Incident at the Royal Academy


Painting of Edward Onslow by Anna Rajecka, Mme Gault de Saint-Germain, 1800

NOTE: The subject of this report was the Hon. Edward Onslow (1758–1829), younger son of George Onslow, 1st Earl of Onslow. "Ned" confessed the truth of the scandal to his family, resigned his seat in Parliament, left the family home at Clandon Park in Surrey and fled to France. In March 1783 he married Marie Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Brantome, a wealthy woman, who bore him four children, including the classical composer George Onslow in 1784. He ended his days as a country gentleman in the Chateau Le Chalendrat.

The following very extraordinary transaction, copied from a morning paper, we present to our readers, as it will probably soon excite the public curiosity, as a subject of judicial investigation, we shall relate it at large: A young gentleman, a native of Ireland, went with a friend, yesterday, between two and three o'clock, to see the Exhibition of the Royal Academy, and, as he was walking round the upper rooms, was accosted by a gentleman whom he did not know, but whose appearance, and the company he had been conversing with, indicated the man of fashion. This person affected to talk with him upon several trivial subjects, and, having engaged his attention, suddenly applied his hand to a certain part of his body, in a manner that seemed to convey obscene and unnatural views. The Hibernian was astonished, beyond description, at this indecent familiarity, and till its repetition, could hardly believe that it had arisen from design; he was then so overpowered by surprize, that he could not resolve what conduct to pursue; but at length recovered his friend, from whom he had been separated, and informed him of what had passed. Two other gentlemen soon joined them, and they were also made privy to the affair. It was determined between them, that he should return again into the room, where our man of polished manners was walking; and if the same indecency was attempted again, to repay it with a manual castigation before the company. Accordingly he returned, and his inamorato once more edging up to him, applied his hand as before, in the sight of three gentlemen, who were observing his motions. The Hibernian upon this, exclaimed in a thundering voice, "You scoundrel, what do you mean?" to which the honourable gentleman returned, in a whisper, "Oh! it's nothing improper!" or something to that effect; but the other was not to be pacified; he struck him violently in the face, before all the company, on which he immediately took to his heels, and running precipitately through the room, escaped before his antagonist could come up with him.
          The company were all thrown into confusion, and a noble Lord, who was unfortunate enough to be the friend of this wretch, hearing the cause of the uproar, came up to the Hibernian, and begged to know where he would meet with him in the evening, in case he might, upon further enquiry, think it necessary they should see each other on this disagreeable business. The Gentleman complied with his Lordship's request, and appointed to meet him at the P——-street Coffee-house, at seven o'clock: accordingly at that hour the parties assembled; but first the honourable gentleman came, attended with two friends, and left word, that not finding a room disengaged, they were gone to the S——. The manly gentleman next came, with his friends, and those who had witnessed the transaction, and the noble Lord soon followed in a hackney-coach. Being all arrived at the S——, the Right Honourable Party were assembled in an inner room, and a gentleman was deputed by the others, to demand of the noble Lord for what purpose they were met, or what he wished to say to his friend? no direct answer was given to this, but they engaged the gentleman in conversation, and endeavoured to convince him, in opposition to the evidence of his own senses, that the accusation was grundless; the accused himself attempting to colour his conduct by a most palpable faslehoods. Finding that the interview was desired for no purpose but that of evasion, and a wish to make the matter doubtful or mysterious, the gentleman returned to his party, and told them the result; on which they were about to leave the house, when two gentleman came to them as deputies of the Honourables and Right Honourables, to beg that they would not go precipitately, for that it was necessary the affair should be some way decided. The reply given to this was, that there was nothing to decide, that the noble Lord had appointed the meeting, and they had come in compliance with his Lordship's wish, yet now he would not declare the reason of his request. An apology was hinted at, but the gentleman with a degree of spirit that had characterized his whole behaviour, disclaimed the idea of accepting, much less demanding a concession from one who had fallen below the rank of manhood. In consequence of this, he and his friend were a second time on the point of going; when lo! another embassy appeared, still entreating them to stay, but without assigning any reason for it whatever, till at length one of the honourable gentleman's friends hinted something like a challenge from his principal, and afterwards openly professed that was the meaning of his words. He said, an interview was demanded between the parties below. The champion of manhood received this intimation gladly, and would at once have embraced the proposal; but his friend warmly solicited him to the contrary, representing on his own idea, that a wretch like this could not stand on a footing of equality with him, without degrading his character; and besides, that a quarrel of this kind was not a proper subject for honourary discussion. These reasons prevailed on him so far, that he determined to take time for deliberation, which the informatliy of the message would alone have warranted, and therefore