If you were the president of a higher education institution, would you accept a substantial donation to endow a professorship on the condition that you also construct a tunnel between the professor’s lodgings and student accommodation so that students could visit the professor’s bedroom discreetly at night? This might seem an odd, and perhaps an ethically questionable, choice—certainly one that might come with considerable risk of public scandal. But this is precisely the bargain that Thomas Case, the president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, made with an American antiquities dealer, Edward Perry Warren, in the years before 1914. Case was a politically conservative Aristotelian philosopher; Warren believed that the central role of pederasty in ancient Athenian society meant that modern British men could and should pursue same-sex sex and relationships, not least in the context of educational institutions. Understanding the circumstances under which Case and Warren teamed up might help us to apprehend the role of ideas about desire and sex between men in Britain’s elite educational institutions, with consequences for how we continue to understand the significance of these institutions in the national culture today.
Like many Edwardian benefactors, Warren thought Oxford and Cambridge unlike other British universities—and therefore worth supporting financially—because their residential collegiate structure offered the possibility of intimate community-formation outside the bounds of the curriculum. Warren had known Case since he had been a student at Oxford in the 1880s, and in 1907 reached out to ask whether Case’s college might be interested in a major donation. It is not clear whether Case was aware of Warren’s views about the enduring merits of pederasty, though Warren was not exactly subtle: he lived with his long-term partner and several young men, and had made clear the reasons for his interest in ancient art to academic collaborators. There is no evidence to suggest Case shared Warren’s proclivities. But he had been for decades an outspoken conservative on two of the biggest issues in Oxford university politics: the admission of women and the abolition of what was known as “compulsory Greek” in the undergraduate curriculum. He saw in Warren an ally who could financially support his efforts against changes to which many in the university were becoming increasingly amenable.
By 1911, Warren committed to donating a third of the residue of his estate to Corpus. In 1927—perhaps influenced by the fact that he then spent the First World War living in college, and as a reaction against Oxford’s 1920 decisions to admit women to degrees and abolish compulsory Greek—he made a more specific provision. In a new will, he outlined a bequest of £30,000, the largest donation Corpus had received since the sixteenth century, establishing among other things a “Praelectorship,” or lectureship, in classics. The “Praelector” was to teach Greek and Latin, with a preference for Greek. He was only to teach students from Corpus, and never to do so “in the presence of any woman”; he was only to teach within the walls of the college, and must live within them as well, “it being my special desire that the Praelector… and the members of the college receiving his instruction shall as far as possible be in close contact and associate together.” Needless to say, “No woman shall at any time be eligible for the Praelectorship.” By establishing these conditions, Warren clearly intended his donation to advance Case’s preferred political ends.
But Case had died by this point. While his successor as president, P.S. Allen, and the rest of the college fellowship were delighted with these terms, Warren had also proposed a fund for the construction of an underground passage, linking the college’s original site to buildings it had recently acquired across the street. Allen thought this a quixotic and unnecessary bequest, which would be difficult and expensive to build. But Warren insisted that the passage was integral to his vision of classically-oriented college community: if it were necessary for space reasons to house the Praelector in the new buildings, the passage would mean that he and his students could easily reach each other at any time. He made clear that the future of the bequest rested on the college beginning construction.
Even in an era when colleges locked their gates at sundown in order to keep their students away from pubs and mixed company, Warren’s insistence looks suspicious. Knowing what Warren believed about sex between older men and adolescents being a key part of the high culture of the classical world, it is difficult not to impute questionable motives to the passage. Did Allen, or other college fellows, suspect the same? Managing single-sex schools and colleges in this period entailed a careful dance between tacit acceptance of and policing of same-sex intimacy; educators who had been through the same institutional system as their charges would not have been innocent of the potential for sexual contact and more serious intimate relationships to flourish within their institutions. But to Case and Allen, the risk of a scandal might have seemed worth the money, and the opportunity to stake out a position for Corpus against curricular and demographic change in the university.
Warren died the following year, and the tunnel was never built. It posed so many engineering challenges that the city council refused to grant planning permission. By the time Corpus admitted women in the 1970s, the Sex Discrimination Act had invalidated the gender bar on Warren’s bequest; the current Praelector is, for the first time, a woman.
It is easy to laugh at Warren. But to dismiss him merely as an eccentric or a sex pest risks missing out the insights he might afford into the histories of higher education and elite masculinity in modern Britain. First, he reminds us that the history of education involves not only teachers and students, but other actors—administrators, donors—and their ideological investments in how institutions are structured and funded, which then shape the conditions of teaching, research, and student life. The history of education is political, and often shaped by identity politics.
Second, Warren’s story offers new insights into the history of male homosexuality in Britain and its connection with elite single-sex educational institutions. Historians, including myself, have previously emphasized the importance to the emergence of male homosexual identities of figures such as John Addington Symonds ,who promoted ideas about homoeroticism that de-emphasized sexual intercourse. But new research is showing that sex was more important to how early-twentieth-century elite men conceptualized and negotiated homoeroticism and homosexuality than has previously been supposed. In certain institutional contexts, among certain socioeconomic groups, and at certain moments in the life-cycle, homoeroticism and homosexuality in Britain have been, even if criminalized, also normal and normative. In spending his latter years living in rooms in an Oxford college while privately circulating writings defending a classicized conception of pedagogic eros, Warren was not so unusual as one might imagine. Furthermore, he found a home in an Oxford college because his reactionary and misogynistic views seemed more important to the administrators of that college than his potential to attract scandal.
Warren’s case, then, opens up a new field of thinking about the cultural significance that elite educational institutions such as Oxford have had for modern British politics and culture. Historians who work on subjects like the history of gender and sexuality can help to grapple—in a complex and ethically-fraught way—with the outsize role such institutions have played in British society and the hold they continue, for good or ill, to have over our imaginations today.
This is the first article in a new series, The Historical Locker Room, which explores homosociality – same sex social bonds – in historical context.