4E Text

In July 1946 Trevor Thomas’s career in Leicester ended abruptly and tragically. He and another man were arrested and charged with an indecency offence in a public toilet. He was refused bail and jailed for a weekend before the case came up in the local Quarter Sessions. Advised, perhaps incorrectly, to plead guilty to avoid cross examination about his sexual orientation, he was fined and ‘bound over to keep the peace’. As he left the court, the Town Clerk, on the steps of the Town Hall, handed him his letter of dismissal as Director of the Museums and Art Gallery, which also included the loss of his pension rights. The removal was without notice or right of appeal.

Trevor Thomas and his family always felt that his humiliating sacking from Leicester ruined his professional career and negatively impacted his entire life. He fled to London to be looked after by friends and had a ‘nervous breakdown’. He was then, until recently, systematically written out of the history of the Leicester museum and the German Collection. In the late 1970’s Thomas bravely went with art critic Brian Sewell and Patrick Boylan, a future director of the museum, to the Leicester Records Office to inspect his ‘court file’. It transpired that he had been targeted by the otherwise benign Leicester police because ‘anonymous sources’ said he was a ‘known homosexual’. Homosexuality had been a serious criminal offence in 1940’s Britain. Despite a court character witness statement from Sir Kenneth Clark, who said it was widely expected that Thomas would succeed him as Director of the National Gallery, the young and rather inexperienced judge went by the rulebook.

The more vexed question may be whether Trevor Thomas was targeted not only because he was gay but because of his policies and ideas as the influential Director of the museum. Whilst many appreciated his far sighted and ambitious plans, he also had numerous critics, including the Town Clerk, who longed for a return to the pre-war status quo. Over time his important stewardship of the museum was overlooked and undervalued. Hans Hess, who took over at this difficult time but only stayed another two years was certainly not responsible for the erroneous view that he and the Hess family were the founders of the German Collection.

The Wolfenden Committee was set up in 1954 to consider the UK law relating to ‘homosexual offences’. It recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence’. The Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded on 12 May 1958, mainly to campaign for the implementation of the Wolfenden report, but progress was slow. It was not until after almost ten years of campaigning that The Sexual Offences Act 1967 (upper left) was passed, after an intense late-night debate in the House of Commons. It retained many restrictions, some of which were overturned by the European Court of Human Rights and the Sexual Offences Act of 2000. In 2017, a section of the Policing and Crime Act known as the ‘Alan Turing law’ officially gave posthumous pardons to the thousands of homosexual men from England and Wales who had suffered under previous laws.

In 1975 Trevor Thomas, by then in his late sixties, heard about the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and attended their first conference. A divisive event, he actively intervened with a speech and comforted a young boy in a way that unified the conference and electrified the media. He continued to work with CHE for many years on its committees and ran a counselling service. On 19th November 1985, at the invitation of the Director of Leicester Museums and Art Gallery, Dr Patrick Boylan, who championed his cause, Trevor Thomas was the guest of honour at the reception for the centenary of the Leicester New Walk Art Gallery. The invitation was appreciated by the now very elderly Thomas and marked the beginning of the public restoration of his reputation of which I hope this exhibition is a part.