The current trajectory of UK liberalism suggests it wonít be long until you can marry your uncle/pet donkey/twin/mobile phone and have kids with your aunty. It wasnít long ago that things were different and homosexuality was illegal. The famous bisexual dramatist Oscar Wilde was sent to prison between 1895 and 1897 for sodomy and gross indecency. Here I am at the posh hotel in Chelsea where he was arrested and his life was ruined.
Victorian society knew homosexuals occupied a private world but how did Oscar Wilde who was at his literary zenith go to prison for being one? He had hit plays on in London theatres, was lauded in the literary world and in demand at the best parties. His boyfriend was Lord Alfred Douglas but the problem was that Alfred's dad was the ninth Marquess of Queensberry (creator of modern boxing rules) who opposed the relationship. He threatened to disown his son but when that didnít work he did all he could to damage Oscar's reputation. In June 1894 he visited Oscar at his home on Tite Street in Chelsea without an appointment and said: "If I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you." The relationship continued.
Oscar's demise started from a small note with five words on it. One day the Marquess of Queensberry called at Oscarís club and left his calling card. On it were written the words "For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite." Perhaps because he was married with children Oscar started a private prosecution against Queensberry and had him arrested on a charge of criminal libel. The only way Queensberry could only avoid conviction for libel was to prove Oscar was a practising homosexual. The whole thing went to court and Queensbury found several male prostitutes who would testify to bumming Oscar. Unnerved Oscar dropped the libel prosecution but was he was liable for the court costs which this left him bankrupt. Worse still the court issued a warrant for to arrest him for sodomy.
Oscar could have escaped arrest and prison. He was staying in room 118 at The Cadogan Hotel where friends advised him to flee to France (his mum advised him to stay and fight like a man.) He didnít go though and was arrested here at 6.20pm even though there were still four more trains due to leave for Paris. He was prosecuted and, aged 40, was sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. Though reasonably healthy endless hours walking on a treadmill in Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons wrecked his health. One day he collapsed from illness and hunger and an ear drum was ruptured in the fall (this later contributed to his death.) He spent two months in the infirmary. †When he was released from prison he sailed to Dieppe in France and never returned to the UK. He spent his final three years impoverished and in exile, dying of meningitis in a hotel room aged 46.
I had a walk around the outside of the hotel - now called the Belmond Cadogan Hotel and realised I'd walked passed it a few times on previous visits. It was warm enough for guests to be eating outside. It looked expensive; I'm sure breaded mushrooms would be about £10 (or £2.50 per mushroom). Just around the corner at 21 Pont Street is a blue plaque bolted onto the former home of Lillie Langtry, the phenomenally successful late Victorian actress. In 1895 the home became part of the hotel but, oddly, she continued to live in her old bedroom.
Oscar with Lord Alfred Douglas...