Rare witness statement reveals tragic story of executed gay couple (1753)

By Mary Milton, Archives Officer, Bristol Archives

This article was originally published on the Bristol Museums blog, 4th July 2023

Staff at Bristol Archives have made an important discovery about the case of William Critchard and Richard Arnold, two men executed in 1753 for what was then described as “the detestable crime of buggery.”

Part of a printed poster titled 'A list of persons executed at Bristol since the year 1741'

List of persons executed at Bristol 1741-1835. Arnold and Critchard are listed for “Unnatural Crime”.
Bristol Archives ref.12967

Sexual activity between men was punishable by death until 1861 and remained illegal in England until 1967. A document kept at Bristol Archives sheds new light on the men’s relationship and the encounter that lead to their arrest and execution.

Until now, most of what we knew about Critchard and Arnold was taken from contemporary newspaper reports.

William Critchard (also written Crutchard or Critchley) was described as a young man of around 24, from the west of England, a footman to a gentleman in the city. Richard Arnold was originally from London and described as an older man of “near sixty years of age.” He was the landlord of the Lamb and Flag pub in Temple Street and a “man of substance,” who had “lived in good repute for many years.” At their trial, the two men refused to give up the names of any accomplices, saying that they had confessed their guilt to God and therefore felt it was unnecessary to repeat it to man.

The newspaper Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal gave an account of their execution in September 1753. The article states that “when the cart drew under the gallows, Arnold kissed Critchard’s hand.” The two men signalled their readiness, “by throwing the tufts of flowers from them, the cart drew away and they were soon launched into eternity”.

Part of a hand-written statement

The beginning of John Baber’s witness statement, describing Arnold and Critchard coming to the Swan Alehouse.
Bristol Archives ref. TC/Adm/Box/6/9

The new information about the men was found in one of the hundreds of bundles of documents kept by the city’s Town Clerk and now looked after by Bristol Archives. The bundles, dating from the mid eighteenth to mid nineteenth century, include a huge variety of documents: petitions to the Mayor, records concerning taxes and licensing, as well as court records including lists of jurors and prisoners. Staff at the Archives have been reading through the documents to put more detail into their catalogue entries.

On one document, staff recognised the names of Arnold and Critchley and then were astonished to read witness statements used as evidence against the men. John Baber and Joseph Senskell had observed the two men having sex in a private room at the Swan Alehouse in Broad Street, Bristol.

Painting of Broad Street in 1824 showing 3-storey gabled houses on the left of a lane and the stone facade of the medieval old Guildhall on the right

Drawing of Broad Street, Bristol, 1824. The Swan Alehouse was one of the buildings on the left side of the street, where the two men in top hats are standing.
Bristol Archives ref. M2335

The statement of John Baber, landlord of the Swan Alehouse says, Critchard and Arnold “went into a private room and shut the door, but this informant having some suspicion of their being about some indecent practices looked privately into the said room where he observed both their breeches down…” The statement describes the men having sex, preceded by kissing.

Historian Rictor Norton, a researcher of LGBTQ+ history, says this is a fascinating discovery.

“Usually, the only evidence we are given in court records of sodomy trials is the summary statement that the defendants behaved in such a way as to lead the observer to conclude that they had committed sodomy. But this testimony leaves nothing to the imagination, and not only leaves no doubt about the act itself but shows that it was preceded by kisses and caresses, thus demonstrating that the two men fully consented to the encounter. It’s wonderful to have such evidence of the wider humanity of their relations rather than the bald claim of their criminal act,” he says.

Andy Foyle of OutStories Bristol, the LGBTQ+ history group for Bristol, was also excited by the discovery.

“Such discoveries are a rare event. This is a really important step forward in understanding the detailed facts which sadly led to these men being hanged. It shows the importance and value of our city’s fantastic archives and the care taken by the archives staff every day.”

Bristol Archives staff continue to catalogue the Town Clerk collections. The documents related to Critchard and Arnold’s trial and execution can be viewed at the Bristol Archives by appointment.

If this story has piqued your interest, Bristol Archives has published a Source Guide for those wanting to research the LGBTQ+ history of the city.

Transcription of the sworn statement by the witnesses John Baber and Joseph Senskell

29th August 1752

City and County of Bristol…..} to wit:
The information of John Baber victualler
living at the Swan Alehouse in Broad Street
in the said City and County.

The informant on his oath saith that this day the two persons now in custody giving their names Richard Arnold and William Critchard came to this informent at the Swan Alehouse aforesaid and called for a Pint of ale after which they went into a private Room and Shutt the Door, but this Informant having some suspition of their being about some indecent practices looked privately into the said Room where he observed both their breeches down and saw the said Richard Arnold’s hands in the said William Critchard’s Breeches and there handling his private parts after which he saw them kiss each other several times and after some little time this Informant still observing them he saw the said Richard Arnold’s bare posterior parts which he held towards the said William Critchard’s private parts, as if he was endeavouring to sitt in his lap, the said William Critchard then being sitt down at the edge of a Bench with his Breeches still unbuttoned and this Informent further saith that he particularly saw the said William Critchard push his private parts very eagerly & often towards the said Richard Arnold’s posterior parts and saw the said Richard Arnold move himself likewise backwards & forwards, by all which this Informent on his Oath further saith that he verily believes they were then committing the act of Sodomy together.
John Baber before me.
Nathanel Day

The Information of Joseph Senskell Keeper of the Exchange in this city.
Who on his oath Saith that he likewise saw the two persons above mentioned kiss each other at the House above named John Baber and also saw both their Breeches down.
Joseph Senskell.

Sworn before me
Nathanel Day

Arnold, the Night Constable.

John Baber       }
Joseph Senskell } in 40 shillings each
ffor their appear at the next General Gaol Delivery & to give Evidence against Richard.Arnold and William Critchard on suspition of having committed the detestable crime of Buggery etc.

SOURCE: Bristol Archives, TC-Adm-Box-6-9-1
Transcribed by Andrew Foyle (abbreviations edited to aid readability)