9th Marquess of Queensberry

John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), was a pugilist, atheist peer infamous for precipitating the downfall of playwright Oscar Wilde. He has become something of a Victorian pantomime villain but his life before the Wilde scandal goes some way to explain if not excuse his boorish behaviour. The 9th Marquess was fourteen and serving as a naval midshipman when his father died in a shooting accident widely thought to be suicide following disastrous gambling losses on a horse called Saunterer. He lost his religious belief following the death of his brother in a climbing accident on the Matterhorn; leading the expedition to recover the body himself but only finding a glove, belt and a boot.

In his youth the Marquess was distinguished as a ‘brave, beautiful boxer’ and his name survives in the sport for the twelve ‘Queensberry Rules’ he established at the Amateur Athletic Club in 1887. He married Sibyl Montgomery in 1866 who bore him four sons and a daughter. It was in the year of his marriage that the Marquess first visited Henry Poole & Co ordering a black silk velvet short lounging coat lined silk and a scarlet dress coat. The Marchioness belittled his interest in sport and derided his low intellect. In 1887 the Marchioness sued Queensberry for divorce on grounds of adultery. By 1876, Queensberry said of himself ‘I am turning into a very bitter, unhappy man’.

From 1872-1880 Queensberry sat in the House of Lords but was ejected for refusing to take the oath branding swearing on the Bible ‘Christian tomfoolery’. In 1881 he became President of the British Secular Union and a year later caused a scandal when he was thrown-out of the Lyceum theatre in London for heckling Alfred Lord Tennyson’s play The Promise of May that attacked the cause. The 1890s saw the 9th Marquess gradually say adieu to his sanity.

In 1891 the Marquess’s brother Lord James Douglas was found in the Euston Station Hotel having slit his own throat in a depressive episode. In 1892 the 9th Marquess remarried but the union was annulled within the year on the grounds of non-consummation; Queensberry now being impotent and suffering from syphilis. In 1894 Queensberry’s eldest son Viscount Drumlanrig shot himself aged 27. The Viscount was a private secretary to Prime Minister the 5th Earl of Roseberry with whom his father had publicly accused him of having an affair.

Only a year after his eldest son’s death in a homosexual scandal, Queensberry was unhinged when it became apparent his third son Lord Alfred was in a similar illicit relationship with Oscar Wilde. ‘Bosie’ Douglas provoked his father by appearing in public with Wilde and sending him a telegram reading ‘what a funny little man you are’. It was at Bosie’s insistence that Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel after the latter had left a note at Wilde’s club reading ‘Oscar Wilde posing as a (sic) somdomite’.

Queensberry was arrested for giving his second son (now heir) Lord Percy a black eye during an altercation on the corner of Old Bond Street. He believed, rightly, that Lord Percy was harbouring Wilde. As a parting shot, Queensberry said to his son ‘I tell all these strangers that you have been a bad son from your birth up and that I now publicly disown you’. It was the Marquess of Queensberry’s evidence that prompted Scotland Yard to arrest Wilde and charge him with gross indecency. When convicted, Wilde was sentenced to two-years’ hard labour.

Wilde would outlive the 9th Marquess by a year though his health and reputation never recovered after the prison sentence. The 9th Marquess of Queenberry died alone aged fifty-five in his London club of a stroke in the advance stages of syphilis. In its obituary, the Sporting Times said ‘it is not for us here to inquire into the workings of his peculiar mind. It had a craving for something: it knew not what’.

(c) James Sherwood



Photo © (c) James Sherwood Collection