I first came across William in October 1974 through The other love which I bought in a secondhand, paperback copy for £0.15 from Garon Records in Oxford’s covered market. In this Historical and contemporary survey of homosexuality in Britain H. Montgomery Hyde allots 3 pages to the scandals of 1784 and 1811 and the revival of the earldom in 1831, sandwiched between pages on James Ogilvy and George Ferrers (the earls of Findlater and of Leicester). Percy Jocelyn, the notorious bishop of Clogher is there too, along with the Vere Street coterie that met at the White Swan off Oxford Street in Westminster, the Reverend Robert Thistlethwayte (a Warden of Wadham College) and several other neglected characters.
It would have been around this time that I also read in E.P. Thompson’s The making of the english working class about the Cornishman who claimed in the 1830s to be sir William Courtenay ‘King of Jerusalem, Prince of Arabia, King of the Gypsies, Defender of his King and Country’ and was killed near Canterbury (Kent, England) at the battle of Bossenden Wood, although I don’t recall making any connection between the two stories at the time.
In the 1990s I saw the splendours of the Music Room on my first visit to Powderham Castle; this was at a time when the Courtenay family was far from keen to promote wider awareness of William’s life, a situation that happily is now altogether different. It was not until several years later that I learnt more than Hyde revealed. In 2009 I read Joseph Farington’s Diary in Greig’s edition, published in the 1920s. Farington never met William but on a visit to south Devon in 1809 he saw Dolphin sailing off Dawlish (“a beautiful vessel”) and recorded some of the local gossip about the viscount’s goings-on. Not long after this, in May 1811 Farington also recorded malicious gossip from Jonathan Parker Fisher (sub-dean of Exeter cathedral) about William’s flight into exile.
A few years earlier, in 1807, Farington had reported Benjamin West’s version of the accounts that William Beckford and his mother gave of events in the autumn of 1784. Farington’s diary is the sole source for almost all versions of this episode set down for the last century or so, but he himself was not so credulous as to be taken in by these two thoroughly unreliable witnesses. Commenting on West’s account, he noted in his diary for 14 December 1807: “I could not but feel the improbability of much of the story, it not at all agreeing with many other well authenticated circumstances, & being in itself difficult to give credit to”.
I went on to read some of the books about Vathek Beckford, and then the account of events at Fonthill in the autumn of 1784 as related by lord Abercorn to Charles Greville and relayed by him in a letter from December 1784 to his uncle, William Hamilton in Naples. I then learnt about William’s uncles Richard and Thomas Clack as well as their sisters in a paper by Peter Marr in The Berkshire organist. I put aside my researches into the life and family of John Kitto (1804-1854) and George III’s stay at Saltram during the summer of 1789 to focus on William.
In 2017 I realised that the original 1811 indictment of William survived in the UK’s Parliamentary Archives and had never been published. I then decided to set up a website as a resource for people interested in William’s life. I hoped that visitors would also find enjoyment there. The site first went online in time for the 250th anniversary of William’s birth and has continued to grow since then. My thanks are due to the various people who have given their help to this project, in particular to Charlie Courtenay (lord Devon) and Felicity Harper at Powderham castle, and to north American members of the Courtenay Society; I was chuffed to be made an Honorary Life Member of that society in 2019.
- Handbill, 1975. There was a cut-off acceptance slip at the foot of the sheet. Oxford Gay People met for perhaps a couple of years at the Cape of Good Hope, a pub on The Plain in east Oxford. The event at the Randolph hotel was organised by a self-styled ‘lesbian entrepreneur’ called (I think) Julia as her 21st birthday party.
- 2023 March 13: first published online.