returned for answer, "That the Honourable Gentleman had had his address, and if he chose to repeat the invitation, would meet a proper answer." Scarcely had this matter been adjusted, which was in less than five minutes from the delivery of the message, when another curious scene opened, and displayed at once how impossible it was for courage to exist in a breast where humanity was dethroned. – A Magistrate, with two constables, entered the room, and stopped the gentleman just before challenged, by the authority of magistracy, as he was going forwards to the stairs. The Justice however did not appear to be at all acquainted with the purpose of his coming, for he asked information of the gentlemen standing round him, and appeared much surprized, as any man in his situation must have been on hearing the story. – The honest Hibernian finding himself thus a prisoner for vindicating the honour of human nature, found it indispensible to do what otherwise his delicacy would perhaps have led him to avoid, to give the investigation of this affair into the hand of public justice; he therefore demanded of the magistrate to grant him a warrant against the party below stairs, or send down a constable to apprehend him. – In answer to this application the magistrate only said, that in supposing himself a prisoner, he was perfecty at libery, – and the constabes declared the matter was even as his Worship had stated, though they at the same time guarded the door on each side. Liberty was not what the gentleman wanted; he reiterated his demands for a warrant, to which the Magistrate made no reply; but at length the friends interfered, and observed to the gentleman, that before he proceeded to violent measures, it might be proper to consult a lawyer, to know whether the fact was sufficiently criminal to ground a prosecution. He acqiesced in the objection and went away to consult with some gentlemen of the long robe, having first left his address with all the adverse parties, though they repeatedly declined accepting it. In less than ten minutes he got the desired information, being told that whether the fact would amount to the legal definition of an unnatural attempt or not, which the publicity of the place rendered rather dubious, it was clear a public idecency, and as such indictable. – Being therefore satisfie don this head, he returned to the S—— Coffee-house, and finding all the parties still there, called out the Magistrate, and requested him to receive his information, and to secure the person of the offender. This requisition was complied with, but his Worship desired him to come into the room, where the parties were present, to be examined; he accordingly went, and fund there, in addition to the former group, the Hon. Gentleman himself, his Right Hon. father, his brother, and many other gentleman. The information was taken to the effect contained in the preceding part of this account, but previously all the gentlemen who came as witnesses with the informant, were ordered to leave the room, and he was left with only one friend amidst a crowd of the honourable gentleman's, who used every unfair and illiberal art to embarrass and inflame him while he was giving his evidence. The noble Lords already mentioned, the father and friend of the prisoner, claiming a privilege as Magistrates to interrupt, threaten, and asperse at pleasure, while their brother Justices, for three were present, all called by the noble Lord, held nobility in too great reverence to interrupt them.
          The information of the prosecutor being taken, and the facts stated above having been proed indisputable by him, and three other gentlemen of respectabe characters, the Justice thought fit absolutely to refuse committing the prisoner, but putting the depositios in his pocket, said to the noble lord, the father, "I have made up my mind upon the case, my Lord, and these will be for you to consult Council upon."
          Language is too weak to describe the conduct of all the parties, but particularly that of the Magistrates on the close of this examination. The Gentleman who so nobly defended the cause of human nature, and his own character was over-whelmed with torrents of abuse in lieu of that justice he came to solicit; and if any retort was attempted by him, or his friends, they were threatened to be committed. – As to the noble Lord, he raved like a Bedlamite, calling the prosecutor and his friends conspirators, villains, in league against the life of his son, with a thousand other opprobrious names. But tho' aristocratic insolence may shelter itself under the authority of a M——' Juistice, there are courts in this kingdom too high and upright to respect the persons of offenders, and into them we are happy to learn this very singular transaction will immediately be brought.
          It would be injustice to one of the gentlemen who attended on this occasion with the noble Lords, not to observe that his behaviour was a contrast to that of his company. We desist at present from giving names for obvious reasons, but that of the Gentleman here alluded to, is one truly respectable, and he is much to be commiserated for being drawn into any connection with so scandalous an affair. He professes his astonishment and disapprobation when the Magistrate appeared, and gave evident marks of disgust at all the subsequent proceedings.
(London Courant, 4 May 1781)

The Honourable Mr E––d O––w, accused of an unnatural attempt upon a Mr Maccartey, an Irishman, a few days ago, at the exhibition at Somerset-house, this day absconded, from which circumstance his guilt is generally inferred. Lord O––w is said to be in a state of distraction on this occasion. (Caledonian Mercury, Monday 14 May 1781)

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Incident at the Royal Academy, 1781", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 9 June 2021 <>.

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