William Beckford's Gay Scrapbooks


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


Of particular interest to our examination of William Beckford's life is the interest he maintained in the molly subculture. He is forever gathering information sent by Franchi concerning the gay areas in such places as York or even Cornwall (he hoped that amongst the "brothers" or Methodists there he could find "one who was a bit of a mameluke," i.e. catamite, 26 July 1810), or gossip concerning a general and a batman in the barracks, nicknamed "Mary Clarke" (22 October 1817). His immense library contained not merely rare and valuable books, but also a few works of homosexual interest, such as The Penitent Death of . . . John Atherton (he and his tithe proctor were hanged for buggery in 1640 in Dublin), the Trial of Lord Audley (Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven, beheaded for rape and sodomy in 1631), and a specially bound copy of the trial of Colonel Robert Passingham and John Edwards, who had conspired to blackmail George Forrester by accusing him of unnatural crimes in 1805.

In addition to these volumes, for many hours he poured over a special scrapbook into which he pasted press reports of all the homosexual scandals of the day, and he sometimes recorded his reactions to such events in letters to Franchi. For example, here are his comments on the arrest of the Vere Street Coterie, which he read about in the Morning Chronicle of Tuesday, 10 July 1810: "Poor sods — what a fine ordeal, what a procession, what a pilgrimage, what a song and dance, what a rosary [i.e., string of prisoners]! What a pity not to have a balcony in Bow Street to see them pass, and worse still not to have a magic wand to transform into a triumph the sorry sequence of events" (11 July 1810). According to the newspaper, one of the men arrested was Matthew Saunders of Duke Street, Aldgate, who may be identical with Saunders the tightrope walker pursued by Beckford. Beckford's anger at the persecution of the madge culls never took a more active form than vexatious rage and vain sighing, but at least he was not ashamed to be homosexual himself and he clearly recognized the prejudice of his society. Beckford was a friend of Lord Roden, nephew of the Bishop of Clogher, and in 1822 he referred briefly to "the St Albans Street procession," that is, the arrest of the Bishop and the soldier Moverley who were dragged through the street and beaten by the mob along the way.

Beckford collected newspaper cuttings about homosexual scandals until the very year of his death, carefully wrapped in packets of gilt-edged paper together with cuttings of obituaries, coronations, sales of books and pictures, and curiosities. I think he shuffled and reshuffled them as he grew older, and even in March 1844, less than a month before his death at the age of 83, he was still labelling the contents of these packets in the shaky hand of an old man. Dozens of these gay cuttings are now scattered throughout the Beckford Papers at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, no longer in any particular order. They have many interesting things to tell us about gay life at a time of high moral fervour.

Some of the cuttings refer to scandals about notable gentlemen, usually by means of innuendo. Beckford cut out a report concerning one of his neighbours in Wiltshire, Mr Seymour. In 1828 he and his servant Mr Macklin were discovered having sexual relations in the master's dressing room, and their trial was attended by great numbers of the Wiltshire gentry. Mr Seymour claimed that the servants were conspiring against him, and that "he had been leaning over Macklin, with one hand upon his shoulder, looking at a book of accounts." Both men were found guilty after a trial lasting 41 hours, but Mr Seymour absconded [Unrecognized newspaper, 17 March 1828, Bodleian MS.Beckford c.75, fol. 58]. One cutting concerns "a certain English Marquis" who left the country some years ago amidst "strange circumstances connected with his early propensities," whose case involving large estates was now arriving at maturity in the Court of Chancery; this was probably the Earl of Leicester, previously mentioned [The Age, 31 August 1834, MS.Beckford c.75, fol. 132]. Another cutting concerns Mr Heber, brother of the Bishop of Calcutta, who sued the John Bull newspaper in 1826 for insinuating that he had left the country to avoid a homosexual prosecution. The libel stated that "The backwardness of the seasons renders the Continent more congenial to some constitutions," and that he had "an over addiction to Hartshorn," presumably the name of his lover. (Beckford annotated this "H.H.H. Heber and Hartshorn.") This cutting is particularly sad, because it notes the similar flight of Beckford's boyfriend of many years previous: Heber "is supposed (for after all it is but supposition) to have left England for much the same reason that my Lord Courtenay — the Bishop of Clogher, cum multis aliis [and many others], have deemed it expedient to emigrate to foreign climes" [Wrapper; News, 14 November 1826; John Bull, 7 May 1826; MS.Beckford c.83, fols. 64, 72—73].

