A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

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I often wonder what the Victorians would make of our society if they could visit it. I imagine they’d be both awed and shocked if they were able to time travel forward to 21stcentury London. Awed by the technology perhaps: the cars, neon lights, television, mobile phones. Shocked by what they would see as irreligion, immorality and a lack of deference.

Of course the idea that the Victorians were prudish and all went to church has been successfully challenged by historians but it remains a fact that they were more conservative and less tolerant of some behaviours than we are today. Homosexuality was made illegal in 1885, and men could be sent to prison for engaging in sexual relationships with other men, as Oscar Wilde was. Suicide was a crime and there was considerably less understanding of mental illness throughout the period. The criminal justice system was harsh: many more people were incarcerated for relatively minor property offences and the death penalty existed, and was used, for murderers.

The newspaper reports of the metropolitan Police Courts are an excellent way to peer into this world. To quote Hartley, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, and we can see this at Bow Street, Lambeth, Marylebone and all the other magistrate courts.

At the end of June 1886 two individuals were brought up at Lambeth Police court charged with begging. Begging remains an offence punishable under nineteenth-century legislation (the Vagrancy Act of 1824) but it no longer carries the risk of prison and is often ignored by the police unless it is aggressive or causing a particular nuisance. So while retain the power to prosecute beggars we rarely use it. Instead the emphasis is on helping those that beg, or (more cynically) in arguing about how best we should help them.

In 1886 there was a Mendicity Society; an organisation dedicated to the prevention of begging, especially by those it deemed to be imposters. I’ve written about them before  and their officers crop up frequently in cases that came to court. Joseph Boseley was one such officer and on the evening of Monday 28 June he was watching two beggars in Church Street, Camberwell.

Both appeared to be women and they held a Bible out to read from. As passers-by approached they would ask for a donation and if it was forthcoming they would reward the donor with a verse of scripture. However, if they were refused money, then, ‘as soon as the person walked on [they] made use of foul language to one another’. Boseley smelled a rat and he arrested them for impersonation.

Boseley knew this pair well and was watching them to gather sufficient evidence against them to prosecute. He knew also that they weren’t both women: one of them was a man dressed up as a woman, and this was assumed, I think, to be a ruse to separate pedestrians from their hard earned cash, as a pair of females asking for charitable donations to a ‘good cause’ seemed more believable.

In court the pair cut a sorry looking vision in the dock. Mary Ann Saunders was 55 and her partner, Henry Bennett ten years younger. Bennett was set in the dock still wearing ‘female clothing, with hat and ribbons, and hair hanging down his back’. When questioned he continued to speak in a high-pitched impersonation of a female voice, as he had being doing as he stood beside the kerb in Camberwell.

Boseley told the magistrate (Mr Biron) that there had been multiple complaints about the duo and that they ‘were old mendicants’. Saunders could often be seen pushing Bennett around in ‘a perambulator’, always dressed as a woman, and always begging for money. He saw them as a couple of charlatans who were entirely underserving of the public’s sympathy, let alone their money.

Today however, I wonder what we would make of them. Was Bennett merely donning female attire as a ruse to con people, or was he cross-dressing because he felt more comfortable in women’s clothes? We have only very recently begun to accept that gender is more fluid and the term ‘transgender’ wasn’t coined until 1971. In 1870 two men were put on trial for transvestism, but there was insufficient evidence to convict them.After 1885 men who dressed as women were sometimes prosecuted as homosexuals, again demonstrating a contemporary misunderstanding of those that cross gender boundaries.

The beginnings of attempts to understand transgender issues can be seen in the late nineteenth century but for a sympathetic understanding we have to wait till late into the twentieth century. Even now those that feel uncomfortable in the gender they were born into and who are brave enough to present themselves as the person they know and believe themselves to be can find it a very tough experience. We are only very slowly adjusting to the idea of all gender toilets and allowing people to be whom they want to be.

Was Henry Bennett ‘trans’? It is impossible to know of course. Mr Biron was convinced he was a beggar and said he would remand the pair for further enquiries. At this Bennett fainted in the dock, although the papers saw this as a yet another example of imposture and an opportunity to poke fun at him for the amusement of its readership. On the 9 July they were brought up again and the magistrate sent them both to prison for a month for begging, declaring them to be ‘rank imposters’.

