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 The lawsuit was eventually withdrawn.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

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Monday 3 October 2022

The ruins of Saint Leonard’s Hospital and its chapel are tucked into the north-east corner of the Museum Gardens in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship commemorates George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, Ecumenist, Peacemaker, 1958.

Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This morning, and throughout this week, I am continuing last week’s theme of reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in York, where I stayed in mid-September.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a church, chapel or place of worship in York;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Saint Leonard’s Hospital, York, was once the largest and most important mediaeval hospital in northern England (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

George Bell (1881-1958) was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. After serving a curacy and then spending a short time back at Oxford as a don, George Bell was domestic chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and then Dean of Canterbury before becoming Bishop of Chichester in 1929. He was interested in all forms of Christian social work and was in the forefront of moves towards Christian Unity, advocating co-operation of all Christian denominations in international and social action.

He had many friends in Germany, especially members of the German Confessing Church, and spoke out in their support when they were finding themselves in conflict with the Nazi state. During World War II, he spoke in the House of Lords against the indiscriminate bombing of German towns and strongly condemned some of the actions of the Allies; this preparedness to speak the truth as he saw it may have prevented him from attaining the highest office in the Church of England. He died on this day in 1958.

Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSVA):

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27 He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28 And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30 Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37 He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

The best-preserved part of the ruins of Saint Leonard’s Hospital, York, is the beautifully vaulted undercroft that supported the infirmary (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Leonard’s Hospital, York:

The ruins of Saint Leonard’s Hospital and its chapel are tucked into the north-east corner of the Museum Gardens in York.

The ruins of Saint Leonard’s occupy the western corner of the Roman fortress of Eboracum, and at first glance the remains look like the ruins of an old church. This was once the largest and most important mediaeval hospital in northern England.

Tradition says the hospital was established by King Athelstan around the year 937. It disappears from the historical record until William II built a chapel here dedicated to St Peter. Henry I followed with a grant of building materials, but it seems that the hospital building was destroyed by fire in 1137.

King Stephen rebuilt the hospital church and dedicated it to Saint Leonard, although the hospital itself was called Saint Peter’s for another century.

In the mid-12th century, a large building with a vaulted undercroft was erected near the eastern boundary of the hospital precinct.

The mediaeval hospital occupied the whole of the west corner of the Roman fortress, reaching from the Roman wall on the south-west to the back of the properties along High Petergate to the north-east.

The remains in Museum Gardens are probably part of the hospital infirmary, built by John Romanus, the Treasurer of York Minster, ca 1325-1350. The best-preserved part of the ruins is the beautifully vaulted undercroft that supported the infirmary, and a long gatehouse passage into the hospital precinct.

The undercroft vaulting is exceptionally well-preserved. Inside this area, a large truncated column has a worn capital in 12th-century style. The column is round, unlike those that actively support the undercroft roof, which are polygonal. The column capitals are extremely simple, with very little carving, and the corbels are also very simply carved.

In the mediaeval period, a hospital was a place for spiritual as well as physical healing, for pilgrims as well as the ill, the infirm, the poor and the elderly. There were 206 beds for patients. The beds were given by private benefactors.

Patients or residents were clothed, fed, cleaned, and given a roof over their heads. In return, they were expected to attend religious services daily and to confess their sins before receiving medical treatment.

Like Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield, Saint Leonard’s Hospital in York was similar to a monastery in many ways, and the daily routine in the hospital included daily prayers and services. The hospital was run by 13 chaplain brothers who followed the rules of the Austin Canons or Augustinians. They were assisted by eight regular sisters, lay brothers, 30 choristers, and servants.

The space under the infirmary was converted in 1346 for use as a nursery for children. The hospital ran a grammar school offering instruction to choirboys, boys in the hospital’s own orphanage, and paupers living on land owned by the hospital.

Part of the hospital chapel remains, including a three-light window. Carved stones from Saint Leonard’s Hospital are on display in the Yorkshire Museum, a stone’s throw away in Museum Gardens. The Green Room in the Theatre Royal preserves the greater part of two vaulted compartments of an undercroft built in the mid-12th century. More mediaeval masonry may be encased within the walls of the theatre.

As a religious foundation, the hospital was victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. For the next 200 years, York was without a hospital, until 1740.

The site was granted to Sir Arthur Darcy in 1544, but Darcy sold it back to the Crown two years later. The royal mint was then moved from York Castle to the hospital and operated there until 1553.

The mint was reopened in 1629, then moved to Saint William’s College in 1642. Over the centuries, the hospital buildings were used as a stable, a boatyard, and as an air raid shelter.

Some of the mediaeval hospital buildings were pulled down when Museum Street was widened in 1782. More were lost when Saint Leonard’s Place was built in 1832.

The ruins of Saint Leonard’s occupy the western corner of the Roman fortress of Eboracum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Monday 3 October 2022):

The Collect:

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers
of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
you have taught us through your Son
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with our whole heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Mission in a Crisis.’ This theme is introduced yesterday by Father Rasika Abeysinghe, Priest in the Diocese of Kurunagala, Church of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (3 October 2022) in these words:

We pray for the people of Sri Lanka as they endure the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. May they be provided for and may they find justice.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A large truncated column in the undercroft of Saint Leonard’s Hospital has a worn capital in 12th-century style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Part of the chapel Saint Leonard’s Hospital remains, including a three-light window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)