Historical Notes: Prime minister in West End Scandal shock

ON 18 October 1889, the Tory prime minister, Lord Salisbury, met Sir Dighton Probyn VC, the Prince of Wales's Comptroller and Treasurer, in a private waiting room at King's Cross station before his 7pm train left, and warned him that Major the Lord Arthur Somerset, Extra Equerry to the Prince of Wales's eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, was about to be arrested for gross indecency for his "lewd conduct" at a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street, north of Soho.

The very next day, Somerset skipped the country to France. In fact, it was not until a week after his honourable discharge from the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues) was gazetted that Scotland Yard issued the arrest warrant.

Charles Hammond, the brothel-keeper, also fled to Belgium and thence to America, using money supplied by Arthur Newton, Somerset's solicitor. Writing to the Home Secretary, Salisbury said that he did not "consider this to be a case in which any official application could justifiably be made" for extradition.

In a subsequent trial of Newton for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, the solicitor received a sentence of only six weeks' imprisonment and was not even struck off the register. Henry Labouchere, the Radical MP for Northampton, began to investigate Salisbury's role in helping Somerset escape justice, writing in his magazine Truth that "if Mr Newton is prosecuted, Lord Salisbury and several others ought also to be prosecuted". He had a point.

On Friday 28 February, Labouchere made a 75-minute speech in the Commons, accusing Salisbury of "a criminal conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice". It was a devastating and largely accurate account of what had happened, down to the rather otiose remark that "the Government wish to hush this matter up". When Labouchere refused to accept the Attorney-General's defence of Salisbury, saying that he didn't believe the Prime Minister, he was "named" by the Speaker and suspended from the Commons for a week. His resolution for an inquiry was meanwhile defeated by 206 to 66. "My honourable friend was suspended for disbelieving in God," Labouchere joked, pointing to his fellow Northampton MP, the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, "and I am suspended for disbelieving in Man."

When Salisbury rose in the House of Lords on 3 March, to loud cheers, he admitted meeting Probyn at King's Cross, for "a casual interview for which I was in no way prepared, to which I did not attach the slightest degree of importance, and of which I took no notes whatever. The train started very soon afterwards." Salisbury admitted telling Probyn "that rumours had reached me that further evidence had been obtained, but I did not know what its character was". Salisbury ended his short statement by saying, "The subject is not one that lends itself to extensive treatment."

He sat down "amid renewed cheers", fortunately without any peer wishing to go into the matter further. Technically, Salisbury had probably conspired to pervert the course of justice and committed misprision of felony, and he would not have done so without good reason. With so much of the political power of the upper classes resting on their social prestige and the deference accorded them by the rest of society, Salisbury was acutely conscious of how politically dangerous such "West End Scandals", as they were termed in Hansard's index, could be.

Salisbury continued to shrug off Labouchere's accusations, and meanwhile Somerset went off to live quietly in the South of France with a companion, until his death in 1926.

Andrew Roberts is the author of `Salisbury: Victorian titan' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)