative work and civic responsibility' was a major organizational concept for Victorian liberal sensibilities. Rigidly separate public and private domains were necessary for the encouragement and practice of nineteenth-century British notions of freedom, meaning, to borrow Lauren Goodland ’s phrasing, an active commitment to “projects of liberating individuals from illegitimate authority while simultaneously ensuring their moral and spiritual growth” (Goodland, 2003, p. viii). The idea of individual privacy, a mental, intellectual, and usually physical space of self-directed personal exploration, was a touchstone ot liberal subjectivity.

By properly channeling one’s thoughts, personal interactions, consumption, and pleasures into character building, one developed the proper styles of presentation, cognition, and fortitude necessary to influence an orderly public sphere.

The circulation of ideas, either through free intercourse with fellow individuals or through unlimited access to an open press, was a key ingredient in this potent brew; the liberal subject needed to be informed. The sanctity of information dovetailed with Victorian obsessions with privacy, resulting in a widely shared commitment to noninterference in the circulation of the written, typed, transcribed, and spoken word. State administrators publicly expressed the same generalized popular sentiments about the necessity' of privacy in public electronic communications, and they took seriously the role telecommunications staff played in policing the boundaries between private and public information. They cultivated the image of a passive yet efficient workforce, skilled in the telegraphic arts yet automatized and docile mediators, unlikely to imprint their own intentions on wired transmissions or to reveal private information.1

Of course, purely private and public realms were conceptual shorthands impossible to maintain in practice, especially in a political environment where personal character was expected to deliver public order. The individual of liberal fantasy, who could easily navigate these boundaries as interest or duty' demanded, was elite, deeply gendered, and prone to lapses in character. A lot of work went into liberal self-fashioning, and not just on the part of those who could achieve some measure of Victorian social capital. Unruly workers, promiscuous telegraph boys among them, enable us to perceive the relational, interpersonal processes necessary in making liberal subjects.

Understanding the “self-regulating” subject, his variants, and his limits demands an exploration of the labor necessary for liberal spaces and subjectivities. This means prioritizing a sector of the British economy usually defined by its mostly intangible but nonetheless highly valuable products and which has proved remarkably durable and prolific: we need to reassess the meaning and centrality' of service industries—professional, financial, bodily, and informational—to modernizing British life. What of the workers who produced the conditions of respectability, who enabled the self-cultivated, rationalized perspective and movements of other social actors? What kinds of labor went into producing the efficient mobility, privileged stances, and knowl- edgeability of certain modern subjects, urban and otherwise? Liberal subjects required plenty of servicing, and the labor that developed in response to meeting ever-expanding individual expectations of self-cultivation deserves to be taken much more seriously if we are interested in the origins of modern socioeconomic networks.

Telegraph boys help us address some of these questions by highlighting processes of stratification and precariousness in the personal interactions necessary for late-Victorian information service work. Service labors relative value depended (and still depends) on the flow of social capital between provider and consumer. Most face-to-tace personal service work produced intangible surplus aesthetic, intellectual, physiological, or emotional value for the consumer, leaving the service provider in a more tenuous position. “Professionalism” was a crucial designation for mitigating or reversing service work’s socially marginalizing effects. Telegraph boys could not lay claim to professional status, and the very knowledge required to successfully perform their duties—how to channel private discourse through public networks, how to navigate unruly urban environments and cross boundaries, and how to provide pleasures while hiding evidence of excess—could be detrimental to the consumer’s processes of respectable selt- fashioning if it were publicly rendered (Clark, 2013).2 In a social order based on “character” defined by individual agency and self-control, discretion was a virtue of service provision and one that could make service providers potentially volatile laborers. Indeed, often the more intimate the encounter that service providers had with consumers, the more unsettling such service work potentially became. Marginalizing such work and rendering certain workers socially invisible was one response to this pressure.

Telegraph boys’ lack of status allowed them access to many private enclaves and privileged environments. As the telegraph system’s most public servants, they engaged with telegraphy’s overwhelmingly elite consumers on a regular basis. They navigated public and private urban landscapes, embodying the new technology on city streets and consumers’ doorsteps. All of these encounters involved careful administrative supervision (from uniform design to clandestine monitoring by inspectors), technical manipulations, highly specialized knowledge, awareness of public expectations, and the management of public frustrations and fantasies.