Soldiers are not altogether absent from these cuttings. In 1826 a well-dressed lad of sixteen, said to be the second son of an Irish Peer, was charged with having made indecent proposals to a sentry on duty at Knightsbridge Barracks [Morning Chronicle, 14 February 1826, MS.Beckford c.83, fol. 131]. But usually the soldiers were more willing, sometimes notoriously willing. In 1827 a sergeant of a distinguished cavalry was drummed out of the barracks for having carried on a homosexual affair. The entire regiment was drawn out, mounted and in full costume, for the solemn ceremonies. The sergeant, a young and fine-looking man, guarded by four soldiers with sabres drawn, slowly walked across the yard, his neck encircled by a halter, while trumpets and kettle drums played the Rogue's March. Then there was dead silence for several agonizing minutes as he walked the last few yards out of the barracks gate, alone, carrying only a small bundle of clothes with him, the archetypal outcast [News, 23 September 1827, MS.Beckford c.83, fol. 139]. A "gang" of mollies who used to pick up soldiers at the Horse Guards Parade regularly frequented a room in the Bull public house in Bullen Court, the Strand, where they were apprehended in April 1830. Some escaped, but six were taken prisoner and conveyed to the police station while a mob of five hundred people covered them and their guards with mud and filth. One soldier was dealt with under military law, and six civilians were ordered to find bail [Morning Chronicle, 17 and 19 April 1830, MS.Beckford, c.67, fols 178 and 181].

A fair number of cuttings concern clergymen, who were deemed newsworthy because of the presumed hypocrisy of their gay affairs. One cutting refers to the Bishop of Clogher, and says that "Other Clergymen of the Established Church, too, have of late years figured occasionally in Police Offices, and not for taking liberties with females" [Examiner, 1 April 1827, MS.Beckford c.75, fol. 23]. A typical headline is "Flight and Disgraceful Conduct of Two Religious Hypocrites," accused of assaulting boys in Manchester in 1832 [News, 29 April 1832, MS.Beckford c.83, fol. 81]. In 1825 Rev William Hayes, one of the Minor Canons of St Paul's, was "found in a disgusting situation with a boy in a lane leading to a wharf in Upper Thames-street." He was granted bail and absconded, but was recaptured in Reading, found guilty by default, and sent to Reading gaol for six months [Morning Chronicle, 23 March 1825, and an unidentified newspaper, 4 May 1825, MS.Beckford c.83, fols. 129—130]. In 1833 in Suffolk a rector and a curate were charged with the capital crime of sodomy, but they did not come forth to defend themselves, and lost their recognizances [News, 22 March 1833, MS.Beckford c.83, fol. 84].

Although gentlemen figure largely in these cuttings, many of them are self-made middle-class gentlemen, rather than members of the gentry or aristocracy, and their relations are with men in the lower-middle classes. For example, in 1828 G. Harvey, proprietor of a mustard manufactory in Blackfriars Road, and Robert Nethercott, a footman belonging to Henry Seymour, Esq, of 39, Upper Grosvenor Street, were charged with having sex together. Mr Harvey's father stood bail for his son, and two tradesmen stood bail for the footman [News, 4 May 1828, MS.Beckford c.74, fol. 273].

A very interesting case involved a dirty old gentleman named John Grossett Muirhead of St George's, Hanover Square. In 1825 Muirhead met an apprentice outside a print shop in Sackville Street, off Piccadilly, where he showed him some indecent prints and books, and two "skins" which he bet he could not fit into. One of these condoms was later produced in evidence in court, and its use had to be explained. He took the young man to a coffee house for a pint of cider and biscuits, where he showed him some more dirty pictures, held his hand and fondled him, gave him a crown, and arranged for another meeting to have sex. The lad thought Muirhead was "a good-natured old gentleman" and was not averse to his attentions, but two other boys to whom he told this story said he had to be careful. The following Sunday Muirhead took all three boys, one aged 14 and one aged 21, to an oyster shop, where he showed them more pornography and fondled them and gave them a crown apiece. Before he could proceed any further, two officers, by previous arrangement, burst in and arrested him.

