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07 October 2020

Trans London in the 1960s: Ruminations

Part I: 1960-3
Part IV: Ruminations

Revision of Birth Certificates

It is often said that in Britain before Corbett v Corbett transsexuals as well as intersex persons could get their birth certificates re-issued.

I purposely juxtaposed Georgina Turtle and April Ashley re changing of one’s birth certificate. Georgina had to supply medical reports along with affidavits from three doctors Kenneth Walker, A.P. Cawadias and her father. Mr Clarkson, the surgeon, was also obliged to provide a report of her anatomy and Georgina had to provide written assurances that she had never been married or been capable of functioning as a male. A pretty high bar that not everyone was able to meet.

April was apparently advised (incorrectly) that birth certificates were not re-issued. 

As her marriage was to Arthur Corbett, Lord Rowallan, surely he had the clout, the contacts and the money to arrange for her birth certificate to be re-issued. Or was he planning from the beginning that without the revised birth certificate, he would be able to get the marriage annulled whenever he felt like it?

On this page on the Rachel Horsham website, you can view the original and revised birth certificates of April Ashley, Michael Dillon, Robert Cowell and Georgina Turtle. And certainly Ewan Forbes had his birth certificate re-issued. Dillon and Forbes were children of titled aristocrats; Cowell and Turtle were children of prominent medical men.

We might also note the inconsistent application of the rules. Turtle had to provide written assurances that she had never been married or been capable of functioning as a male, while Cowell had been married and had fathered two children.

There was a Scottish case in 1965 wherein a trans woman designated solely as ‘X’, "a person correctly registered as a male at birth subsequently changed sex, a petition to correct an error presented under the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1854 (c80) (repealed) was refused".

I fail to find that ordinary trans persons before 1970, that is those without titles, money and/or medical and legal contacts, were actually able to obtain the revised certificate by their own effort.

We know from Peter Stirling’s autobiography that his social worker at Guy’s Hospital was outraged that the Australian High Commission refused to re-issue his birth certificate. “[This] I think is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! It's a pity you weren't British, there would be no hassle here.” Ironically that was 1968, just before Corbett v Corbett.

Can we therefore assume that up to 1970, the clinic at Guy’s Hospital usually arranged for revised birth certificates for their clients? Was that also true for the clinic at Charing Cross Hospital? I have looked but not found confirmation.

But what about those who had private surgery, maybe in Casablanca? Jan Morris tells us of her re-issued passport, driving licence etc, but no word about a birth certificate.


Aristocratic Privilege

We have in the 1960s three examples of where having to decide between good governance and the convenience of a titled person, the authorities definitely chose the latter. The fact that Macmillan, of the publishing dynasty, and many other Conservative (and a few Labour) politicians were either born or wed into the Aristocracy was obviously a factor.

  1. Ewan Forbes, 11th Baronet of Carigievar
  2. Robert Boothby, Baron Boothby of Buchan and Rattray Head
  3. Arthur Corbett, Lord Rowallan

Contraceptive pills and the decriminalisation of Homosexuality

The contraceptive pill became available in Britain in 1961, at first just for older married women who had sufficient children, then later for younger married women who wished to delay or avoid parenthood, and finally for single women who wished to have a sex life without becoming pregnant.

There were three side results from this.

  • Heterosexual sex no longer had the threat of pregnancy. Like homosexuality it could become recreational sex. Thus the objection to homosexuality that it was not procreative fell away.
  • As women became more open to recreational sex, straight men stopped having sex with gay men.
  • The pill was an available oestrogen source. Where a trans woman could not talk her way into a prescription, non-official contraceptive pills were a way to get started. 

