Image: ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ (c. 1944) by William Roberts
Parson’s Pleasure, an area on the bank of the River Cherwell on the way to Mesopotamia at the south-east corner of the University Parks, was cordoned off for male-only nude bathing at least since the nineteenth century. The Pleasure was traditionally frequented by dons, including C. S. Lewis, and now forms part of the folklore of the University. An oft-told anecdote holds that a number of dons were skinny-sunbathing on the Pleasure when some students (possibly female) passed by on the river in a punt. Most of the startled dons covered their modesty but one placed a towel over his head instead.* When asked why he had done that, he replied, ‘Oh, well my students know me by my face.’
* variously said to be John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls, or R. H. Dundas (‘the great high priest’ of Parson’s Pleasure according to Ian Harvey).
The standard guides to Oxford are less forthcoming about the Pleasure’s long-standing use as a gay cruising site. The facility was closed in 1991 (possibly because of concerns about homophobic violence, although this is unconfirmed) by which time its use as a cruising spot was well known, but how this use of the facility developed over time is difficult to assess. There are indications that at least by the 1920s some men used Oxford’s several male-only bathing areas to watch and potentially pick up youths, although the sparse references may reflect longer-standing practices. Michael Davidson, a self-professed ‘lover of boys’, spent a short period in the city working for the Clarendon Press (Oxford University Press) in 1927. During the summer he frequented Long Bridges, a public bathing spot on a backwater of the Isis to the south of the city accessible along the towpath from Folly Bridge and, later, Donnington Bridge. Recalling his experiences in 1962, Davidson described how he watched adolescent boys alongside Robert Dundas, the ‘massive and renowned’ Tutor and Censor of Christ Church, who ‘lay on the grass like a contemplative walrus and appraised the scampering urchins around him.’ Davidson described how Dundas presented the local authorities with some gymnastic equipment for the area, at least a set of parallel bars, solely for the purpose of further gratifying his paedophilic or ephebophilic leering. For his part, Davidson took photographs at Long Bridges using a camera which was devised to look like it was pointing in one direction, but which actually took furtive images from another. Dundas was displeased with this activity, as well as any overt sexual activity at Long Bridges, as he feared it would provoke the local council into ending the tradition of nude male bathing in the area in favour of mixed, costumed bathing. According to Davidson, this had happened by the time he revisited Oxford in 1941, allegedly because local retailors plied pressure on the local council in an effort to sell more bathing costumes.
More associated with ‘gown’ rather than ‘town,’ Parson’s Pleasure appears to have avoided the shadow of paedophilia and/or ephebophilia which Davidson’s memoir indicates was present at Long Bridges, a situation which may have been aided by the creation of a separate area, Dame’s Delight, set aside for women and children between 1934 and 1970. Parson’s Pleasure was never converted to mixed-sex or costumed bathing.
Other indications that Oxford’s long-standing tradition of male-only skinny dipping became associated with male (homo)sexual impropriety during the interwar period can be found in Oxford’s undergraduate journals. For example, the edition of The Cherwell dated 10 June 1933 contains a cartoon which indicates that the homoerotic potential of Oxford’s male-only bathing spots, specifically Parson’s Pleasure in this instance, was increasingly the object of suspicion and jocularity (and, potentially, private curiosity).
The image, titled ‘P. P.’, shows two men smoking and engrossed in conversation at a dining table. One of the men says, ‘I don’t see where the pleasure comes in.’ Taken in isolation, the joke is not now immediately apparent; the cartoon, in fact, appears as part of a series which featured irregularly in The Cherwell from February to June 1933, precisely the time when Richard Rumbold and his novel Little Victims were the objects of merciless ridicule throughout Oxford. The cartoons therefore form part of the concerted attack on the book and its author by The Cherwell. All the cartoons show the same image of the men talking, it is just the title and the remark which changes. The unstated premise—the joke—is that the two men are talking about homosexuality. Other examples of title / remark are: ‘ANCIENT HISTORY’ / ‘But take Alcibiades’ (11 February 1933); ‘SHALL I COMPARE THEE . . . ‘ / ‘But it’s apparent from the Sonnets’ (4 March); ‘SHADES OF THE PRISON HOUSE’ / ‘I’d sooner go to Reading goal [sic; i.e., gaol]’ (11 March); ‘COMRADES IN DISTRESS’ / ‘Crichton evidently doesn’t like women either’ (29 April); ‘BIOLOGY’ / ‘Anyway, worms do’ (13 May); and ‘SOLITUDE’ / ‘Alas! The Church claimed him . . . ‘ (27 May). The inclusion of a jibe about Parson’s Pleasure in the series is therefore a purposeful expression that the facility was perceived as a site of sexual transgression, at least potentially so.