Muirhead's case was important for re-confirming that privacy and consent were no defence in law for homosexuals. He did not deny the events, but he argued that there were no legal grounds for a prosecution: "first, that it was not an assault, because the prisoner had the consent of the party; and secondly, it was not an offence indictable in the present shape, because it was committed in private." But the judge replied that "In crimes of this atrocious description, consent or non-consent did not alter the offence, and it was an offence against public morals, not only because it was committed in a public coffee-room, but because it was an attempt to destroy the morals of youthful members of society." His crime was exacerbated by the fact that he was a member of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and a Director of the Auxiliary Bible Society of St George's in the Fields. He was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for the first offence and six months for the second. He pleaded for clemency on the grounds that he was 72 years old and infirm, and not likely to survive prison. The judge said he would be treated humanely. He certainly did survive prison, for three years and nine months later Beckford took another newspaper cutting, reporting that he had been arrested in Dover for a similar offence [Morning Chronicle, 22 October 1825, 27 July 1829, MS.Beckford c.75, fols. 68—69; The Age, September 1825, MS.Beckford c.71, fol. 34]. Soon afterwards, according to Ashbee, he fled to the Continent, though he had been a wealthy property owner in Lanarkshire.

Beckford's newspaper cuttings provide a marvellous shortcut to the gay history of this period. They may not reveal much specifically about the organized gay subculture, but they do at least reveal some of the gay cruising grounds, and they illustrate the changing patterns of contact between men of different social backgrounds. The cuttings are especially valuable when read in conjunction with Beckford's reactions to the reports, contained in his letters to Franchi. His most scornful, and most despairing, comments were expressed upon the hanging, in 1816, of John Attwood Eglerton, a waiter with wife and children who was accused of sodomy by a stable boy. It took the jury only ten minutes to return a verdict of guilty and a sentence of death. Beckford wrote to Franchi on 22 September: "Tomorrow (according to the papers) they are going to hang a poor honest sodomite. I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices. In a numerous list of thieves, assassins, housebreakers, violators ("a man for a rape") etc, he was the only one to be sent to the gallows; all the others were "respited during pleasure." The danger must be great indeed and everyone in the country must be running the risk of having his arse exposed to fire and slaughter."

Beckford pasted into his scrapbook the report from the News, Sunday 29 September, and wrote to Franchi on 3 October concerning a document about the mollies which Eglerton gave to the prison chaplain Rev Horace Salusbury Cotton on the night before his execution: "You may or may not know that this man of honour, before his end, put in the hands of his Anglican confessor, the most Reverend Mister Cotton, Grand-Almoner of Newgate, a tremendous list of the gentlemen affiliated or associated with him! He wanted to inform the populace viva voce, but Father Cotton said with evangelical sweetness, "My dear Sir, better not, better not." The stupid, hypocritical, bloodthirsty vermin! The day will come when their infamous vices and stinking hypocrisies will be revealed to the eyes of all Europe. . . . The Portuguese did well to set sail in time before the Annals of Father Cotton"; this is a reference to a Portuguese molly compatriot of Franchi who had escaped arrest.

Beckford himself contemplated fleeing to Portugal as early as 1808, with Saunders and a troupe of artists: "If I were at my last gasp I would rise for this one. Gloria in excelsis (full organ) et in terra papale Pax, non Pox — I hope" (30 June 1808). Apparently Beckford during his previous travels to Portugal had had an affair with Jacintho Fernandes Bandeira, elder brother of the First Count of Porto Covo da Bandeira, and he believed the atmosphere of that country to be much more tolerant. He also spent time in Paris, where society and the law were even more tolerant; there he hoped to find agreeable inexpensive lodgings where he could buy books in the morning "and have boys in the evening" (22 July 1814).

Arrogant and petulant, Beckford was deeply embittered at being snubbed by his social equals and inferiors; he was obsessed with his pedigree, and his aspirations were devastated when King George III refused to grant him a peerage. The remarkable thing about William Beckford — aside from the unique records of his letters and scrapbook — is that he braved out his ostracism by society. Weaker men than he — such as Courtenay, Leicester and the Earl of Findlater, and a host of clergymen and aristocrats — would have permanently resided abroad in order to escape notoriety. Ironically we have come full circle, for Beckford's estate at Fonthill Gifford once belonged to Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven, the first homosexual to be prosecuted in the English courts. The frieze of St Michael's Gallery in Fonthill Abbey was lined by armorial shields delineating Beckford's descent from the family of Mervyn.


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "William Beckford's Gay Scrapbooks", Gay History and Literature, updated 16 Nov. 1999 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/beckfor2.htm>.

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