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]

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