Volume 1. Number 6.

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Worth Quotin’ – Reporting the Oscar Wilde Trials

“What a funny little man you are!” These were the now historic words said by Lord Alfred Douglas in reply to his father, the Marquis of Queensberry. So much was elicited by the recent sensational trial of Oscar Wilde. The same remarkable words are found in that remarkable book ‘The Green Carnation,’ and in this case are said by Lord Reggie Hastings. Now, it is rather an open question as to whether Lord Douglas quoted the words of the novelist, or whether the writer utilised the reply made to the Marquis by his prodigal son. That the father fully deserved such an epithet is clearly shown by the fact that he chose to make his own cigarettes, when he could obtain Indian Chiefs at sixpence a packet.

Advertisement Hawke’s Bay Herald 1895

1.

In May 1893 the Hawke’s Bay Herald reviewed Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience as performed by Pollard’s Lilliputians at the Theatre Royal, Napier. They noted an opera that was ‘well staged, brightly and correctly dressed, and acted with considerable power and evenness.’ (i) The newspaper also took time to inform readers that Patience was ‘now an anachronism’ and that ‘the craze it satirised [is] long since dead.’ There had been ‘no Bunthorpe worth mentioning since Oscar Wilde cut his hair, eschewed plush, and took to studying French.’ (ii)

It had been some time since Oscar Wilde had been mentioned with any consistency in the pages of the provincial daily and much of that had been reporting of Wilde’s publicity tour in advance of Patience’s first appearance in America a decade earlier. The time in between had been relatively free of coverage of the playwright, except for occasional passing mention –  Wilde’s attendance at gathering ‘to witness a psychological study illustrated by Dr. Onofrofi” of Paris’ (iii) or a précis of Wilde’s new play Lady Windermere’s Fan, contained in a published letter from home.

Oscar Wilde in aesthetic dress.

Denied a personal appearance from Wilde, residents of Napier had to settle instead for Mademoiselle Emillius, a ‘talented lady cyclist’ who performed something titled – Oscar Wilde in first attempts to ride a Bicycle at the Gaiety theatre through February of 1890 (iv).

With this potentially confusing spectacle lingering in their memory, what then did the citizens of Napier think at the onset of the Oscar Wilde case? How did the story of Wilde’s misfortune and his ultimate fall, unfold in a small provincial city in which the daily newspaper was likely to be the only immediate source of news?

2.

The first hint that something was amiss came in a regular column called Delayed Cables, which carried a miscellanea of news in abbreviated form. On March 3 1895 an entry revealed that ‘the Marquis of Queensberry, [had been] arrested on a warrant. The charge, ‘libelling Oscar Wilde, [having] forwarded him a card containing Indecent words.’ (v)

Those Hawke’s Bay Herald readers with a good memory might have recalled an article called The Daft Douglas’s that had run a few years earlier. In this the Christchurch Press’London correspondent had attempted to explain the unusual family dynamic among the Douglas family. The correspondent opened with the lines ‘Nothing that any member of Lord Queensberry’s crack-brained family could do would cause society much surprise.’ Lord Alfred was, in the same article, described as someone who ‘goes in for being literary’ and ‘worships at the shrine of Oscar Wilde.’ (vi)

On March 10 the next installment of the story arrived, this time in a column headed England. The paper reported that the Marquis of Queensberry has been committed for trial on a charge of libel and that the he had declared ‘that he wrote the alleged libel … with a view ‘to saving his son from Wilde in the interests of morality.’ (vii) By early April 1895 the story of the Marquis’ libel trial was beginning to feel persistent. The Hawke’s Bay Herald reporting large crowds attending the trial and with it also revealing ‘that Wilde paid heavy blackmail for his gushing letters to Lord Alfred Douglas … which were found in the pockets of old clothes when given away.’ (viii)

Even then, the trial occupied only incidental space in columns devoted to general news. Therefore alongside the revelation of gushing letters, came reports that ‘experts considered it useless to send frozen skinned rabbits to the English market, as on thawing the heads turn black’ or that Chancellor of Great Britain had described Cyprus, ‘as a useless and squalid possession.’(ix) This changed, however, when on April 8 1895, the Hawke’s Bay Herald printed a long cable it had received at received at 12.15am that morning.