Telegram message-delivery policy further magnified the state’s commitment to discretion and discipline over telegraph boys. One messenger could not hand off a telegram to another; telegraph boys could not themselves transcribe any return messages; their telegrams had to be carried in their GPO-issued pouches, along with all money received and various paper forms for payment and return delivery; and they had to ensure that a telegram was placed in the correct person’s hands, or, quite frequently, in the correct person’s servant’s hands. Telegraph boys were also instructed to use the “double knock” on front doors that postmen in England had adopted the nineteenth century. This communications ritual signaled the special importance placed on both postal and telegraph communications. It also relayed to those inside a house or office that the deliverer had a right to linger on private thresholds.3

Their uniform may have marked them for potential disciplinary infractions, but it also permitted them free rides on omnibuses and entry into venues normally prohibited to working- class boys, so long as they were on duty. Telegraph boys’ unfettered ability to move about town was legally enforceable: cab drivers received fines from police courts if they refused to drive boys on urgent deliveries (“Law and Police”, 1875). The boys’ uniforms functioned like a “press pass” to venues of pleasure and power, as Gregory Downey describes the similar work privileges experienced by American telegraph boys (Downey, 2002, p. 63). To further enhance the importance, prestige, and efficiency of this system, GPO administrators designed telegraph dispatches to appear to be single-message deliveries: unlike postmen, who carried multiple letters and delivered the post according to laid-out routes, urban telegraph boys were sent out with a single telegram as soon as it came up. At least, this was the theory; in practice at busy London offices, telegraph boys would be sent out with up to three messages at a time.4 Regardless, they were instructed to appear as if the one message in their hand was the single focus of their run across town. This personalized service combined old ideas of deference with new expectations for the efficiency of wired communication.

The GPO’s gendered parameters dictated that the work of delivering information in urban environments was a strictly male endeavor, and this resulted in novel possibilities for clandestine sexual practices associated with masculine street cultures. Some telegraph boys exploited the possibilities of London’s sexual subcultures while embodying state order, efficiency, and prescribed mobility. As a result of sociotechnical development, telegraph boys added a new, uniformed dimension to long-standing pederastic prostitution networks in the capital. Their ubiquity and accessibility fueled both the imaginations of men looking for “rough trade” on the London streets and the anxieties of communications administrators, who located telegraph boys as the primary laboring constituency on which to enact state authority. Ironically, increased GPO regulation seemed to enhance their vaunted image among London’s queer subcultures. Thanks to an internal investigation into telegraph-boy prostitution in 1876 and 1877, telegraph boys became even more visible erotic symbols of disciplined, working-class masculinity (Hindmarch- Watson, 2012). In an effort to clamp down on same-sex encounters and prostitution, telegraph boys became increasingly subject to public military-style drilling and parades in the 1880s. As the fin-de-siecle Uranian John Gambril Nicholson reminds us, the uniform on public display was the primary marker of these youths’ erotic appeal: he wrote admirably about “the lad that’s lettered G.P.O” (quoted in D’Arch Smith, 1970, p. 29). This cycle of discipline, service, and desire put the GPO’s youthful foot soldiers on a collision course with more sexual trouble.

The exposure of queer telegraph-boy networks in the 1870s fomented a significant shift in the state’s vision of what constituted public and private realms and the extent to which the latter could be intruded upon in the name of the former. The momentous reaction to disruptive telegraph boys in the later Victorian period changed the meaning of communications security, with far-reaching consequences. The 1889 Cleveland Street Scandal is an example of this new communications policing and its consequences on the balance of power between competing authorities. The sexual transactions at 19 Cleveland Street came to light when one of the numerous Confidential Enquiry Branch constables, during a routine frisking of Central Telegraph Office telegraph boys in a search for missing funds from the receiver-general’s department, found 18 shillings on a young indoor messenger (the amount was likely three times his weekly earnings). During the ensuing interrogation, the nervous 15-year-old, Charles Swins- cow, described sexual encounters with Newlove in the basement lavatories and his subsequent experiences at Cleveland Street. This set into motion both an internal GPO investigation and collaboration with the Metropolitan Police and the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP). When police and DPP efforts lagged, GPO officials devoted substantial manpower and funding to bring Cleveland Street’s denizens to justice, including having the brothel’s owner followed across Europe.

