03 October 2022

Keeping up appearances
on Sloane Square after
the arrest of Oscar Wilde

The Cadogan Hotel, where Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Sloane Street and Sloane Square are part of the Cadogan Estate, one of London’s most expensive retailing districts with some of the most expensive residential property in Chelsea and Knightsbridge.

The estate’s streets and buildings were first commissioned by Charles Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan, in the 18th century, and Sloane Street evolved into one of the world’s most exclusive retail areas. The shops include Chloe, Salvatore Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford and Valentino.

I was not in Sloane Square and Sloane Street to go shopping, but to take part in a day’s events organised by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in Holy Trinity Church, also built by the Cadogan Estate.

Before the day’s programme began, I walked the length of Sloane Street to see the Cadogan Hotel, where Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was arrested in 1895 and which is the venue at the centre of a celebrated poem by the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984).

Betjeman’s poem ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ tells of the arrest of the Irish-born poet, playwright and wit in the hotel on Sloane Street on 6 April 1895.

The Cadogan Hotel on Sloane Street, was built in 1887 and is one of London’s most prestigious luxury hotels.

Lillie Langtry, famous actress and close friend of Edward VII and of Oscar Wilde, lived at 21 Pont Street from 1892 to 1897. A blue plaque recalls that long after she had sold the house, Lillie Langtry continued to stay in her old bedroom, by then a part of the hotel.

Shortly after it opened, the Cadogan Hotel became infamous for the arrest of Oscar Wilde in Room 118, charged with ‘committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons.’ The events in the room are recalled by Betjeman in his tragic poem.

The Marquess of Queensbury, father of his Wilde’s long-time lover, Sir Alfred Douglas, was at the centre of Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment. Wilde sued Queensbury for defamation, but this lead to the case in which Wilde’s homosexuality was all but proven for the court. The lawsuit was eventually withdrawn. This was seen as an admission of guilt on Wilde’s part and he was soon arrested.

In this poem, the John Betjeman imagines the moment when Oscar Wilde was arrested on 6 April 1895. Wilde was charged with gross indecency and, at a time when homosexuality was illegal, he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The prison regime was brutal and, although he was released in 1897, a toxic mix of illnesses contracted in prison and a increasing alcoholism lead to his death in Paris in 1900.

The poem has significant rhythm and rhyme and deploys three voices. Its rhyming scheme and use of quatrains make ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ a ballad.

The voice of narrator is almost without emotion, describing the scene inside the Cadogan Hotel where Oscar Wilde and his friend Robbie Ross are waiting for the inevitable arrival of the police.

Oscar Wilde presents the second voice at the moment of crisis.

The third voices are those of the policemen, who speak with an almost pantomime quality. Their language, dialect and accents emphasise the gap between the sophisticated and cultured poet and the working class background of the ‘two plain clothes policemen.’

The poem begins with the speaker describing how the Wilde spent his last moments with his close friend the journalist Robbie Ross before his arrest in the Cadogan Hotel. Wilde and Ross were once been in a relationship, and Ross worked as Wilde’s literary executor after his death. Ross was with Wilde at his deathbed in Paris, and his ashes are within the headstone on Wilde’s grave.

Wilde was continuously drinking and knew everything was about to change. The unmade bed may be a symbol of Wilde’s mental state at this point in his life. He knew that things were starting to cascade against him.

He grows more irritated that the hotel and Robbie are not acting fast enough. Eventually, he starts wondering about the location of his expensive coats and his leather suitcase or ‘portmanteau’.

The fourth stanza refers to The Yellow Book, a literary periodical in London in the 1890s. It features in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the art director, Audrey Beardsley, who produced illustrations for Wilde’s play Salome in 1893. It is thought Wilde had this publication with him when he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel.

John Buchan’s works were also published in The Yellow Book, but Wilde looked down on Buchan’s writing, dismissing it is a backward step for literature and society.

The arrival of the two plain clothes policemen is the turning point in the poem, when the climactic moment of Wilde’s arrest arrives. There is thumping and murmuring outside the door and as they come in Wilde light-heartedly complains about the noise they are making.

There are some noises outside the door as the two policemen enter. They ask Wilde to come ‘quoietly’ and to leave the hotel with them. They see the Cadogan Hotel as a reputable respectable establishment, and do not want to disturb the guests or the staff, dismissed by Wilde as ‘little better than cretins’.

Wilde is taken away without much fuss. On the way to the waiting hansom cab or two-wheeled coach outside, he touches the plants on the staircase, and the poem ends abruptly with him being helped into the carriage. The poem ends abruptly, leaving the reader to mourn over Wilde’s fate.

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel (1937), by John Betjeman

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open

“Mr. Woilde, we ’ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

Danny Osborne’s sculpture of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, Dublin … unveiled in 1997, 100 years after Wilde was arrested in the Cadogan Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Poem © John Betjeman and The Estate of John Betjeman

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