Oscar Wilde published a letter stating that he abandoned his case in order to avoid placing Lord Douglas in the witness-box. After the warrant had been issued for Wilde’s arrest the police detained three essential witnesses. Lord Douglas and two men remained in conference with Wilde at the Viaduct Hotel, Holborn, for several hours after the trial, and they lunched together in a private room. Subsequently they drove to the Bank, where Wilde withdrew a large sum of money. He was then lost sight of until he was arrested in the evening at a hotel in Sloane-street. Lord Douglas was much distressed when he found he was unable to bail him out. After the trial the Marquis of Queensberry sent Wilde a message stating that he would shoot him if he took his son abroad. Taylor has also been arrested, and will be charged in conjunction with Wilde. The latter’s name has been withdrawn from the playbills of London and American theatres. (x)

Something had clearly happened in London of greater gravitas than the reports had hitherto suggested. What had clearly been a libel trial in which Queensberry was the defendant had resulted in Wilde’s arrest.  Was it frustrating for those attempting to follow the case that the end and consequences of the trial had been reported but as yet none of its content. Or were the readers of Nineteenth century colonial newspapers skilled at interpreting news that arrived from Home, in non-chronological sequences? Regardless of the disorderly ordering of information, a picture was starting to emerge of a case involving morality and the threat of a flight across the channel. Was this strange code sufficiently obvious for Napier readers to understand the true nature of unfolding events?

With crucial evidence unreported, Napier readers needed to crack the code that underscored the reporting of the trial

On 16 April 1895 the paper decided to fill in something of a back story for their readers (although the first trial had in fact concluded eleven days earlier). Still supportive of Wilde, the Hawke’s Bay Herald was now significantly out of step with opinion in the rest of the world and this may have been one of the last article to place Wilde in a positive light to be printed anywhere for decades to come.

Side Lights on Oscar Wilde, profiled his father (a surgeon) and mother (a poet), and introduced the young Wilde as a man with a  ‘striking university career’ to his credit. It went on to note ‘there was … ‘a great flattering of the dovecotes when Oscar Wilde appeared.  At the first glimmer … of his wonderful smile, the susceptible ones gave in’ and that he had once come ‘out in a pink shirt and yellow button-hole, and shed a radiance over the room.’ (xi)

3.

Hawke’s Bay readers had to wait more than a month to have Wilde’s change of fortune explained.’ The 8th of April cable was eventually fleshed out in a lengthy article that appeared on 25 May headlined THE OSCAR WILDE SCANDAL. Using material gathered by the London correspondent of the  Otago Daily Times,’ the Hawke’s Bay Herald revealed the details of the first trial. The article opened  by describing it as the ‘fashionable sensation of the week’ and concluding with a summary description – ‘the most shocking Society scandal of modern times.’ (xii)

First up, the disapproving correspondent reported the fascination of the London papers – revealling that the Daily Chronicle had dedicated five solid columns, the Telegraph four and a-half, the Standard three and a-half, the Times and Morning Post each two and a-half, and the Daily News and Daily Graphic each two columns.

Permit me here, figuratively, to uplift my hands in utter amazement that respectable journals should have allowed their columns to be defiled by floods of filthy allusions and revolting innuendo which flows through the whole evidence in this disgusting case. To me it seems most deplorable and discreditable that such loathsome garbage should be reported in respectable journals which are presumably fit for family perusal. One need not be a purist or a prude to be genuinely and intensely shocked that such an experience should have been possible. (xiii)

The correspondent held up the evening paper, the St. James’s Gazette, as an example of superior reporting – for only having included ‘a mere statement of the plain facts’ and took solace in the observation that there was –

… at least one London newspaper to-day which can be read without a shudder by citizens of ordinary decent feeling, which need not be excluded from a household where there are women and young girls, which can be permitted to lie on the drawing-room table without offence, and which can be taken into the family circle without apprehension. … It is terrible to think of inquisitive boys and girls reading this morning’s paper.’ (xiv)

With the benefit of hindsight, what seemed to cause the correspondent the most offense, was Wilde’s attitude during the trail, – described as  ‘the unblushing way in which Mr Wilde utilises the case as an advertisement of himself and his wares. The correspondent speculated that Wilde had  ‘evidently been at work for weeks ‘mugging up’ smart sayings and quips and paradoxes with wich to astonish his hearers.’ (xv)

