Lord Arthur Somerset

Lord Henry Arthur George Somerset (1851-1926), third son of the 8th Duke of Beaufort, was ostensibly a pillar of late Victorian London aristocratic society: a sportsman, Major in the Royal Horse Guards, Extra Equerry and friend of the bon viveur Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) for whom he managed the Royal Stud at Sandringham.

The Vanity Fair Spy cartoon of him drawn in 1887 depicts a flamboyant if portly ‘Podge’ Somerset in country attire looking not dissimilar to the portly Prince of Wales. Vanity Fair describes Podge as ‘very favourably regarded by the fair sex’. But a year after the portrait was drawn Lord Arthur would find himself at the centre of a prostitution scandal that horrified late Victorian London and foreshadowed the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895.

In 1889, Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard (the man who had led the hunt for Jack the Ripper a year previously) raided a house at No 19 Cleveland Street suspected of operating as a male brothel manned by teenage telegraph delivery boys. When questioned by Abberline, the ring leader Henry Newlove fingered three eminent patrons of Cleveland Street: Lord Arthur Somerset, the Earl of Euston and Colonel Jervois.

Somerset’s solicitor Arthur Newton let it be known that if he were prosecuted a very distinguished person with the initials PAV would be implicated. The PAV in question was thought to be Queen Victorias grandson Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Despite being positively identified by several post office boys, Lord Arthur was allowed to obtain leave from his regiment and discreetly disappear to the Continent.

Lord Arthur returned in September 1889 and stayed at the Marlborough Club whose president was the Prince of Wales.When informed of the charges, the Prince declared ‘I dont believe it. I wont believe it any more than if he had accused the Archbishop of Canterbury’. But following an inquiry led by the Prince’s Comptroller General Sir Dighton Probyn and his Private Secretary Sir Francis Knollys, evidence mounted that Lord Arthur was indeed an habitual visitor to Cleveland Street.

Prime Minister Lord Salisbury was consulted but the delay caused by talks at the highest level of Victorian society allowed Somerset to flee the country in October 1889 before the net tightening around him. On 12th November 1889, Lord Salisbury gave Scotland Yard permission to issue a warrant for Lord Arthur’s arrest. He was charged in absentia with committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons. Lord Arthur Somerset never returned to England to face the charges and spent the last 37-years of his life in a villa in the South of France with companion Andrew Neale.

Lord Arthur’s escape led to the inevitable conspiracy theories that the establishment had allowed him to escape in order to protect Prince Eddy’s questionable honour. In a letter to Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher, Lord Arthur writes ‘I have never mentioned the boys name (PAV) except to (Sir Dighton) Probyn, (Oliver) Montagu and (Francis) Knollys. Had they been wise, hearing what I knew and therefore what others knew, they ought to have hushed the matter up, instead of stirring it up as they did with all the authorities’.

The Cleveland Street scandal was debated in the House of Commons in 1890 when Lord Salisbury’s government was accused of a criminal conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. Demand for an inquiry was, however, defeated by 206 votes to 66. Within two years, Prince Albert Victor was dead – the official cause of death being pneumonia – leaving the path to the throne clear for his younger brother the future King George V and the dynasty free of scandal.

(c) James Sherwood

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