Original Transcript Of Oscar Wilde Libel Trial Goes On Display

By David Prudames | 11 April 2003
Shows British Library curator Sally Brown with the original transcript of the famous Old Bailey trial of 1895.

Left: curator Sally Brown with the original transcript of the famous Old Bailey trial of 1895. © British Library.

Many great discoveries come about as part of an intricate and designed process, as any scientist will tell you. But, as some archaeologists might counter, some are just an almighty surprise.

A bundle of papers stuffed into carrier bags and handed over to British Library staff two and a half years ago fall under the latter.

Inside were letters, including one from an outraged son threatening to kill his father, and also what turned out to be the original transcript of the 1895 libel trial that led to Oscar Wilde's imprisonment over a hundred years ago.

“When I actually saw it I nearly fell off my chair,” curator Sally Brown told the 24 Hour Museum.

Shows a waxwork model of Oscar Wilde.

Right: for the first time the actual courtroom exchanges are revealed as is Wilde's demeanour throughout the trial. © British Library.

The transcript will go on public display alongside letters written both by Wilde and Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library from April 12 until June 1.

Loaned to the library by an anonymous benefactor, the collection of manuscripts provides a unique insight into the courthouse drama and gives historians the first ever accurate account of proceedings.

Although married with two sons, Wilde met Alfred Lord Douglas in 1881 and the pair became lovers. Incensed by the affair Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry, provoked the writer into suing him for libel by leaving a card labelling him a 'somdomite' (he spelled it wrong at the time) at his club.

Wilde lost the subsequent trial and was arrested, tried twice and imprisoned for 'gross indecency', homosexuality was, at the time, against the law.

Sally Brown explained to the 24 Hour Museum how in 2000 she curated an exhibition to celebrate Wilde's centenary. It seems a member of the public heard about it and thought the library might be interested in a number of papers they had.

Shows the original transcript of the 1895 Old Bailey libel trial.

Left: the transcript was made from shorthand notes taken down in the court room, providing historians with the first full and accurate account of the famous trial. © British Library.

“It is a fabulous thing that it has turned up and it's just really good that it can go on display to the public,” she said.

“It shows Wilde on the first day when he is playing to the gallery and then there is this moment on the second day when it starts to go wrong.”

As well as the transcript taken down by court stenographers, the papers included a postcard written in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas to his father, 'a violent and dangerous rough', saying how he wanted to kill him.

The exhibition will also give the public the chance to see letters written by Wilde to Douglas that were read aloud at the trial and used as evidence against him.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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