Like so many who attended the trial, the correspondent found it difficult to reconcile Wilde’s ability to entertain a crowd with the unfolding nature of the case.  He reported instead that, as he saw it, some of Wilde’s witticisms that were ‘worth quotin’ –  ‘if only to show how far sheer impudence may be carried by a witness in a court of law.’ Thus the readers of the Hawke’s Bay Herald were there-by delivered what have survived as some of the best remembered lines of the case –  ‘wickedness is a myth invented by good people’ … ‘religions die when they are proved to be true’ … ‘if one tells the truth one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’ and ‘the condition of perfection is idleness.’ (xvi)

In London, the trial in which Wilde’s witicism’s had initially dominated took a turn as an over-confident Oscar Wilde bumbled into a number of traps set by the prosecutor Edward Carson. Some of this was to be gleaned from Herald, which reported.

Oscar revealed that he regarded it as ‘an intellectual treat’ to his guests to be allowed to visit him. He did not know their ages because he ‘did not keep a census.’ He did not visit them, ‘It would not interest me to go to see [the male prostitute] Parker; it would interest Parker to call and see me,’ said Mr Wilde. ‘I do not like the sensible and I do not like the old,’ he remarked, ‘and I do not care twopence for Social position. I recognise no social distinction at all of any kind. I like the society of people much younger than myself. The society of young people is so wonderful. I would talk to a street arab with more pleasure than I would be cross-examined by you in court.’ When asked if one visitor discussed literature with him ‘I would not allow it,’ said Oscar sternly. (xvii)

What was not reported in Napier was a key exchange that would have allowed readers to get ot the nub of the case. This was Carson’s cross examination regarding the servant Walter Grainger. Carson asked Wilde – ‘Did you ever kiss him?’ To this Wilde answered ‘Oh dear No. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.’ (xviii)

Carson: Was this the reason why you did not kiss him?

Wilde: Oh, Mr Carson you are impertinent and insolent.

Carson: Why, Sir, did you mention that this boy was extremely ugly?

Wilde: For this reason. If I were asked why I did not kiss a door-mat, I should say because I do not like to kiss doormats. I do not know why I mentioned that he was ugly, except that I was stung by the insolent question you put to me and the way you have insulted me through this hearing. Am I to be cross-examined because I do not like it. (ixx)

If colonial audiences were used to piecing together non-chronological reports from abroad, they were also well versed at reading between the lines of any reported scandal.

This morning the unexpected happened and the revolting case suddenly collapsed. When the judge took his seat he was seen to receive, open and read a letter. The silence was breathless. Expectation was on tiptoe. But nothing happened immediately. Mr Carson proceeded with his speech for the defence. But suddenly he was interrupted. Sir Edward Clarke plucked him by the gown and whispered to him. Mr Carson sat down. Sir Edward Clarke arose and intimated the withdrawal of the prosecution against Lord Queensberry, or, if that were not agreed to, consent to a verdict of not guilty on the ground of justification and publication for the public good. A verdict was returned accordingly.

In essence this marked the end of any concentrated coverage of the trial of Wilde. The detail of the second trial went unreported except in delayed cables. Through these the Herald reported the withdrawal of conspiracy charges, the date of the trial, the appointment of the judge, and the release of Wilde on bail.  The only detailed coverage of the second trial was this piece that appeared on 28 May 1895:

At the trial of Oscar Wilde the Judge said he was of the opinion that [male prostitute] Shelley suffered from delusions, and that there was nothing unnatural in his friendship with the accused. The evidence did not prove otherwise than that the friendship was perfectly honorable. In his evidence Wilde denied in toto all the charges made against him. (xxi)

The next mention of Wilde was amongst the most chilling of the whole saga. A cable of June 6 (7.30pm London) read ‘it is reported that Oscar Wilde became Insane, when his head was shaved and he had to be confined in a padded room.’  (xxii).

The Police News of 4 May 1895, Napier readers would have to wait more than a month before receiving details of the trial

4.

The absence of the key details of the trials may have protected inquisitive boys and girls reading’ the morning paper but did it lead to a misunderstanding as to the subject of the trial?  Certainly there were other, delayed sources, English and American magazines and journals, that would have eventually delivered the details of the trial and Wilde’s fall, but at home in Napier the press seemed a little unsure as to just what it was they had been reporting.

Perhaps among the reporters of the news office they knew precisely of what they published and perhaps for this reason key motifs were withheld from coverage. Certainly the moral outrage of the chosen London correspondent was not reflected in any additional home-grown editorial opinion piece or published letter to the editor on the matter. Indeed through the whole matter the letters page remained silent. For years after, the regular appearance of an advertisement for Indian Chiefs cigarettes in the pages of the paper – seemed to place responsibility for the whole situation, not with Wilde, but with the Daft Douglas’s.

