The Sacking of Tite Street

Illustrated Police Budget, May 4, 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor opened on 26 April 1895, in a gloomy courtroom at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, which was housed at the time in a dispiriting building adjacent to Newgate Gaol. Both men faced counts of gross indecency and conspiracy to procure the commission of acts of gross indecency, although the conspiracy charges were later withdrawn.

Wilde and Taylor had been charged in accordance with Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, commonly referred to as the Labouchère Amendment, which contained no definition of gross indecency and, as a result, outlawed a broad spectrum of homosexual behaviour that was considered less serious than sodomy but was easier to prove. As a consequence, it was regularly exploited by blackmailers.

The ‘Old Bailey’

A bankruptcy sale of the Wilde family’s possessions had been held at their Tite Street home two days earlier. Many items were pilfered during the ensuing melee, including several irreplaceable manuscripts and Wilde’s poignant letters to Constance, which she had kept in a blue leather case. The items that were sold achieved far less than their true value.

An Irish-born publisher gave an account of proceedings to Wilde’s friend and biographer Robert Sherard:

‘I went upstairs and found several people in an empty room, the floor of which was strewn, thickly strewn, with letters addressed to Oscar mostly in their envelopes and with much of Oscar’s easily recognisable manuscript. This looked as though the various pieces of furniture which had been carried downstairs to be sold had been emptied of their contents on to the floor.'[1]

The sacking of the Wildes’ Tite Street home was a terrible humiliation. Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson, one of Wilde’s Women, believed many of those in attendance that day delighted in Oscar’s downfall and wrote:

‘It was already well known that Oscar had bitter enemies as well as a large crowd of friends. And if his chief enemy [Queensberry] was eccentric, many of his jealous rivals were quite unscrupulous.'[2]

Wilde’s prized books, numbering around two thousand volumes, were bundled together and offered at knockdown prices, making just £130 in total.[3] Artist James McNeill Whistler sent representatives to buy back a number of his works for less than £40.

Ernest Leverson was present that day and managed to acquire a full-length portrait of Oscar by Harper Pennington, which had hung above the fireplace of the Wildes’ Chelsea home, for £17. Oscar joked about the corrupting influence this work might have on visitors to the Leversons’ home, writing to Frank Harris in June 1897:

I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views.

The nursery was raided and toys belonging to Cyril and Vyvyan were sold, a loss that caused them great distress. In all, the sale raised just £230.

SOURCES:

[1] Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.359-60

[2] Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, p.35

[3] Donald Mead, ‘Heading for Disaster: Oscar’s Finances’, The Wildean, No. 46, January 2015, p.89

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