Oscar Wilde’s bail

History has played a remarkable trick on Beatrice Pennington Headlam. It has written her out of a story where her role is significant and written her into a different one where, if she played a part at all, it was probably not for the reason given.

The story where she currently has a walk-on role is the tale of “Oscar Wilde’s Surprising Benefactor”.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde sued his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for criminal libel after he left Wilde a note at his club accusing him of being a “somdomite” (sic). That was a bad decision. Wilde was soon in the dock himself on charges of gross indecency and then in jail. But what is often forgotten is that Oscar Wilde stood trial twice. The first jury was unable to reach a verdict, the trial collapsed in early May 1895 and a second trial was immediately ordered.  In the interim, bail was set at £5,000, of which £2,500 required a third-party guarantee.  Percy Douglas, brother of Wilde lover, Lord Alfred (a.k.a. Bosie), put up just over half of that and the man who stepped in with the remaining £1,225 was a 48-year old vicar, the Reverend Stewart Duckworth Headlam.  

Stewart Headlam (1847-1924) was ‘the most bohemian priest in the history of the Church of England’ according to his biographer, John Orens, and no stranger to controversy.  A student of F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, champion of the poor and castigator of the rich, in 1873, aged 26, he became a curate in the impoverished parish of Bethnal Green. In 1877 he set up his own group, the Guild of St Matthew, to further the cause of Christian socialism.  That might have been enough to ruffle a few cassocks but what really riled leaders in the Anglican Church was Headlam’s fervent belief that art was for all and all art was equal. He had no truck with high brow / low brow delineations: an operatic aria and a music-hall ditty had equal value. He even compared the grace of Christ with the grace of a music-hall ballerina. His views became more and more difficult for his bosses to cope with and in 1878 he was sacked. He never had a parish of his own again.

Undeterred, and shored up by a private income, Headlam continued to pursue his own agenda. He founded the Church and Stage Guild in 1879 to break down prejudice against those working in the Victorian entertainment industries and was an early member of the Fabian Society.     

So, his decision to bail out the disgraced Oscar Wilde, a man he barely knew, was not entirely out of character, but many still thought he had gone too far. He was slammed in the press, some of his friends abandoned him and his maid walked out.  Headlam issued a statement to explain his actions:

‘I have undertaken this responsibility on public grounds. I felt that the public mind had been prejudiced before the case began, and I was anxious to give Mr. Wilde any help I could to enable him to stand his trial in good health and spirits.’

He expanded on this further a month later, saying that he was standing surety not for Wilde’s character but for his appearance in court to stand his trial. Wilde’s decision to stay in England and face the music despite ‘strong inducements to the contrary’ showed he had done the right thing.

The Reverend Stewart Headlam, BA painted in 1907 by Daisy Radclife Clague, V&A Museum

However, later another theory emerged for why Headlam endured these brickbats for a man he had met just twice.  His wife, from whom he had separated at least ten years earlier, was also gay and it was this that made him particularly empathetic to Wilde’s plight.

Being Stewart Headlam’s gay wife has been pretty much Beatrice Pennington’s only claim to fame up until now.  She is another DNB ghost and the over-riding impression one is left with from the tiny amount written about her is that when her marriage collapsed, she vanished. But this is not the case. Beatrice continued to live in London and pursue an agenda just as progressive as her husband’s, making headlines of her own. And what seems to have escaped notice until now is that, although Headlam and Wilde had apparently had little to do with one another before the fateful events of May 1895, their wives had been moving in the same circles for at least five years. So, if Beatrice did influence her husband’s bail decision, it could just have conceivably been in a much more direct way.

Beatrice Rosamond Pennington was born in 1850, the second child of Charles Plumer Pennington and Rosamond de Roll Lomax.  Her mother died shortly after the birth (and death) of her younger sister. Charles’s family stepped in to raise Beatrice and her older brother. Beatrice’s paternal grandfather, George Pennington was a barrister and her aunts were well-educated so it is fair to assume that Beatrice was also given a solid education, which is borne out by later reactions to her writing and public speaking.