Histories of the Post Office tend to mark the 1880s as a “golden age,” when telegram delivery costs decreased for the public, GPO services greatly expanded, and labor relations substantially improved, mostly thanks to the progressive leadership of Henry Fawcett, “the Blind Postmaster-General,” a leading reformer of the Liberal Party (Campbell-Smith, 2011, pp. 183— 192). Improved working conditions, including more openings for women, and public approval of GPO services were indeed hallmarks of London’s Post Office innovations in the mid-1880s. But overlapping with these developments was the exponential growth of clandestine monitoring operations. From a staff of 20 in 1877, by 1889, the Confidential Enquiry Branch had more than 80 staff members, including 15 plainclothes policemen. The Post Office, that seemingly benign institution, had a crucial role to play in quietly renegotiating acceptable barriers between public interest and private transactions. For the authorities, its telegraph-boy troubles became increasingly aligned with other London insurgencies, namely militant Irish anti-imperialism. From 1886, the more authoritarian postmaster-general, Conservative M. Henry Cecil Raikes, used the Confidential Enquiry Branch to keep an eye on postal union activity. Surveillance forces that were enhanced to monitor troublesome telegraph boys ultimately expanded their reach. In doing so, the Post Office’s policing amplified inherent tensions in liberal doctrines of freedom, discretion, and state-controlled communications.

The Cleveland Street Scandal is a window into an expanded, well-funded informationmonitoring network attempting to grapple with a long-standing flaw in the telegraph system. In one sense, its outcome was a victory of the vigilant state working for the “public good ” over elite privilege built out of privacy, silences, and discretion. In the middle of this shifting legal, social, and moral landscape, young communications workers continued to forge unintended networks. Sexual encounters and imaginative possibilities between themselves and information consumers were a consequence of class and gender conventions colliding with the personalized yet rote service demanded of them. Administrative attempts to monitor and properly channel workers’ interactions with consumers emphasized the erotic potentialities of early electronic communication systems and explained why sexual misconduct was a major stimulator of information surveillance in this period. Cleveland Streets revelations also underscore telegraph boys’ struggles to negotiate authority and their own sense ot value over their daily interactions. Telegraph boys’ most potent act of disruption was to disclose the secrets of their wealthy clients to Post Office authorities—it was naming the sexual acts to Confidential Enquiry Branch agents, much more so than discreetly committing them, that disrupted Victorian communications on a number of levels. For authorities, the telegraph-boy trouble aligned with other unruly London networks. Surveillance forces that monitored miscreant telegraph boys ultimately expanded their reach. By doing so, the Post Office’s internal policing amplified tensions between liberal doctrines of freedom and state monitoring of communications. Clandestine information surveillance, initially targeted at proscribed sexualities, continued to expand along the wires.

The momentous reaction to telegraph boys from the 1870s onward changed the meaning of communications security, with far-reaching consequences. We can appreciate this relationship by balancing the ideological imperatives of the late-Victorian period with the potential volatilities of the labor of liberal cities and subjectivities. Telegraph boys were service providers in an information industry that valued their marginality. In finding opportunities in this, some telegraph boys asserted their agency in highly disruptive ways. The telegraph boys involved in male prostitution in London in the last quarter of the nineteenth century manifest some of the queer dynamics of a modernizing telecommunications service system, as well as the politics of containing such subversions. A service-labor approach to other historical actors, industries, and institutions may prove a fruitful lens for reprioritizing and invigorating the history of labor within other historical disciplines while avoiding the pitfalls of fatalistic or overly determinist renderings of the meanings of work in specific historical contexts. Perhaps service work and service workers have much more to tell us about historical subjectivities and economies, sexual and otherwise.


  • 1 A similar attitude was expressed toward (mostly female) stenographers and typists in the same period (Price & Thurschwell, 2005).
  • 2 1 am indebted to Jess P. Clarks research and insights on the late-Victorian beauty industry for this point.
  • 3 Instructions for Telegraph Messengers in London, POST 68/116, British Postal Museum and Archive, London.
  • 4 Telegraphs: Instructions for Messengers in London, 1887, POST 68/778, British Postal Heritage Museum and Archive.


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Youth male prostitution in post-Nazi Germany

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