The eccentric Oxford don, his Ardleigh Green mansion, and the gay sex defamation victory

Dr Harding was granted £300 damages

Dr Harding was granted £300 damages - Credit: Archant

Havering College’s busy Ardleigh Green campus seems a long way from the effete Oxford common rooms of Inspector Morse. But there is a connection.

Ardleigh House

Ardleigh House - Credit: Archant

Dr Thomas Harding Newman, heir to the 500-acre Nelmes estate (now Emerson Park) was a Fellow of Oxford’s Magdalen [pronounced “maudlin”] College.

Prof Ged Martin

Prof Ged Martin - Credit: Archant

In 1857, he moved back home to be near his ageing father, and built himself a small mansion called Hardley Lodge, after the nearby hamlet of Hardley Green.

When this was renamed Ardleigh Green, Dr Newman’s chocolate-box home became Ardleigh House.

The building has gone but it’s still the name of the local community association.

Dr Newman kept in contact with Oxford, even after becoming the squire of Nelmes.

Other academics thought him “very eccentric” - he must have been very odd indeed.

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Once, he had disguised himself as a tourist and hired a guide to show him around the colleges.

When they came to Magdalen, he ignored the guide’s protests and marched into the private common room.

Magdalen dons, he insisted, were famously generous, as he poured himself some port.

The terrified guide fled.

Dr Newman was a great collector.

The only known portrait of novelist Jane Austen hung in his Oxford rooms.

When Balliol College dumped its ancient timber gates, Dr Newman brought them to Nelmes.

In 1926, Balliol had second thoughts, and the historic gates returned to Oxford, where a plaque now recalls their Hornchurch exile.

A music lover, he also rescued a 17th century organ.

Dr Newman was a bachelor and, as a don, he took a friendly interest in young men.

Rumours flashed around Hornchurch that he was gay.

Victorian Britain was viciously homophobic, and the vicar, the Reverend Thomas Griffith, was deeply troubled.

How should he reply when Hornchurch’s musical schoolmaster innocently asked if it was safe for him “to tune Dr Newman’s organ”?

Himself an Oxford man, Griffith’s response to the rumours was ambiguous - indeed, two-faced.

On the one hand, he pressured Magdalen College to investigate Dr Newman’s conduct - but nobody alleged that he abused his position in the university.

At the same time, he urged Newman “as a friend” to clear his name - although it’s hard to prove that you don’t have a sex life.

In 1873, Dr Newman dramatically took the vicar’s advice: he sued Griffith for defamation.

It was a risky strategy. Homosexual playwright Oscar Wilde lost a similar case twenty years - and served three years in jail for gay sex.

The case was sensational, even hilarious - but Dr Newman won, netting a hefty £300 in damages.

As I don’t believe in ghosts, I doubt that his spirit wanders the Havering College campus.

But Thomas Harding Newman remains the unlikely link between the port decanters of bygone Oxford and the modern student world of Ardleigh Green.