Beatrice and Stewart married in January 1878 when he was 29 and she was 27. They had many shared interests and beliefs.  In August 1878, Beatrice wrote and published a book, ‘Short Lessons in Christian Theology, being simple readings from the Gospel According to St. John’. Her essays were described as being ‘short and simple’ yet ‘full and deep’.   She wrote in the introduction:

“The following simple exposition of the Gospel according to St. John, divided into daily readings, was written for my own private use at family prayers, and having read it through in this way with my friends and servants..it occurred to me that it might prove also useful to others.”   

She followed this up with ‘The Ballet: a Paper read before the Church and Stage Guild, 1879’. Both were printed by the Women’s Printing Society, as was her husband’s 1877 tract, ‘Theatres and Music Halls’.  Headlam was a supporter of this company which was set up, managed and run by women and had links to the Victoria Press, established by Emily Faithfull in 1860. He later said he wanted to ‘encourage movements which enabled women to earn enough to support themselves’.

Emily Faithfull joined Headlam as a founding member of his Church and Stage Guild. The organisation held meetings in the rooms of the Dilletante Club, where men and women came together to debate ‘The Treatment of Drunkenness on the Stage’ or ‘The Rights of Playgoers’, on which topic Beatrice contributed a paper. Another of Headlam’s friends was the all-round activist Annie Besant. They met when Annie was Vice President of the National Secular Society. Despite their religious differences, they campaigned together for the League for the Defence of Constitutional Rights in June 1881, were both early members of the Fabian Society and were elected onto the London School Board at the same time in 1888. This all suggests that Beatrice’s marriage gave her direct access to radical thinkers and feminists as well as opportunities to develop her debating and public speaking skills. In 1895, she was described in a national newspaper column as ‘one of the very best women platform speakers we have’.

However, the shared intellectual interests of husband and wife were no substitute for physical attraction.  In 1881, while they were living at 22, Hyde Park Gate South, they were joined by a visitor, Rhoda Majendie.  Rhoda was five years older than Beatrice, one of many children of an Oundle-based vicar. It is not clear exactly when or how they met but they were still partners when Rhoda died in 1918.   So far I have not been able to find a picture of either woman so if you know more about either of them or can help put faces to their names, do get in touch.

At some point in the mid 1880s, Beatrice and her husband separated, though they never divorced. Beatrice kept up an apartment at Walsingham House, a large block of luxurious residential mansion flats on Piccadilly, where the Ritz now stands, and she and Rhoda moved between country cottages, initially in Hertfordshire.

During the mid to late 1880s, Beatrice continued to explore and expand her interest in the feminist agenda and connected with two influential and unconventional women.    The more important friendship was with Emily Massingberd (1847-1897), wealthy landowner and feminist activist. Emily was married at 19, a mother of four by the time she was 24 and widowed at the age of 27.    When her father died in in 1887, she inherited Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire and, aged 40, became a wealthy woman.

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She changed her name back to Massingberd by royal licence and backed the causes that mattered to her including the temperance movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Emily and Beatrice were relatively close in age and both strongly in favour of greater economic and political freedoms for women. They both also tended to wear men’s clothes. In Emily’s case, this was ‘a tight-fitting waistcoat and a loose coat falling straight like a man’s frock coat… There are studs in her shirt and a neat necktie is worn over it.’ Beatrice was described in 1895 as ‘the most “mannish” woman in her attire in London’.

In 1888, the same grey areas in the new Local Government Reform Act that enabled Jane Cobden, Margaret, Lady Sandhurst and Emma Cons to be elected on to London County Council also sent Emily on to the campaign trail in her local district of Partney.

