IN 1942 the author J.R. Ackerley wrote a letter to the Spectator expressing his outrage in regard to a story he had stumbled across that took place in Abergavenny.

The story concerned a number of men who were involved in a notorious sex case that made national news and “rattled the town like an earthquake.”

Ackerley was himself gay in a time when homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence, and made his protestations on the basis that over 20 men were put on trial for homosexual behaviour.

One of the men involved took his own life by throwing himself in front of a train, while most of the other men involved received sentences ranging from one to ten years.

Under the editorship of a tenacious newsman named George Harris, the Abergavenny Chronicle covered the proceeding and trials more extensively than any other media outlet.

In light of the recent announcement by Gwent Police apologizing to the LGBT+ community for past homophobic witchhunts and discriminatory law enforcement, it seems both timely and appropriate to revisit the 1942 case.

Although many men were put on trial simply for being gay, the judge involved in the case had no hesitation in describing some of the men involved in the case as ‘principals who corrupted youths’.

Such men’s defining sexual characteristic of a predatory male, which had they been heterosexual, would have been equally as damning.

The Chronicle in no shape or form seeks to ignore or whitewash this fact.

The Chronicle would also like to add that neither do we judge, condemn or seek to assassinate the character of any of the individuals involved in the 1942 case.

We merely seek to present our readership with a purely objective article of historical fact that we feel will be of some considerable interest, not only in respect to a period of Abergavenny’s history which remains largely forgotten, but also in regard to the ever-changing dynamic of British social and cultural life in the twentieth century.

Below is a brief summary of events as they unfolded.

June 19: Seven persons are brought up on serious charges under the Offences Against The Person Act. Their names, age, occupation, and charges include - George Rowe (40), cinema manager, gross indecency; James Taylor (39), chef, gross indecency; Percy Turner (37), hotel chef, gross indecency; James Duffy (27), cafe assistant, gross indecency; Oswald Pugh (27), hairdresser, Sodomy; Neville Holly (31), clerk, sodomy.

It was reported that Holly was arrested in Scotland earlier that month. All men were refused bail, except Rowe who made a failed suicide attempt in his own home, about which he later said, “I can’t stand the scandal. That has always been the trouble with me. I haven’t got any guts.”

Another man arrested in relation to the same charges had died on June 12.

June 26: The Chronicle reports that a 19-year-old Abergavenny man who was previously detained at the town’s police station, but later released on bail on June 11, went on to commit suicide in the early hours of the next day.

The man who placed his head upon the outside line of the Abergavenny to Penpergwm track, had his skull split open and brain lacerated by a passing train.

At the inquest it was heard that on the inside breast pocket of the deceased’s jacket was a note addressed to his work mate, which the coroner refused to read, but stated it was sufficient for him to say that it indicated quite clearly the intention of the deceased to destroy himself with regard to the fact he was in some trouble.

Three more people were also arrested this week on serious ages, two of which were arrested in London. One of the aforesaid men who was discharged from the army for having a complete nervous breakdown, said he expected a fair chance of being leniently dealt with at his trial and declared he had completely cured himself of his ‘tendencies’.

He also stated he was presently engaged at a theatre and worried that his absence would seriously hold up the promotion due to the shortage of actors. July 10: Due to further arrests there are now 19 persons in custody on charges under The Offences Against The Person Act at Abergavenny. Two of the men were from London, one from Barking, one from Cross Ash, one from Abercarn, and one from Gilwern.

It was reported that the police were making continued enquiries further afield.

July 17: A week later a further two men in their forties are arrested. When arrested and charged in Abercarn one of the accused replied, “I know who the boy is, but I deny it.”

Meanwhile, the man arrested in Abertillery replied when charged, “That’s a lie! I don’t know him.”

July 31: The hearing of 24 men charged with grave offences commenced at Abergavenny this week. 20 of the men were brought up on remand from Cardiff Gaol, handcuffed together in pairs.

One of the accused Oswald Pugh was unable to make the journey on medical grounds. One man had committed suicide in custody, one had received bail, and one was in custody waiting to be added to the list.

August 7: Five solicitors appeared at the Abergavenny police court this week to represent various members of the 23 accused. One 20 year old man who had been charged with an offence three years ago was discharged.

After the solicitors complained that they had no time to properly examine the statements and prepare the case, a further adjournment date of August 17 was agreed.

August 21: 22 accused men charged with a total of 192 offences were present at an Abergavenny police court this week for a hearing that lasted five days, and from which the public were banned.

Mr. Harmston in opening the cases said they would hear in almost every statement made, the defendant either admitted the offences or some of the offences, and would notice that these statements often referred to other defendants.

Mr. Harmston then went on to include the three types of offence, which included, the actual offence, the offence of attempting, and the offence of soliciting.

