The Warden of Wadham

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‘I would not give a Farthing for the finest Woman in the World, for I love a Man as I do my Soul.’ Robert Thistlethwayte, Warden of Wadham

The notorious reputation of Wadham College as a hotbed of queer eroticism was established by Robert Thistlethwayte (1690-1744), Doctor of Divinity and infamous Warden of Wadham. On 3 Feb 1739, Thistlethwayte attempted to seduce Master William French, a commoner of the College. According to a contemporary account, the particulars of the seduction were judged ‘too gross and obscene to be repeated, and such as amounted to the most notorious sodomitical attempt conceivable’.

Nonetheless, the particulars of Thistlethwayte’s (not unusual) behaviour were repeated by French and others, their accusations proliferating into a public scandal that shook Wadham to its foundations. Thistlethwayte’s career at Oxford was ruined (he fled to France) but he was immortalised in several limericks that clearly amused his contemporaries. For example:

There once was a warden of Wadham

Who approved of the folkways of Sodom.

For a man might, he said,

Have a very poor head

But be a fine fellow, at bottom.


When they said to a Fellow of Wadham

Who had asked for a ticket to Sodom,

‘Oh, sir, we don’t care

To send people there’,

He said, ‘Don’t call me Sir, call me Modom’.

Barely had this scandal abated when the College was again embroiled in more gossip about illicit sexual relations between the men who lived in its cloistered walls. This time rumours revolved around Rev John Swinton (1703-1777), a Fellow of Wadham, chaplain of Oxford Castle, and a close friend of Thistlethwayte. In this case, Swinton’s accuser reluctantly issued a retraction, but the case nonetheless shone light on a world of randy dons, saucy male servants, and illicit sexual liaisons which the University authorities were desperate to keep hidden.

Historian Rictor Norton provided a detailed account of both scandals in his brilliant book Mother Clap’s Molly House (1992), highlighting the importance that these comparatively well-documented events have for our understanding of same-sex relationships in the 18th century.

Image: Wadham, Queer week 2011 (photo Ross Brooks). This was the first occasion that a constituent institution of the University of Oxford officially raised the rainbow flag. Yes, the porters put it upside down!

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