At her side was Beatrice, who joined her in the Massingberd Arms in the nearby village of South Ormsby in December 1888. She gave a resumé of the Act ‘and urged the importance of electing suitable persons for the county councils.  Stress was laid on the advantage of having some lady members on the council.’   Beatrice was back in Partney in January giving a ‘spirited address’ on Emily’s behalf.   Emily lost by just 20 votes, described in some places as ‘a moral victory’.

In parallel with her campaigning activities, Beatrice also joined the staff at the newly-founded Forsyth Technical College, established to train ‘gentlewomen’ and covering subjects including upholstery, household management and short-hand. Beatrice lectured on the management of money.

She was connected to other women working in finance and accounting. In April 1889, she asked Helen Clegg to go to Lincolnshire to audit the Massingberd Arms and in May Helen wrote to a friend:

“I expect Mrs Headlam on Wednesday afternoon – when I shall be obliged to talk business the whole time.”

Florence Pomeroy, Viscountess Harberton

One of the committee members at Forsyth Technical Collage was a second notable non-conformist, Florence, Viscountess Harberton. She had been campaigning for dress reform since 1880, becoming president of the Rational Dress Society in 1883 and was particularly known for championing the ‘divided skirt’.

This is exactly the kind of initiative Beatrice would have been quick to embrace. She was certainly at the annual meeting of the Rational Dress Society in December 1890, where she handed round ‘a sketch of a suggested dress which had been worn on the stage, something of a page’s suit, with short-skirted tunic and belt, knickerbockers and long stockings’… It does not seem to have found favour..

However, as these women sat round discussing the wearability of different types of trousers, they were undoubtedly also generating ideas for creating more traction for their agenda. In April 1891, a new Women’s Progressive Society was formed under the presidency of Alice Warner Snoad. It had three objectives:

  1. to promote the political enfranchisement of women
  2. to put down sex bias and class prejudice
  3. to improve the economic position of women

Membership cost 1 shilling. Emily was the Chairman (sic), the secretaries were Margaret Shurmer Sibthorp and a Bristol-based campaigner, Alice Grenfell and the honorary treasurer was Beatrice. Four weeks later, Emiy hosted an ‘at home’, attended by a number of women including Rhoda and Beatrice, where Beatrice gave ‘a long and eloquent speech’ dwelling upon ‘the necessity for women awaking to their duties’

In parallel, the Gentlewoman shared rumours about a new women’s club, to be known as the Women’s Century Club, ‘a venture recently set on foot under the auspices of Viscountess Harberton, Margaret, Lady Sandhurst, Mrs Crawshay and Mrs Oscar Wilde.’ Rose Mary Crawshay was another prominent feminist campaigner and an early member of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. She also endowed a prize for non-fiction that still bears her name today.

Constance Wilde, Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California

Florence Harberton and Constance Wilde went way back. An early champion of dress reform, Constance regularly spoke on the subject of dress and for a time edited the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette. So it is no surprise to see them both involved in this new project. And working alongside them was the nascent Club’s secretary, Beatrice Headlam.

In May 1891, Beatrice got in touch with the Gentlewoman to tell them that the Club would actually be known as the ‘Pioneer Club’. It finally opened in May 1892, with Emily as President, Viscountess Harberton as head of the General Committee and Beatrice, for now, the Honorary Secretary. The money was clearly Emily’s and there is no doubting the role of her personal leadership in the first five years of the Club but Emily and Beatrice are described as the joint founders by Jane Cunningham Croly, the British-born, American-raised woman’s club leader. The newspaper publisher Henrietta Müller was a member, as were the feminist authors Olive Schreiner and Sarah Grand and the economist Clara Collet. Henrietta’s sister, Eva McLaren, joined Constance Wilde and others on the committee.

The annual subscription was set at 2 guineas to make it affordable to all and ‘the essential qualification for membership’ was ‘an active interest in women’s progressive, educational, political or philanthropic societies.’ Two crossed axes formed the symbol on the official pin women could wear on their clothes to signify their membership. To try to eliminate social divisions, members were given a number when they joined, which was also used to organise the pigeon holes where their post would be left. Whether or not the Club actually delivered on its intent to be as welcoming to milliners as marchionesses is more debatable.