In the case of Oswald Pugh, who was in a paralysed condition, and had to be carried in and out of court, those present heard that a boy of 16 said he went to Pugh’s house and Pugh asked him to do something, which he did.

Another boy of 17 said he had met a man called Horace, whom he now knew as Pugh.

On meeting Pugh, the boy went for a walk down the river with him. There were others there at the time, and Pugh made a suggestion to the boy, but the boy did not respond.

About a month later Pugh asked him to go to his house and go. Pugh said, “I deny the charge of money.”

In a statement Pugh said he had come to Abergavenny, and a few months later he had become good friends with James Taylor, and had made the acquaintance of several members of an army unit stationed in the area.

He was introduced to boys and went for walks along the river, but never touched any, except one.

In April he went for a walk with Taylor and Holly and they met two Indian soldiers, and Pugh said, “I and Taylor took one each.” He could not remember the number of Indian soldiers he had been associated with, but it was somewhere between 25 and 30.

In the case of Rowe a boy of 15 said that in June or July he was employed at the cinema which Rowe was the manager.

Soon after he started working with Rowe, one night Rowe told him he had a cold, but said that they could carry on working at his house which was on the opposite side of the road.

The boy slept at Rowe’s house half a dozen times and once or twice in the same bed, before quitting his job.

The Chronicle reports that the witness became very hesitant when being examined by Mr. Harmston, who tried to get him to explain what happened, before saying, “I am afraid I cannot put words into your mouth.”

Another boy of 15 who had worked at the same cinema was given two flagons of beer and stout by Rowe, who told him that when his housekeeper was away they would go to his house and he would show him a lot of things he had learned in France.

The boy did not tell his mother what had happened because he was too ashamed.

When Rowe asked him why he did not come back to work, the boy told him you know why.

The mother of one of the boys said, “What have you done to these boys.”

Rowe said he thought the boy had left his position of employment because he wanted more money. Rowe said he offered the boy more money but he did not come back. The Chronicle reports how Rowe seemed noticeably nervous.

Yet another boy of 15 who worked at the cinema said Rowe took him back to his house gave him chocolate and told him not to tell anyone what had happened.

A 16-year-old boy said he had been at Rowe’s house, when a friend of Rowe put a tea-cloth on his head, another cloth over his knees, combed his hair with a fork, and called himself the Queen of Sheba, and talked like a woman.

In the case of Neville Holly, a boy of 16 had given evidence that he had met Holly at Rowe’s house in September 1941, where a party were playing roulette and drinking intoxicants.

Holly followed the boy out of the room and made a suggestion.

A boy of 16 said he met Holly about May 1941 and gave evidence of two incidents.

Another boy of 17 gave evidence as to two incidents in which Holly was concerned.

A boy of 15 spoke of his association with Holly, and said that Holly’s conduct grew worse, and on one occasion he refused his suggestion.

Holly made a statement that he had become acquainted with Rowe and had a key to his house.

He described how he also got to know Hugh and Taylor, and knew that they were both frequently with Indian soldiers. He told how he had watched them through opera glasses and Pugh had made a remark about Holly being jealous because he had never been with an Indian.

Holly said he was introduced to this class of offence when he was 14 or 15 by an older local man. Holly made a further statement saying, “All the parties I have been associated with, have been consenting parties.”

In the case of James Duffy, a boy of 16 said he had met Duffy in Bailey Park, and Duffy had asked him to go go a walk with him, and had tried to interfere with him, but the boy had started to fight and Duffy run away.

Six months later Duffy asked the same boy to go for a walk with him up the Little Skirrid, again Duffy tried to interfere with the boy, but the boy stopped him.

In regard to Frederick Percival Turner, a 15-year-old boy said that he had tried to interfere with him and promised him money.

In a statement Turner admitted a number of offences at Abergavenny and a Newport hotel where he worked, and said he had paid a youth on various occasions.

One of the men who received a lesser sentence of 15 months said in his defence, “Yes, I can’t say how many times it happened. What I did was of my own free will. It is in my nature, it appeals to me. Perhaps you are different.”

Another man who was eventually discharged said, “I have always been attracted to my own sex, and I have fought against it.”

Following a long line of lengthy statements the court heard that it should be explained that a good many of the alleged offences were not committed at Abergavenny, and that a number of the defendants had only a short or temporary connection with Abergavenny, being war-time importations.

Of the 22 men charged, 19 were committed to the Monmouthshire assizes, two were dismissed, and one was to be dealt with separately.

November 4: Twenty men committed from Abergavenny came before Mr. Justice Singleton on grave charges at the Monmouthshire assizes.

Two were discharged, one was referred, and the remaining 17 were put into the dock together, and each had a numbered label affixed to his coat too distinguish him.

