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Tourist London

The Athenaeum: where Gladstone met a prostitute

This is the Athenaeum Club, in London’s Waterloo Place. It lies at the top of the Duke of York’s steps (on the left as you go up).

On the night of 6 May 1882, a Member of Parliament named Colonel Tottenham emerged from the club at around 11:30 p.m. after a good dinner. He met an astonishing sight on the steps. The Prime Minister was talking to a prostitute under the gaslight.

Colonel Tottenham was delighted. As an Opposition MP, he saw an opportunity to make trouble for the Prime Minister. William Gladstone was a sanctimonious old goat who always took a high moral tone in public while evidently behaving very differently in private.

Another eyewitness, a man named Parkinson, was so horrified that he wrote to the Prime Minister next day:

‘Had I seen the Heavens open & an angel descend & said such a thing (as I saw), I should have asked the Earth to open and swallow the angel as a liar.’

Gladstone lived across the road from the Athenaeum. He had been on his way back to No 10 Downing Street for the evening when the woman accosted him at the top of the Duke of York’s steps. Greatly embarrassed, he claimed to have been pointing out the error of her ways to her when he was spotted.

Few believed him. The Opposition party had him followed for months afterwards in the hope of digging up more dirt that they could use in an election campaign.

Worst of all for Gladstone, he returned to Downing Street that night to learn of the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin. His nephew, newly appointed as Chief Secretary for Ireland, had been stabbed to death by a gang of Irish National Invincibles (forerunners of the IRA) while walking in the park with the Permanent Under-Secretary.



Oscar Wilde, the Theatre Royal, and a blackmailing rent boy

This is the stage door of the Theatre Royal in London’s Haymarket. It was the scene of a glittering first night on 19 April 1893 when Oscar Wilde’s latest comedy A Woman of No Importance was performed for the first time.

The theatre was packed for the occasion. The lead role was played by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He was heartily applauded at his curtain call, as was the author, although not everyone approved of him. Sir Herbert’s half-brother Max Beerbohm was in the audience as Oscar came on stage:

‘When little Oscar came on to make his bow there was a slight mingling of boos and hisses, through he looked very sweet in a new white waistcoat and a large bunch of little lilies in his coat.’

The play was a triumph, nevertheless. Wilde was at the height of his success as he left by the stage door that night.

Waiting outside was a young blackmailer named William Allen. He had a letter of Wilde’s in his hand. The letter was addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas. It called him ‘My own boy’ and made it quite clear that the two of them were lovers.

Homosexual activity was a criminal offence then, punishable by imprisonment. Allen offered to sell the letter back to Oscar for £10.

‘Ten pounds!’ Wilde was insulted. ‘You have no appreciation of literature! If you had asked me for £50, I might have given it to you.’

He gave Allen half a sovereign and sent him on his way. He had called the young man’s bluff, but it wasn’t long before his private life caught up with him. Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, famously called at Wilde’s club one day, intending to have a showdown with him.

Wilde wasn’t there, so Queensberry left his card with the club porter instead. A dreadful speller, he addressed it to ‘Oscar Wilde posing somdomite’. Ten days later, Wilde called in at the club (still there at 37 Dover Street, although no longer a club), and was given the card.

He clattered down those steps at once, intending to flee to Paris. Unfortunately, the manager of his hotel had impounded his luggage until he paid his bill, so he decided to sue the Marquess for libel instead. The rest is history.

I have rather a soft spot for Oscar Wilde. We had rooms on adjacent staircases at Trinity College, Dublin (some years apart, I hasten to add). I have also been to parties at his parents’ house at the bottom end of the college, so I feel a vague affinity.

Jane Austen in Henrietta Street

Poor Jane Austen. The new £10 note goes into circulation today, with her face on it. Jane is a British icon, a national treasure, one of the most revered novelists in the world. And she never knew a thing about it.

Her success didn’t come until many years after her death. She was always poor, obscure and anonymous in her own day. Her books didn’t even have her own name on the spine. They were written by ‘A Lady’ instead.

Here’s a picture of 10 Henrietta Street in London’s Covent Garden. Jane’s favourite brother Henry lived there in 1813. Jane and her niece came up from the country to stay with him in September. As the author of Pride and Prejudice, which had just been published, Jane wanted Henry to negotiate a price with publishers for her follow up book, Mansfield Park. Sitting at the first floor window just above the shop sign, she told her sister all about it, soon after she arrived:

‘Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the Breakfast, Dining, sitting room… Fanny will join me as soon as she is dressed & begin her Letter… We arrived at a quarter past 4 & were kindly welcomed by the Coachman, & then by his Master, and then by William, & then by Mrs Perigord, who all met us before we reached the foot of the Stairs.

‘Mme de Bigeon was below dressing us a most comfortable dinner of Soup, Fish, Bouillee, Partridge & an apple Tart, which we sat down to soon after 5, after cleaning & dressing ourselves & feeling that we were most commodiously disposed of. The little adjoining Dressing-room to our apartment makes Fanny & myself very well off indeed, & as we have poor Eliza’s bed our space is ample in every way.’

Henry took them all to the theatre that night:

‘At 7 we set off in a Coach for the Lyceum – were at home again about 4 hours and 1/2 – had Soup & wine & water, & then went to our Holes… Of our three evenings in Town one was spent at the Lyceum & another at Covent Garden; – the Clandestine Marriage was the most respectable of the performances, the rest were Sing-song & trumpery.’

The Lyceum theatre has been rebuilt since then, but it’s still there, just around the corner from Henry Austen’s house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.