The Haven, Worthing

These photographs of the house that was known as the Haven when Oscar Wilde stayed there in 1894 date, respectively, from around 1921

and from the early 1940s. The figure in the second photograph, which was taken by the actor Donald Sinden, is that of Lord Alfred Douglas.

The Location of the Haven

The confidence – indeed the certainty – with which pictures of the Haven, the house in Worthing where Oscar Wilde stayed in 1894, are presented among the illustrations in the centre of Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer might suggest that the location of the house is a long-established fact.

In reality it was only after a prolonged and detailed investigation early in 2011 that a correct and conclusive identification of which house was the Haven was arrived at.

This appendix consists of a slightly revised version of an article published in The Wildean No. 39 in July 2011. Although this piece is likely to prove too detailed for all but the most determined, it is important that the full evidence be set down, in view of the fact that the blue plaque commemorating Wilde’s stay is at present on the wrong part of the modern building that replaced the Esplanade. The hope must be that one day it will be moved.

Although the Esplanade was demolished less than half a century ago, it is extraordinarily difficult to establish which house the Haven was. There seems to be no historical memory in Worthing of the configuration of the Esplanade, and Worthing Borough Council has no relevant documents available. Therefore the only evidence is indirect, and comes principally from old directories and town plans.

Setting down the evidence in conclusive detail is made particularly important by the fact that no fewer than three different locations for the Haven have previously been suggested – and none has been correct.

The Haven was not, as Kim Leslie and John Wagstaff (in 1994) and I (in my first Wildean article in January 2011) had all decided, a house in the centre of the terrace. Nor was it the house marked with a printed X on an Oscar Wilde commemorative postcard of 1994 produced by Crossroad Postcards, which identifies the house as the most westerly of the four semi-detached houses that, as we shall see, also had Esplanade addresses. And it was not the house at the sea-end with the curved balcony, identified as the Wilde house by Worthing historians Ron Kerridge and Mike Standing in their 2001 photographic history of the town, an identification followed in at least one other book about Worthing.

In Wilde’s time ‘The Esplanade’ was the official name for three separate and distinct geographical features: the eight houses that included the Haven; a promenade running along part of the sea-front; and a short north-to-south street leading from Brighton Road to the sea-shore. Today, only the last of these names remains in use.

A modern visitor entering the street from the Brighton Road end passes, on the west side, first No. 10 and then Nos. 9 and 9a, The Esplanade, followed by the eastern end of New Terrace. These buildings did not exist in 1894, when the area was open ground.

On the east side of the Esplanade there now stands an ugly modern block of flats, with a car dealership on the Brighton Road side. In the centre of the west-facing side of this block is a blue plaque to alert passers-by to the fact that it was in a house on the site that Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. It is jarring and ironic that a lover of all that was beautiful and graceful should be commemorated on the side of so unsightly a building. Indeed the plaque might have been better placed on the low retaining wall in front of the block, which is all that remains here from Wilde’s time.

However, since we know from Wilde’s letters and from old directories that the Haven was No. 5 – and since, as we have seen, the west side of the Esplanade had just two houses (Nos. 9 / 9a and 10), which were built later – it seemed clear, from studying old photographs and visiting the location, that the block on the east side of the street had comprised eight houses numbered 1-8; and that No. 5 must have been in the centre. (Although the front doors to the houses are not clearly visible in the old photographs, the overhanging porches are wide enough to allow for the possibility that there were two front doors under each, side-by-side, one serving a bow-windowed house and one a plain-fronted house.)

Prior to the plaque being placed on the block in 1994, Kim Leslie, former Director of the West Sussex Blue Plaque Scheme, had researched the question of which house the Haven had been; and in late 2010 he helpfully sent me photocopies of the material he had used in reaching his conclusion – which was the same as my initial conclusion, namely that the house where Wilde had stayed was a narrow house in the centre of the block. John Wagstaff, writing in The Wildean, No. 5 (1994), expressed the same opinion: ‘No. 5 was squeezed into the centre of the terrace.’

However Leslie, Wagstaff and I were all wrong.

The main source for Leslie’s conclusions had been the Worthing & District Blue Book of 1919-20. This listed two houses on the west side, as now (although at that time they were named, not numbered). On the right side, eight houses were listed, Nos. 1-8. From this, Leslie made the reasonable assumption that the west-facing block that appears on old photographs and postcards consisted of the eight houses of the Esplanade. Accordingly he marked up a photograph of the building into eight divisions, chopping the terrace up into seven narrow houses (alternately with and without first-floor bow windows), with at the sea-end an eighth slightly larger house with a curved balcony on the first floor.

The fact that a very modest narrow plain-fronted house was thus putatively allocated to Wilde for his 1894 stay did give some pause for thought. Although Wilde had written to Bosie, just before he left London for Worthing, ‘The house, I hear, is very small and I have no writing room’, this ‘very small’ house nevertheless needed to be large enough to accommodate a party of six – Wilde, Constance, Cyril, Vyvyan, the Swiss governess and Arthur the valet – in addition to two resident servants and the child of one of them. In a house with just two front windows (one on the first floor and one on the second) and two or three at the back, this seemed a tight fit. Nonetheless, the rest of the evidence appeared conclusive.

