Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, photographed in Oxford, c. 1893
‘I never knew there was so much in it!‘ This was how Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West & Abingdon at the time, began his foreword to the first (printed) edition of Queer Oxford in 2006.
As it turns out, nobody involved in the project back then knew quite how much was ‘in it’! Whilst many may know that Oscar Wilde attended Magdalen College, or that Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) was founded on his experiences at Hertford College during the early 1920s, the depth and breadth of queer experiences in Oxford is only now being recognised and appreciated.
Oxford can trace its queer roots back as far as 1394. For five weeks in the late summer that year, a transvestite prostitute named John Rykener worked in Oxford as an embroideress under the name of Eleanor. Later, Rykener confessed to police interrogators that during his stay here he had often ‘practiced the abominable vice’ with three scholars. Rykener further stated that he had then spent six weeks in Burford working as a tapster and again practicing prostitution. He said his clients included two Franciscan monks (one named Brother Michael, the other Brother John), a Carmelite friar, and six foreign men. From Burford, Rykener moved on to Beaconsfield and then onto London where he was arrested.
Since the original Queer Oxford (which is, unfortunately, no longer available), I have continued to research Oxford’s rich and diverse LGBTQ+ history and now have a considerable amount of material that I aim to share here, as and when I can.
Aside from this website, Queer Oxford is now pursued across a number of other platforms including city walking tours, events, exhibitions, on social media, and in a variety of publications. I also incorporate my research on Oxford’s queer past into my history teaching at Oxford Brookes University. In conjunction with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), I recently curated a new city trail to accompany the first queer-themed exhibition at the Ashmolean, No Offence: Exploring LGBTQ+ Histories. The trail showcases six centuries of local queer history and heritage. It builds on the success of Out in Oxford, an innovative LGBTQ+ trail of Oxford University’s gardens, libraries, and museums curated by Beth Asbury. Both Out in Oxford and the Ashmolean exhibition were inspired by the pioneering work of Richard Bruce Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford University and author of A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (2013). Like this website, the Queer Oxford trail encompasses the entirety of Oxford, town and gown, as an important hub of LGBTQ+ life and culture, past and present.
Queer Oxford is a work in progress and much remains to be done. I welcome constructive feedback, particularly info on the people, places, and events that are not yet currently represented on the site.
About me: I am a history doctoral student at Oxford Brookes University. My project is titled Evolution’s Closet: Queer Science in Britain, 1871-1967 and is funded by the Wellcome Trust. Most recently, I published an article on the queer dimensions of Charles Darwin’s The Desecent of Man (1871) in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.* I have lived and worked in Oxford most of my life. Researching local LGBTQ+ history has been my leading hobby since 2005 and I regularly speak on the subject at a wide variety of events and venues (including the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Ashmolean). I am currently working towards a book-length project, provisionally titled Beyond Brideshead: Queer Oxford, 1919-1945.
Follow me on Twitter @rossb_oxford.
*Brooks, Ross. ‘Darwin’s Closet: The Queer Sides of The Descent of Man (1871),’ Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 191 (2021): 323-346. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/zoolinnean/zlaa175.
© Ross Brooks, 2021