As children, Ted Coryton and Katie Spencer’s visits to see their country squire godfather at his lavish Jacobean ancestral home were the highlights of their annual holidays.
Throughout the 1950‘s and 1960’s the siblings visited Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, their cousin once removed and a distinguished historian and author, at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. Upon his death in 1969, he generously bequeathed the 17th Century mansion and its acres of woodland park to the National Trust.
So, it was with surprise that his godchildren last week discovered that the National Trust “outed” the lifelong bachelor as gay to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The organisation even produced a film called The Unfinished Portrait, narrated by Stephen Fry, as part of its Prejudice and Pride programme highlighting the previously secret lives of the lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender occupants of its properties.
But, Mr Coryton, 70, and his sister, Mrs Spencer, 78, are now demanding to know what clear proof the Trust has that their godfather, known as “Bun”, was homosexual. And, more importantly, if he was gay what right the organisation has to “out” someone who chose to keep his sexuality secret, even after it was decriminalised in 1967.
The siblings, from Cornwall, along with another godson, Tristram Powell, from London, believe the move represents a betrayal that could have serious implications for future legacies to the Trust.
“It is simply so hurtful,” Mrs Spencer, 78, said. “It is outrageous and totally unnecessary. The National Trust has done this to get publicity to get people to visit the hall and make money.
“I personally didn’t think there was any suggestion he was gay. The first I heard was when I was shown the article in the Telegraph about the Trust’s film. I would like to know what proof they actually have. I think Bun would have felt betrayed by the National Trust. He was a fascinating man, a brilliant historian and biographer, and that was how he would want to be remembered. His sexuality was a private matter and should remain so.”
Mr Coryton added: “There was no indication to me that he was gay. I never saw anyone at the house to suggest he had a relationship with anyone.
“Wyndham was simply the perfect country gentleman. I really feel that the National Trust is now trying to get cheap publicity and is using this campaign to market their houses. It is despicable. He gave them his family home and they should respect his right to privacy. I wouldn’t mind at all if he was gay. But, if he didn’t announce it, why should does the National Trust think it has the right to pry into his past and say he is gay.”
Professor Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester who was commissioned by the National Trust to look into Wyndham’s life said his team “engaged deeply” with the ethical issues surrounding their research, adding “many who knew him well knew he was homosexual, he had to exercise caution because he lived when gay men were prosecuted”.
Rather than “outing” him 48 years after his death, he believes they “addressed the absence of openness” about sexuality at that time. He said he spoke to four local people who lived near the Felbrigg Hall who said the late squire’s homosexuality was an open secret. He also cited an extract from a biography about Sir John Betjeman that referred to Wynhdam as an openly homosexula close friend while they studied at Oxford University together.
”We have the same proof as anyone would require to talk about someone’s heterosexuality – first hand accounts in reliable published sources and from those who knew him,” Professor Sandell said.
In a letter to the The Telegraph, Mr Powell, 77, wrote that Wynhdam’s homosexuality was “incidental” and the Trust’s decision to “out” him “for its own commercial reasons” was “mean-spirited – another kind of intolerance”.
It was a claim the National Trust rejected, adding that the Prejudice and Pride project was an attempt to “explore the histories of places which have been shaped by people who challenged norms of gender and sexuality and to remove the inherited censorship which is a barrier to our understanding and appreciation of our national heritage”.
Wyndham also served as a magistrate, wrote a book about the history of Felbrigg Hall, as well as biographies of Robert Walpole and Thomas Gray.