Then on 28 March 2011 – I give the date because of the odd coincidence that it was the (not widely commemorated) 120th anniversary of Alphonse Conway’s baptism at St Andrew’s Church, Worthing – I was studying the detailed 1896 Ordnance Survey map of Worthing for other purposes, when I noticed something to which I had not previously paid attention.

Wherever there were terraces on the map, there were dividing lines to mark out the individual houses. In every case these delineated a single dwelling. This was clear from comparing terrace on the map with the number of houses shown for the same terraces in old street directories. However, in the case of the block that Leslie, Wagstaff and I believed to be the ‘complete’ Esplanade in 1894 (thus, Nos. 1-8), there were just four houses marked out with lines – and the Ordnance Survey mapper would obviously not have applied a different principle to this one terrace.

It thus appeared that the west-facing block familiar from old photographs and postcards comprised four houses rather than eight; and indeed that they were houses of reasonably generous proportions.

I then revisited the 1927 edition of Kelly’s Directory and was struck by something odd and unexpected: Nos. 1-4, The Esplanade had disappeared since 1919-20. Only Nos. 5-8 were now listed for the west-facing side of the street.

The only explanation for this – other than demolition, which could be ruled out by reference to old photographs – was that the houses that had originally been numbered as Nos. 1-4, The Esplanade had been the houses in two blocks that appear on the 1896 map to the east of the main west-facing terrace and are visible in old pictures; and that at some point between 1919/20 and 1927 these houses had been re-numbered as part of Brighton Road. In other words, the Esplanade in 1894 had consisted not of just the west-facing block, but of three blocks in all – two of them situated to the east of the main block, with their north sides abutting Brighton Road and their south sides looking out over the sea. This deduction was not contradicted by the appearance of the blocks, since the two smaller blocks were of the same period and design as the west-facing terrace. The best evidence suggests that all were built about 1881.

Since the north sides of the second and third blocks faced onto Brighton Road, it was a logical decision on the part of Worthing Council – at some point when the town’s street-numbering was being rationalised – to give these houses Brighton Road addresses, in order to avoid the messy situation of there being four stray houses facing the sea which did not have a proper street address. It was inappropriate for these houses to have the address ‘The Esplanade’ when they were located not on the street bearing that name but north of the sea-front promenade that ran between Farncombe Road and Windsor Road, which confusingly bore the same name. (This confusion was eliminated some years ago when the promenade ceased to be called the Esplanade.)

If the central and eastern blocks comprised part of the Esplanade, however, the numbering of the houses in those blocks would have had to have been from east to west, as otherwise No. 1, The Esplanade would have been next to No. 5. Although unconventional, east-west numbering was not an impossibility.

The one piece of incontrovertible proof that these deductions were correct would have been an old town plan of the type the Borough Council would be expected to have maintained for rating and other purposes – a plan that included all house numbers. However, enquiries of the relevant department at Worthing Council drew a blank. It was therefore necessary to search for indirect evidence in the comprehensive collection of Worthing directories held on microfiche at the town’s library.

Importantly for our purposes, the old directories provided confirmation that the Esplanade had indeed consisted not just of the west-facing block but also of the two blocks to the east. This was demonstrated by the fact that, between the 1918-9 and 1921 directories, the addresses 1-4, The Esplanade had disappeared and the houses had been re-allocated Brighton Road numbers: helpfully, they were still listed under the Esplanade in 1921, even though they now had Brighton Road addresses.

In addition, the deduction that the numbering of the second and third blocks started at the eastern end was shown to be correct from the fact that the 1918-19 Blue Book has No. 2, The Esplanade named as Pyrford and No. 1 as Beach Lawn – and that in the 1938-9 Blue Book, Pyrford is listed as 106 Brighton Road and Beach Lawn as 108 Brighton Road. Thus No. 1, The Esplanade (Beach Lawn) was situated to the east of No. 2 (Pyrford).

Frustratingly, however, the central piece of evidence was elusive, since the listing practices of the two directories (Kelly’s and the Blue Book) differed, making it unclear whether the numbers given for the west-facing block started at the Brighton Road end (thus 5-8, from north to south) or at the sea end (thus 8-5). Either was possible in the context of the second and third blocks, since from No. 4 the numbering might have continued in a westerly direction along Brighton Road or in a south-westerly direction along the sea-front. (These four substantial semi-detached houses probably had doors at both front and back.) The position of the buildings relative to each other, as shown on the 1896 plan, suggested the first as the more logical option. However, in view of the fact that logic had not been present when the numbering 1-4 had been introduced on an east-to-west basis, an appeal to logic could not be regarded as conclusive.

However three important further clues were found in the old directories.