Cover of first edition of Shafts magazine, published November 1892
Cover of first edition of Shafts magazine, published November 1892

However, this desire for inclusivity was also reflected in Margaret Shurmur Sibthorp’s magazine, ‘Shafts’, which was launched later that year declaring itself to be A Paper for Women & The Working Classes’. Its strapline was ‘Light Comes to Those Who Dare to Think’, its first issue included an article on the Pioneer Club and it reported regularly on its activities.

There were not just lectures and earnest debates. The Club put on a wide range of social activities, in the afternoons and evenings. Budding playwrights tried out their latest dramas and members put on their own comedies. They created their own publications, like the “Pioneers Christmas Annual” in 1892, with articles, stories and poems by members.

Its launch coincided with the rise of the idea of the ‘New Woman’, who had greater social, economic, political and physical freedom. She could go to university, work as a doctor, publish her views in a growing range of publications and cycle over to meet friends or go off and hike up the Alps. Indeed, in the many parodies published by “Punch” magazine in the 1890s, the ‘New Woman’ was usually portrayed doing some sort of physical activity.

The Pioneer Club clearly attracted women who wanted to push gender boundaries in all directions. One married woman spoke proudly about her twenty-eight waistcoats and seventy-two cravats, which she was so adept at tying ‘that her husband has long since given up attempting to rival her’. Some clearly found this threatening and the Club and its members were parodied and associated in parts of the press with a certain set of predictable epithets: ‘mannish, shrieking women, untidy in dress and man-hating in their ideas.’ Yet the membership continued to grow.

By 1894, the Club had over 500 members and had a new home, a large mansion at 22 Bruton Street in Mayfair. There were spacious rooms for socialising, including a dining-room with ‘fine paintings, quaint furniture, ancient tapestries’ and several drawing-rooms, with all the ‘most important papers and periodicals’, where women could sit on the William Morris-covered sofas and chat or do ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ to their heart’s content. There was a smoking room and some overnight accommodation was available for out-of-town members who needed to stay in London. Guests at the official ‘housewarming’ in May included Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the painters Louise Jopling (who made a portrait of Emily) and Kate Perguini (Charles Dickens’ daughter) and the author Jerome K Jerome.

Unsurprisingly, Beatrice was active at the Club. The Pioneer Club gave her another place to push her agenda for women’s financial education and she found an ally in Cecil Gradwell, whom she spoke alongside in 1894 in a debate on ‘Are Women Competent in Money Matters?’. To demonstrate why this was such an important issue Beatrice would tell a story about a girl ‘who could not believe she had overdrawn her account at the bank because she was sure she had some cheques left in her cheque book.’

On one occasion, however, she was so irritated by a speaker that she walked out of the debate. The man at the podium was George Bernard Shaw. He apparently ‘poked fun at the Pioneers from the platform of their own lecture-room’, prompting Beatrice to declare: ‘I can’t stand any more of this rot!’ and exit stage left. It seems there was something personal going on there: Shaw and Stewart Headlam were close acquaintances through the Fabian Society and it was Shaw who publicly ‘outed’ Beatrice in 1950, fifteen years after her death and just a few months before his own.

In March 1895, as Oscar Wilde was readying himself for his case against the Marquess of Queensbury, the papers were reporting on Beatrice and Emily’s latest venture, the Ladies Tailoring Company, to which they had attracted another high-profile group of supporters. The company would provide ‘its members and the public with ladies’ tailor-made garments at a moderate price, for cash only’, including costumes for ‘walking, golfing, tennis and shooting..riding habits..parlourmaid’s liveries’ as well as ‘Lady Isabel Margersson’s cycling costume’, for which it was sole agent. And as Oscar Wilde headed to Reading to start his two-year prison sentence in June, the Dublin Social Review press ran a story about the success of Pioneer Club ‘ started by Mrs. Massingberd and Mrs. Headlam’. If Stewart Headlam was thinking about his wife at all when he stood bail for Oscar Wilde, he would have been reflecting on how different their positions were, not how similar.