Peter Hitchens, previously a Trotskyite radical who later became an idiosyncratic conservative, says in his book The Abolition of Britain

“Logically, there was now no difference between sterile heterosexual sex and sterile homosexual sex. In fact, in some ways, homosexuality was the purest expression of the new doctrine that sex was fun and that we should explore our bodies and experience pleasure as self-fulfillment. Nobody who believed in pre-marital or extramarital sex could object to homosexuality without serious hypocrisy. This is why the relaxation of laws on homosexuality, first proposed in the 1950s Wolfenden Report, was delayed until the 1960s. Before the pill, the liberalization could not happen because of the distaste most people felt for homosexual acts. After the pill, the governing class had to relax the laws, because they were no longer consistent with the national mood or with their own pleasures.”

That of course is an insular British point of view. The US had the pill also but did not achieve nationwide decriminalization of gay love until Lawrence v Texas in 2003 (although Illinois and Connecticut had already liberalised their laws by the late 1960s). This would make England (not Britain or the UK as Scotland and Northern Ireland were excluded) look progressive, but actually it was a laggard in decriminalisation. Similar repeals or decriminalisations had been achieved across Europe, especially in the East before the availability of the contraceptive pill:

1932 Poland

1940 Iceland (actually under UK occupation at the time)

1942 Switzerland

1944 Sweden & Surinam

1945 Portugal

1948 Poland (repeated by the new Communist government)

1951 Greece

1956 Thailand

1961 Czechoslovakia & Hungary

1963 Israel


Roy Jenkins

Hitchens, a contrarian who regrets the social reforms of the 1960s, makes Home Secretary Roy Jenkins the villain of his book, The Abolition of Britain, but also points out the hypocrisy of the Conservative Party. He quotes Jenkins: “What is particularly hypocritical about the [Conservative] Government’s refusal to act on homosexual law reform is that none of its leading members (nor those of any other major institution in the national life) apply social disapproval to conduct which, for public consumption, they insist on keeping subject to the full rigours of the criminal law.” Jenkins also admitted that there was a ‘radical wing’ of the Conservatives that was supportive of his program. By the very nature of the Conservative Party such reform could come only from Labour – however several key Conservatives such as Thatcher and Enoch Powell did vote for the decriminalisation of Homosexuality.

Later, during the 1980s rule of Margaret Thatcher, she and her cabinet blamed Jenkins’ reforms for family breakdowns, the decline of respect for authority and the decline of social responsibility. Jenkins replied by pointing out that Thatcher, with her large parliamentary majorities, never attempted to reverse any of his reforms.


Government scandals

The Conservation Government 1951-64 was beset with sex and espionage scandals:

1951 Defection of diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to Moscow.

1951 Sarah Macmillan, youngest child of Harold Macmillan, said to be fathered by Robert Boothby, had an illegal abortion – the family considered this a lessor scandal than an out-of-wedlock birth just before the October 1951 election. It left her unable to have children.

1956 Lionel Crabb, a diver sent by MI6 to investigate a Soviet ship visiting Portsmouth, was never seen again.

1957 At the trial of Dr John Bodkins Adams, suspected serial killer, no questions were asked about his involvement in the death of Edward Cavendish, the brother of Dorothy Macmillan. Apparently to avoid drawing attention to the fact that Prime Minister Macmillan was a cuckold. 

1958 When Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister he raised Robert Boothby to the House of Lords. Dorothy Macmillan nee Cavendish (1900-66) married to Harold Macmillan from 1920, had been a lover of Boothby from 1930.  The affair was an open secret but the press chose not to mention it – not even later during the Profumo scandal.

1958 Ian Harvey, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office was found in the bushes of St James Park with a Coldstream Guardsman. He resigned his office and his seat.

1961 George Blake arrested for spying for USSR. Sentenced to 42 years, but escaped after 5.

1962 John Vassall, spied for the USSR. Sentenced to 18 years, released after 10.

1963 Top British spy Kim Philby fled to Moscow. 

1963 Charles Fletcher-Cooke, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Home Office was discovered to be living with a young man when the latter was stopped while speeding. Resigned as a minister but continued as MP for another 20 years.

1963 John Profumo shared a mistress with a Soviet Naval attaché. He lied to Parliament, and then resigned his office and his seat.

