"The Trial of the Century"

Copyright © 2005 Bruce Tober - All Rights Reserved

The Polymath vs the Belly-Dancer

Every generation produces its share of Renaissance Men and Women. And the Victorian Era surely produced quite a few. Noel Pemberton Billing [1880-1948] was one such.

Inventor, Member of Parliament, playwrite, editor, publisher, bricklayer, tram conductor, policeman, boxing champion, estate agent, law graduate, entrepreneur, the man, son of a Birmingham (UK) iron founder, who left school and home at age 14, was beyond question a genius/polymath.

As his wife's god-son, the late Ian de Hamel, described him, "Pemberton-Billing was an extraordinary and multi-dimentional man. As an aeroplane designer he produced some of the earliest "successful" flying boats. His company was bought by Hubert Scott-Paine, which became the Super Marine Company, later bought by Vickers. It produced the Schneider Trophy winners and The Spitfire.


(book cover from Twentieth Century Maverick by Barbara Stoney)

"He also produced the first long-playing record in the '30s. But his patent for it was bought by HMV who promptly squashed it so that it would give no competition to their 78 rpm records. The long playing record's entry into the market was thus delayed by more than 20 years."

Entreprenuer Becomes Politician

In 1913, having returned from South Africa (to which he'd gone after leaving home) and his experiences as a tram driver and policeman and boxer, he opened Pemberton-Billing Ltd in Southampton. His interest in the company waned as it ran into financial difficulties in 1914 and he resigned at the end of 1915 in order to pursue a political career.

"Winning a seat on his second attempt in 1916 he retained his seat at East Hertfordshire until 1923," according to the
PortCities Southampton website, "retiring then through ill health. As an MP he was a controversial figure and was famously tried for criminal libel in 1918. It was called the trial of the century."

Pemberton-Billing was prosecuted in 1918 as the result of an article he had published in his Imperialist (sometimes known as Vigilante) magazine, He had claimed in that article, the existence of a black book that listed the names of thousands of English men and women who were allegedly homosexuals.

Maude Allan

Maude Allan

hand-tinted photo by Reutlinger of Paris in about 1908.

By way of background to this infamous trial, on the other side of the Atlantic lived a raving beauty by the name of Maude Allan. A belly-dancer by trade, in February 1918 Maude was about to open in Oscar Wilde's Salome. Just days before the opening night, the Vigilante ran a boxed paragraph under a heading in black bold type:

"The Cult of the Clitoris

"To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performance in Oscar Wilde’s Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, WC. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000."

This, of course was nearing the end of what was to become known as World War I and England was in mortal combat on the Western Front. "The idea that Britain’s strength was being sapped by traitors within enjoyed widespread support," according to the Casebook website. "Among the propagandists of this idea was Noel Pemberton Billing, an independent MP who held extreme right-wing views...

"On 26 January 1918, he published an article alleging that the Germans had compiled a Black Book containing the names of 47,000 British subjects who, because of their sexual preferences, were being blackmailed into undermining the British war effort."

Clitoris Equals Lesbian???

Seeing herself described (by inference at least) as a lesbian, she brought suit for criminal libel. What was implied?

Well since the late 18th Century until the early 20th Century, according to the Shanmonster website, "one of the most consistent medical characterizations of the anatomy of the lesbian was the claim of an unusually large clitoris. Not only was the clitoris associated with female sexual pleasure separate from reproductive potential, but lesbians were assumed to be masculinized, and the supposed enlarged clitoris was one signifier of this masculinity. In presenting lesbians' bodies as less sexually differentiated than the norm more masculine - it was inferred that they were atavists - throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary stage and thereby 'degenerates'..."

The trial was presided over by Mr Justice Darling and began on 29 May, 1918. It lasted only six days with Billing representing himself. And although we know what's said about lawyers (remember, he passed his law exams) who have themselves as clients, that's not always true clients who have themselves as lawyers.

According to the Casebook website:

"In [Billing's] Plea of Justification, he inveigled against Salome, which he described as a stage play by a moral pervert [Wilde] consisting of an open representation of degenerate sexual lust, sexual crime and unnatural passions. He also repeated his assertion that the German enemy was blackmailing British homosexuals into working against their own country.

"Billing sprang a surprise attack against Maud early in the proceedings. As she concluded her statement for the prosecution, Billing began his cross-examination by asking her for her real name. It was, in fact, Beulah Maud Durrant – and the reason why she had changed it to Maud Allan was that her brother Theo had been executed in America for sex murders likened to the Jack the Ripper killings....

"Billing argued that Theo’s murders were evidence that sadism ran in the Durrant family. He also expatiated at length on the perversions to be found in Salome. The choice of the word clitoris, he revealed, was a calculated one. A village doctor had furnished the information that the clitoris was an ‘organ that, when unduly excited... possessed the most dreadful influence on any woman’. In those less sophisticated days, Billing could also asseverate that clitoris was a term that few outside the medical profession understood and that Maud herself understood it because of her own moral degeneracy. She had, moreover, studied in Germany and developed her art in that country. What more proof was needed?..."

One of Billing’s star witnesses, Casebook explains was Wilde's "last and greatest love", Lord Alfred Douglas.

Wilde and his

Wilde and his "last and greatest love", Lord Alfred Douglas

"By then 48 years old, Douglas described Wilde as ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe in the past 350 years’," Casebook continues, "and asserted that his former lover had found inspiration for Salome in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. He later made such a nuisance of himself that the judge expelled him from the court.

"In his closing address, Billing insisted on the link between
Salome, the Black Book and Britain’s inability to win the war. Following long and confusing instructions from the judge, the jury returned a verdict in Billing's favour, convinced, no doubt, that they had embraced the cause of good against evil."

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