Cross-dressing in Victorian London

Posted: Thu Feb 16 2012

Putting the T into LGBT History Month, the notorious case of Stella and Fanny

With LGBT History Month taking place in February, it's an appropriate time to look back at one of Victorian London's biggest scandals - the arrest of Ernest 'Stella' Boulton and Frederick 'Fanny' Park in May 1870. After tracking the pair, known across Britain for their glamorous drag performances, the Metropolitan Police spectacularly accosted them outside the Strand Theatre for 'wearing women's clothes… for a supposed felonious purpose'.

The arrest drew hundreds to Bow Street Police Court, desperate to glimpse the 'female personators': their trial promised the exposure of unnameable 'unnatural offences' and a homosexual ring that stretched from the lower middle class to the aristocracy - but their transgression of gender boundaries was not as new as the sensation-hungry crowd believed.

Anxieties over London's 'vice' grew throughout the eighteenth century, when 'buggery' was the only sexual practice outlawed. The capital's network of parish constables infiltrated several 'molly houses' - clandestine venues where men cross-dressed and slept with other men - and after the raid on Mother Clap's in Holborn, three of the 40 arrested were hanged.

Over the next hundred years, London's swift industrialisation allowed unprecedented numbers to flee their villages for the capital's anonymity. The population grew too fast for the law to keep up, and previously suppressed behaviours flourished: amid concerns about rising divorce, prostitution and cross-dressing, widely seen as the visible face of sodomy, the Metropolitan Police was established in 1829. The Met began controlling the borders of masculinity, frequently arresting men 'dressed in female attire'.

With female working rights limited, the few contemporary reports of women who presented as men suggest a belief that they did so to find work. Seeing no reason why men would dress as women, the Victorian authorities assumed sexual motives - particularly that they did it to trick men into sex with them.

The cases that ensued illustrate a problem for transgender historians: the concept did not exist in Victorian Britain, its development initiated by later sexologists who asked people why they cross-dressed and then coined terms such as 'transvestite' and 'transsexual' to describe them. To admit in court any innate need to cross-dress would have been to secure a prison sentence. The only safe defence was to deny it, insisting that it was done for a bet, an art project (as Luke Limner claimed in 1891) or, typically, 'a lark'.

As there were no specific laws against cross-dressing, defendants were often tried for solicitation. In March 1846, John Travers was charged with 'frequenting the public streets in female attire for an unlawful purpose' - according to The Times, 'the second or third case' heard at Bow Street 'within the past few weeks'. Constable C140 claimed to have seen Travers en femme more than 20 times, which made Travers' one-off “frolic” defence implausible. But the prosecution offered little evidence and Travers escaped with a fine.

In July 1854, George Campbell was charged with 'being disguised in female attire' in an 'unlicensed dancing place'. Ex-Metropolitan officer Joseph Brundell said that, on reporting Campbell's 'disgusting conduct', he was told not to interfere 'unless I saw such conduct take place on the public street'. Campbell, a reverend, claimed he'd wanted to see 'vice in all its' enormity … to correct it from the pulpit'. Judge Carden reluctantly discharged him.

Boulton and Park's public appearances clearly went beyond 'a lark' - so the Met subjected them to an examination to determine their sexual activity. Unsurprisingly, Victorian medical technology proved inconclusive: once Boulton and Park's lawyers contested the 'evidence' given by surgeon Dr Paul, the sodomy charge collapsed. A year after their arrest, during which time Boulton's aristocratic associate Lord Arthur Clinton died, the pair were finally tried for 'conspiring to incite others to commit unnatural offences'.

The Society for the Suppression of Vice urged publications to withhold details, and London's Pall Mall Gazette refused to cover it. The Times capitalised on the scandal, but media speculation that the trial would expose a sodomite circle proved unfounded. Without evidence of sexual activity - just camp letters between the defendants and numerous photos of Boulton and Park in drag - the prosecution attempted to establish that Boulton and Park's cross-dressing was habitual, the defence that it was casual.

Astoundingly, Boulton and Park's lawyers successfully argued that the cross-dressing was an extension of their stage personas, and the case collapsed. Summing up, the judge attacked the police's unwarranted 'examination', lamented the lack of laws against Boulton and Park's lifestyle and grudgingly freed them.

On trial two decades later, Oscar Wilde attempted to place his own behaviour within an artistic context. Times had changed: under the 'gross indecency' law enacted in 1885, which regulated public and private behavior, Wilde was convicted. The authorities ended the century exercising control over sexual and gender variants. Sexologists would spend the next century fighting for greater understanding and acceptance.