Sunday, 25 March 2012

Wearing make-up, winking at respectable gentlemen

On Wednesday last week, we went to a fascinating talk (hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Society) at the Conway Hall. Queer London in the late nineteenth century, brilliantly delivered by Dr Matt Cook of Birkbeck College (University of London), was indeed a wonderful collection of rogues, show trials, rent boys and double-standards that were endemic in the Victorian era.

Dr Cook's book London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914 - which has yet to find its way to our bookshelf here at Dolores Delargo Towers, to our shame - appears to be a hotbed of such salacious stories (and, given the excellence of the lecture, must be a good read).

Not least of these is a true story that has always fascinated me - that of the scandalous Fanny and Stella!

An excerpt from Fanny and Stella by Rictor Norton:
On April 28, 1870 Lady Stella Clinton and Miss Fanny Winifred Park — otherwise known as Ernest Boulton, age twenty-two, and Frederick William Park, a twenty-three-year-old law student — attended a performance at the Strand Theatre, London, in full evening frocks. The police had been keeping an eye on this pair since 1869, and they were arrested, together with another man, while two more of their associates escaped. All of the men lived at separate addresses, but they kept a house on Wakefield Street, off Regent Square, where they would dress up before going out of an evening, and where they stayed with friends for a day or two at a time. The police made an inventory: sixteen dresses in satin or silk with suitable lace trimmings, a dozen petticoats, ten cloaks and jackets, half a dozen bodices, several bonnets and hats, twenty chignons, and a variety of stays, drawers, stockings, boots, curling-irons, gloves, boxes of violet powder and bloom of roses. Their landlady described their dresses as "very extreme."

Boulton was very good looking, effeminate, and musical, with a wonderful soprano voice, and he and Park played female parts in amateur theatricals in legit theatres, country houses and elsewhere. Earlier that month Fanny and Stella, as "sisters," attended the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, dressed as women. They also frequented the theatres and Burlington Arcade dressed as men, but wearing make-up, winking at respectable gentlemen, which initially attracted the attention of the police.

The habit of cross-dressing - in particular for male prostitutes - was prevalent throughout the supposedly "values-driven" ultra-conservative Victorian era, especially in the urban theatrical heartlands, not least London's West End. Among the famous "Dilly Boys" were many working-class lads playing up the female role to the full. The boys of Oscar and Bosie's brothels often wore drag for fun as much as for the punters - following a long and proud tradition of "Molly Houses" that harked back several centuries.

It wasn't just the boys, either - in 1854 "John Challis, an old man about 60 years of age, dressed in the pastoral garb of a shepherdess of the golden age, and George Campbell, aged 35, who described himself as a lawyer, and appeared completely equipped in female attire of the present day, were charged with being found disguised as women in the Druids'-hall, in Turnagain-lane, an unlicensed dancing-room, for the purpose of exciting others to commit an unnatural offence." Shocking.

But what of Stella and Fanny?

From the New History Lab blog:
[Fanny and Stella] were arrested in April 1870 for intent to commit felony. In the courtroom, Boulton wore a wig, bracelets, make-up and a cherry-coloured silk evening dress trimmed with white lace. Park wore white gloves, a dark green satin dress, low necked and trimmed with black lace, and a shawl, his hair was 'flaxen and in curls.' They were let off because no actual crime had been committed, though they appeared before the dock twice more in May 1870, both times in full evening regalia again.

Boulton and Park managed to get away with all manner of 'larks' in this brief stint, including enticing men to pick them up as prostitutes before embarassing them by pointing out they were actually men.
The trial(s) fascinated the media of the day, and the pulp tabloid coverage was avidly consumed by the scandal-loving public.

Continuedly "getting away with it", it seems Fanny and Stella's notoriety and fame crossed paths with the great and the good of the late Victorian era:
One person connected with the scandal was Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton, MP, third son of the Duke of Newcastle (who unfortunately committed suicide before the case came to court). Boulton told others "I am Lady Clinton, Lord Arthur's wife," and showed the wedding ring on his finger. Lord Arthur lodged near him, paid for Stella's hairdresser who came every morning, and had ordered from the stationers a seal engraved "Stella" and even visiting cards printed "Lady Arthur Clinton." There are theatre posters of Lord Arthur and Boulton performing together in the play A Morning Call in which Lord Arthur played Sir Edward Arnold and Boulton played Mrs Chillington, and in Love and Rain, in which Lord Arthur played Captain Charles Lumley and Boulton played Lady Jane Desmond, a Young Widow.
They also encountered luminaries such as Simeon Solomon (the aesthete painter and sculptor whose own homosexual scandal was unfortunately his downfall), and the sexologist and campaigner George Ives (whose "Order of Charonea" I featured in the Museum a few weeks ago).

Unfortunately Neil McKenna's book on Fanny and Stella appears to be out of print. However, the girls' story features in Neil Bartlett's Who was that man?: a present for Mr Oscar Wilde and many other historical works about the era.

Read a fictionalised account of the Fanny and Stella scandal by Yvonne Sinclair, founder of the TV/TS Support Group that operated in Islington and Shoreditch from 1976 to 1992.


  1. "I'm a Lady; I do Lady things...."

    1. "But I am a lady, I do not have testiclÈs!" Jx

  2. A great page!
    Neil McKenna's book Fanny and Stella: The young men who shocked Victorian England is not out of print. But it will not be published until 9 February 2013, to coincide with LGBT History Month.

    1. I have just reserved tickets for an evening with Mr McKenna (on Monday 25 February 6.30pm at Central Library, Holloway Road) as part of LGBT History Month in Islington, and hope to purchase a copy there - I can't wait! Jx

  3. Jon
    Sorry I didn't spot your reply till now.
    I'll be there, so I will look forward to meeting you. The book is out now of course and has been getting fantastic reviews.
    Are you on Twitter or Facebook?
    Twitter @editordsmith
    Facebook David Smith

    1. I don't use either - see you on Monday! Jx


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