Image: Wadham, Queer Week (November 2011). This was the first occasion that a constituent institution of the University of Oxford officially raised the rainbow flag. Yes, the porters put it up upside down!
Every Oxford college has a queer past but Wadham has many. Queerness is even built into the architecture at Wadham. Towering over the Front Quad is queer King James VI of Scotland / I of England (1566-1625). King James VI/I visited Oxford at least once during his reign—he is purported to have gotten drunk with undergraduates—and is the official founder of Pembroke College where there is another statue of him.
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), infamous libertine and friend of Charles II, is the first of a long line of Wadham graduates who have earned the College the endearing nickname ‘Sodom College’. Born in Ditchley in Oxfordshire and schooled in Burford, Wilmot matriculated as Fellow Commoner at Wadham, aged 12, early in 1659 although he did not attend until January 1660, by no means unusual for a nobleman. He showed some talent for English verse and penned some memorable poems, his first pledging allegiance to the new king. Still, it was said that Wilmot ‘soon grew debauch’d’ at Wadham. Oxford’s numerous pubs and brothels, elated by the demise of Puritan rule and the restoration of the monarchy, would have provided the young and impressionable aristocrat ample opportunity for all manner of indulgences. The homoerotic potential of Oxford’s monastic community which purposefully accommodated scholars and youths together in shared rooms, sometimes shared beds, may have appealed to the young Wilmot. His lasting interest in sodomitical pleasures was possibly encouraged by his mentor at Wadham, Robert Whitehall (1625-1685), an undistinguished scholar and poet and a renowned drunkard who happily declared that he inhabited ‘Bachelor’s Row’.
In September 1661, aged 14, Wilmot was conferred with a master’s degree (for no good reason). Following his graduation, Wilmot presented Wadham four silver pint pots. Unfortunately, the College no longer has them (I am grateful to Sara Motta, Keeper of the Silver at Wadham, for looking at my request).
Having left Oxford, Rochester established himself as the epitome of the bisexual libertine for whom pleasure and excess were the only arbiters of sexual activity, the gender of the participants being mere detail. At once reviled and celebrated, his work runs the gauntlet from the most moving poetry to pornographic satire. His poem The Debauchee, is typical:
I rise at Eleven, I dine about Two
I get drunk before Sev’n; and the next Thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of the Clap
I fuck in her hand, and I spew in her Lap;
Then we quarrel and scold, ‘till I fall asleep,
When the Bitch growing bold, to my Picket does creep;
Then slily she leaves me, and t’revenge the Affront
At once she bereaves me of Money and Cunt.
If by Chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk
What a Coil do I make for the Loss of my Punk?
I storm, and I roar, and I fall in Rage,
And missing my Whore, I bugger my Page.
Then Crop-sick all Mornng, I rail at my Men,
And in Bed I lie yawning ‘till Eleven again.
Wilmot indulged in all the libertine excesses afforded by the Restoration court until his death at the age of 33. It is generally believed that he died from various venereal diseases combined with the effects of alcoholism. He is buried at Spelsbury Church in Oxfordshire.
Useful appraisals of Wilmot’s time at Wadham include chapter 3 of A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004) by James William Johnson and chapter 2 of Alexander Larman’s Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (London: Head of Zeus, 2014).
The notorious reputation of Wadham as a hotbed of queer eroticism was cemented by Robert Thistlethwayte (1690-1744), Doctor of Divinity and infamous Warden of Wadham. On 3 February 1739, Thistlethwayte attempted to seduce Master William French, a commoner of the College. According to a contemporary account (pictured below), 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 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).
The scandal was immortalised in two oft-quoted limericks (it has been claimed that they date back to the eighteenth century but this is unlikely; they are more probably twentieth-century embellishments):
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 the scandal abated when Wadham 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 an account of both scandals in chapter ten of his 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.
Scandal continued to plague Wadham. The following is an excerpt from William Benbow’s The Crimes of the Clergy, or the Pillars of Priest-Craft Shaken (1823):
CHARACTER AND CRIMES OF THE REV. JOHN FENWICK, B. A.
And formerly Vicar of Byall, in the county of Northumberland, who absconded for the Crime of Sodomy, in the year 1797, and now resides in Naples.
“There shall not be a Whore of the Daughters of Israel, nor a Sodomite of the Sons of Israel.”—Deuteronomy, ch. 23, v. 17.
Those who can peruse the life of this man, without evincing symptoms of horror, deserve to be as despicable as he is.
John Fenwick was the second son of Walter Fenwick, Esquire, of Byall, a gentleman, whose fortune exceeded 4000l. per annum. At an early age he was placed in the grammar-school at Haughton, under the care of the Rev. doctor Bates, a gentleman, whose classical qualifications were universally acknowledged to be of the first rate. With this worthy divine young Fenwick remained till he reached his thirteenth year, and was considered qualified to enter College. There had been many complaints made of his private conduct to the Master, and several of his school-fellows absolutely refused to admit him into their parties of pleasure. Mr. Bates, unwilling to offend, or give pain to his patron, the boy’s father, endeavoured to correct his vices by admonition and correction, in which he partially succeeded. When the young Fenwick left Haughton, he was the first scholar in the school; his parts were brilliant; his attention great; and he never sat down to a task he did not perform with ease and ability, far beyond what might have been expected from his years.
