Speaking to the Sunday Dispatch, Mary Size, Deputy-Governor of Holloway Women’s Prison recalled Colonel Barker’s arrival from Brixton Prison on the night of February 28th, 1929:
‘I saw two men – one, an extremely handsome, well-groomed gentleman in a dress-suit, the other a plain looking man in ordinary clothes… I asked, ‘Which of you two is the prisoner?’… the ordinary man stepped forward and, pointing to the dashing man in the dress-suit, said ‘Madam, this is the prisoner’
Colonel Barker’s life as a public figure began just days after his transfer to Holloway, when Brixton’s medical examiners’ ‘discovery [his] true sex’ got a small notice in The Times. Before his trial had even begun, there was a tabloid frenzy to tell the story of Barker’s ‘amazing masquerade’. Under scrutiny from the press and authorities, Barker’s many lives began to resurface and unspool. As reporters sought out astonished testimony from those who had known Barker in various guises and his prosecutors built their cases, both parties discovered that Barker’s exploits extended to marrying ‘another woman’, Elfrida Haward. The media furore that followed made Barker something of a celebrity.
Scandals are moments when personal, private histories become public; those at their centre become players in wider historical dramas. They become lightning-rods for cultural fears and fantasies, points where important historical threads converge and knot. Last time, we pursued a ‘personal history,’ examining Barker’s early ‘lives’ and political attachments; today, we use scandal, teasing out some of these threads by examining the narratives spun around Barker in the first of his lives as a public figure.
Sunday Pictorial, 20 January, 1918
If historians have variously ‘known’ Barker to be a proto-feminist, a lesbian, queer, or transgender, then the interwar press ‘knew’ Barker to be one of many ‘woman masqueraders’. ‘Masquerade’ was a set of representational tropes used to narrate stories of people assigned female at birth who transgressed ‘gender-significant’ social conventions. ‘Masqueraders’ were a diverse bunch, and generalisations about who or ‘what’ they were in modern parlance are impossible; the label encompassed women who may have pursued unconventional jobs, romantic or social relationships, those who cross-dressed, and people who lived part or all of their lives as men. In any case, literally hundreds of these stories were published in British newspapers in the first half of the twentieth century.
Developed from the late-Edwardian period across fictional and non-fictional media, the ‘masquerade narrative’ became the dominant frame within which ‘women who lived as men’ were depicted and understood until the mid-century.
Masquerade narratives took many forms, inflections and protagonists. Tales of soldier husbands ‘revealed to be women’ were popular human-interest stories during and after WWI. Though we might assume gender trouble on the frontlines elicited panic, popular-media narration generally defanged ‘masquerades’ and their protagonists of any ‘subversive’ bite. The ‘masquerader’ was often framed as the kind of plucky, cross-dressing action-heroine familiar to audiences from decades of family-friendly popular culture. The comic adventuress who donned men’s clothing to enjoy the social and economic privileges of masculinity was a proven money-minter, from vaudeville to the films of wholesome, conventionally-feminine superstars like Mary Pickford.
But some masqueraders were tragic; pitiable women who posed as men out of economic necessity; hopeless or deluded misfits who could not or would not conform to normal gender-roles; criminal deviants in disguise; congenitally-ambiguous, freakish ‘men-women’. Order was generally restored at the conclusion of the narrative with return to the appropriate costume and social role; the wayward woman brought home to family and/or husband; the criminal punished in some way; the marvellous made known; the misfit made to fit or discarded; the tragedy consummated.
The masquerade narrative turned upon the distance between masculine performance and ‘true’ feminine identity – a distance which would prove initially productive for Barker. In the wake of his bankruptcy and imprisonment, various government and police departments had exchanged notes, and were beginning to realise the scale of Barker’s career as a fraudster. Just as further charges seemed imminent, Freke Palmer, the solicitor behind Barker’s sudden ‘blindness’ during his firearms forgery trial, petitioned for his release. Given that the detainee had been arrested as one non-existent man (Mr. Victor Barker) for the crimes of another non-existent man (Col. Sir Leslie Ivor Victor Bligh-Barker) and was now incarcerated as a woman (Valerie Arkell-Smith), Palmer argued that the detainee was unlawfully imprisoned. Through this extrapolation – essentially, that the accused was neither Col. Sir Barker, nor Mr. Barker, neither of whom would be detained as women had they actually existed – Palmer secured his client’s release on March 9, 1929, pending a Police Court hearing. Barker exited Holloway into the white heat of publicity.
His troubles were just beginning; though the law could not prosecute his ‘masquerade’, by signing the marriage register to Elfrida Haward as a man, Col. Barker had committed perjury – a fact soon realised by both the papers and the prosecution.
