From ‘Disorderly Persons’ to Drag Queens – A Look At Gender Identity Across Three Centuries – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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From ‘Disorderly Persons’ to Drag Queens – A Look At Gender Identity Across Three Centuries

We continue to celebrate Pride Month here at the British Newspaper Archive with this special blog exploring gender identity from the 1700s right up until the 1960s. Using newspapers taken from three different centuries, this blog will show how gender identity has always been fluid, and how members of the LGBTQ community have faced both persecution and prosecution for expressing their identity through how they dressed and presented themselves.

‘Extraordinary Discovery – A Woman Dressed in Man’s Clothes’ | Illustrated Police News | 2 November 1872

This blog will focus on cross-dressing elements of identity, as reported in our newspapers. Of course, it is impossible to label these figures from the past as drag queens or transgender women, but by wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, these past pioneers directly challenged the status quo. In doing so, they endangered themselves in a multitude of ways, opening themselves up to attacks by the mob and media, and ultimately imprisonment.

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Eighteenth Century – ‘Loose Disorderly Persons’

Early mentions of cross-dressing in our Archive come from reports of civil unrest. In 1727, the Ipswich Journal reports how ‘Turnpikes were found again entirely demolished, and since that three more by Persons in disguise, being dressed in Women’s Clothes.’ Over ten years later, in 1739, the Caledonian Mercury reports how one James Steven, an excise officer in Cumnock, had been attached by ‘about 20 mobbish People in Women’s Clothes,’ who relieved him of a ‘Quantity of Brandy’ which he had just seized.

‘Dynamiters’ disguise themselves in women’s clothing | Illustrated London News | 7 February 1885

In this instance, the wearing of women’s clothes is not an expression of gender identity, rather perhaps as a practical means of disguise, or a further act of rebellion. In the next century, Wales was home to the Rebecca Riots, where farmers dressed as women and attacked toll booths in protest to perceived unfair taxation. Donning female clothes in this way represents rebellion, a nod even to anarchy, and a clear assault to the status quo that protesters wished to overthrow.

But we can seen elsewhere those in the eighteenth century who were clearly subverting gender norms. Take for example the case of Daniel Sullivan and Susannah Carter, as reported in the Stamford Mercury in 1746. These two were committed to Bridewell as ‘loose disorderly Persons, being found together about Twelve o’Clock…in the Parish of St Paul Covent-Garden, in Disguise, the Man in Woman’s Cloathes, and the Woman in Man’s Clothes.’

Stamford Mercury | 27 November 1746

The use of the word ‘disorderly’ at the time had connotations of sexual deviance, and was also suggestive of prostitution. Sullivan and Carter faced arrest for how they presented themselves, but also ‘for assaulting and beating the Watchman in the Execution of his Duty.’

Meanwhile, this paragraph appeared in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette in 1764:

Tuesday Evening, about Eleven O’Clock, one John Gill was apprehended in a Coach in the Strand, dressed in Women’s Clothes extremely gay, his outside Petticoat trimmed with Silver Lace, which the Mob tore in Pieces, with Earrings, a Bracelet, &c and being carried Yesterday Morning before Sir John Fielding, he not giving a good Account of himself, and no body appearing to his Character, was committed to Clerkenwell Bridewell as a disorderly Person. He goes by the Name of Miss Beasly about Devereux-Court, and is strongly suspected to belong to a Gang of infamous Miscreants.

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette | 26 July 1769

John Gill, or Miss Beasly, faced not only the wrath of the mob but notorious magistrate Sir John Fielding, brother of Tom Jones author and fellow magistrate Henry Fielding. The suspicion of their belonging to ‘a Gang of infamous Miscreants’ perhaps ties them to those who frequented London’s Molly Houses, which you can read about here. Misunderstood and friendless, attacked by the mob, John Gill was left to languish in prison, a tragic chapter in LGBTQ history.

Victorian and Edwardian ‘Rogues and Vagabonds’

By the Victorian era, so-called ‘women personators’ Ernest ‘Stella’ Boulton and Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park were making headlines. Their very conspicuous cross-dressing, at theatres and the races, at popular haunts such as the Burlington Arcade, made them a target for law enforcement. However, in their sensational trial, which you can read about here, they were acquitted of their charge (which did not relate to their cross-dressing, but rather related to incitement to commit acts of homosexuality), as dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex was not actually illegal.

Boulton and Park’s dressing room | Illustrated Police News | 21 May 1870

But as our newspapers bear out, men who flouted gender norms often saw themselves go up against the law on other charges.

