Oscar Wilde's letter from Torquay was evidence that sent him to prison

Joseph Bulmer

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s blue plaques was chosen. This week: Oscar Wilde and Babbacombe

It was to be a resident at Babbacombe Cliff House (now apartments) and a fellow magistrate on the South Devon bench, David Phillips, that approached me about a blue plaque to Oscar Wilde, who had lived here during the winter of 1892/3.

On entering the property via its archway and formidable courtyard, I established there was unanimous support among residents for the idea of a plaque to Oscar Wilde.

With the wording and sponsorship agreed and John Lake Letting Agents underwriting the pamphlet, only the positioning, timing and formalities surrounding the plaque then required arranging.

This all occurred in June, 2006, and in knowing the foundry needed two months' lead time after the plaque was proofed, the unveiling date was eventually agreed as Monday, October 16, 2006, coinciding with the anniversary of Oscar's birth 152 years before.

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was, of course, a well-known self-publicist, poet, playwright, wit and anaesthetic, yet less known at school he was always embarrassed by his many Christian names writing later: "As one becomes more famous, one sheds some of them, just as a balloonist, when rising higher sheds unnecessary ballast." The wordsmith skill already apparent.

Few people appreciated that Oscar produced two boys, Cyril and Vyvyan, while married to Constance his aristocratic wife and, in fact, she was a frequent visitor to her aunt Baroness Lady Mount-Temple at Babbacombe Cliff House, Torquay.

One year, in suspecting her husband was having an affair with an actress in London, Constance arranged for Oscar and their two boys to spend the winter months in Torquay while that winter of 1892/3 she and her aunt would tour Europe.

She hoped it would end the 'affair' not knowing it was not an actress but with Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas.

Oscar Wilde found he adored Torquay and the Beach Road home and eventually wrote to 'Bosie' (object of the affair) asking him to consider joining him and the boys at the Babbacombe Cliff for a few weeks.

That letter sent in January, 1893, became the actual High Court evidence which saw Oscar detained at Her Majesty's pleasure when serving two years' hard labour in Reading Prison.

The letter included the following emotive lines: "My own boy, your sonnet is lovely... Why are you alone in London and when do you go to Salisbury?... come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you, but go to Salisbury first. Always with undying love, yours Oscar."

His Lordship came, of course, but then after a lovers' tiff, he left Torquay and never returned - the rest about Oscar, as we say, is history.

The blue plaque event took place on Monday, October 16, 2006, a superb day with a goodly crowd in attendance including my members and the public.

The proceedings started with Torbay Council chairman, Councillor John Dunn, and myself formally unveiling the plaque honouring Babbacombe Cliff and Oscar Wilde.

Affixed to a high wall external to the automatic gates, the plaque could then be visible to all passers-by.

With the formalities over, everyone was invited through the arch to the house beyond, when then privileged to view some of the rooms while refreshments were served.

Finally, official speeches and with a little history of the baroness, her home and, of course, Oscar given the event ended.

Today, the listed property is converted into private apartments, although in 2006 many of its rooms were still named as flowers, given by Lady Mount-Temple and her designers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones - Daffodil, Daisy, Marigold and Primrose and what had been the study used by Oscar when completing his famous play, 'A Woman of No Importance' was even named - Wonderland.

In later years a modern extension was added fortunately outside of the archway entrance.

The Torbay Civic Society pamphlet Babbacombe Cliff and Oscar Wilde can be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 1 Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.