On this day January 30: pre-Grindr rough trade

pre-grindr tough trade january 30
William Johns and Sir Alfred Cowley's 'Silky Oaks' at Toowong

On January 30 1907, John Lowry faced a Brisbane court charged with stealing four gold rings. While there is much criticism today of meeting via hookup apps, rough trade presented the same dangers in the pre-Grindr era. 

23-year-old William Johns worked as a groom for Sir Alfred Cowley, Speaker of the Queensland Parliament. The former Ipswich boy received room and board in Sir Alfred’s Toowong home, and a wage of 15 shillings a week, about $120 in today’s money. Despite his low income, the good-looking young man was a snappy dresser.

On Christmas Eve 1906, William caught the tram into town. He knocked about Queen Street and Fortitude Valley, checking out the festive store displays. About 10 pm, he ran into a young man in Queen Street who’d said hello to him in the street a few weeks before.

John Lowry introduced himself as a mate of one of William’s brothers. He asked if he could come and stop with William for the night.

“Oh certainly, if you are a respectable man.”

Pre-Grindr rough trade

John apparently assured William of his respectability. That was not the opinion of the police. They previously described him as the ‘inseparable companion of convicted thieves’ and as someone who ‘hung about houses of ill-fame until late at night’. Sounds like rough trade!

The pair caught a tram back to Toowong. William later testified that he locked the door to his room behind them and undressed for bed. He took off his four gold rings, putting one in his vest pocket and the others on the dressing table. John Lowry also undressed, blew out the candle and hopped into bed. He asked William to smell something – no amyl in those days – so presumably a drug of some kind. William declined and started to drift off to sleep facing the wall, his back to his bedmate.

He claimed in court that John Lowry then f_cked him without his consent. Following a struggle, William said he freed himself and got out of bed. He told John Lowry to leave him alone or he’d go to the police. But John put his arms around his waist, rubbed his face against William’s, and said, “You’re the nicest boy I’ve ever met.”

William insisted that John leave but rough trade does as rough trade is – John pocketed William’s gold rings.

Many readers will relate to William’s frame of mind as he walked John to a tram to get rid of him. No doubt, pre-Grindr, people experienced the same emotions as they do today when a hookup goes bad. What a horrible Christmas. At the tram stop, William asked for his rings back but John denied taking them.

“When can I come out and see you again?”

“I do not want to see you again.”

“Don’t tell anybody as I would get 14 years for what I have done.”

William said he wouldn’t. But he wanted those rings back! They cost £5 – almost two months’ wages.

William went to the police. Giving his statement took about four hours because he initially hesitated to report the alleged sexual assault. The detectives then took his shirt to examine for evidence.

A ‘city queen’

At the committal hearing, Lowry’s defence asked William how often men spent the night with him. William said John was the only man who ever spent the night at the house in the nearly five years he worked for Sir Alfred.

In a none too subtle bit of victim-blaming, court reporters noted William’s ‘effeminate manner and high-toned voice’.

Watson, the defence lawyer noted same. He accused William of being a ‘city queen’. William denied it, or indeed of knowing what the term meant. Nor, he said, was he a well-known character about town.

Yes, he wore a certain colour tie – and a flower – but he never knew either possessed any significance. He’d picked the flower from his uncle’s garden to wear to court.

William told the court he was surprised anyone thought he was ‘a man like that’.

After emphasising how well dressed William was, Watson asked how much he earned, what the rings cost, and finally if William had other sources of income.

“Do you receive money from men at any time?”


Effeminate manner and voice

Dr J. Espie Dods then took the stand. The Government Medical Officer’s examination of William’s shirt produced no evidence of sexual activity. With the limited forensic tools of the era, Dods probably just looked and sniffed for evidence of semen. (It possesses a distinctive odour – or so my nanna says.)

Lord knows why the prosecution even placed Dods on the stand. Perhaps for comedy relief.

Dr Dods testified he had never heard of ‘city queens’. Although he knew that ‘certain men allowed unnatural connections, he never met any’.

However, he read in medical texts that ‘unnatural connections led to an effeminate manner and voice’. WTF!

I’m pretty sure the Queensland Government is pleased they got rid of him before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost a century before actually, but who’s counting?

The defence continually hammered William’s supposed effeminacy. It worked. The magistrate declared he could not help noticing ‘the complainant’s effeminate manner and voice – they were bound to operate on his mind’.

Nevertheless, he committed John Lowry for trial on charges of theft and committing an unnatural offence.


Sir Alfred dismissed William Johns following the committal hearing. Perhaps because the groom brought a man home for the night. Or maybe, with an election coming up in May, the politician did not appreciate media mention of an effeminate, good-looking, well-dressed young male employee.

In the District Court, John Lowry only faced trial on the theft charge. The prosecution dropped the unnatural offence charge without comment. However, it’s hard to believe that didn’t have something to do with the defence’s relentless portrayal of William Johns as effeminate.

The jury deliberated for about two hours before finding John Lowry not guilty.

William Johns disappears from the historical record following the trial.

But not John Lowry. He faced frequent consequent court appearances, often for ‘stealing from the person’.

So yes – meeting people over hookup apps can present risks. But pre-Grindr, things were no better. So, always remain mindful of potential danger and consider your personal safety.

Read more: January 29 <— On this day —> January 31

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