Reynold’s Newspaper in 1894 describes the case of Leo Lo Breton, a nineteen-year-old Russian (or Pole, depending on the source). He appeared at Malborough Street Police Court, ‘wearing a rich velvet cloak and a large Gainsborough hat of similar material.’ He had attracted the attention of Police Constable Tierney, who saw him ’embrace a gentleman who was passing him in Vigo Street,’ and then later saw him walking down Regent Street in ‘a state of intoxication, and followed by a crowd.’

It was only upon Le Breton’s arrest that it was found he ‘was masquerading as a woman.’ Lo Breton passed off his attire as a bet, claiming that his brother had wagered him £5, saying that he ‘could not walk up Regent-street [dressed as he was] without being collared.’ But other police constables gave evidence at the hearing that Lo Breton had been seen at other times dressed in woman’s clothing. Lo Breton was charged with being ‘drunk and disorderly’ (that word again), and rather harshly, bail was denied.

‘A Piccadilly ‘Joke’ – A Man in Woman’s Clothes’ | Illustrated Police News | 24 April 1897

At the turn of the century, one Edward Cole, ‘attired in female dress, effeminate in bearing, voice, and countenance, and keeping his hands in a muff’ appeared at the Clerkenwell Sessions. According to the Dundee Evening Post German born Cole had been arrested in Oxford Street, ‘masquerading in female attire.’ But this was not Cole’s crime, he had kept ‘disreputable houses in the West End, where sliding panels and screens were so placed to facilitate robberies.’

Cole had also ‘associated with blackmailers,’ and when he was arrested he was allegedly trying to lure ‘elderly and intoxicated persons into dark places,’ presumably to rob them. The judge labelled Cole a ‘rogue and a vagabond,’ sentencing him to twelve months’ hard labour.

The story of Edward Cole demonstrates the perceived ties between cross-dressing and crime, and perhaps his cross-dressing in the eyes of a 1901 audience and courtroom made him all the more villainous. But Cole was not alone, for our newspapers abound with stories of men dressing as women. Like Cole and Le Breton, Henri Muller was another foreigner who appeared in court presenting as a woman. A typical British audience would have looked on foreigners with suspicion, linking them with sexual excess and deviance.

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser | 22 August 1906

Muller, according to the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, was a homeless French tailor, who had been ‘charged with importuning men in Oxford-street while dressed as woman.’ The report details Muller’s ‘very womanlike pose,’ and how he ‘would not have been taken for a man except on very close scrutiny.’ Muller, like Cole, was charged with being a ‘rogue and a vagabond’ and sentenced to six months’ hard labour.

First World War – Masculinity at War

We find a trio of fascinating reports in the year 1915, a year into the First World War. The First World War would, of course, have a devastating impact on the young men of Britain, many losing their lives, or suffering from life-changing injuries. It is therefore fascinating to read these descriptions of men rejecting traditional notions of masculinity, at a time when masculinity was placed under the microscope and sent out to war.

In March 1915, the Hull Daily Mail ran the headline ‘A Miner Dressed as a Woman.’ One Frederick Brady had been charged at Blyth for frequenting ‘the streets dressed as a woman for an unlawful purpose,’ having been seen ‘accosting soldiers in the street.’ When arrested, Brady gave their name as Josephine, and they were ‘dressed completely in fashionable female attire,’ with a powdered face. The magistrate took a dim view of Brady’s subverting of the gender norms, and sentenced them to three months’ hard labour, this being a ‘serious case.’

Some months later, again in the North East, Robert Coulthard appeared at Gateshead Police Court ‘attired as a woman, with a low-cut blouse, tastefully arranged hair, and a large black hat with a long blue veil’ (Newcastle Journal). And although Robert was charged with being an ‘alleged thief,’ it is their lifestyle which is put under the spotlight.

Newcastle Journal | 2 August 1915

Presenting them-self as Jenny Moore, Robert had previously been convicted of keeping a ‘disorderly house.’ In their own house, police discovered that there ‘was not a single article of male attire,’ and several ‘amorously phrased’ letter addressed to ‘Dear Jenny’ were found. The article it seems loses sight of the crime alleged at Robert, and interrogates their way of life instead. Indeed, the Mayor demands of them ‘Why do you do it?’ after Robert had informed the court they had dressed in female clothes all of their life. Poignantly, Robert did not answer the question.

Meanwhile, in October 1915, Rifleman Edwin Mason of the King’s Liverpool Regiment appeared in court at Dover. As described in the Belfast News-Letter, they had arrived in the town ‘wearing a brown wig and dressed in a lady’s attire.’ Registering under the names of Ethel Smith and Queenie Mason at different lodging houses, a Scotland Yard detective soon became suspicious of then. But again, Mason’s charges did not relate to their cross-dressing, rather wartime Alien Acts which meant that Mason should not have been in Dover. We wonder, however, if Mason would have been dealt with more tolerantly if they had not been presenting as a woman.

