The Victorian press were selective in the court business they reported. Crime news then, as is often the case today, reflected the concerns of society, the attitudes of the press (or at least its owners and editors), and catered for the amusement of the readership. This is why they so often filled their column inches with burglaries, domestic violence, unruly youth and, just occasionally, the bizarre. This story, from 1891, falls into the last category.
An elderly man, who refused to give his name when required to do so by the magistrate, caused quite a stir at Marlborough Street Police Court. He did tell the court he resided at Ormonde Street in Regent’s Park, that he was ‘of no occupation’ and was 65 year’s old. His ‘crime” (which is no crime in modern law) was to have been ‘found in female attire in Regent-street on the previous night’.
Detective Sergeant Scott had been on duty just after midnight when he saw what he took to be two ladies walking arm-in-arm along Regent’s Street in the direction of Oxford Street. At that time of night this is itself was probably unusual. But as he watched them DS Scott observed that one of them – dressed in ‘a light blue gown, a white cape with Medici collar, and a matador hat of black and amber, trimmed with parti-coloured pon-pons and streamers a yard long’ walked with a ‘peculiar gait’.
A nearby woman (who was not English) gestured to the policeman and said “My Got! that voman is a man; look how he vorks”.
As he gave his evidence the courtroom echoed to peals of laughter. The detective approached the pair and raised the skirts of the unusually perambulating ‘woman’. He saw she was wearing ‘ladies drawers and Paramatta boots’ and ‘her’ companion complained on her behalf: “What impertinence! Kindly leave the lady alone”.
But our doughty copper knew his duty and persevered. He resumed his search and found the disguise continued up the legs. Eventually he pulled up her heavy veil and revealed ‘false hair on the forehead and a moustache’. Finally he whipped off the woman’s hat (despite the protests of her friend) to show a ‘veritable bald’ pate.
At this point the man confessed saying he had ‘donned female attire with the object of gaining some experience with the ladies of the West-end’, as he claimed to be about to deliver a lecture of women’s dress and fashion. His companion fled leaving him in the arms of the law.
The magistrate quizzed him and while he gave no name he said he was a published author. He went on to try and explain his bizarre choice of clothes, including the Spanish bullfighter’s hat and the cape (which he said was reminiscent of those worn at the court of Henry VIII). He added finally that he was a well known figure in the West End but the detective denied ever seeing him before.
While the audience in court found the whole story and the appearance of the ‘grotesque’ man hilarious the justice didn’t share their amusement; he remanded the poor old gentlemen for a week so the police could check his story.
Perhaps he was a writer doing his research but it is more likely he was cross-dressing but doing so in an age which had little tolerance for such ‘strange’ behaviour. Not for the first time am I pleased we live (hopefully) in a more enlightened epoch.
[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 28, 1891]