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Rupert Buxton

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Rupert Buxton in 1920
Rupert Buxton in 1920

Rupert Erroll Victor Buxton (May 10, 1900 – May 19, 1921) was a close friend of Michael Llewelyn Davies at Oxford University, and apparently his lover. He and Michael drowned together in 1921.



Rupert was the seventh (and last) child of Sir Thomas Fowell Victor Buxton, 4th Baronet. His great-great-grandfather, the first "Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Baronet", led the movement in Parliament that abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833. For that, not only was he made a hereditary Baronet at the time, he currently appears (in a group portrait) on the back of the English £5 note. Rupert's great-grandfather, Sir Edward North Buxton, 2nd Baronet, was a Labour Party Member of Parliament. Rupert's grandfather (another "Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton") was appointed Governor of South Australia (a ceremonial position) for four years. His father (4th Baronet, with a Victor added to the names he shared with his father and great-grandfather) was also an MP and was appointed High Sheriff of Essex. Upon the death of "Sir Victor" in 1919, Rupert's eldest brother became "Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, 5th Baronet"; as the sixth son, Rupert had never stood much chance of inheriting the title.

As you might guess from all this, the Buxton family were wealthy, and they had fine houses in both London and rural Essex. Between the first Sir Thomas' brewery (one of the largest in the world in his time) and their inherited property, their fortune was worth millions of pounds in modern terms.


Rupert attended Summer Fields prep school in Oxford. He began writing poetry at the age of 8. His early efforts were appropriately childlike exercises in rhyming and meter, expressing naïve thoughts, but by the age of 12 he was expressing more insightful and imaginative thoughts with some complexity. He also learned to play the piano and organ.

At the age of 12, Rupert ran his bicycle at high speed into a light carriage, sustaining a serious head injury. Apparently there was no harm done to his intellect, but he did suffer severe headaches later, and possibly memory difficulties and depression. He also described emotional responses to color that may have been a form of synesthesia.


When he was 14, Rupert won a scholarship to Harrow School in London. He eventually held the authoritative position of head boy, which gave him the privilege of flogging any students he deemed appropriate, but he very deliberately never took advantage of it. He wrote, "If you treat a man like a criminal, when he isn't one, naturally he is inclined to become one!" Following the example of his parents and forebears (in addition to the slave-freeing business, the family had a tradition of supporting evangelical mission work), he had a keen interest in social reform and conservation of natural resources. One of Rupert's pet causes was the London Association for the Blind; he had a chalky build-up on his eye for which he had surgery when he was 20.

Rupert's most ambitious poem was written during this time: The Pilgrimage of Thala, A Legend, a 24-stanza narrative about a boy making his way – through drowning – from the darkness of life to the presence of God.

In a mysterious incident on Sunday, December 1, 1918, he received an unsigned letter at the house where he stayed at Harrow, advising him to be at a certain place at a specific time that evening. "Your help is needed," it ended. He went, and did not return to the house that night. On Monday, a letter arrived in the same handwriting, explaining vaguely that "his brains were needed". It concluded ominously, "Ill if he refuses, well if he agrees." A telegram signed "Rupert" was sent Monday night from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, nearly 300 miles away, saying that he would be on the train arriving in London from Newcastle on Tuesday evening. He arrived as promised, exhausted, and received medical care afterward at a London hotel. The incident was reported in The Times of London, with a brief follow up the next month attributing his condition to the stress of his duties as head boy and preparing for exams to attend Oxford. No account of what really happened was ever published. He did not return to Harrow.

Rupert was too young to be called into the military in the World War, but had friends who served and died. His brother Jocelyn was lost in the carnage of the battle of the Somme in 1916 at the age of 20, and his brother Maurice – a year and a half older than him – survived the war but died of pneumonia in August 1919. Meanwhile, their father had died following a freak accident in May 1919: he was run over by his own new motorcar as he and a servant were trying to figure out how to operate it. The family was also losing much of their fortune to newly progressive land taxes intended to fight the economic inequities caused by hereditary wealth.


After leaving Harrow, Rupert studied at Cambridge University, but started at Christ Church, Oxford in the fall of 1919. He was depressed at first, but became friends with Michael Llewelyn Davies, and apparently his mood improved. The two were inseparable, spending time both at the university and on holiday together. In March 1920 they went on a hiking expedition from Chichester to Beachy Head (about 60 miles) in the South Downs, and for Easter 1921 they traveled together to Dorset, in southwest England on the Channel.

Rupert and Michael shared a love for poetry, and Rupert had an interest in theatre, a profession Michael obviously had numerous ties to. He was one of the few of Michael's friends whom Barrie reported getting along with; Rupert apparently considered any friend of Michael's to naturally be a friend of his, and even made a point of arranging to have dinner with Barrie, just the two of them.

In a 1976 interview, Michael's friend Robert Boothby (by then a retired Conservative Party politican) reported that Michael had a sexual relationship with Rupert. Boothby recalled discouraging their friendship, warning Michael of "a feeling of doom" he had about Rupert. Rupert's other friends and family remembered him much more warmly, as documented in Rupert Buxton: A Short Life, an essay by Nicholas McAuley. Nico reacted to Boothby's comments with surprise, remembering Rupert as a positive influence, and speculating that Boothby's opinion was clouded by jealousy. (Boothby was bisexual.)

Rupert took a trip partway down the Nile in the Summer of 1920, from Uganda to Khartoum in Sudan (the branch known as the White Nile), perhaps intended by his family to spark an interest in the missions they supported in Africa. Although he enjoyed the trip, he was glad to return to England. Instead he developed an interest in cinema, investing money into a production in which he was also acting.


Rupert and Michael drowned together on May 19, 1921, in Sandford Pool, a body of water formed by a weir near Sandford Lock. The Oxford Magazine published the following in an obituary for the pair: "Two House men whose loss would have been more widely and more deeply mourned, it would be impossible to find. They were intimate friends, and in their death they were not divided. It is we who must learn to live without them."

The closeness of Michael and Rupert, combined with the uncertain circumstances of their death, has led to speculation that the pair died in a suicide pact. The Sandford Pool was well known as a drowning hazard (there were warning signs, and a conspicuous memorial for previous victims) and the pair had gone swimming there before. The water was 20-30 feet deep, but calm. Rupert was a good swimmer, but Michael had a fear of water and could not swim effectively. A witness at the coroner's inquest reported that one man was swimming to join the other, who was sitting on a stone on the weir, but he experienced "difficulties" and the other dived in to reach him. However, the witness also reported that when he saw their heads together in the water they did not appear to be struggling. Their bodies were recovered "clasped" together the next day.

The coroner's conclusion was that Michael had drowned accidentally, and that Rupert had drowned trying to save him. Much later, Nico dismissed the notion that it had been the other way around, because Michael wouldn't have been able to help Rupert, and knew it. Some later accounts report that their hands were tied to each other's, but this is probably either a misinterpretation of reports that they were found "clasped", or a misunderstanding upon seeing the rope used to pull their bodies from the water. Michael's brothers Peter and Nico each later acknowledged suicide as a possible explanation, as did Barrie. However Nico was skeptical of any dark motives, noting reports that the couple had boisterously invited others to come with them that day. Boothby described Rupert as having "an almost suicidal streak about him" and generally preferred either of two theories: that Michael had drowned in a desperate attempt to stop Rupert's suicide, or that Michael had been in trouble and Rupert impulsively joined him going under. But his opinion was colored by a dislike for Rupert, apparently resenting Michael's greater affection for him.

Rupert's brother Clarence named his next son after him.

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