12 December 2015

Victorian cross dressers - The Petticoat Men

In July 1854 at the unlicensed Druid’s Hall in London two men were grabbed by the police. George Campbell (35) and John Challis (60) were at a masked ball, dressed up to the nines in lovely women’s clothes. They were hauled up before the magistrate and charged with "being found disguised as women in an unlicensed dancing-room, for the purpose of exciting others to commit an unnatural offence". Naturally homosex­uality was illegal then and naturally the newspapers were very excited by the trial and the associated scandal.

For the men to be completely equipped in 1854, they would have had to be wearing corsets and layers of crinolines. The case later reveal­ed Campbell allegedly sported the season’s other must-have accessory of a white veil. The older Challis displayed an even more stunning outfit: the “pastoral garb of a shepherdess of the golden age.” Campbell claimed he’d only gone to the party in a dress so he could witness the vice for himself and later preach against it.

The court noted that drag balls had been hosted for over a year at Druid’s Hall, so why did the police choose to arrest Campbell and Challis that particular night? And what did the court make of both men having character witnesses who painted impeccable pictures? While the case against Challis was dismissed on account of his poor health, Campbell mounted a spirited defence and gained the begrudging support of prosecutor Sir RW Corden. As they joined forces to outwit the police, the court must have been transfixed and laughing behind their hands. The two men were let off with stern warnings.

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park aka Stella and Fanny c1870
photo credit: BBC History Magazine

Any other public knowledge about Victorian drag balls came from similar cases of regulation and persecution eg a raid in Manchester in 1880 where a man dressed as a nun unknowingly let the police into a fancy dress party. All 47 attendees were men, 20 of whom were attired in character as females. Alas the patterns of regulation and prosecution dominated historical knowledge of same-sex relations and sexual deviance, especially prior to the evolution of more coherent sub-cultures and the coining of the term homo-sexuality at the end of the C19th. But the 1850s was a golden age of theatre and pantomime, so if Challis and other men wanted costumes for a drag ball, what were the police doing invading dress-up parties.

Now Barbara Ewing has written a new novel about the case called The Petticoat Men (published by Head of Zeus 2015). It is an histor­ical novel, loosely based on contemporary newspaper and trial reports, and filled with factual detail.

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Parks were popular people in London in 1870. Found at dancing parties across the city, Ernest and Freddie were welcomed and admired. However soon things go awry as Ernest and Freddie/aka Fanny and Stella, were arrested and charged with several offences that caused outrage across the streets of London.

The life and examination of Boulton and Park, the men in women's clothes,
published 1870.
Police News Edition was a newspaper that concentrated on murder and sleaze.

The Stacey family, running a boarding house near Kings Cross, suddenly became involved in what the newspapers were calling a huge scandal: two of their boarders were arrested, dressed as society women, in the audience at a London theatre. For landlady Mattie Stacey, Ernest and Freddie’s beautiful dresses, gorgeous hairdos and lively songs had always been a positive entertainment. Nevertheless when her family’s income was likely to be threatened by the men’s activities, Mattie had to examine the situation in close detail. She realised that Ernest and Freddie were not the only cross dressers in London and were not even the most important cross dressers. In fact the scene was one that involved many important figures including royalty (eg the Prince of Wales), members of parliament (including the Prime Minister) and members of the nobility. How far would Mattie have to go to protect her family and how far would aristocratic families go to keep their names out of the papers?

We know that 1870s citizens were shocked by the rumours of cross dressing balls, but would the response be very different in 2015? Would the paparazzi not hound any minister of the crown caught in frilly knickers at a nightclub, even in these uber cool days?


Andrew said...

Up until and including the 1960s, maybe even into the 70s, men dressing as women in Australia were still being arrested, with private parties and public events being raided by police.

Hels said...


I find the laws against cross dressing in 20th century Australia bizarre. While private parties could be legally raided by police, there was no problem whatsoever if the women's clothes were "costumes" to be used on a public stage eg Dames in children's pantomimes, Edna Everage. Even the famous Artists and Models Balls, patronised by the rich and the creative, were safe from police intervention.

So the laws here were degrading, not based on proper law, hypocritically applied and failed to change the very behaviour they prosecuted.

Mandy Southgate said...

What a brilliant post - I've immediately rushed over and bought a copy of the book! I think that many members of the establishment are involved in sex parties and vice and it hits the papers from time to time. Public interest in it waxes and wanes but I guess people only really judge when it emerges that someone was harmed.

Deb said...

Police News Edition reminds me of The Truth newspaper in Australia. An infamous reminder of the bad old days.

Hels said...


It is a novel, but one based on contemporary records. You will enjoy the entire story.

Thank goodness the London Police and courts had no other crime to deal with in the late Victorian decades!! Think of the resources poured into spying on men planning the costumed balls, following the guests to find the location, sending in the police team to gather information on site and take the costumed men to gaol, court cases, magistrates, solicitors for the defendants etc.

Note they were charged with "being found disguised as women in an unlicensed dancing-room, for the purpose of exciting others to commit an unnatural offence". Which part was the worst - the ballroom was unlicensed? men being disguised as women? or exciting others to a crime?

These days we would wonder why the cross dressers were not charged with harming children under the age of 18? That would have been an important use of police and court resources.

Hels said...


agreed. The Truth newspaper was largely based on scandal, "particularly based on the records of the divorce courts, which were not subject to restrictions on reporting". In its later decades it featured photographs of largely naked young women, corrupt police, politicians with their pants down and other sleaziness.

But I don't remember murder in The Truth.

Mandy Southgate said...

I think you're spot on - I think it just offended their sensibilities.

Anonymous said...

We in the US have J Edgar Hoover, long term head of the FBI, who liked to 'dress up' whilst striving to arrest homosexuals. There are photos of him doing that with his second in command.
I think that says something about our 'imperium'.

Jim of Olym

Hels said...


I imagine that most people feared and distrusted Hoover, whether or not he was a cross dresser. The Washington Post said Hoover built his FBI files into an intimidating weapon, for bullying government critics and destroying careers. The files covered Supreme Court justices such as Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, film stars, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, John D. Rockefeller III etc — often replete with unconfirmed gossip about private sex lives and radical ties. The files make fascinating reading and paint a stark portrait of power run amok.

Hoover was a nasty piece of work *nod*.