Henry Sankey: Gay Blackmail at Brisbane Club 1886

brisbane club gay blackmail henry sankey

In the long decades before the decriminalisation of gay sex, men risked not only imprisonment but also gay blackmail as Henry Sankey discovered in an 1886 Brisbane Club case.

The short-lived Brisbane Club featured in this story has no connection with the club of the same name, established in 1903 and still operating today.

The Brisbane Club

In 1886, a number of Brisbane gentlemen of moderate means formed a club and rented rooms at the old Treasury Buildings on George Street. Among other facilities, the new Brisbane Club included billiard and card rooms and bedrooms for the use of country and resident members.

Light from the billiard room spilled over the 2½ metre high partitions which separated it from the bedrooms. Bedroom 2, the focus of this story, contained two beds.

Henry Sankey

Henry Sankey, a young foundation member of the club from Ipswich, booked a bedroom for the night of October 9, 1886. He invited his young friend William O’Donnell to spend the night with him at the Brisbane Club.

Henry Sankey was single and worked as a clerk at the Post Office. The papers described him as ‘a young man of good connections’. In other words, his family attended church regularly and had a bit of money. He also enjoyed wide renown for his talent as a singer. He performed regularly around Ipswich and Brisbane, and the papers regularly lauded his hard work as a volunteer on committees for male choirs.

A court would later hear that on the night of the 9th, Henry and William enjoyed a few drinks before retiring to a bedroom around 3 am.

J H Burns, who owned the rights to manage the club, and head waiter John Hogan, insisted Henry and William went to bed sober. But club members begged to differ. Both James Anderson and Gustav Augstein testified that the pair were shit-faced. William, they said, could barely walk. Henry, who was not much better, supported him to the bedroom.

An unnatural offence

Hogan, the waiter, testified that sometime between 3 and 4, he heard certain words spoken in Bedroom 2, where Henry and William recently retired. Although he repeated the words in court, the papers considered them too obscene for publication. So, we are left to ponder.

Hogan then went into Bedroom 2 where he claimed he witnessed Henry Sankey and William O’Donnell committing an unnatural offence. The waiter called James Anderson to come and have a look. Anderson called another three of the members from the card room.

The witnesses all later agreed William was naked but for his singlet while Henry, lying behind him, was fully dressed. A century before Joe Cocker sang about it, he’d even kept his hat on.

The members then returned to their card game. About half an hour later, Anderson went back into the bedroom and ordered Henry Sankey out. When Henry refused, Anderson dragged him into the billiard room and told him he needed to resign from the club.

The other three members, none of whom would state they’d witnessed an unnatural offence in Bedroom 2, nevertheless agreed Henry should resign. Henry agreed but insisted his resignation did not signify guilt.

Meanwhile, William O’Donnell remained fast asleep in Bedroom 2, too drunk for anyone to wake. Henry Sankey left the club, saying he would post his resignation on Monday, and the members all agreed that the matter should not be discussed again.

Gay Blackmail

But J H Burns and John Hogan thought differently. Both were from Adelaide, and the Queensland Police suspected them of possessing criminal records.

The Brisbane Club had not proved a financial success for Burns and he wanted out.

Burns suggested to Henry through an intermediary that the waiters might gossip, and he needed money to get them out of town. Later, he came up with a plan where a wealthy friend of Henry’s might buy the club and £150 be added to the sale price to cover the costs of the waiters leaving town.

Henry could not afford the extortionate demands and consulted friends — perhaps too many friends. Word reached the police and Henry and William found themselves charged with committing an unnatural offence.

They were found not guilty. Burns and Hogan were then charged with attempting to extort money. A jury somehow found them not guilty.

Henry Sankey later worked as a financial advisor and an entertainment producer, mainly in Rockhampton and Gympie. He never married. In 1895, Rockhampton police charged him with attempted suicide. Luckily, Henry’s many friends stood by him. They convinced the magistrate that Henry was only ‘skylarking’ and that suicide notes he sent to friends in Brisbane were jokes. Case dismissed.

William O’Donnell (if I have the right William O’Donnell) never married, worked as a country Post Master and lived to a ripe old age.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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