The Labouchère Amendment and Oscar Wilde

While the literature of the Victorian era collectively celebrated the innocence of children, no single work highlighted this more than Lewis Carroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland (1865). As one Carroll biographer, Morton Cohen, has pointed out:

Wonderland is the tale of quest, a trial, a test. It is a series of episodes that pits a young person against a bewildering cast of adult characters who behave incomprehensibly, according to arcane conventions. It illustrates how a young inexperienced person can deal with this inexplicably chaotic world and survive as part of it. When Alice wakes, she returns to the reassuring comfort and companionship of her sister and, by extension, to the welcoming arms of her family. Though more experienced now, she is still young, but she is ready.

In 1885 and twenty years on from its publication—and having sold several hundred thousand copies in Britain alone—Alice’s fictional experiences were contrasted with many less privileged girls in a series of investigative journalism pieces in the Pall Mall Gazette by its editor W.T. Stead. Purposefully using expressions such as “underground” and “adventure” and stylistically mimicking Victorian fantasy writing, Stead presented an eager reading public with a series of expositional pieces that went by the title of The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Here, readers were introduced to the idea of girls being sold to brothels and networks of locked rooms throughout London at the behest of the “passions of the rich”.

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Stead’s investigation succeeded in its intention to shock. He cited a brothel keeper who boasted of his ability to deliver “half a dozen girls, ages varying from ten to thirteen, within a week or ten days” and another who had assured that due to the thick walls of his establishment, girls might “scream blue murder” but they would not be heard. In his zeal and to prove his point, Stead overstepped the mark and procured the thirteen-year-old daughter of a chimney sweep, delivered her to a brothel and had her made senseless by way of chloroform so that she might await a prospective client.

Stead (left) made his point, but it landed him a three-month sentence in Holloway Prison for unlawful methods of investigation. He was given first-class treatment, however, possibly because he claimed to have a list of “noble and royal” patrons. He boasted of never having had “a pleasanter holiday, a more charming season of repose”. He had his own room with an open fire and a fellow prisoner as servant. His wife and children spent Christmas with him and he continued to edit the Gazette. He requested on release that he might keep his prison uniform since it had been rarely worn, and for the rest of his life (Stead went down with the Titanic in 1912) he made a point of wearing it annually on that date as a symbol of what he regarded as his “triumph”.

Triumph was not an overstatement. As a result of his articles, a crowd of 250,000 assembled in Hyde Park demanding new laws. As it happens, Carroll was one of Stead’s few detractors. His concern was that Stead’s widely read and much discussed vivid descriptions of the seamier aspects of London life might pervert the minds of younger readers and listeners. Having already written a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, in which he expressed the view that such “loathsome details” were not “conducive to public morality” he went even further in a letter to the St James Gazette where he spoke against “the horrible fashion” of “forcing the most contaminating subjects on the attention even of those who can get nothing from them but the deadliest injury”.

Public sentiment, however, demanded that Parliament must act. In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, later dubbed the Stead Act, raised the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen.

Crucially, as an adjunct to the Stead Act, a further amendment was passed at the last gasp. This is known as the Labouchère Amendment or Section 11. Henry Labouchère (right), a Liberal member for Northampton and vehement homophobe, had seized on an opportunity—given the Parliament’s current mood for a re-evaluation of sexual mores—to consider the idea of criminalising acts of “gross indecency” between consenting male adults. “Gross indecency” referred to instances where the actual act of sodomy could not be proven. Hitherto other same-sex activities, while still deplored as depraved, were strictly speaking not illegal. At the time, the harshest existing penalty for sodomy was life imprisonment—until 1861 it had been death—however prosecutions (due to the harshness of the existing penalty) were rarely pursued. Labouchère’s amendment suggested what he felt to be a more pragmatic penalty of seven years. The amended law eventually read:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with any other male person, shall be guilty of misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable at the direction of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years with or without hard labour.

The Labouchère amendment would have dire consequences for Oscar Wilde.

The bravado of John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, was legendary. The keen sportsman had left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, on February 18, 1895—its message entering the annals of literary history—“For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Queensberry was reacting to rumours of Wilde’s salacious relationship with his third son, Lord Alfred Douglas (who will hereafter be known by his pet-name “Bosie”). As has been well documented, Wilde was affronted by the message and, encouraged by Bosie, vowed to initiate a private prosecution for libel. Friends had considerable misgivings. Frank Harris, the editor of Fortnightly Review, suggested that for a time Wilde should have gone to France rather than place himself in a situation where “they are going to prove sodomy against you”. This was well intentioned and good advice. In 1889 Lord Arthur Somerset, a friend of the Prince of Wales, had been exposed during a raid on a homosexual brothel. He had been granted the opportunity to leave Britain and live on the Continent, the Prince of Wales himself seeking permission from the Prime Minister that Somerset might intermittently visit his parents without fanfare and “without fear of being apprehended on this awful charge”. However, Wilde remained steadfastly belligerent and under the 1843 libel act, Queensberry, if convicted, could be imprisoned for up to two years.