As he was led away Bennett cried out: ‘A month, what for? I didn’t beg; I only give bits of scripture comfort’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 30, 1886; Reynolds’s, Sunday, July 11, 1886]

A woman who wanted to see the world through a man’s eyes

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Following yesterday’s story about a German man arrested for cross-dressing at King’s Cross, today’s story is of a woman who preferred to live as a man. While the German performer was perhaps simply a female impersonator, the subject of today’s blog appears to be much closer to the modern transgender community. Her story clearly excited those that heard it in 1868 and the editor of The Illustrated Police News gave it plenty of space.

One Saturday night in late March PC Bonner (35H) was walking his beat along Cable Street in the East End when he heard a woman singing. What he saw was a man however, and he approached ‘him’. When he was close enough, and allowing for the fact that it was dark, PC Bonner was able to discern that the singer was female even though she was dressed in a man’s clothes.

He arrested her, not for ‘assuming male attire’ but for begging, and took her back to the police station. On the Monday following she was produced at the Thames Police Court in front of the magistrate, Mr Benson.

Mary Walker was a 38 year-old woman with quite a story to tell. She had already been prosecuted several times and so was a familiar face at the police courts of the capital where she was known as the ‘female barman’. She had been to prison for robbing her master (a pub landlord) and presumably had struggled to find work since.

Using the names John Walker and John Thum she had sailed on a Cunard liner as a stoker and worked as a porter on the Great Western Railways, before on each occasion her sex was discovered and she was dismissed. Mary had once even proposed marriage to another woman. Mary (or John) was not living in a society that was prepared to accept her for what she was or what wanted to be. Historians have demonstrated that there was nothing new in what Mary (or countless men and women) was doing in the Victorian period; ‘people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries’ Jeanne de Montbaston tell us.

Gender had become more clearly defined in the Victorian period so while the pervious century had seen the exploits of the female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read the prevailing ideology of ‘separate spheres’ supposedly attempted to keep women as tightly constrained by societal norms as their were by their corsets.

Clearly for Mary Walker the laces were drawn far too tight.

She had been born in Bedfordshire, a largely rural county where any attempt at ‘being different’ would have attracted attention. At some point she chose to leave and pursue an alliterative life.

She told Mr Benson that it was then that she ‘indulged the foolish freak of changing her clothes. The desire to act the part of a man and to adopt the garb and condition of the sterner sex grew into a passion’. It was then she went to sea but her ‘sex was discovered by her shipmates’.

The magistrate asked her why she had ‘degraded her sex’ in this way? Why not simply take a position on a ship suited to women? Mary said that it was not possible, but in reality I suspect it was simply not what she wanted. Mary wanted the freedom that came with a  male persona, the freedom, as she put it, to fulfil her ‘desire of seeing foreign lands’.

Not surprisingly the magistrate called for medical expertise and Inspector Holloway of H Division said a surgeon had declared that she was ‘very much out of health’. Mary had also been in Elizabeth Fry’s Refuge at Hackney, and she didn’t want to be sent back there, because the conditions were too bleak. I rather suspect also that she would have found the regime too restrictive and the attempts of the matrons to enforce femininity claustrophobic.

The magistrate was clearly conflicted; he had little sympathy for her actions but she hadn’t committed a serious crime either. Her choice of a  lifestyle had, he stated, been too hard for the frailties of a woman and had left her in  a ‘lamentable condition’. He sent her to the House of Detention for a week, where he trusted she would be properly looked after.

The only place where women could safely assume the identity of a man was the stage and women like Vesta Tilley (pictured above) made a career out of it. Tilley appeared most famously as ‘Burlington Bertie’ as she trod the boards in the popular musical halls. This, of course, was a temporary reversal of gender identities and so allowed the Victorian and Edwardians to poke fun at each other gently in safety. That tradition continued through the 20th and 21st centuries with performers like Dick Emery and, more recently, David Walliams. Anyone, like Mary Walker, who actually wished to redefine her own gender was threatening.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this though, even in the ‘enlightened’ world of 2017 society remains fairly uncomfortable about those that wish to adopt a gender they find more comfortable and natural than the one they were born into.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 4, 1868]