Long’s Worthing Directory of 1891 lists a ‘wall letter box’ located between Nos. 5 and 4, The Esplanade. Since we have now established that No. 4 was at the west end of the central block, then, if No. 5 was the house at the sea-end of the west-facing terrace, this post-box would have been located in an improbable position, tucked away on the sea-front just before the last two buildings in the town; and indeed no old photographs of the Esplanade taken from the south show a post-box in the low wall or indeed a position it could have occupied. The more likely location for the post-box was on Brighton Road, where it would have been convenient also for the other terraces at the eastern edge of the town and for passers-by. Thus it must be regarded as probable that this was where the post-box was, and that No. 5 was therefore located at the Brighton road end of the west-facing terrace.

Two other two pieces of evidence in the 1938-9 edition of the Blue Book point to the same conclusion. The compiler is unusually clear and precise about the sequence of houses in the Esplanade. He lists as ‘left from New Parade’ Nos. 9, then 9a, then 10 – and this sequence remains the same today in the important respect that No. 10 is at the Brighton Road end (although, oddly, No. 9a is south of No. 9). On the other side of the street the compiler lists as ‘left from Brighton Road’, 5, 6, 7 and 8. This strongly suggests that No. 5 was at the Brighton Road end of the terrace.

The second piece of evidence is the names that the two houses that concern us were using by 1938: No. 5 was called Esplanade House and No. 8 (which between 1899 and at least 1923 had been known as Ormonde) was Wide Horizon – an apt name for the curved-balcony house at the sea-end, but an absurdity for the house at the Brighton Road end, whose view since about 1898 had been only of other houses and a short stretch of Brighton Road.

These three pieces of evidence proved all but conclusively that No. 5 had been the house at the northern end of the terrace, on the corner of Brighton Road.

Importantly, there was nothing to contradict this conclusion in the evidence from Marie Stopes’s diary account of a conversation she had with Bosie on 18 March 1939:

He told us that they [Wilde and Douglas] were staying in rooms with a balcony in Worthing. The house was then called, I think, the Haven, and Lord Alfred had recently been down and found it, though the name of the street and the house have both been changed. But he found an old fisherman who remembered it [the house] under its old name. The beautiful large room he and Wilde had, had been spoiled by partitioning, but otherwise the house was unchanged.

(There are a couple of minor oddities here – Bosie’s having apparently said that he and Wilde were ‘staying in rooms’; and the somewhat misleading concept that he and Wilde ‘had’ a beautiful large room. These must be due either to Marie Stopes’s misremembering some of the conversation when she wrote up her diary, or to Bosie’s having air-brushed Wilde’s family holiday of 1894 out of the picture in order to put himself at the heart of the period when The Importance of Being Earnest was being written. In addition, the word ‘recently’ is a little puzzling, since, as the caption to illustration 24 in the centre of this book indicates – the information comes from John Stratford, the Literary Executor of Lord Alfred Douglas – the photograph of Bosie in front of the Haven was taken in 1936, and therefore he had tracked down the house by then. The two visits were probably one and the same.)

We know that by 1939 the house was no longer called the Haven – indeed the name seems to have disappeared early in the twentieth century – so Bosie’s experience of the changed house-name makes sense. As for the street-name change, Bosie’s puzzlement at the time of his 1939 visit was presumably due to the fact that, as we have seen, two of the Esplanade blocks (houses 1-4) – although not the block where Wilde’s house was – had been given Brighton Road addresses and numbers. Since Bosie could not find his way to the Esplanade without asking directions, it is evident that his memory of the location after forty-five years was in any case somewhat hazy.

The beautiful large room with the balcony to which Bosie refers might seem a good match for the curved-balconied house at the sea-end of the block, but the pictures of the Esplanade terrace in the centre of this book show that all the other houses had balconies accessible from the second floor. In addition, by the time of the 1923 edition of Kelly’s Directory, No. 5 consisted of ‘apartments’, and the conversion of the house into flats would almost certainly have involved alterations, including the partitioning to which Bosie referred.

At the same time as my research was taking place at Worthing Library, another important clue was on its way. Donald Mead, editor of The Wildean, had mentioned a photograph in the possession of John Stratford, Treasurer of the Oscar Wilde Society. Donald knew that this photograph, taken in the early nineteen-forties by the actor Donald Sinden, showed Bosie at the Esplanade, but did not know in front of which house it showed him standing. This piece of additional evidence would be invaluable, since Bosie’s position in the photograph – while it could not in itself serve as total proof – would be a very strong indication.

It seemed appropriate to pass on to Donald Mead the conclusions generated by the research at Worthing Library before either of us had sight of the Bosie photograph. I therefore e-mailed him to say that the evidence of the investigation appeared to have established beyond doubt that the Haven had been the house at the northern end of the west-facing terrace on the corner of Brighton Road. We then awaited the arrival of the photograph, in the hope that the often ambivalent Bosie had stood unambiguously in front of a specific house – and that it was the same house that all the other evidence suggested must have been the Haven.

As is shown by the photograph in question – which is reproduced by kind permission of the estate of Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie did not fail us. Everything hung together.

Quod erat demonstrandum.