As Harris suspected, Queensberry’s lawyers deployed private detectives. The press also delighted in its sordid allusions as to what the celebrated writer got up to in his less public moments. When the court sat in April 1895, Wilde proved entertaining for the crowded gallery but exhibited a dismal lack of understanding for legal nuance. When asked whether he had ever kissed a certain Walter Grainger, a servant boy who assisted in Bosie’s rooms at Oxford, Wilde was adamant that he had not, but tripped himself up by adding that Grainger “was a peculiarly plain boy”. When asked how the boy’s unattractiveness was relevant, Wilde, realising his error, cracked and answered with exasperation: “You sting and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously.”

Suddenly laughs were off the agenda. When Queensberry’s defence announced that a number of male prostitutes were willing to give evidence of sexual involvement with Wilde, the latter had no option other than to drop the charges. The net result was catastrophic for Wilde; responsible for costs, he was now bankrupt and furthermore, as Harris had predicted, the court declared that Queensberry’s accusation was “true in substance and fact”.

Three weeks later Wilde was arrested under Section 11 on twenty-five counts of “gross indecency”. He pleaded not guilty. In court again and asked what he believed was meant by the phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name”—part of the closing line of a poem, “Two Loves”, that Bosie had written in 1892 and published in the magazine the Chameleon in 1894—he answered, yet failed once again to fathom that what he would say must work against him:

The love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an elder person for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is the deep spiritual affection that is pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art … it is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood … that on account of it I am placed where I am now.

The jury was unable to reach a verdict and Wilde was released on bail.


At the final trial, three weeks later, Wilde again misread the situation in which he had placed himself. His joking and pompous airs were by now beginning to grate on most members of the public. It surprised no one that this time he was found guilty as charged. What shocked many—and given that even Edward Carson, the QC who had initially represented Queensberry, had sought intervention from the Solicitor General (“Can we not let up on this fellow now?”)—was that Wilde was given the maximum sentence of two years with hard labour. The presiding judge, Alfred Wills, in his summing up, had stated that he felt the penalty “totally inadequate” and described the case as “the worst I have ever tried”. Wilde’s attempts to speak in response were shouted down by many in the public gallery and he was trundled out of court amidst cries of “Shame! Shame!”

Unlike Stead’s brief stint inside, Wilde’s imprisonment was in line with the 1877 Prison Act’s credo of “hard labour, hard board, and hard fare”. Prisoners were kept in isolation, and dietary and living conditions were meagre. Wilde’s “hard labour” involved the mindless turning of treadmills and mechanical cranks, interspersed with picking oakum for long hours in his cell. The harshness of the conditions was evidenced by the fact that five days after Wilde’s release, a warder at Reading Prison informed the Daily Mirror that he had been sacked for giving a biscuit to a small hungry child. The child had been imprisoned for being unable to pay the fine after being nabbed snaring rabbits. Wilde had seen the child on the Monday before his release. The final piece of writing completed in his own name was the penny pamphlet Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life (1897).

Modern sensibilities have been fed the idea that Queensberry was some kind of brutish idiot. Much about the man had been gleaned from the biased memoirs of Bosie himself and letters that he wrote in support of Wilde. It bears notice that Merlin Holland (Wilde’s only grandchild), in his introduction to The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) warns of Bosie’s unreliability: “no fact, date or statement given by … Lord Alfred Douglas can be accepted without reliable corroborative evidence”.

Rarely mentioned is the fact that Queensberry and Wilde had got on famously over a long lunch at the Café Royal in Regent Street in 1892, Wilde later telling Bosie that his father “had a lot in him which appealed to him”. Likewise, Queensberry had admitted to his son that he had found Wilde “a charming fellow and very clever”. It is also worthy of consideration that Bosie had published poems by both Wilde and Queensberry in the Oxford undergraduate journal the Spirit Lamp whose editorship he had undertaken.

Nevertheless, Queensberry had established a reputation for unseemly correspondence. In the last of a series of exasperated letters to Lord Rosebery he expressed his disappointment at having been overlooked in elevation to the peerage:

Cher fat boy, this shall be my concluding letter to you … I presume the savoury odour of your Jew money bags has too delicious a fragrance to allow me to expect any justice in high quarters. Which would brand yourself as what I have always heard you described the greatest liar in Europe … I wish to insult you & this is why I address you in this fashion … I would prefer having 15 minutes with your fat self in a 16 foot ring & hand gloves to being created an English Duke or even a Bishop … therefore oh fat boy keep yourself fit, use a skipping rope mighty man of valour, you will find it good for your fat carcass.

Harris said Queensberry “was just the sort of person a wise man would avoid and a clever one use—a dangerous, sharp, ill-handled tool”.

