Oscar Wilde at Oxford
It may be thought that there is nothing to add to what we know of Wilde at Magdalen, but one source has, we believe, been overlooked. Accordingly, we reproduce here Chapter X of Days that Are Gone, being the Recollections of some Seventy Years of the Life of a very ordinary Gentleman and his Friends in Three Reigns by B. De Sales la Terrière. London: Hutchinson 1924. De Sales La Terrière, who matriculated at the same time as Wilde in 1874, by listing a number of his contemporaries (two of whom in particular will be recognised by oscholars) also suggests further lines of research. The chapter gives a very good impression of what Magdalen was like in the 1870s, of Wilde’s contemporaries in college, and of how Wilde appeared to this very conservative and rather naïve observer. It may be noted that he does not repeat or endorse Frank Benson’s account of Wilde’s encounter with the hearties who wanted to wreck his rooms.
The narrative begins on p. 73, and we indicate new page numbers in the text with the prefix \\. Save for substituting single quotation marks for the original double ones and adding endnotes, we have tried to retype it as accurately as possible.
n taking up my residence at Magdalen I took over the ground-floor rooms at the west end of the New Buildings looking out into the little deer park. The deer were so tame that they would come up to my windows and eat of my hand, and it was really a beautiful spot, though I was not of an age to appreciate it properly. There Willie Lloyd and I again started messing together as in our old Eton days.
As an example of Oxford manners and customs, though there were three other men in my passage I never knew them, though I passed them a dozen times a day. One was a (then) little horror called Bell, who became a journalist. Next to me was an extraordinary Welshman in his fourth year, called Cholmeley-Jones or ‘The Jugger’,  who was a musical Demy scholar. (We had them at Magdalen; they started as choir-boys, and sang on for their education, if their voices lasted.) The Jugger was an extraordinary character who lived (principally on debts and drink) on a system of his own. He had a glorious voice and greatly contributed to our festive evenings. I heard his subsequent career was a curious one. He didn’t ‘take orders’ as he told us he was going to do, but went to America, and took up operatic singing, and there, after various vicissitudes ranging from ‘starring’ at music-halls to ‘waiting’ at a restaurant, he eventually ‘made good’, settled in New York, married, and had a large family. He was very lovable chap, with all his eccentricities.
‘The New Buildings’ was taken up almost entirely by Dons, except at the east end where Edgar Sebright had rooms. He used to go by the name of ‘The Duke’ because he was always talking peerage, and I am afraid he was not very popular. He was Sir Edgar afterwards, and equerry to Prince Christian, when, no doubt, he had opportunities of spouting peerage to his heart’s content.
//74 The set I fell into included one or two older men. Frankland Hood, a typical Yorkshire squire, president of Common Room and a capital chap at that. He used to sing one song, ‘A tarrier tyke jumped over a wall and they called him Little Bingo!’ He married a Miss Swan, the sister of another Magdalen man and I fancy, died young.
David Hunter Blair (Sir), of Dunskey (Eton), was a very charming chap whom I’m glad to say I still number among my friends. While at Oxford he reverted to the old faith of his family, and I think gave up most of his property to the Roman Catholic Church. After living the life of a priest at the monastery at Fort William, he returned to Oxford, becoming head of a Catholic community. He is now an Abbot and has given his interesting reminiscences to the world. ‘Julia’ Tindal (Eton) I remember mostly because he had an elder brother who ran away with a ward in Chancery, and got put in prison for contempt of court.