1964 Robert Boothby sharing rent boys with East End gangsters – hushed up by both major parties.

The Conservatives were of course hoping for a Labour Party scandal in the late 1960s in return. They thought that they had one when Marcia Williams, divorced, Harold Wilson’s political secretary, had two sons. The Daily Mail sent its political editor, Walter Terry, to see if Wilson was the father. However he was unable to do this as he himself was the father.



A synchronicity is two or more events happening around the same time without a clear causal nexus.

We had three apparent such in the 1960s. 

July 1964.

  1. After the George Brinham murder and subsequent trial, it was felt by the judicial authorities that persecution of gay men should be toned down. The Director of Public Prosecutions issued instructions to police forces that in cases involving consenting adults in private no prosecution should be initiated until an opinion had been obtained from the Director. The story was leaked by the London Evening Standard in July 1964.
  2. The Daily Mirror ran a story about a Peer and a gangster (both unnamed) implying a sexual relationship. They were named by the West German magazine Stern as Robert Boothby and Ronnie Kray.

Presumably no one in authority anticipated the Boothby-Kray dalliance when the toning down was instructed.

Incidentally, neither event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for July 1964.

May-December 1967

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was debated 4 July, and received Royal Assent on 27 July. 

The in-camera trial between Ewan Forbes and his cousin John Forbes-Semphill took place May-December.

Logically they should have complemented each other, one giving a few rights to gay men, and the other recognising a gender change. However the latter was not permitted to apply in general.

It is quite likely that the authorities were pleased to accept the synchronicity.

Corbert v Corbett and Dawn Langley Simmons

November –December 1969 were the main hearings in the Corbett annulment trial, and quite fortuitously Dawn Langley Simmons and her husband arrived in England, and drew much greater press attention.


Birth Certificates and Marriage

If we accept the assumption that a marriage of a trans person is null and void if the birth certificate was never re-issued with the later name and gender, we must explain these cases:

Dawn Langley Hall Simmons. Her biographer, Edward Ball, travelled to Crowborough, East Sussex, and in the local records found two birth certificates. Both named the child as Gordon Ticehurst, the first in 1922; the re-issue in 1939 named a previously missing father, but no other changes. Despite the lack of a re-issue as female, Dawn's marriage to John Paul was never challenged on those grounds.

Peter Stirling. The Australian High Commission refused in 1968, as per standard practice, to re-issue Stirling’s birth certificate. Despite this he married his girl-friend. A few years later Peter took his English wife to Australia as his wife. Their marriage was never challenged. His only problem was that when he renewed his passport, they put sex=F. It took months, but with the aid of Guy’s Hospital he was able to get that fixed.


Intersex Wannabees

It would seem that Stirling, Turtle-Somerset and Dee Palmer actually had an intersex condition, but there is no satisfactory evidence that Cowell, Dillan, Forbes, Hall-Simmons, Ashley or Morris had such. It had been made clear even before Corbett v Corbett that courts favoured intersex persons, especially those where chromosomes, gonads and genitals were concordant see for example S vs S, 1962, and the failed petition of X in 1965. Thus the lengths that trans persons of that generation went to present themselves as intersex. That was understandable – they were not playing on a level field. What needs more attention is why 21st century writers continue to claim some of them as intersex – as they do with Lili Elevenes (Elbe) also.


  • Alkarim Jivani. It’s Not Unusual: A History of Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century. Indiana Press, 1997.
  • Michael Bloch.C10set Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians. Abacus,2015.
  • Peter Hitchens. The Abolition of Britain. Bloomsbury, 2018.
  • Zoe Playdon. “Who’s Offensive Now? Trans law at the time of the Sexual Offences Act. SEXing the Past. 3-5 March 2017. 

1 comment:

  1. On revision of birth certificates at para 5 where it reads: "On this page on the Rachel Horsham website" at "this page" will not bring you to the specified page it should read. At will bring you to Rachel Horsham's Home Page" this will bring you to the page where the birth certificates mentioned here can be reviewed.


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