Popular-press stories of masquerade began with ‘unmasking’ their protagonists, and typically followed with testimonies from those who had known the masquerader in their ‘male disguise’. These testimonies expressed either amazement at the unbelievable ‘truth’, or retrospective confirmation of long-held suspicions in line with the overall tone or editorial stance of the article –‘successful’ masquerades were framed as impressive ‘feats’ or light-hearted ‘misadventures’. On Barker’s release, the woodwork was excavated for the astonished or sceptical, and there was no shortage of sound-bites. His former-manservant set the tone: ‘The Captain a woman! Impossible, impossible, the news shocks me.’ Following this lead, the News of the World praised Barker’s ‘masterpiece of sex impersonation’ as ‘almost without parallel in the history of sex impersonation.’ Such hyperbole was a hallmark of the masquerade tale, but Barker received greater coverage than perhaps any other interwar ‘masquerader’. Barker leveraged popular-press admiration of manly performance, to protest his incarceration by asserting the normativity and functional reality of his masculinity, developed over years spent ‘so thoroughly in the role of a man’; ‘why can’t the public believe that for the last six years I have led an honourable and straightforward life?’. This is hilarious given that Barker had essentially spent those six years as a con-artist, but he held this line in interviews following his release. He even attempted to ennoble his performance, claiming that his invented ‘war exploits were not so much vainglory’ but instructive tales spun to provide his son ‘with a manly example to follow.’ Barker asserted he was not a socially useless ‘man-woman’, but a socially valuable parent, regarded by his ‘manly youngster’ not ‘as his mother, but as his father.’ Once again, Barker attached himself to ‘legitimate’ masculinity in order to wield some of its power.
His marriage to Haward inevitably became a focal point of public fascination. Despite Hall’s remarks, and Barker’s reception as a lesbian by historians such as Julie Wheelright, neither the press nor the reading public necessarily considered Barker or his marriage on such terms. Masquerade tales turned less on ‘sexuality’ than on ‘sex-changeability’: instances of gender-crossing which dramatized the changeability of the social roles attached to ‘sex’.
Because the masquerade narrative played out in media aimed at general audiences, and because it had to dovetail with audiences’ understandings of ‘sex’, the ‘sex’ which was adopted, revealed or ‘changed’ by the masquerader was not considered in bodily or anatomical terms. When we think about ‘sex-changeability’, we likely think of bodily transformation by medical-scientific means. Though ideas of hormonal and surgical transformation became increasingly popular in the 1920s, ‘sex’ was not yet the total province of medical science; rather ‘sex’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ were in perhaps primarily gestural and sartorial qualities. The ‘change’ or ‘transformation’ of the interwar masquerader affected by costume and performance was, in some sense perceived, to be as fundamental as medicalised transition is today. The war had brought about massive demographic, social and political upheavals. Important loci of meaning – class, gender, and national identity – had become fraught and confused by wartime crossings and reconstructions. The masquerade dramatized a crisis of categories; if gender was an aesthetic and social phenomenon, then the changes of costume and role brought about by war represented shifts, if not crises, in the British gender-system.
The growth of mass media both reflected and reproduced that sense of crisis in what was an increasingly visually preoccupied culture. Cinema-going had exploded, and was still a silent, purely visual medium until the year of Barker’s trial. Tabloids and magazines, which were still only increasing in number and circulation, contained more and more photographs. The popularisation of cheap cosmetics converged with the internationalisation of a ‘modern’ look, so that, in J.B. Priestley’s words, factory-girls resembled film-stars. The flapper, with her shingled hair, slender frame, and newly-won franchise, was a sign of changing gender mores; the increasing accessibility of her ‘boyette’ aesthetic made her an agent of disintegrating class and gender distinctions and mores.
In this shifting visual matrix, women in suits were no longer the preserve of music-hall variety; in fashion plates and films, women wore tuxedo-jackets; in military and other forms of work, more and more women wore uniforms. Though not necessarily perceived to be ‘changing sex’, the anxiety and speculation generated by women in uniforms, occupations and social spheres previously reserved for men suggests that they were certainly crossing gender. If we think of ‘sex’ in interwar Britain as an aesthetic and gestural phenomenon, it is unsurprising that masquerade narratives, which turned on unmasking the ‘true’ identity beneath aesthetics, realigning signifier and signified, became so popular. They promised a return to a stable gender system, alleviating wider cultural anxieties about the disconnection of essence from appearance.
Being caught in this visual matrix as a literal ‘sign of the times’ was a vulnerable position – now in the public domain, Barker’s image and story were decoded and judged by millions of Britons over breakfast tables. At least initially, Barker’s marriage to Haward was framed as an element of his virtuoso performance of manhood: an ‘impersonation… crowned by an unprecedented exploit; the wooing and wedding of another woman.’ It was astonishing or comic, but ultimately nonthreatening and definitely non-sexual.
