Rivers’ Sexuality


*I wish to state that I do not dislike or have any prejudice against people of any sexuality. I have no wish to offend any reader

This section exists because I have received several queries from students as to whether William Rivers was homosexual and whether this would have any bearing up his work with / his treatment of the soldiers.. It is difficult to see how Rivers’ private life matters but since it appears to be the subject of much debate, it needs perhaps to be discussed here.
Was Rivers gay? Many authors have come down on the side of ‘yes’ but there is very little evidence other than authors ‘assuming’ (Jon Forrester – The English Freud) from circumstantial evidence Rivers’ lifestyle or the fact he was ‘nuturant’, and the way he worded his work. Being quiet, studious and unmarried has no more bearing on a persons’ sexuality any more that being a tough, rowdy, married action man disbars him from being gay: Sassoon is a wonderfully apt example: ‘despite’ his love for country pursuits and receiving a medal for taking an enemy trench single-handed,  being a ‘War Hero’ AND getting married, we now know he was homosexual.

Sassoon does of course provide his own bone of contention for the debate, and we will examine that in a while. For now we must turn to another young man, a student who Rivers met at St John’s College : John Layard. Layard would in time become a respected scientist in his own right but at this time he was a young man, struggling with his own undecided sexuality, as his journal suggests. This torturing of his mind began to affect both his health and work and Rivers became concerned. Whilst they were working together overseas, it appears that Rivers tackled him to find out what the problem was and tried to help the boy settle his mind. Unfortunately Rivers did not find speaking about the subject comfortable, and this led Layard to believe Rivers  wished to become sexually involved with him.
Rivers did not. Whether Layard made any kind of approach which was rejected is not known , but certainly, when Rivers left soon afterwards, Layard was bitter enough to make remarks about his tutor in his journal, claiming Rivers left because he couldn’r cope with references to his own true sexuality. Rivers’ answer was that he was already expected elsewhere, to complete a task already arranged some months before but the rumours persisted.

Decades later letters from around that era between Haddon and Rivers have also been held up as containing incontestable evidence. One correspondent had written of the two’s ‘intimacy’. The word was jumped upon immediately by those who wished to further the pro argument – the cause unfortunately falls to pieces when you examine how the word was used at the time – ;intimacy’ did not necessarily imply that sexual emotion was involved – it could also mean that they were friends of sometime standing and knew one another, and perhaps each others families as well. One can  equally point out that Rivers and Head were ‘intimate’, since they were close friends of long-standing . Rivers, incidently, was friends with Head’s wife, Ruth independently from that with her husband.

Bordering further is the  theory that Rivers must be gay because he became very close to Sassoon, and Sassoon was gay.. First of all, Sassoon was still unsure of his sexuality and battling it when he arrived at Craiglockhart hospital for officers and he would have had too much more going on in his mind, to be thinking of his doctor in that way. He admitted he liked Rivers immediately, but because he felt he could explain his position as regards the war to the man without being ridiculed or berated, not because he found him attractive. Through the time Sassoon was treated there, his bond with Rivers became stronger .It seems Rivers represented a father–figure to him, a replacement for his real father who’d left when he was seven years old. Rivers, though having no children of his own was used to the young soldiers regarding him in that way whilst he encouraged them back to health and confidence,  but did find Sassoon to be something of a surrogate son. Sassoon’s case was one of the most difficult Rivers had dealt with, and their long discussions during that difficult time made them closer but nothing produced by either suggest the relationship took on any sexual form. A few bits and pieces – a word here or there have been cited in one of Sassoon’s poems but one gets the impression that these were pointed out merely by people determined to seek out something .

It could well be the case that a man, brought up to repress finer feelings, did not feel comfortable with the notion of asking a woman out, or how to act around her. He might well even be asexual. Apart from his sisters, Rivers, as a Don once remarked that he “wished he had spent more with women”

There is much material to use on either side of the argument but instead of my own conclusion, however, upon the subject, I am offering for consideration a quote from a man Rivers treated, as was kindly sent to me by his niece, Mrs G M Gathercole*

“After reading your section concerning the sexuality of William Halse Rivers Rivers, I was astonished to see how much your words echoed those of my late Uncle who was treated by him all those years ago” Mrs Gathercole wrote. “I was studying sciences at university at the time a book came out which our lecturer thought stated that the Dr had definitely been gay, and he made some disrespectful remarks both concerning gay people and the work of the Doctor. Knowing my uncle was treated at Maghull and met Rivers there, I sent him a letter asking the truth. His rely left me, my tutor and fellow students in no doubt what he thought of the remarks.. Here are the most relevant printable sections, which I give you permission to include on your site, since Uncle felt so strongly about the topic
“If that’s the same Doctor Rivers that treated me at Maghull, then its daft – there’s no way he was ‘batting for the other side’ and using that with us soldiers. We had two officers like that in our company and, I’ve got nothing against them; they were good chaps, and, well, I’m sure he wasn’t (homosexual). If he had been he wouldn’t have taken advantage or anything like that; he was a man that had proper principles. I liked him – he didn’t talk down to us like some doctors and he never disbelieved that we were ill.
Anyway, one day when I was being examined, I mention to him that I was meant to get married soon He shook my hand and gave a ‘congratulations’, asked me about my ‘intended’ so I asked him if he was married. Most doctors you couldn’t do that but he didn’t mind. He said no, because he didn’t think it fair for a man with his state of health and lifestyle to take any woman as a wife. He was ill a great deal and spent a lot of time when he was well abroad or deep in his work at the college. ‘What type of life would that be for a wife?’ he asked me, but not like he wanted an answer”

NB, it is interesting to note that neither of Rivers’ sisters married either
*(Many thanks to Mrs Gathercole for her contribution and permission to include this piece on the site. She has asked me, for family reasons, not to reveal the details of her uncle other than to say he was in a ‘King’s Regiment’ and treated at Maghull in late 1915 or early 1916, initially labelled as NYDN )