William Merrilees and the Gay Love Letters of Interwar Edinburgh

William Merrilees, the late former Chief Constable of Lothian and Peebles, undertook a ‘war against homosexuality’ in Edinburgh during the interwar period. Single-handedly, or at least that’s how Merrilees’ reminiscences seem to suggest, he embarked on a ruthless attempt to put away as many homosexuals as his workload allowed. In his autobiography The Short Arm of the Law, he details his pursuit of the morally challenged men and boys of the city. His disgust and alarm are barely disguised as he recalls the numerous trips he undertook to public spaces, brothels, and bathhouses in search of these men. His publishers, John Long, released a number of retired police officers’ autobiographies during the 1950s and 1960s, including those by Merrilees, and the Glasgow contingent of Robert Colquhoun (ex-Chief Superintendent) and Douglas Grant (ex-Inspector).

Colquhoun mentions the issue of homosexuality only briefly, but tellingly, in his autobiography Life Begins at Midnight, detailing the murder of Glasgow police informer and car sprayer William Vincent. Vincent, a small ‘dapper’ middle-aged businessman was strangled in his West End home by Robert Scott a 21 year-old salesman who had been pursued by Vincent for some time. At Scott’s trial the victim had been described as a ‘worthless man’ whose sexual ‘depravities’ had driven Scott to murder. As Colquhoun stated, ‘William Vincent died by strangling because he was evil’.

But Merrilees spent more time detailing the hidden vice of homosexuality and the ‘evil’ it wrought within his autobiography. Merrilees’s revulsion is evident, his tone condemnatory, and his relish in arresting (and on occasion, beating) homosexual men and boys very evident. Yet, when you examine Merrilees’s personal papers, the tone is much less condemnatory, and much more reflective. The policeman created a file on his contact with homosexual men in Edinburgh during the interwar period, and within this details how homosexuality was a ubiquitous feature of human life with a history stretching back to ‘at least the early bible times’, and was found amongst both men and women. Merrilees records the homosexual tendencies of James I (VI), and those of Oscar Wilde. Such reflections are absent from his published version. There is an acknowledgement that in many cases same-sex desire was a trait many were born with and that ‘most of them outwardly appear perfectly normal’. Despite his acknowledgement that he was not a medical or psychiatric expert (although he sought the advice of David Henderson, the psychiatrist), Merrilees does attempt to classify the types of homosexual he encountered:

1. The organically wrong

2. The mentally wrong

3. Those driven to homosexuality through fear of VD

4. Those who acquire it in youth

5. The heterosexually exhausted (often retired lawyers and the like)

Much of Merrilees’s activities in Edinburgh were focused on male ‘prostitutes’, in particular those who displayed feminine characteristics and used makeup. Within his autobiography he refers to the letters which were seized as evidence in cases where young men were suspected of homosexual vice. Within his notes he includes copies of such letters, which detail blossoming relationships between young men.

Monday
Dear Princess Marina

I got your letter O.K. today. I was glad to hear that you were at Rosyth. I’m sure you had a swell time. Well princess I met a swell sheik on “Sat.” and I am madly in love with him. Honest Morris I love that chap the way I’ve loved no one else. Gee he is a swell guy. I have been crying all day when I think of the way he was smiling last night.

Morris I can’t explain how I love this chap. I’ve had a funny feeling since I met him, and when I talk to him I do not want to leave him. I feel so fed up just now I want to do nothing but sit and think of him all night. I’m simply crazy about him. When I was with him I met a sailor I knew and spoke to him and my sheik told him to ‘jack off’. Well dear I will close. I hope you have better luck with your sweethearts.

Blondey

Letters such as these were used in prosecutions as evidence of homosexual relationships between men, and senders and recipients of further letters were tracked down and interviewed. Due to the nature of Scots Law, private consensual homosexual relations were rarely prosecuted due to the requirement of corroborating evidence, but letters such as these between alleged ‘prostitutes’ were seized from premises in Edinburgh thought to host male prostitutes and their clients, such as a hotel in Rosebery Crescent.

In his autobiography, Merrilees describes these letters as being disgusting in nature, but most are sentimental, occasionally fruity, but generally unremarkable other than being correspondence between men. The author of the above letter was sent to prison for 18 months, this letter to his friend Morris probably playing a role.

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