In the summer of 1894 the great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde spent two months in Worthing, initially with his wife Constance and his two young sons. It was during this holiday that he wrote his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Wildes stayed at a house called The Haven at the northern end of the Esplanade terrace, which consisted of four houses that ran from Brighton Road to the shore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel, before being demolished in the 1960s.
Wilde’s visit is commemorated by a Blue Plaque fixed to the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court, the building that currently occupies the site of the Esplanade terrace. However, as already indicated, the Haven stood at the Brighton Road end of the terrace.
There were several reasons why Wilde came to Worthing that summer. One was to give his sons a seaside holiday.
Another was that Wilde’s finances were in an appalling state, and, although he had recently finished An Ideal Husband, he desperately needed the income from a second new play – and somewhere reasonably quiet to write it.
A third reason was that the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas (always known as Bosie) – with whom Wilde was besotted – was subjecting Wilde to a campaign of harassment in London.
“It is intolerable,” Wilde wrote to Bosie the day before he set off for Worthing, “to be dogged by a maniac.”
Wilde had had a brief affair with Bosie in the summer of 1892, but their relationship had ceased to be physical in nature two years before the Worthing holiday. However Queensberry did not know this, and his distaste for Wilde’s and Bosie’s association developed into an obsession.
In due course this led to Wilde’s downfall. Less than four months after Wilde left Worthing, Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which was written, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Wilde foolishly sued Queensberry for libel. The trial broke down, and Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned for having homosexual relations with various youths and young men.
Wilde also found time to attend three major aquatic events that were held in Worthing that summer – a Lifeboat Demonstration; the Annual Regatta; and a so-called Venetian Fete, a charming lamp-lit water carnival at the end of which Wilde gave away the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made an amusing speech in praise of Worthing.
“It has beautiful surroundings,” he said, “and lovely long walks – which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”
The full story of Oscar’s Wilde’s stay in Worthing is told in Antony Edmonds’ book, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath’. Available on Amazon.
The photographs on this page come from ‘Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer’. They are copyright and must not be reproduced without permission.