For all of this, it was perfectly reasonable for Queensberry to be frustrated, if not downright infuriated, regarding his son’s dissolute time at Oxford. Bosie missed examinations under the pretence of illness, failed to take a degree, and showed no interest in undertaking any respectable profession. Queensberry had warned his son, “It appears you are preparing a wretched future for yourself.” It may also be readily understood that the rumours running rife throughout London society concerning Bosie’s relationship with Wilde amounted to, from Queensberry’s standpoint, the last straw. A cartoon in Punch alluding to the pair’s unusual fondness for each other, and further gossip that Bosie had been repeatedly blackmailed over his sexual adventures at Oxford, would have sent any self-respecting Victorian father into a spin. The urging on by the likes of Labouchère—“there would be no harm if his lordship gave Wilde a sound horsewhipping”—added fuel to the fire. What was becoming increasingly clear to Queensberry was that which Wilde already knew. In Wilde’s words, Bosie’s problem was his fascination with “the gutter and the things that live in it”.

It should always be remembered that at the outset of what became a tragic fiasco for Wilde, it had been Queensberry (above) who was on trial. His reputation and indeed liberty were at stake. And then as now the general public’s appetite for social ruin was merciless. At Queensberry’s libel trial, the Evening News reported a crowded court “packed worse than sardines in a tin”, prompting one wag to assert “The Importance of Being Early”. The trial however did little else, as Linda Stratmann points out in The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis (2013), than make it abundantly clear that Wilde had not only committed a criminal offence, and tried to ruin the man who exposed it, but had also lied in evidence. The extent to which Wilde’s petulant insistence on legal action backfired is evidenced by the level of support for Queensberry after the trial. This proved so overwhelming that he felt compelled to place a statement of gratitude in the wider press:

As the Marquess of Queensberry finds it quite impossible to reply to the number of letters, telegrams and messages he has received in the last few days, he begs to be allowed through the medium of the Press to express his gratitude for the hundreds of kind messages of sympathy he has received, from friends and strangers alike, from every part of the country, and to thank them most cordially for the same, the number of which makes it impossible to send separate replies or acknowledgements.

The National Observer had proved particularly unctuous in its support: “There is not a man or woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry.” By contrast, that Christmas, Queensberry received the following yuletide message from his son: “I hated you then I hate you a thousand more times now & will be even with you some day wishing you every curse & misery & speedy death with eternal damnation.”

Whether speedy enough or not, Queensberry died in January 1900 aged fifty-five. The Times obituary described him as a man of strong character, but one who on occasions had been obstructed by an “ill-balanced mind”. This provoked a response from a Richard Edgcumbe from Berkshire who spoke of a man who had:

an inability to divest himself of a feeling that something higher, something nobler … was expected of him. He suffered, so to speak, of a plethora of conscience. Whenever he heard of a wrong he felt that it must be righted, and that he himself would be forced to do it, because no one else seemed willing to incur the odium. His superlative moral and physical courage … often placed him in awkward straits, but his conscience always supported him through every discouragement …

He further described Queensberry’s conduct during the Wilde case as “simply heroic”.

Apart from a brief stay in Naples, Wilde resumed civilian life in France as “Sebastian Melmoth”. By the time of Queensberry’s death, he was incapacitated by ill health and ruined finances. Expecting that Bosie would come into money, Wilde pressed the point of financial relief, only to be told by Bosie that he was behaving like “an old fat prostitute” and that he was intent on spending his father’s money on “boys, brandy and betting”. Eventually confined to bed and though close to death—he would die in November 1900 aged forty-six, some ten months after Queensberry—Wilde could still humour visitors. He told the writer Claire de Pratz, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go,” and informed his friend and carer Reggie Turner that he should have been a doctor since he “always wanted people to do what they didn’t want”.

His obituary in the Times reflected on “what must have been a life of wretchedness and unavailing regret”. The Pall Mall Gazette spoke of a “wonderful cleverness” without “substantiality”—Wilde’s plays were witty, it said, with “bright moments”, but as works of drama they lacked “constructive capacity”.

As for Bosie, he married the poet Olive Custance in 1902 and embraced Catholicism in 1911. At one point he described Wilde as “the greatest force of evil that had appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years”.

In 1920 he founded the decidedly anti-Semitic journal Plain English. Amongst other things, it argued the need for an equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan in Britain and insisted that the war hero Herbert Kitchener, who had perished at sea, had in fact been murdered by Jews. Having spent six months in prison in 1923 for libelling Winston Churchill in relation to the 1916 Battle of Jutland, Bosie claimed that his health would never recover. He died in 1945 at the age of seventy-four and was buried beside his mother. André Gide had described him years earlier as “possessed by the perverse instinct that drives a child to break his finest toy”.

Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor on literature, lives in Geelong

2 thoughts on “The Labouchère Amendment and Oscar Wilde

  • Daffy says:

    I see the UK still has the problem of abetting child abuse, by rape gangs this time around. Only their ethnicity, it appears, has changed. Contempt for the lives, safety and innocence of the young is the hall mark of UK officialdom, it would seem. And unrepentant at that. Horrific. Disgusting.
    For that reason, I don’t pay my respects here to HM Charles Rex. He’d be better placed to weigh in on this rather the phone-crony capitalism of ‘renewables R us’.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Daffy, CIIIR has exactly the same political power in the UK as his mother had, eg precisely none. He reigns, but does not rule, and the problems of sexual abuse of young children in the UK go back centuries before he came to the throne.

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