Records tell us that in July 1491, Richard Edmund, a Fellow of Merton, was accused and found guilty of ‘the sin against nature’, to the peril of his soul and scandal to the reputation of the college. Edmund was expelled but allowed to remain until Christmas ‘for the honour of the College.
In 1732 John Pointer, Chaplain of Merton, was brought before the College’s Warden accused of ‘sodomistical practises’. News of the affair spread rapidly through Oxford. Thomas Wilson at Christ Church wrote of the matter:
‘This evening I hear that Mr. Pointer Chaplain of Merton 40 years standing was called before the Warden and Fellows upon a complaint made by one of the Commoners of the House whom he had got into his chamber, and after urging him to drink, would have offered some very indecent things to him. He has been long suspected of Sodomistical Practices, but could never be fairly convicted of them.’
This certainly seems to be the case here as the Warden did not press charges against Pointer.
Travel writer Robert Byron (1905-1941) studied Modern History at Merton although he left without a degree. He was one of the Bright Young Things of ‘Brideshead’ Oxford. Within two weeks of arriving at Merton in 1923 he was fined for attending a dance on Cowley Rd and gated (confined to college after 9pm) for falling foul of a proctor. A dominant personality of the Hypocrites at its queerest, Byron notoriously painted mildly pornographic murals of wrestling men on the walls, entertained the assembled company with ear-splitting renditions of popular ballads on the club’s piano, and performed his legendary impression of Queen Victoria. Aside from all this revelry, he did manage a brief stint as editor of the Cherwell where he began writing accounts of his travels. Still, upon his ninth appearance before the proctors at the end of 1925 whereupon he was again fined and gated, the College authorities insisted that Byron leave Oxford. Tragically, Byron was killed during the Second World War after his ship was torpedoed by a u-boat in the North Atlantic. He is now best remembered for his travelogue The Road to Oxiana (1937), recognised as the first modern example of exemplary travel writing.
Novelist and short-story writer Sir Angus Wilson (1913-1991) was educated at Merton. During the Second World War he was one of the ‘famous homosexuals’ at Bletchley Park where he translated Italian naval codes. After the war he met his lifetime companion, Tony Garrett. Many of Wilson’s works were satirical, expressing his concern about preserving a liberal humanist outlook in the face of fashionable doctrinaire temptations. In 1958 he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. He was knighted in 1980 for his services to literature.
Canadian diplomat, poet, novelist, and professor of literature Douglas LePan (1914-1998) also studied at Merton after attending the University of Toronto and Harvard. In 1990, after a distinguished military and diplomatic career, a celebrated academic career, a lengthy (if difficult) marriage, and two children, LePan surprised the world by publishing a volume of gay-themed love poetry, Far Voyages.
American author Reynolds Price (1933-2011) studied at Merton as a Rhodes Scholar from 1955 to 1958. Among others, he was friendly with WH Auden and Stephen Spender. Price wrote a book about life at Oxford, The Source of Light (1981), but it is a more recent work, his third memoir Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (2009), which stands as a testament to what it was like to be young and queer at Oxford in the 1950s.
Ben Summerskill OBE (b. 1961), Chief Executive of Stonewall between 2003-2014, attended Merton where he was an Exhibitioner (holder of a junior scholarship) but left after two years without taking a degree. He evidently disliked Oxford. He later wrote in The Guardian: ‘I still recall being struck dumb on being shown, as an undergraduate, a note from an Oxford tutor to a successful candidate’s father: ‘Many thanks for lunch, and the trip in the Rolls.’’ A former Labour councillor, Summerskill succeeded Angela Mason as Chief Executive of Stonewall in 2003, expanding its work from parliamentary lobbying into other fields including workplace equality and campaigning against homophobia in schools. He led campaigns for repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, the introduction of Civil Partnerships, and the introduction of 2007 protections against discrimination in the provision of ‘goods and services’, covering areas from healthcare and housing to hotels and holidays. He also led a successful parliamentary campaign in 2007-2008 for the introduction of a criminal offence of incitement to homophobic hatred. In 2015 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the British LGBT Awards. Among other roles, Summerskill is now Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance and an occasional contributor to The Guardian.