Banks (Rifle Brigade and Eton), and McCall (Eton) who, I think, went over to Rome with Blair; Foster Harter (Eton) and his brother Gub Harter (Eton), Hammond Chambers (Eton), the celebrated Q.C., Saunders (Eton), at one time Balfour’s private secretary (2). Cholmeley (Eton), late captain of James’ house, head of a firm of prominent family solicitors. Blagrove, also from my tutor’s (Eton), had just left to join the 13th Hussars, which he afterwards commanded. Swan (Eton), a Linclolnshire man, whose sister married Hood, Arthur Campbell (Eton, Rifle Brigade); Vicars (Eton); Willoughby (the Honble., Eton); Todd (Harrow, R.N. Chaplain); Charlie Allenby (Harrow), a Lincolnshire man and a good sportsman; Teddy Treffry, a Cornishman; ‘Puss’ Harding, a Devonshire man (the two latter both from Rugby) (3); McNamara (another musical Demy); Mark Linden, a Jersey man, who became a schoolmaster, and later, I fear, came to grief. Pelham (the Rev., now, I think, a bishop); Perrin, an Irishman with a very good opinion of himself; Leigh (the Rev. and Honble.); W. Parr (also the Rev.) whom I found a parson later on at Filkins; Strutt, who was a wonderful banjo player; and Harry Bond (brother of Willie Bond of Tyneham, Dorset). The latter was in the Royal Scots Regiment and //75 created a record by being ordered to wear uniform on all occasions for a year. He had been the moving spirit in drawing a man called Ricketts, at the Musketry School at Hythe, and the Old Duke ordered him that unique punishment. I do not fancy he suffered much from it, except that he wore out his uniform! (4)
A very charming little fellow (also a Demy) called ‘Bouncer’ Ward (now the head of a very old Bristol firm of family solicitors); a little fellow called Barrow, who had a short leg; Beard, a useful pigeon shot; Grant, who went off with one of the Arctic expeditions; my life-long friend Algy Peyton (11th Hussars); and last, but not least, the afterwards notorious Oscar Wilde. Poor fellow! I can’t help saying it, in spite of the horror of his life which could only be accredited to his absolute insanity in that direction; for nobody could say that he was short of wits in any other way. I am only speaking of him as we found him, and certainly there was no trace of the particular madness which wrecked his life later on, at the time he was at Magdalen. He was very cheery and festive, and lived exactly the same sort of life – card-playing, singing, room-visiting, wine-bibbing – as we all did; I think everybody liked him.
I remember playing a shocking trick on him at ‘Commem’ one year. Lunch and tea-parties in each others’ rooms were the thing during the week; and he invited to have lunch with him among others Teddy Treffry and his sister-in-law, Baroness de Bretton (now Lady Garvagh). I also being of the party, unfortunately arrived first. Oscar had some really beautiful framed drawings on his walls, given him by his friend Frank Miles, of mostly nude subjects; and looking round with an eye to mischief I spotted some penny stamps on the writing table with which I thought it would be a delicate attention to clothe the pretty ladies. This I did, and the party shortly after arrived. First one looked up, giggled and blushed, and then another, till the whole party was convulsed, but all Oscar said to me was ‘It’s really too bad of you,’ but he had to laugh at my inane joke like all the rest. As he never seemed to have devoted any more of his time to work than the rest of us, it came as a bit of of a surprise that he took the Newdigate scholarship.
//76 It came out at his trial that he must always have meant to ‘pose’, as he had given his age on coming to Oxford as two years younger than he was, concealing the fact that he had been through a varsity career and taken a degree at Dublin University before he came to Oxford, and so could well afford to idle his time there and enjoy himself. I think he saw an opening for a poseur and jumped into it. He must have laughed in his sleeve when he started all that æsthetic rubbish: ‘Mr Wilde is displeased with the Atlantic’; ‘too, too utterly too’; flowers and lilies and velvet suits and such nonsense; but he went touring in America with that as his stock-in-trade, and the silly Yankees swallowed it all and advertised his supposed merits, till at one time his name was without doubt one of the best known in the world. He was really very clever in his foolery, and he knew it paid.
I am not a judge of the literary merits of his writings. Some seem to me very fine, some simply suggestive of the worst; but I think that it speaks for itself that a man who has the intellect to write three plays being acted at three first-class theatres, as he had at the time of his trial, could be no ordinary man.
His latter days and his death was described to me by a mutual friend T.C. Bodley (of Balliol, author of ‘The History of France’), who lives in France. (5) He got down to the dregs in his last days, and when Bodley found him dead in an attic, there was nothing in the room but the bedstead and the sheet that covered his body. ‘Great minds to madness oft are near allied’ seems to hit off the poor chap. R.I.P.
[There is nothing further about Oscar Wilde, and the next three paragraphs are concerned with hunting.]