Only one case came before the jury, and only one witness was called, as the prosecution remained satisfied with the pleas of guilty in other cases.

In all a total of 13 men received sentences ranging from 12 months to ten years, combining a collective 57 and a half years of imprisonment. The remaining four were bound over for two years in the sum of £10.

Although the judge regarded Holly as one of the worst cases, it came as something of a shock to everyone in the court when the sentence of ten years penal servitude was announced.

Holly who collapsed upon hearing his sentence was told by the judge, “I regard yours as the worst case, or as bad as any. There were eight boys involved under 21 years of age.”

There were ten charges against Holly in total, and he pleaded guilty to all of them. The court heard that all those cases centred around Holly, and others incriminated had been introduced by Holly. Holly’s defence said that he was perfectly convinced that at the time the accused was incapable of understanding the gravity of the offences, and that Holly had pleaded he had done no harm to anybody, except those who were addicted to similar practices.

What evidently influenced the judge in his sentences was the consideration as whether the accused were principals and whether they had corrupted youths.

He extended leniency and good advice to those whom he thought had been led astray.

Rowe pleaded guilty to five cases of indecency. All cases concerned youths under 21, and two of them were under 18.

There were 23 other cases of gross indecency which did not involve the corruption of young boys.

The court heard that Rowe was a man of exceptional talents, and it was tragic when such a man went wrong, and like Lucifer fell into the lowest depths.

After sentencing Rowe to five years the judge said, “The best that can be said about you is that you admitted all the offences.”

Dr. Burrows of Hereford, speaking as an expert in psychological medicine said that homosexuality was due to arrested development, and Rowe’s defence asked his lordship to accept the medical evidence that this was one of the diseases of the mind which acquired proper treatment. He also said that Rowe was as sorry about it as anyone in the court.

James Taylor who came to Abergavenny from London after the outbreak of war was sentenced to seven years after having 26 charges of gross indecency against his name.

Taylor said that he had corrupted no-one in whom homosexual tendencies were not already existing.

Associate of both Holly and Taylor, Oswald Pugh, who was paralysed down the right side of his body owing to a certain disease, was told by the court he had abnormal sexual instincts. The court also declared that because he was so physically disadvantaged and likely to remain so, that in itself was considerable punishment, but nevertheless sentenced him to a total of six years.

One of the accused named Trevor George Jones, an accomplished female impersonator, pleaded guilty to 24 offences and was sentenced to five years.

The court heard how Jones had gone to Cardiff and other places in the hope of meeting people with similar tendencies.

His defence submitted that whatever the accused did it was with the full consent of the people involved. His defence also told the court that he would recommend the accused a change of environment and that he should do harder work on a farm under a master of fairly strong personality.

James Duffy, who hailed from Ireland and was a conscientious objector to the war effort, was sentenced to three years for offences spread over a number of years.

Alongside Holly, Frederick Percival Turner was the only other defendant sentenced to ten years. Turner, a married man, had attempted to commit suicide in Port Talbot by taking 133 aspirins. The judge said to Turner, “Your case is in the same category as Holly, worse in some respects, considering the position you held.”

A 38-year-old bank clerk from Blaina who pleaded guilty to offences at the house of Rowe, stated that he was corrupted at public school.

Mr. R. Somerset said everyone knew that there was a certain amount of this sort of thing going on in public schools and always had been, “A lot of people grow out of it, but sometimes in the unfortunate case of this man, they did not.” He added.

The judge said he did not share this view, and that this case had not much to do with a public school.

In the case of a 22-year old hotel porter, the court heard how he had been described as more like a girl than a boy. He was described as distinctly more effeminate than any of the persons charged, and he did not appear to have any masculine tendencies.

His mother said that her son had maintained her for two years and he had been a good boy to her.

On imposing a sentence of 15 months on the man, the judge told him, “I want you to realise that this is being done for your own good, and I believe it will help you.”

To the four accused who were bound over in the sum of £10 for two years, the judge said, “You are very young and not subject to tendencies of this kind. Do not be led astray again or it will go ill with you.

“I have evidence that satisfies me, that you realised that you were falling from the right path and tried to curb your evil ways some time ago. I bind you on the understanding that you will place yourself in proper hands if it becomes necessary.”

During the course of the hearing the judge asked, “Are all these men from Abergavenny?” Mr. Raglan Somerset replied, “No my lord, some are from other places.”

The judge added, “If they were all from Abergavenny it strikes one that there must be a remarkable number of men there suffering from arrested mental development.”

Mr. Raglan Somerset finished by saying that Abergavenny has acquired an unfortunate name because of these offences, but it must be clear that Abergavenny was not entirely to blame. The discovery was made there, and the net was extended.