And as men between the ages of 18 and 40 were conscripted for the war effort, female dress became a possible means of escape. Alfred G Dunn, according to the Coventry Evening Telegraphhad tried to dress ‘as a woman in order to evade military service.’ His attempt failed, he was fined £2 and handed over to the military.

1930s and 1940s – ‘Escape From a Tragic Past’

As we move into the twentieth century, we find some particularly moving accounts of cross-dressing, which illustrate how for many it was a means of emotional escape.

One such story relates to Albert Tattersall, who appeared in court in 1931 accused of ‘loitering for a supposed unlawful purpose while dressed as a woman.’ The Liverpool Echo describes their initial appearance in court, wearing a ‘thin dress, with a black cloche-hat, brown coat trimmed with fur, light-coloured silk stockings, and yellow suede gloves.’

Tattersall had been confronted by one Detective White, who had asked them if they were a man. Tattersall had become ‘indignant’ and had told the detective to go away. The tragedy at the heart of the story is evidenced by the testimony of Mrs Annie Downes, who Tattersall had approached in the ladies’ bathroom of a department store. According to Mrs Downes, Tattersall had said to her: ‘I am rather lonely, will you come with me and have a cup of coffee?’

The Honourable John Hugo Russell, who often dressed as a woman | Sunday Mirror | 23 July 1922

Indeed, far from ‘masquerading as a woman for an unlawful purpose,’ Tattersall had adopted women’s clothes as a means of escape. Dr A A Macondonald, an assistant medical officer at Strangeways prison, gave the following testimony:

I believe this masquerading was form of escape from the worry. When he dressed himself up he felt better in his mind for a few days, and he continued the performance. He is exceedingly sorry, and promises that he will never repeat it again. He is a very respectable and intelligent man, and feels his position deeply.

Tattersall, described as a ‘wealthy cotton salesman,’ fared better than their predecessors. They were let off, the magistrate explaining the charge of ‘masquerading as a woman…was not an offence in English law.’ But Tattersall was not alone in cross-dressing to escape the realities of his everyday life.

In 1942, George Marsh faced similar charges at Bath Police Court, as detailed in the Western Gazette – loitering with intent. Marsh had also been dressed as a woman, and upon their arrest protested ‘that he wore female attire for the pleasure he got out of it and not for any improper purpose.’

Western Gazette | 27 November 1942

Again, the doctor giving evidence at the hearing, Dr Charles Gibson, alluded to the escapism that Marsh achieved: ‘It is clear that this ‘dressing up’ became an escape from his tragic past.’ Marsh had lost all of their money twenty years before, and Gibson, sparing no punches, describes their life as a ‘miserable failure.’ Marsh himself states:

Putting on female clothes gives me a sense of refreshment after a hard day’s work. It is a stimulant to me, and gives me energy. I never feel lazy or despondent or miserable, when I am dressed as a woman.

In what the Chairman of the court deemed as a ‘very, very sad case,’ all charges were dismissed. But what perhaps is sadder is the attitude that both Tattersall and Marsh suffered from some kind of disorder, and how they were misunderstood, preyed upon for being different, although the legal system did eventually exonerate them of any wrongdoings.

1960s and Beyond – Something Worthwhile

In the September of 1969, the Kensington Post published the following piece:

Sunday was the day North Kensington forgot some of its troubles. It was the day the people poured out of their basements and bed-sits and flocked in their thousands into the streets.
But it wasn’t a demonstration against anything: rather for something – peace, race relations, friendships – call it what you will, it was certainly something worth while.

This, of course, is one of the early incarnations of the Notting Hill Carnival, a response to the strained race relations of the 1960s. And chief amongst the participants was Roosevelt Baptiste, ‘dressed in drag with a ginger wig, grinning hugely.’ And Baptiste was not arrested on some trumped up charge – he was there at the very front of the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating that huge solidarity between the LGBTQ and Civil Rights movements that blossomed from the 1960s and beyond.

Baptiste’s appearance in drag at the 1969 Notting Hill Carnival promoting hope and joy is profoundly moving – a ray of light after all the long years of persecution faced by members of the LGBTQ community, who faced censure for simply expressing themselves. And although their stories are shrouded by reporting reflecting the attitudes of the day, their legacy shines through the pages of the British Newspaper Archive, and we are committed to telling their stories, and making sure that they are not forgotten.

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