//77 One of my pet amusements was roof-climbing all over the college at night, and there was not a an inch of the old roof and gutters that Willie Lloyd and I did not explore. It is marvellous that we did not break our necks holding on to some of the crumbling old stones, but ‘Providence looks after...’ etc. and we escaped injury.
I once climbed up the belfry and tied a towel round the clapper of the bell – which rather upset morning chapel. Unfortunately my name was found on the towel, consequently there was a visit to the Dean. I believe I am still credited with having descended the lightning-conductor of the great tower, and various other monkey feats, most of which I have forgotten. Willie and I at that time would have made good burglars.
Another form of festivity was provided by Masonry. I joined the Apollo University Lodge and was initiated with Tom Calley, who afterwards commanded the 1st Life Guards and George Marjoribanks (now head of Coutts Bank). Prince Leopold was Worshipful master, and Alec Yorke, his equerry (afterwards a connection of mine by marriage) was Senior Warden. (6) After the Lodge meeting came the important part, the banquet, and the newly initiated were always expected to make a speech. This is a thing I cannot do, and I have never been able to face even a row of village children in a room without being struck dumb with terror. What I am afraid of, goodness knows, but my head seems to go and I cannot //77 say a word. I started off, with ‘Gentlemen and ladies’ (sic), got as far as ‘this auspicious occasion’, having ignored H.R.H.’s presence, and was pulled hurriedly down amidst howls! I afterwards became Junior Warden of the Apollo, a Mark mason, and a member of the Rouge Croix; but it was all the same, just an excuse for more banquets and festivities, and a big ball at the ‘Commem’! Incidentally, I believe, our subscriptions went to support some very deserving charities. I never found that the fact of being a Mason was the slightest good to me in after life, which one was led to suppose it would be, nor have I ever been inside a Lodge since leaving Oxford.
I find I have almost forgotten the Dons, but they came so little into our lives that it is hardly to be wondered at. Dr Bulley, who was President of Magdalen, was a handsome, stately, white-haired old gentleman, and must have been worth the money to look at! I do not know what other value he had. We seldom saw him, and I do not think that he took the slightest interest in us.
Bramley was Dean of Magdalen, and I fancy was supposed to be responsible for the discipline (!) of the college. He gave us our leave, interviewed us when we caught doing wrong, and was a very amiable and courteous gentleman, who might, perhaps, have intimidated a child of three!
Hopkins was the bursar – a brother of the well-known Admiral – and was a brusque, straightforward man of business. He often cracked a joke with us and everyone liked him. I fancy he was exceptional in his capacity, for as a rule the bursar of a college was chosen because he could not lecture or preach or do anything else useful. Considering tha a bursar is sole manager, not only of the finances and arrangements of a college but also of the whole college property, consisting of thousands and often hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of landed property, town property, and investments of all sorts, it is small wonder that most college property is, as a rule, so hopelessly badly managed.
Allen was the tutor, whose lectures we attended a kindly chap, only a few years older than ourselves; the lectures were a farce, and on learnt nothing from them.
//79 Warren (the present President) had just come up, and I think he also took lectures.
Charles Reade, the author of ‘It’s never too late to mend’, etc., etc., was one of the Fellows; the rest of the Dons had so little personality that I cannot even recall their names!
1. De Sales La Terrière was known as ‘The Hatter’.
2. Recte Sandars.
3. We presume this was Reginald ‘Kitten’ Harding, Wilde’s friend, but it could have been another Harding, called ‘Puss’ to distinguish him from ‘Kitten’.
4. The Old Duke was the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army. ‘Drawing’ refers to ragging, not sketching.
5. Recte J.E.C. Bodley.
6. For Oscar Wilde as a member of this Masonic Lodge, see Yasha Beresina: ‘The Wilde Oxford Mason’, The Wildean 31, July 2007 pp.72-80; and on a wider point Marie Mulvey-Roberts: ‘Masculinity, Masonry & Millenarianism: Oscar Wilde and the Rose-Croix’ in Jacqueline Hurtley & Others (edd): Writing the End - The End. Proceedings of the International Conference on Language & Literature at the close of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Barcelona: PPU 1994.
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