Once the Wilde scandal shifted from the international news wires – all that was left for the Hawke’s Bay Herald to do was to report that on 21 May 1897 Oscar Wilde had been released from prison (xxiii) and to conclude with the announcement on December 3 1900, that ‘Oscar Wilde died in an obscure Paris hotel.’ (xiv). Wilde’s eight-word obituary was sandwiched between news of a bond float in London and reportage of a fire in the Blackball mine.

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins

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Sailing Instruction for the Port of Napier (1886).

Ahuriri or Port Napier – the inner harbour of this port is adapted to vessels drawing 10 to 12 feet of water: and is the only harbour between Tauranga and Port Nicholson [Wellington]. The south head is a cliffy bulk, which, rising out of the low land appears like an island; the entrance is narrow.

Ahururi Roads. – The best anchorage is in 6 fathoms good holding ground near the mooring buoys, about one mile off the harbour entrance, with the bluff just described, bearing S.E. by E,. Cape Kidnappers being shut in. these roads are safe in south, south-west, and north-west winds, and during an ordinary summer north-east sea breezes; the black north-easters give ample warning of approach.

HMS Harrier

Commander Sullivan, H.M.S. Harrier, remarks:

“We found the anchorage anything but safe with southerly of south-westerly winds, a tremendous swell setting into the bay, causing the ship to roll 33º. On 23 rd April, best bower cable parted abaft the bitts; force of wind at the time, 4, S.S.W.

Lights. – a fixed white light, 160 feet above the level of the sea, is shown from a tower 20ft high on the eastern side of Ahururi Bluff, half a mile south of the extreme point, and should be seen from a distance of 18 miles in clear weather.

On the eastern pier at the entrance of Port Napier, 190 ft within its outer extremity, is also shown from a lighthouse painted black, a fixed light, 27ft above the sea, and visible in clear weather from a distance of about 7 miles. The light shows white when bearing from S.W. to 1/2 W. to S.W.1/2 S.; red, from S.W.1/2 S. to S.S.W. 3/4 W over Pania rock; white from S.S.W. 3/4 W. to S 3/4 E; green from S. 3/4 E. to S.S.E.1/2 E over the anchorage ; and white to the west of the anchorage.

The Bluff Hill Lighthouse, Napier, visible for 18 miles in clear weather.

Note. –Vessels approaching the Port of Napier at night from the southward should have the white sector of this light well open before rounding Ahuriri Bluff in order to avoid Auckland Rock.  Vessels approaching from the north should keep in the white light. All vessels should anchor in the green light; the mooring buoy is in this light.

CAUTION. – Vessels must be careful not to mistake the white sector of the light at the entrance of Napier port for the light on the Bluff.

PANIA ROCK. – In approaching Ahuriri roads care must be taken to avoid this rock, which has only 7 feet on it., bearing N. by E. ½ E., from the bold white cliff of the Bluff, 21/3 miles distant. The bottom is uneven to the north of this reef, which is of small extent, and marked in the chart as a rock.

Buoy. – A white conical buoy lays in 9 fathoms of water at about a cable S.E. from this reef, with the Bluff bearing S.S.W nearly, distant 2 ½ miles.

AUCKLAND ROCK lies 4 1/2/ cables N. by W. from the Bluff, and with the west point of the Bluff  S.W.3/4 S.; there is 14ft of water on it at low water.

SUNKEN ROCK. – a rock with 9 feet of water lies with the Bluff entrance, bearing west, and Cape Kidnappers S.E. Vessels should not endeavour to pass inside of this, or Pania rock.

Mooring buoys. – There is one mooring buoy in 6 fathoms of water, in the southwest part of the roads W.N.W from The Bluff, and about a mile from the shore. The mooring is placed in the best holding ground, and is sufficiently strong for a vessel of 1000 tons. It may be used by vessels loading wool. When more than one is here at the same time the anchorage given in the harbour masters direction appended is used. Several small steamers, etc., take out the cargo to the vessels loading, which generally make all snug by sending down all top hamper, top gallant masts etc.

The proper time to approach the harbour is when it is high water by the beach; there ill the be sufficient stream to enter.

