William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, turned 21 on February 20 1893. Within a few years, he would become Governor of NSW. Famously, he fled back to Sydney in the 1930s when exposed in England as a homosexual.
In the grand English aristocratic tradition of disdaining a direct connection between the spelling of a name and its pronunciation, the Lygons pronounced Beauchamp as ‘beecham’. However, apparently, nothing gave His Lordship the shits quite so much as any assumed connection with Beecham’s Laxative Pills.
William Lygon succeeded to the Earldom and inherited his family’s extensive landholdings at just 18. On his coming-of-age three years later, he took his seat in the House of Lords.
British newspapers dutifully reported what an earnest young man he was. A High Anglican — the Catholic you have when you’re not having a Catholic — he made an ostentatious display of his religious devotion. Newspapers remarked on him attaining “a certain kind of celebrity as a kind of missionary preacher in the poverty-stricken district of Poplar.”
He marked his 21st birthday by hosting the tenants on his family estate for a celebratory dinner. Later in the week, he entertained “the cottagers and local trade-men”. His affinity for trade, and dare I say, cottagers, would become more pronounced later in life.
A very peculiar young man
American newspapers were less circumspect than the English. Many described William Lygon as a ‘very peculiar young man’. They noted that on attaining his majority he purchased a string of racehorses, and undertook the management of a prizefighter.
In 1895, William Lygon became Mayor of Worcester. By tradition, the local tenants and lords took turns filling the position and it was his turn. By all accounts, he took the role seriously and worked hard at it.
However, the big story of 1895 was the Oscar Wilde trial. Previously protected by their class, gay English noblemen suddenly faced the prospect of prosecution for homosexuality. Notably, paying some poor lad a few shillings for sex no longer seemed safe. Some of those poor lads appeared in court to testify against Wilde.
Many wealthy English gays and lesbians either took extensive overseas holidays or departed the British Isles for good. Earl Beauchamp joined them for frequent European holidays.
During a Mediterranean holiday in 1899, he received a surprise communication.
“A pile of letters was awaiting my arrival in Athens. We had really been for a fortnight without news and we fell upon them eagerly…
“I came upon one from Mr Chamberlain in which, to my enormous surprise, he offered me the governorship of New South Wales.
“I scarcely knew where was the colony and certainly nothing about it.”
Why Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, chose William Lygon, no one knew, including Lygon. British newspapers editorialised on his unsuitability because of his youth and certain personal characteristics. He’d recently engaged in a ‘most unbecoming’ public battle with the Bishop of Worcester via letters to newspapers.
“Self-opinionated and crotchety,” said the Yorkshire Herald.
Others called him a ‘mere boy’ and some complained that at 27, he had not yet married. Lygon countered by announcing that his sister would accompany him and act as hostess of Government House.
Handsome young adjutants
On his return to London, he visited the Colonial Office and consulted with “some officials who looked up NSW in their books and after gathering a lot of very inaccurate information, I wrote… a formal note of acceptance.”
Lygon learned what he could about NSW and looked around for staff to accompany him to the colony. The handsomeness of those young men would attract comment in Sydney. But he was partial to good-looking staff. George Bellingham Roberts, his private secretary during a 1930s stay in Sydney, was described as so handsome he verged on beautiful.
After a visit to Queen Victoria, William Lygon sailed for NSW. He performed his duties in the colony well. However, as predicted before his departure, the young and inexperienced Governor made numerous gaffes and put many in the colonial establishment offside.
He resigned early and returned to England where he enjoyed a successful political career.
William Lygon died in a luxury New York hotel room in 1938, surrounded by his surviving children. They were all aware of their father’s sexuality, and they all loved him.