Another piece, this time in The Isis, similarly evidences the shifting sexual mores of Oxford’s bathing spots through the 1930s. The edition dated 8 June 1938 contains a two-page bespoke advertisement (for Hercules Cycle & Motor Co. Ltd. of Birmingham) titled ‘Road v River Rivalry . . !’.
The Isis, 8 June 1938
The piece venerates the newly-established Oxford University Cycling Club, placing it in rivalry with the Oxford University Boat Club. Significantly, it is founded on a heteronormative motif; a young woman (‘Emily’) is pictured centrally and provocatively in a bathing suit. She has supposedly dumped ‘Claude the oarsman’ for ‘Clarence the cyclist’. One of the cameos depicts a boat on a river with a young man rowing who is fully clothed and another who is apparently naked (he is only visible above the waist). Two other young men swim naked in the water. Two cyclists ride past the river. One of them says, ‘This river is a sink of iniquity Bellamy. I’ve a mind to tell my tutor about it’. The other cyclist responds: ‘I too! Supposing I had been riding out with my own dear little Emily such a scene might have prostrated her’. A policeman also watches the scene and says, ‘If I ‘ad my way I’d lock up the ole lot of ‘em’. The caption to the cameo states: ‘While none of these swimmers is anatomically indiscreet, the effect on any member of the fairer sex who should chance to be passing can be left to the imagination. Do you wonder that Cecil and Bill Bellamy are seething with righteous indignation?’ The whole piece is, of course, meant to be amusing but the assertion that the scene of nude male bathing is ‘a sink of iniquity’ and a cause of concern to the authorities, gown and town, appears to relate beyond the ostensible concern for female modesty. This is a change from earlier attitudes towards male nude bathing in Oxford, a tradition which some of Oxford’s most eminent dons had long revered and enjoyed without any suggestion of moral reprobation.
Possibly the activities of Davidson and Dundas, and perhaps other paedophiles, or the emergence of a more egalitarian mode of gay cruising amongst Oxford’s male students were changing perceptions of Oxford’s male-only bathing areas (Davidson’s activities were sometimes conspicuous; he was ejected from Hyde Park in 1922). But significant also is the increasing, if often begrudging, acceptance of female students (‘undergraduettes’) at Oxford and a discernible shift in the culture of the University towards a modernist heteronormativity that was largely absent in Oxford prior to the 1930s. Dame’s Delight may have accommodated the physicality of the new sexual politics of bathing at Oxford, but the increasing presence of undergraduettes in the city, highly sexualised in Oxford’s print culture, irrevocably changed perceptions of what it meant for Oxford’s male dons and students to relax and bathe naked together.
The emergence of a new queer awareness relating to Parson’s Pleasure through the 1930s is also indicated in photographs taken at the facility by the Russian émigré photographer Cyril Arapoff, resident in Oxford between 1933 and 1939.
© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
Some images show a young man diving naked into the river from a high platform; one particularly impressive shot (top right) is taken with Arapoff atop the board looking down on the diver who is captured in mid-air. A suggestive scenario is depicted in another set of four shots which show a young man (possibly the same as the diver, but this is not clear) swimming in the river, climbing the bathing ladder, and pausing to peruse the scene on the grass bank. The young man is therefore pictured apparently perusing—cruising—other naked men at the enclosed facility making these images a rare photographic document of gay cruising in 1930s Britain, possibly the earliest such document which exists for any country. Arapoff’s images of nude male diving and bathing at the location, which he presumably took naked, are typical of his down-to-earth, documentary approach to photography and resonate with a number of other images by diverse artists (such as the German photographer Herbert List and the English artist Keith Vaughan) who similarly created erotically-charged depictions of naked young men at bathing spots through the interwar period.
Another impressive photograph in the collections of the Oxfordshire History Centre (not the Arapoff collection), undated (1950s?) and unattributed, also provides a vivid document of the intimate male physicality of Parson’s Pleasure with naked men posturing and watching each other. © Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
© Ross Brooks, 2020