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On the History of Informants

15 Oct 2016

Areviewer recently suggested that I include more content about the Dublin Castle and Cleveland Street scandals in an article that I’ve been working on. Seeing as it’s been about 7 months since the last time I thought about Victorian sex scandals, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit old scholarship and acquaint myself with new work. Together with the Boulton and Park scandal and Oscar Wilde’s fall in 1895, Dublin Castle and Cleveland Street stand as the go-to episodes of Victorian queer subculture. Katie Hindmarch-Watson’s recent History Compass article was the first result. In it, Hindmarch-Watson revisits the Cleveland Street scandal and concentrates on two unique elements: the way that bureaucratic mechanisms enabled the GPO to discover the scandal, and the contributions made by telegraph boys to the scandal itself—the information they provided— and London homoerotic markets more generally.

Park and Boulton (Fanny and Stella)

Hindmarch-Watson’s article got me thinking about the work that I’m doing now as a graduate student in information science, and what I’ve been writing, thinking, and ranting about for the better part of two years, the De Cobain scandal. Moreover, since reading Matt Houlbrook’s new book, I’ve been thinking more about the way we frame the stories that we tell. With these things in mind, I would like to redirect the spotlight away from my lead actor and onto my supporting cast, and in the process share with you some of the ideas I’ve been entertaining.

Informants are constitutive elements of scandals—sexual, or otherwise. Essentially, informants bridge the gap between the private and the public, the bedroom and the court. Yet, despite their importance, we know so very little about them. So little, in fact, that we often refer to them in the abstract. Many explain this away by citing an overall absence of sources. I’m trying to avoid that refrain.

On separate days in 1893 John Gamble, William Allen, Robert McCullough, Benjamin Rosemond, Charles Thomas, John Arlow, John Alexander Orr, and John Reilly sat across from a Belfast court official and articulated the various ways in which a former Member of Parliament sexually assaulted them. These young men, varying in age from 16 to 23, were general labourers: some worked at the docks while others collected rent, delivered mail or indexed ledgers. Their statements are vivid and rich with detail; one can imagine how difficult it must have been to articulate.Before the assault Robert McCullough had been working as a telegraph messenger. He had visited De Cobain’s home to acquire a nomination for a promotion to postman. Here’s how he described the encounter:

I went into his house. I was taken into a room to the right of the hall. There was no one in the room but the two of us. After talking about the nomination he said something to me… he put his hands on my leg and my private parts. He just kissed me once. That was all that took place. When leaving the house he said not to make mention of anything. I got the nomination I was seeking.

Another informant, Benjamin Rosemond, had been working as a postal rural messenger in the area around Belfast when he heard of McCullough’s promotion. Keen to get ahead, Rosemond decided to request a nomination from De Cobain as well. Here are his words:

He brought me round to the back of the house and into the conservatory. He loosed the buttons of my gallows behind. My trousers were down. I did not pull my trousers down he pulled them down… When I pulled up my trousers I told him I was not a boy of that sort, that there was a boy waiting on me at the courier and I wanted away. I then came round to the front of the house to leave. He told me not to mention it or the peril of my life and that he would nominate me there and then.

These are just two examples of how some of these informants understood their experiences vis-a-vis De Cobain’s actions. As is often the case these traces leave me with more questions than answers. For instance, to what lengths would men go to gain nominations for employment? What were the limits? Yet the very nature of depositions only allows for a glimpse of the informant; as a result, these traces work to redirect the spotlight back onto the lead.

I mentioned before that those who’ve tried to tell the history of informants cite a lack of sources as a main impediment; I might have to use that refrain after all.