It is crucial to note that in 1929, the effeminate same-sex-oriented man was a well-established type, where the ‘mannish lesbian’, such as it existed as a trope, was considerably less defined or pathologized. Effeminacy and gender-crossing had become symptoms of dangerous male ‘sexual perversion’. Moreover, the ‘unspeakable acts’ attributed to such men were legally-punishable, if ill-defined, as ‘sodomy’ or ‘gross indecency’. By contrast, Parliament declined to introduce equivalent prohibitions against ‘gross indecency between women’ in a 1921 amendment to the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act which had created such prohibitions between men. The majority perceived that such perversion was ‘rarer’, and that to outlaw it would effectively make aware a public ignorant of even the possibility of lesbianism. Though suspect, gender-crossing women were not necessarily on that particular hook.
With that said, the ‘mechanics’, so to speak, of the masquerader’s sexed body and sexual exploits were almost never discussed. To render them explicit, or suggest that sex was the central motivation behind the ‘masquerade’ itself, would make the story morbid and salacious, and the masquerader themselves a deviant or tragic freak.
Haward’s tabloid narration would do just that. Though she gushed over Barker’s courtesy, charm, good looks, and other respectably masculine qualities, perhaps to shield herself from any responsibility for their potentially illegal union, Haward also claimed that while living with Barker as ‘man and wife’ she had been ‘deceived’, never realising that Barker was assigned-female.
In attempting to preclude accusations of ‘abnormal sexuality’ on her part by pleading sexual innocence, Haward invited questions about the mechanical particularities of Barker’s body and marital bed. Her patently absurd denial suggested that either their relationship had been chaste – which few seemed to believe – or, that they did have sex, which would necessarily have been ‘abnormal’. Haward implied as much by casting herself as the corrupted dupe of a predatory pervert. As she breathlessly told the News of the World, ‘I trusted Victor more than anybody… it appears now that my trust was misplaced… I never imagined that my husband was anything but the person he always appeared to be. I can never forgive this deception and the horrible experience which has been forced upon me.’
Haward’s account coincided with a tone-shift in Barker’s coverage. A Sunday Express column on the ‘Tragedy of the Woman-Masquerader’ speculated about the ‘psychological abnormality’ behind the ‘mystery of his spiritual hermaphroditism.’ Eyewitnesses eagerly registered that they ‘had always had [their] doubts’, expressed long-held suspicions about his ‘effeminacy’ or ‘womanliness’. An Evening News columnist maintained ‘I can see plainly that the Colonel is a woman… I might despise those others who took the Colonel for a male warrior.’
Into the fray came Radclyffe Hall, whose controversial novel The Well of Loneliness had been banned the previous year for its ‘obscene’ depiction of desire between women. Hall was publicly vicious about the ‘mad pervert’ Barker and his ‘sham’ marriage to Haward. Though anxious to distance himself and his marriage from outspoken ‘sexual inverts’ like Hall by strenuously denying that he was ‘abnormal’, Barker recognised the tide turning against him. He revised his previous stance, framing his masquerade as a ‘foolish’ financially necessary strategy adopted ‘solely for my boy’. Anticipating that the hearing would almost certainly involve discussion of both his marriage and sex life, if not prosecution of some kind alongside the bankruptcy charges, in late March Barker was forced to adopt a pose of feminine helplessness in a bid for clemency. ‘I am waiting, a lonely woman, for whatever may befall me. Is there no one who will help me?… I am frightened to go in public and yet I must make a peepshow of myself unless I can pay my debts and go away where I am not known.’
On March 27, hundreds waited outside the Police Court. In line with the new strategy, Barker took the stand in women’s clothes, his head bowed. The prosecution then produced witnesses to testify to Barker’s ‘true sex’ and perjurious marriage to Haward, including the ‘hoodwinked’ ex-wife herself. Asked to identify the suspect, she approached the box and looked at her ex-husband for the first time in three years; Haward then gave testimony echoing her tabloid accounts of ‘torture’. After reiterating his previous bankruptcy defence, Freke Palmer attempted to argue that any union between two women did not constitute a marriage, and so there could be no crime. He announced that Barker would plead not guilty to both charges, maintaining that Barker’s only wrongdoing was being ‘bold enough and successful in earning [his] living as a man when [he] found that [he] could not do it as a woman.’ Though bankruptcy charges were dropped, Barker was nonetheless formally charged with making a ‘false entry relating to marriage’.