On 18th May, 1897, Oscar Wilde was moved from Reading Jail to Pentonville Prison and the next morning at 6.15am was once more a free man. Stewart Headlam and another friend, More Adey, were there to meet him. It was at Headlam’s house in Upper Bedford Place where Wilde was reunited with the small group of friends who had stood by him and prepared to leave the country for exile in France. In 1898, he sent Headlam an inscribed copy of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. That same year, Headlam’s general licence to preach was finally restored and he moved to St. Margaret’s, to the south west of London where he was once again able to lead services. Although he was never able to marry again, it seems he found happiness with a dancer, Martha Wooldridge. His name lives on in a Tower Hamlets primary school.

Beatrice’s life also changed in 1897, but for much sadder reasons. Emily, who had been ill since late in 1896, died in January, aged just 50.  ‘Pioneers’ inundated St. John’s Church in Westminster with floral tributes and packed into the pews to honour ‘a noble and self-sacrificing woman’, who ‘fought all the inane disqualifications, which have for generations hedged in women’s lives’.  Her death triggered a split in the Pioneer Club later that year and it never really had the same influence again as it did when she was President.

In Emily’s will she bequeathed to Beatrice a cottage in Boscombe and some land in Swanage. In 1901, Beatrice founded a ‘most attractive’ residential club, the Bee Club at 19 Oakley Street, perhaps as a result of this inheritance. It had the same aims as the Beechwood Club established by Cecil Gradwell further along that same road a few years earlier: to provide a comfortable yet inexpensive home for women working in London as secretaries, clerks and teachers. Joining Beatrice and Rhoda on the committee were Cecil Gradwell and Eva McLaren. Sometime in the 1900s, Beatrice and Rhoda moved down to Dunster in Somerset and then to Crowthorne. Beatrice outlived her partner, Rhoda, by 17 years, dying in Somerset in 1935.

It is not entirely clear when and how Beatrice Headlam first got pulled in to the tale of Oscar Wilde and Stewart Headlam but her tenuous link has at least kept her name in the Dictionary of National Biography. The Pioneer Club is so significant that it has its own DNB entry. Perhaps one day her part in its story will be properly acknowledged there.

Feature image painting: ‘A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies’ by Simeon Solomon (1870) from the Tate Collection

Sources include:
The Literary World: Choice Readings form the Best New Books 22/11/1878; The Star 10/6/1879; Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury 7/12/1888; Skegness Herald 18/1/1889; the Gentlewoman 13/12/1890; the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette 4/4/1891; the Gentlewoman 16/5/1891; Queen 11/7/1891; the Cheltenham Looker-On 23/1/1892; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 18/2/1893; the Westminster Gazette 3/5/1894; the Graphic 24/11/1894; the Western Daily Mercury 18/1/1895; the Queen 23/3/1895; the Evening News 7/5/1895; Dublin Evening Telegraph 1/6/1895; the Social Review 1/6/1895; Portsmouth Evening News 26/7/1895; Westminster Gazette 5/3/1896; the Queen 11/5/1901

‘The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America’ by Jane Cunningham Croly (1898); ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann (1987); ‘Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses and the Music Hall’ by John Orens (2003); Women Making News: Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain by Michelle Elizabeth Tusan (2005)

Athletic Fashion, “Punch” and the Creation of the New Woman by Tracy J.R. Collins (2010) Victorian Periodicals Review Vol 43 No. 3 P.309-335; Christ, Communism and Chorus Girls: A Reassessment of Stewart Headlam by John Orens (1980) Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church Vol 49 Issue 3 P.233-248; The Class Problem in Clubland: A Social History of the Pioneer Club 1892-1900 by Qichen Zhang (2013)

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