On a Friday evening sometime in 1954, John Wolfenden, later Lord Wolfenden, on boarding the sleeper train from Liverpool to London, perused the list of fellow travellers, ‘as one always does’ (Wolfenden 1976:129). He was entertained to find that one of his fellow travellers was a government minister, the Home Secretary, Sir Maxwell Fyfe. The subsequent brief encounter between these two men was described by Wolfenden in his autobiography in the following terms:
As the train left I wrote him a note suggesting that if it would save his time next week we might have some conversation now. His detective took it to him and came back with the reply that the Home Secretary would be very glad to see me straight away.
I suspect that he had been half undressed when he got my message. But he nobly put his overcoat over what was left; and so it happened that my first conversation about this whole business took place as we sat side by side on his sleeping berth. By the time I left him after Crewe and lurched back to my own compartment my head was in a fair whirl.
The conversation that took place between Wolfenden and Maxwell Fyfe as they sat, under the protection of the police, in various states of dress and undress, side by side in a private compartment of the train, related to homosexuality, prostitution and the law. In the course of this brief encounter, Maxwell Fyfe propositioned Wolfenden. Wolfenden was asked to act as the chairperson of a government committee to review the law and practice relating to homosexuality and prostitution. He consented to the task and the committee formally began its work on 24 August 1954. On 28 August Wolfenden wrote to the Secretary to the committee, Mr W.C. Roberts. He declared that while the work was going to be difficult, ‘in a queer sort of way I’m rather looking forward to it’ (PRO HO 345/2).
The Wolfenden Committee worked for three years. It conclusions were published on 3 September 1957 (Wolfenden 1957). Many of the proposals relating to prostitution were enacted in the Street Offences Act 1959. Those relating to ‘homosexual acts’ and the law were enacted later, after much public and Parliamentary debate, in the Sexual Offences Act 1967.