William Lygon, the 7th Earl of Beauchamp, seemed destined for a life of greatness when an aging Queen Victoria appointed him Governor of New South Wales at the age of just 27. And indeed, during his life, he played important roles in the administration of the Empire. However, in 1931, disgrace came upon him. Disgrace so great, Victoria’s grandson George V said of him, “I thought men like that shot themselves.”
At 18, William Lygon succeeded his father as Earl Beauchamp. He apparently became aware of his sexuality earlier. He suffered a series of breakdowns during adolescence and into his early twenties. However, it seems he eventually accepted his difference, his recovery aided by numerous long trips abroad.
A diary kept by Lygon hints at his sexuality. During a train trip through Greece, he described the men at wayside stations as ‘uninteresting’. Then, at Olympia, when he viewed the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles, he declared it the finest of any male statues. But he also grumbled that none of the men he saw during his time in Greece compared to the statue in either face or figure.
The appointment as Governor in 1898 came as a surprise. He wrote that he “scarcely knew where was the colony and certainly nothing about it.”
New South Wales
Nevertheless, he accepted the appointment. The earl sent the people of NSW a greeting in advance of his arrival.
“Greeting! your birthstain have you turned to good.”
Not a good move. The reference to the colony’s penal beginnings infuriated the leading citizens. Busy scheming prominent roles for themselves in the soon to be federated states of Australia, those men wanted no reminder of the colony’s convict past.
After his arrival, he failed to improve on that first impression. He thought little of the colony, and it, in return, thought little of him. He gave up his post early and returned to England in 1900 claiming vice-regal duties failed to stimulate him.
The main memory of him in New South Wales was of the splendid parties he threw at Government House. The writer Victor J. Daley wrote an account of one of the earl’s parties for a newspaper that would be quoted for decades to come.
“Rosy-cheeked footmen, clad in liveries of fawn, heavily ornamented with silver and red brocade, with many lanyards of the same hanging in festoons from their broad shoulders, stood in the doorway and bowed as we passed in… Lord Beauchamp deserves great credit for his taste in footmen…
“I was piloted to a seat by a pretty, young, peach-cheeked gentleman. In a court suit of black velvet, adorned with buttons of cut steel, and with a cunning little court sword hanging at his side. I may say here that the most striking feature of the vice-regal menage is the youthfulness of all its members.”
Similarly, two decades before, the papers noted how the fourth governor of Queensland, William Wellington Cairns, dismissed all the female help at Government House in Brisbane and relied on a strictly male staff.
Back in England
Lygon joined the Liberal party in 1902 and also in that same year, married the sister of the Duke of Westminster, one of the richest men in the world. The earl rose to become a cabinet minister and Liberal leader in the House of Lords. Despite his privileged background, his main political concerns were improved wages and conditions for the working classes.
Meanwhile, he fathered seven children by his wife with whom, by all reports, he enjoyed a happy marriage. That didn’t for a moment hinder his pursuit of sex with men. Appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1913, he took up his official residence in Walmer Castle where, as representative of the king, he greeted foreign dignitaries arriving at Dover.
However, Walmer Castle also became notorious for the parties he held there where his aristocratic male friends mixed with the local fishermen and other young rough trade.
Lady Christabel Aberconway wrote that she and her husband once arrived unannounced at the castle to find the openly gay actor Ernest Thesiger in the garden, naked to the waist and covered in pearls.
Back to Australia
In 1930, Lygon took a round-the-world trip which included two months in Australia. He brought with him a reputed lover, Robert Bernays MP, and a valet, another reputed lover. The threesome’s living arrangements in Sydney became notorious. When Lygon planned a visit to Canberra, his hosts sent word that the valet would not be welcome.
Back in England word of this reached Lygon’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster, both a political opponent and a personal enemy. Lady Aberconway described Westminster as “nothing but a fatuous, spoilt, ageing playboy.”
Westminster hired private detectives to follow Lygon. They gathered evidence of trysts with everyone from male prostitutes to noblemen. Westminster showed the evidence to his sister, an innocent woman to whom the revelations came as an awful shock. A daughter later explained her mother probably never properly comprehended her husband’s homosexuality, only that his desires “ran contrary to what is natural.” According to gossip, she confided to friends that her husband was a ‘bugler’.
However, her brother knew better and sent Lygon a letter.
“Dear Bugger-in-Law, You got what you deserved. Yours, Westminster.”
Lady Beauchamp took to a sickbed at her brother’s country home and the Lygon children refused to leave their father. Westminster took his evidence to the king, threatening to expose Lygon. George V did not want a scandal. William Lygon, a friend of the royal family for decades, carried the Sword of State at the king’s coronation. The king’s son Prince George often visited the Beauchamp estate, ostensibly in pursuit of one of the Lygon daughters. But who knows? George, who later died in a plane crash during World War II, was a notoriously promiscuous bisexual.
The king sent three Knights of the Garter to demand Lygon resign all his official posts and leave England by midnight. After they departed, William Lygon attended prayers in the family chapel, packed and took a boat to the continent.
He intended committing suicide but his loyal children took turns spending time with him and convinced him to stay alive. His children closed ranks to defend him and his daughter Sibell convinced her lover Lord Beaverbrook, the greatest press baron of the day, to ensure the story stayed out of the papers.
Thanks to his immense wealth, Lygon suffered little during his exile. He spent his time travelling the world. He often visited the four great cities renowned as havens of tolerance — Paris, Venice, San Francisco, and Sydney.
In 1936, his son Hugh, also gay, fell while stepping from a car, hit his head and died three days later. Lord Beaverbrook prevailed upon the government to suspend the warrant for Lygon’s arrest. They did so and he returned home for his son’s funeral. However, friends apparently took the precaution of keeping a Tiger Moth plane close by in case need arose of a sudden escape.
Despite the possible consequences, Lygon decided the time had come to return home. He instructed his lawyer to write to the authorities. With George V now dead, Lygon intended returning home, where if arrested, he would defend the charges, confident of acquittal. The Crown dropped the charges and Earl Beauchamp returned home.
William Lygon died of cancer in 1938.
Evelyn Waugh immortalised Lygon when he used him as the model for the character Lord Marchmain in his novel Brideshead Revisited. Widely acclaimed on its release in 1945, the book enjoyed renewed interest when adapted for television in 1981 and again with a movie version in 2008.
Asked about her father before her death, his daughter Sibell remembered a very nice man.
“He was a very nice man and he did care so very much about his children. Mother was his greatest mistake and maybe because he was homosexual he made the wrong choice in marriage.”
She said the main thing he taught his children was, “Tolerance. Always tolerance.”
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