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Kenwood House

Designed by architect Robert Adam, Kenwood House is considered one of the great examples of the architecture of the 18th century. It's also world-renowned for the important collection of paintings it houses by artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Less well-known is Kenwood's connection to LGBTQ history.

Home of the chief justice of the King’s Bench

The house was the property of one of the greatest figures in legal history - William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

Murray's career coincided with the growth of English Law. As a judge he is remembered today for his central role in modernising the legal system, reforming laws regulating commerce and also court procedure. Significantly, he also championed the legal rights of a number of minorities, such as Roman Catholics but especially of slaves and he termed the slave trade 'odious' in court.

Portrait of  Lord Mansfield 1st Earl of Mansfield, 1775, oil on canvas
David Martin, Lord Mansfield 1st Earl of Mansfield, 1775, oil on canvas, The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, English Heritage © Historic England J030043

The Adam Library at Kenwood was designed by Robert Adam to be a 'shrine' to Murray's role as a judge and the presence of this legal and social reformer can still be felt there today.

Kenwood House, view of the ‘Great Room’ or Library
Kenwood House, view of the ‘Great Room’ or Library © Historic England Photo Library N130057

Murray's involvement with social issues included the law surrounding homosexuality - or sodomy as it was then termed. He presided over two trials as judge. The first was a case involving a well-known celebrity of the day - the actor, dramatist and theatre manager Samuel Foote.

Portrait of Samuel Foote
After Jean François Gille Colson, Portrait of Samuel Foote, etching and engraving, 1770, Private Collection

Foote, who due to an accident had only one leg, was famous for cross-dressing in his roles as a comic character 'Lady Pentweazel' in the play Taste which Foote himself had written.

Painting shows Foote in the role of Lady Pentweazel
A Scene from Samuel Foote's Play "Taste" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845 © UK Government Art Collection

John Sangster prosecution of Samuel Foote

On the 9 December 1776 Foote was brought before Murray charged with attempted assault with the intent to commit buggery. Foote had been accused by his coachman John Sangster of sexually assaulting him, as he stated in his evidence:

Defendant came in and shut the door […] ‘Now, John, as this is the last day of your service, 10 or 20 guineas shall be at your service if you’ll let me have a do at you’ […] I turned about to him […] I struck him with my fist […] ‘You old sodomitical rascal, see how I shall serve you’.

Transcript from trial papers

Foote pleaded not guilty and despite the fact that both the jury and Murray acquitted him of any crime, the ordeal of the trial seems to have been too much. He sold his theatre and died the following year. It is not known what happened to Sangster.

Francis Thwaites prosecution of William Wright

The second trial involved one William Wright, Esq., who was brought before Murray on 8 December 1781 under similar charges. Attending the Haymarket Theatre, Wright had been accused by one Francis Thwaites who testified that:

…I felt defendant’s hand on the side of my thigh and pressing it and with his foot upon my toe…I stood up and went to the back of the box. Defendant put his hand under my coat to my backside and played upon it with his fingers…I sat down again, when defendant trod on my toe and rubbed my thigh…his actions convinced me of his intentions.

Transcript from trial papers

Despite pleading innocence Wright was found guilty. Although not sentenced to death, as he would have been if convicted of actually committing sodomy, he faced either imprisonment or time on the pillory. The Laws penalising homosexuality would only be repealed in 1967.

The Court of the King’s Bench
JG Walker, The Court of the King’s Bench, Private Collection. This was where Samuel Foote and where William Wright Esq were brought before William Murray on charges of attempted assault with the intent to commit buggery
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Also of interest...

  • Court room, almost empty but for six people including three policeman going about their work or talking.

    Law and Oppression

    Anglo-Saxon laws made no mention of same-sex desire or sodomy. Sexual activity between men wasn't criminalised until the reign of Henry VIII.