His April 24 trial saw even greater crowds assemble outside the Old Bailey. Ernest Wilde, Recorder of London and vocal proponent of the failed 1921 amendment to outlaw the ‘very real evil’ of ‘gross indecency between female persons’, was the presiding judge. Prosecution outlined Barker’s life of fraud and felonious marriage to Haward. Wilde interrupted several times to enquire in-depth about both the legal and intimate details of ‘this travesty of a marriage’; sensing opportunity, prosecution thereafter foregrounded Barker’s ‘abuse’ of the church and disregard for the ‘sacred oath of marriage.’
The defence, now led by Henry Curtis-Bennett, outlined Barker’s abusive marriages to Arkell-Smith and Pearce-Crouch, arguing that the defendant deserved the ‘sympathy and admiration’ previously accorded by the press ‘for the way in which, through great difficulties, [he] had been able to face the world by earning [his] own living’ to support his son. He also asserted that Haward knew ‘perfectly well’ that Barker was ‘a woman’. Wilde interrupted, demanding that the defence submit in writing – to deny the assembled journalists the ‘prurient details’ – ‘whether they lived together under the normal relations of man and wife’. This is to say, whether any wilful, if technically legal, ‘gross indecency’ had occurred.
The defence then called Haward; both Curtis-Bennett and an interjecting Wilde pressed her repeated claims that she thought everything to be ‘perfectly normal’ with her husband. Just as Wilde seemed in doubt of Haward’s ignorance, upon which the prosecution’s case against Barker the predatory pervert hinged, Bennett asked Haward if the couple always shared a bed, to which she responded, ‘Not always.’ The plausible deniability as to Haward’s knowledge of her husband’s ‘true sex’ thereby created was apparently enough for Wilde, who called for defence to end their questioning. In desperation, Curtis-Bennett pleaded that Wilde be lenient in judging Barker’s ‘stupid’ but pragmatic decision to ‘get employment as a man’. Playing on the tragic misfit trope, Curtis-Bennett argued that ‘only one in millions… could live as a man and deceive people… it is astonishing to me that the misery of this [man] can be made into a sort of entertainment by people who increase [his] wretchedness by coming here to stare at [him]. [He] has lost [his] employment. [He] has suffered all this publicity. Has [he] not been punished enough?’. Yet to Wilde, public fascination with the case was yet another problem Barker had created, and served as ‘part of the punishment for [Barker’s] perverted conduct.’
How did Barker feel about all of this?
With his media-performances so carefully calibrated to elicit maximum sympathy, Barker could not afford to complain – but the level of scrutiny and often cruel commentary he was subjected to must have been humiliating. Though present on the stand, and there as a result of his own actions, his appearances in court and the press more readily represent the convergence of external historical circumstances. The only story we can tell using the sources at hand is a story about gender, sex, the law and the press in interwar Britain, starring Barker, the ‘sign of the times’. The anxiety and humiliation experienced by Barker, the human being, is the personal history running beneath the masquerade narrative, untold and untellable. Whatever our intentions, to try and mine that hidden vein of private pain would make us, functionally, no different than the press of 1929 – jockeying to get a piece of the action, hoping for an exclusive.
The 25 April saw Wilde give his judgement, surmising that Barker was ‘an unprincipled, mendacious, and unscrupulous adventuress’ who had ‘profaned the House of God… outraged the decencies of Nature… broken the laws of man… and set an evil example which, were you to go unpunished, others might follow.’ Bloviating aside, Wilde did not give the maximum penalty of seven-year penal servitude, but sentenced Barker to nine months in prison. At this, Barker shed a brief tear before standing, bowing to Wilde, and allowing himself to be escorted away.
What began as an adventure starring Barker the ‘astonishing’ action-hero(ine) had ended with order restored; not as the conclusion of a farcical marriage plot, but as a tragedy consummated in making the misfit fit. The taint of sexuality, the stamp of the deviant criminal, had turned the press against Barker, which gleefully stripped him of his masculinity; a Daily Mail headline covering the conclusion of the trial gives an idea: ‘How “Colonel Barker” Really Became A Woman Again: The Unhappy Masquerader Does Just What One Might Expect of the Sex – She Weeps!’.
After the much-publicised sentencing, a spate of items followed before the story died. So, that was it; at least, as far as the press of 1929 were concerned. Barker would be back in the courtroom, and the spotlight, in the years that followed. Next time, we will discuss his ‘Strange Honeymoon’ in Blackpool as a sideshow attraction in the summer of 1937.
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You can read previous articles on Colonel Barker here.
Pádraig Nolan is a History master’s student at Linacre College from Dublin, Ireland. He did his undergrad in English and History at Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on the intersections between transgender and intersex life and science, medicine, and technology in modern Britain.