In the second of his blog series on Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), Dr Martin Spychal explores Gower’s London social life during his first year in Parliament, including a brief summer romance with the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
One of the most privileged men in nineteenth-century Britain, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916), was returned to Parliament in May 1867, aged 21, for his family’s pocket county of Sutherland. As discussed in my first blog of this series, historians and literary critics have shown how Gower played an influential role in shaping British queer identities, utilising his position of privilege to navigate life as a queer man in late nineteenth-century Britain.
My research into the first two years of his parliamentary career for the History of Parliament’s Commons 1832-1868 project has revealed new insights into Gower’s life as a young queer MP. This blog focuses on Gower’s social life during his first year in Parliament, which mixed London’s more conventional aristocratic social calendar with London’s queer nightlife.
Gower’s detailed private diary reveals that he maintained a very busy social life after taking his seat in Parliament in May 1867. As well as attending aristocratic dinners and balls and the major cultural events of that year’s London Season, he was a devoted attendee of London’s art galleries, West End theatres and Covent Garden nightspots. He was usually accompanied on these frequent, and elongated, nights out by one or more of his close school or university friends: Robert ‘Jorcy’ Jocelyn (1846-1880), John ‘Ian’ Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne (1845-1914), Lord Archibald Campbell (1846-1913), or his brother Albert Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1843-1874).
During 1867 Gower was a regular presence in London’s West End theatres: the Strand, the Adelphi, Drury Lane Theatre, Haymarket, St James’s, the Royal Italian Opera House and the Royal Alhambra Palace. The acerbic witticisms that litter his diary suggest that he fancied himself as something of a theatrical critic, and he was more than happy to prioritise attending a new play over important debates in the Commons.
On 28 June 1867, for instance, he missed a close vote over the Conservative ministry’s reform bill to attend the St James’s Theatre to watch his favourite play of the season for the second time, Les Idées De Madame Aubray by Alexandre Dumas fils. The crowd, he reported, were ‘cheering [Monsieur] Ravel and [Mademoiselle] Deschamps being the principal performers but the whole company is excellent’.
After attending the theatre (or escaping from what he invariably found to be ‘very slow’ aristocratic dinners or balls) Gower would usually move on to his favourite late-night Covent Garden drinking haunt, the notorious Evans’s Supper-room, 43 King Street.
Evans’s was a male-only late night dining room and music hall (with women only admitted to view proceedings from behind a screen and on presentation of their address). Known for its heavy drinking culture and ‘madrigal glees’ sung by ‘well known boys’, it was derided by temperance reformers during the 1860s for ‘vice and profligacy’ and for attracting disreputable gentlemen ‘who had not paid a tailor’s bill for the last seven years’.
As a number of historians have shown, the theatres, pubs and clubs of London’s West End were some of the most significant queer spaces in nineteenth-century London.
One contemporary recalled how from the 1850s ‘the Adelphi Theatre, the Italian Opera, and the open parks at night became his fields of adventure’. That Evans’s Supper-room may also have been regarded by contemporaries as one of London’s queer spaces is suggested by its mention in Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park’s sodomy trial of 1870. During their trial a witness reported that waiting staff at Evans’s refused to remove the cross-dressed Park and Boulton from the establishment, as well as the latter’s partner, the former MP for Newark, Lord Arthur Clinton (1840-1870).
Several remarkably open entries in his diary suggest that these queer spaces allowed Gower to pursue a brief relationship during July and August 1867 with the ‘quite beautiful’ and ‘Spanishy’ William John Mayne (1846-1902), the son of the first commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Richard Mayne (1796-1868). The relationship embraced the complete array of Gower’s social haunts, evolving from a meeting at a conventional aristocratic ball, to a series of nights out in Gower’s favourite Covent Garden nightspots.
It appears that Gower and Mayne either met at a ball at Stafford House on 15 July 1867, or at the India Office Ball held later that week to celebrate the London visit of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz, which Gower described as ‘probably the finest ball ever given in London’. A week later Gower took Mayne for lunch and then to the Royal Academy of Arts:
27 July 1867
On Saturday 27th [July] to town after lunch (a new friend) W. Mayne (Sir Richard’s last son and youngest) came with me to the [Royal] Academy; he is 22 and quite beautiful; Spanishy; lived a good deal in Paris and has the most charming manners.
Gower’s diary suggests he met with Mayne on four further occasions over the following few weeks. In addition to the places already discussed above, Gower’s diary entries listed below mention Chiswick House, where Gower lived during 1867 with his mother the 2nd duchess of Sutherland; St. James’s Club, Gower’s gentleman’s club then situated at Grafton Street; and 80 Chester Square, Mayne’s home address:
28 July 1867
Mayne came [to Chiswick House] in the afternoon and was (in Archie’s [word illegible]) booted … I drove Mayne back to  Chester Square at 7.
3 Aug. 1867
Later out with Will. Mayne (who I am exceptionally fond of).
5 Aug. 1867
Dined with W. Mayne at my Club (St. James’s), and we went to the Adelphi to see Kate Terry in ‘The Lady of Lyon’, much disappointed; also to Evans’s.
15 Aug. 1867
I went to town on the 15th and stopped the night, dining with W. Mayne and going with him to a concert at Covent Garden and also to Evans’s.
Gower’s diary contains no further mentions of Mayne, suggesting that the relationship ended abruptly. It may have been that Mayne spurned Gower’s advances, that either one grew tired of each other, or that they were spotted. Both were high profile figures – the son of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and a member of Parliament – and if the affair had become public knowledge it would have been a society scandal. Little is known about Mayne following this, aside from that he died, aged 56, unmarried and ‘without profession’ in Ostend, in August 1902.
Either way, for Gower the moment appears to have been a watershed. As my next blog will discuss, it was not long before rumours surrounding Gower’s sexuality surfaced in Parliament, leading him to change his social habits and to long for an alternative mode of life.
S. Avery, K. M. Graham, Sex, Time and Place: Queer Histories of London, c.1850 to the Present (2018)
M. Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality 1885-1914 (2003)
H. G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (2003)
S. Joyce, ‘Two Women Walk into a Theatre Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative’, Victorian Review (2018), 83-98
C. Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009)
C. Upchurch, ‘Forgetting the Unthinkable: Cross-Dressers and British Society in the Case of the Queen vs. Boulton and Others’, Gender and History (2000), 127-57