The Loving Hearts of Exeter

Image: Exeter College, LGBT History Month 2013 (photograph Ross Brooks)


‘Here’s a loyal and a loving heart,
Take it, lad, or leave it.’

Clergyman, poet, and novelist Rev. Edwin Emmanuel Bradford (1860-1944), who wrote the lines above, studied Theology at Exeter College between 1881 and 1884. He proceeded to a MA in 1901, BD in 1904, and DD in 1912. Bradford wrote some of the most candidly homoerotic verse of his generation. Remarkably, it seemed to transcend the prudery of Bradford’s generation and was very popular. The uncomplicated celebration of male beauty and male-male love is beautifully expressed in poems such as ‘To boys unknown’, ‘Joe and Jim’, ‘The kiss’, ‘The bather in the blue grotto at Capri’, ‘Alan’, and ‘When first I fell in love with you’. They are now gay classics and are well worth reading.


Archaeologist Francis Turville-Petre (1901-1941) studied Anthropology at Exeter from 1920 to 1924. He is famous archaeologically for his discovery of the Neanderthal ‘Galilee Skull’ in 1925 and his work at Mount Carmel. Subsequently, Turville-Petre lived in Germany where he played an active part in Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee which campaigned for legal reform and tolerance of same-sex eroticism. Openly homosexual, it was Turville-Petre who encouraged Christopher Isherwood to Berlin where, along with W. H. Auden, they enjoyed the nightlife of the city at the pinnacle of its legendary interwar gayness.


The distinguished poet, science teacher, and queer rights campaigner Ivor C. Treby (1933-2012) is another notable alumni of Exeter where he studied biochemistry. His archive is housed at the Bodleian Library.


Four queer bastions of British entertainment studied at Exeter:

Richard Burton (1925-1984) was at one time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Burton was allowed into Exeter for a special term of six months study, made possible because he was an air force cadet obligated to later military service. Although fabled for his unrelenting pursuit of his female costars, Burton acknowledged same-sex relationships as a young actor on the London stage in the 1950s. He also suggested, somewhat bizarrely, that perhaps all actors were latent homosexuals, and ‘we cover it up with drink’.

Broadcaster, author, and stage director Ned Sherrin (1931-2007) studied Law at Exeter where he had ‘the very best of times’. It was at Oxford that Sherrin began to involve himself with amateur and semi-professional theatre. He described these formative experiences in the first chapter of Ned Sherrin: The Autobiography (2005).

Ned Sherrin

On 26 May 1991, Ned Sherrin returned to the city to present a gala evening which marked the re-opening of Oxford Playhouse after a lengthy closure. His guests included Ian McKellen and Victor Spinetti.

Television presenter Russell Harty (1934-1988) obtained a First in English Literature at Exeter. Through the 1970s and 80s Harty was one of the most familiar faces on television, presenting arts programmes and chat shows. In 1981 he was famously attacked by Grace Jones, live on air. His partner from 1982 until 1988 was novelist Jamie O’Neill.

A contemporary and great friend of Harty, prolific dramatist Alan Bennett (b. 1934) gained a First in History at Exeter. Whilst at Oxford he performed comedy in the Oxford Revue. He remained at the University researching and teaching Medieval History before deciding that he did not want to become an academic. Highlights of his distinguished career include Talking Heads (originally produced for television in 1987), The Madness of George III (play 1991; film, as The Madness of King George, 1995), and The History Boys (play 2004; film 2006).

Daily Information, 21 April 1993

Bennett was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College in 1987 but refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1998 in protest at the institution accepting funding for a named chair in honour of Rupert Murdoch. In 2008 he donated his entire archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and books to the Bodleian Library without charge.

Bennett famously referred to questions about his sexuality as akin to asking a man dying of thirst to choose between Perrier or Malvern mineral water. In Untold Stories (2005), however, he wrote openly about his homoeroticism. He has lived in Camden Town in London for 31 years, the past 18 with his partner Rupert Thomas.


© Ross Brooks, 2020