Homosexual Blackmail in the 1890s: The Fitzroy Street Raid, the Oscar Wilde Trials, and the Case of Cotsford Dick

Joseph Bristow


On Saturday, 11 August 1894, twenty men were arrested at a party that John Watson Preston hosted at his rooms at 46 Fitzroy Square, London. Two of the partygoers, Arthur Marling and John Severs, were dressed in women’s clothing. All of the men were charged that evening at Tottenham Court Road Police Station. The following morning they appeared at the Great Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court. This widely reported event drew readers’ attention to the fact that Marling attended court in fantastic female attire of black and gold. Journalists noted that many items of women’s clothing had been found in Watson’s home. After being remanded in custody for a week, Marling and Severs were bound in sureties of £5 to keep the peace for three months; five were ordered to find sureties of 40s. each for a month’s good behaviour; and the rest were discharged.

The party would not have had much significance were it not for the fact that Marling—together with two other men, Charles Parker and Alfred Taylor, who came to the party—played a central role in two later episodes that drew public attention to the extent of homosexual blackmail in the metropolis.

At the Old Bailey in April 1895, the thirty-three-year-old Taylor—the former heir to a large cocoa manufacturing fortune—was charged alongside Wilde for conspiring to commit, as well as committing, acts of gross indecency. The revelations about Taylor’s cross-dressing practices, which involved a mock-marriage ceremony with Charles Spurrier Mason, caused a sensation. Meanwhile, the twenty-year-old Parker served as a witness for the Crown prosecution’s case against Oscar Wilde. Although Parker claimed to have received sums of money for sexual favours, there was no evidence that he extorted funds from Wilde. At the same time, Wilde’s defence discovered that Parker was nonetheless deeply immersed in London’s homosexual blackmailing subculture, in ways that had paid the young man considerable rewards.

As it turned out, no legal action was taken against either Parker or any of the other male sex workers who confessed to committing the sexual crimes of which Wilde was accused. Nor did the Crown charge them for operating in teams with older men who physically threatened and extorted money from unsuspecting clients who were willing to pay for sex. In December 1896, however, a violent assault, which was followed by attempted blackmail, misfired. A married bricklayer, who belonged to this network of extortionists, robbed the gay writer Cotsford Dick of his belongings, including an Astrakhan-lined coat, a scarf-pin, and a pocketbook. Although a team of seasoned blackmailers attempted to intimidate Dick, he turned to the police for protection. Eventually, in 1898 Marling was charged as the individual who had pawned Dicks’s stolen goods. He went to jail for five years. Two other accomplices—William Allen and Robert Cliburn—who evaded testifying during the Wilde trials were also sentenced.

This paper, presented as a keynote speech at the AVSA “Victorian Margins” conference in Ballarat, July 2016, explores each of these related events in considerable detail, drawing attention in particular to Allen’s astounding disclosures in Reynolds’s Newspaper about the brutal methods that extortionists used on homosexual men in the 1890s.


Oscar Wilde, homosexual blackmail

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