Fortunately his speedy removal from Haughton prevented a disclosure, which would have barred his entrance into the University; but the evil day was only retarded; it had to come in a more gloomy shape. He remained seven years at College, and received the degree of Bachelor of Arts, in Wadham school. Few excelled him in literary attainments, and he gained three prizes, the only ones he ever contended for; the last, was a Greek poem, on the subject of “Aratus and the Achaean League,” which gained him the applause of all who were unacquainted with his vices.
He was a skilful musician, and his apartments were frequented by fiddlers and singers of the lowest class in Oxford: with one of those fellows, named Laurence, he was in those habits of disgusting intimacy, that their connexion was soon betrayed, and serious consequences likely to ensue. The washerwoman surprised Mr. Fenwick and his musician in bed together, at mid-day, and immediately spread the tale over all the University. Mr. Fenwick was denied admission to the College-Hall, and placed in Coventry; but when his conduct came to be enquired into, the girl denied on oath all she had voluntarily asserted, viva voce: no doubt she had been tampered with, and the miscreant again escaped unpunished. He ventured after this, once to dine in the Hall, where no one spoke to, nor noticed him, but with looks of contempt. Mr. Fenwick had got all he wanted of the College—a degree—and the living of Byall, in his father’s gift, becoming vacant, he took possession of a benefice worth 700l. a year.
No account of Wadham’s queer past would be complete without mention of the towering figure of Maurice Bowra, the indomitable Warden of Wadham between 1938 and 1970, whose homosexual exploits, bawdy poetry, and stupefying quips (such as ‘[b]uggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails’) are now the stuff of Oxford legend.
For more on Bowra, see, L. G. Mitchell, Maurice Bowra: A Life (Oxford, 2009); Maurice Bowra, New Bats in Old Belfries, or Some Loose Tiles, ed. Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes (Oxford, 2005).
Among Wadham’s queer alumni is the ecological geneticist E. B. ‘Henry’ Ford (1901-1988). A leading biologist of his generation, Ford is best known for his work, and his bestselling books, on moths and butterflies. He studied zoology at Wadham between 1920 and 1924. A renowned eccentric and misogynist, his homosexuality was an open secret. During the early 1950s he campaigned for reform of the law relating to sex between men along with his friend Miriam Rothschild. In a reflective piece published in 1984, Rothschild paid tribute to Ford’s involvement with preparing a testimony from British biologists which was submitted to the Home Office’s Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution:
[…] Professor Ford and I became associated with Cyril Darlington, Julian Huxley, and R. A. Fisher in preparing a scientific, genetically oriented report for the Wolfenden Committee, which was at the time considering possible changes in the laws relating to homosexuality. Our joint report was eventually well-received, and large chunks of it were incorporated almost verbatim in the Committee’s final publication. Few people who have appreciated the beneficial changes which followed, are aware of the major role played by E. B. Ford in achieving this objective. Attitudes and opinions have changed so radically during the last few decades that it is difficult to believe how much courage was needed to produce a document of this sort in the fifties and sixties. I saw with the greatest admiration and respect how Professor Ford pursued our aims with relentless tenacity, courage and ultimate success. Moreover he retained his amusing sense of the ridiculous throughout. “What did Fisher think of our report?” I asked Henry one day, hoping for a few compliments from the great man. “Think of it?” said Henry, his eyebrows climbing, “My dear Mrs Lane, he said ‘I will sign this report because Jesus Christ would have signed it’. I think the important point is he did so.”
Film director and producer Tony Richardson (1928-1991), winner of Best Director Oscar for Tom Jones (1963) was another Wadham graduate. Others of his movies include Look Back in Anger (1958), The Entertainer (1960), and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Richardson was married to Vanessa Redgrave from 1962-1967 and had two daughters, actresses Natasha Richardson and Joely Richardson. He was, however, bisexual, something he talked about openly after he acquired AIDS, the illness eventually taking his life.
Another Wadham graduate, and an example to straight-identified men everywhere, is Liberal Democrat politician Dr Evan Harris (b. 1965), Member of Parliament for Oxford East and Abingdon between 1997 and 2010. A fervent equality campaigner, Harris is an Honorary President of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights and a Vice-President of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.
Writing the foreword for the first edition of Queer Oxford in 2006, Harris stated: ‘My campaigning on LGBT issues began at Oxford University twenty years ago. Even then, in the dark days of Section 28, Oxford was a liberal enough place for students to come out and for there to be an active and open gay scene. Oxford Friend—a pioneering helpline which is still going strong—and OXAIDS (now part of the Terrence Higgins Trust) were well supported. For a straight man like me, Oxford opened my eyes to the needs of a community suffering just as bad prejudice as racial minorities but without the legal protection from, and public rejection of, homophobia that racism received.’
Wadham is one of the most liberal Oxford colleges and has long been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights campaigning in Oxford. The ‘Blasphemy Disco’ advertised in the above ad in Daily Info was organised by Oxford’s Gaysoc (founded in 1975) and the Oxford branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) following the sensational prosecution of Gay News and its editor Denis Lemon in 1977. They were found guilty of blasphemous libel following a private prosecution by the prominent anti-gay campaigner Mary Whitehouse who had objected to the publication of a poem entitled ‘The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name’ by poet James Kirkup.