Napier breakwater

WINDS AND CLIMATE – the winds in Hawke’s Bay are very uncertain; the sudden south-easters make it necessary to be cautious when trading off Wairoa and Mouhaka; the southers give more warning; by an overcast sky, but are violent, especially in the winter. Thee westerly winds occur chiefly in October and November, blowing very strong with a low barometer, but generally fine weather. The black north-easter may be expected about once a month; this gale comes on very gradually, but blows very hard toward the end, accompanied by rain, veering to north-west and south-west.

The ordinary summer wind is a fine north-easter, with hazy weather setting in at 10.00am, and dying away at sunset, succeeded by a land-wind.  The barometer rises to the north-east, south-east, and south winds and falls to the north, north-west and westerly winds. Rain may be expected with north winds and the black north-easters, and often with the south-east winds; sometimes dry south-easters last for many days.

The Breakwater extension 1906 . Its red and green light navigation lights prevented confusion between the two white lights that preceded them.

NOTE – The works recently constructed are a pier or breastwork from the bluff point within the harbour on the south-eastern side to within a short distance of the eastern spit point, inside which, on the flat now reclaimed, is the railway terminus site.  Along the outer edge of this pier vessels lie, grounding in the mud at low water. Between this pier and the inner part of the eastern spit there is still a narrow channel in, used by small local steamers and coasters going to the wharves that lie inside. From both the entrance spit points breastworks have been carried out seawards near to the bar, for fully two cables, a full-half cable apart: the western one ends a little south-eastward of the Rangatira bank. The bar which is about a cable beyond the end of these breastworks, usually shifts with every gale; and on these occasions is invariably re-sounded by the Harbour Master, before attempting to take vessels over it. These works – as pointed out by the Harbour Master – have necessarily the effect of scouring and depending the channel.

“ A breakwater is being built from Ahururi bluff which will extend 650 feet in a N.E. direction; and a rubble foundation to lay within 16 feet of low water for a further 500 feet. “(The contract for the first section is let and is to be finished in 2 years.)”HARBOUR MASTER AUGUST 1886.

From Ahuriri Bluff a sandy beach extends 10 miles to the southward the rivers Ngararuro and Tuki-Tuki disembogue 5 and 8 miles from the Bluff.

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Charles Campbell: Two Portraits.

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References

Worth Quotin’ – Reporting the Oscar Wilde Trials

i. Theatre Royal, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 8 May 1893, Page 3.

ii. ibid.

iii. Thought Reading Extraordinary, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 17 February 1890, Page 3.

iv. Advertisment, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 13 February 1890, Page 3.

v. Delayed Cables, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 7 March 1895, Page 3.

vi. The Daft Douglases, Hawke’s Bay Herald,15 November 1893, Page 4.

vii. England, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 11 March 1895, Page 2.

viii. England. Hawke’s Bay Herald, 5 April 1895, Page 2.

ix. ibid.

x. Hawke’s Bay Herald, 8 April 1895, Page 4.

xi. Side Lights on Oscar Wilde, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 16 April 1895, Page 4.

xii. The Oscar Wilde Scandal, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 25 May 1895, Page 5.

xiii. ibid.

xiv. ibid.

xv. ibid.

xvi. ibid.

xvii. ibid.

xviii. Ellmann, Richard, Oscar Wilde, Hamish Hamilton, London 1987, Page 424.

ixx. Ibid.

xx. The Oscar Wilde Scandal, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 25 May 1895, Page 5.

xxi. Delayed, Cables, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 28 May 1895, Page 3.

xxii. England, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 6 June 1895, Page 2.

xxiii. England, Hawke’s Bay Herald, 21 May 1897, Page 2.

Sailing Instruction for the Port of Napier (1886).

excerpted from  Bretts New Zealand and South Pacific Pilot and Nautical Almanac for 1887-88, H Brett, Auckland. 1886.

Image Credit: Photographer Unknown, View of Bluff Hill Napier [1130]. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Image Credit: Photographer Unknown, Napier  Breakwater [6872]. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Image Credit: Photographer Unknown, Napier Breakwater 1906  [7365]. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Charles Campbell: Two Portraits.

Image Credit: Charles Campbell, Portrait of Two Unknown Gentlemen, Invercargill c1890 [14847]. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Image Credit: Charles Campbell, ‘To Auntie with Love:’ Portrait of Two Unidentified Brothers, c1890  Invercargill [55198]. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.


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