Conceived as an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, Mass Observation was a kind of social-research project begun in 1937 to collect records of everyday life in Britain. Agents amassed letters, diaries, scrapbooks and photographs from the public, travelling the country to observe and collect testimony about life, current affairs, politics, culture, sex and work in interwar Britain and beyond.
It was in the summer of 1937 that ‘Colonel’ Victor Barker spent a season appearing in a sideshow attraction in Blackpool, capitalising on the mystery which had long surrounded his ‘true sex’; his fame was such that his appearance attracted Mass Observation agents. Over the summer, his peepshow alternately astonished and bored over a million looky-loos.
He also raised the ire of his landlord and fellow carny Jack Gallimore. Accusing Barker of stealing a number of rabbits reared for sustenance, attempting to seduce his wife, Gallimore complained to Mass Observation agents that Barker was ‘a bloody Gene… a Moxphrodite… he can be a man one minute and then be a woman, Christ knows how he does it. They should lock up that sort of person, they’re no use to anybody.’ For her part, Mrs. Gallimore reportedly giggled and said ‘I don’t know, it’s a mystery… I can’t tell what he is’
What do the Gallimores mean by ‘gene’ or ‘moxphrodite’? What was the peep-show which so many Britons went to gawp at? And who was Victor Barker?
It’s difficult to know where to start with Barker. He lived without regard for the narrative coherence we so often foist upon historical lives. In a sense, it makes as much sense to start in medias res as at the beginning, but we should establish a few basics before we catch up to Barker in Blackpool, and perhaps set some of our terms.
Raised an upper-middle-class woman, in 1923 at the age of 28, Barker transitioned and began living as a man. Over the next thirty-six years, Barker moved frequently, adopting military and aristocratic titles, double-barrelling, reordering, changing and discarding names as necessity – usually in the form of ex-wives and creditors – dictated. As Barker lived in these monikers, they began to gather personal histories; the often-fanciful backstories he invented, but also lived dramas and comedies, with real friendships, enmities, romances, jobs, debts, and scandals. Some of these alternate names were essentially aliases – temporary, functional disguises to be taken on and off – but others represent entire, discrete lives. In these lives Barker would marry at least three times, commit many crimes, do jail time, become a celebrity, a sideshow, a soldier, and a member of the National Fascisti. Some of his lives are obscure, some well-documented, some double-narrated, reconfigured by tellings and retellings. Barker’s archive is scattered across news-items, witness testimonies, police-records, two tell-all narratives and a few photographs; is made up of cacophonies and silences, smoke and mirrors, incommensurate fragments.
Over the course of this series, we will examine some of these fragmentary lives to explore the possibility of reconciling the many men who were Victor Barker. As we attempt to tell these stories, each of which are in some sense animated by the question ‘who was Victor Barker?’, we will begin to turn our telling in on itself – examining the historical, political, and ethical motivations behind, and implications of, practising history. We will begin by exploring Barker’s early years, transition, and multiple marriages.
Before Victor Barker went by, among other names, Victor Barker, he was Lillias Irma Valerie Barker, the first child of Thomas Barker and Lillias Adelaide Hill. Born on 27 August 1895 in Jersey, the firstborn Barker was assigned female at birth. Owing to their respective annuities, neither the unlanded gent nor his beautiful bride had to work, and Barker enjoyed a comfortably upper-middle-class upbringing. When the family moved to a country lodge in Milford following the birth of their second child Tom in 1899, their eldest developed a lifelong passion for horses, hunting and the outdoors – the typical pursuits of the genteel scion which the eldest Barker was, of course, not.
As a child, Barker’s ‘tomboyish’ ways were indulged by his father, but with age necessarily came all-girls boarding, a Belgian finishing school, and a debut. We know little about Barker’s pre-transition life, particularly his early years; accounts paint Barker’s gender-transgressions in generally light-hearted terms, ‘dressing up as a boy and smoking cigarettes’ to shock the nuns at the convent schools he ran away from.
It may be tempting to say that we know transness when we see it; Barker wore trousers, smoked cigars, turned down marriage proposals, and, of course, lived the majority of his life as a man.
But then, did the Gallimores not know a ‘gene’ or a ‘moxphrodite’ when they saw one?
How – or indeed, whether – to read Barker’s varied transgressions is a complex question, one we will revisit over the course of this series. In brief, I use Barker’s chosen name and pronouns because this is the historically-accurate and respectful choice. I use the term ‘transmasculine’ to signal the masculinity which was at the core of Barker’s self-conception and presentation, and the inherent gender-variance of that masculinity in its opposition to the social role of woman which Barker was assigned. The question animating this investigation is not ‘what Barker was’, but rather ‘who he was’. When we play the game of ‘what’ someone was, we risk anticipating the present in the past. In projecting our own anachronistic conceptual frameworks, we may easily project our very selves. So often when we speak of ‘retrieving lost voices’ from the ‘hidden’ past, they are voices we have hidden there ourselves – acts of ventriloquism, of speaking through rather than listening to the dead. We are not ‘rescuing’ these people from the past, but hoping that they will rescue us. Thinking with ‘transmasculinity’ is descriptive rather than diagnostic, aimed at behaviour rather than ‘identity’ or ‘essence’.
How problematic Barker found this social role, and in what direction, is not always wholly clear. The only first-hand accounts we have come from Barker’s tell-all narratives, which are as much ‘primary sources’ as calculated products of spin and financial necessity. The complicated question of their ‘honesty’, particularly as it relates to Barker’s transness, will be revisited later in the series.
In the meantime, we have a lot of ground to cover; what we know is that Barker seized the opportunity to serve with the outbreak of war. In 1914, he joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, alternately driving ambulances and serving as a nurse. Dissatisfied with ‘women’s work’, he got work at the Bristol Remount Depot, breaking in horses for the front. In early 1918, this brought him to a stable in Kent, where he met recuperating Australian sergeant Harold Arkell-Smith, 36. By Saturday 27 April, the two were married at St. John’s Church, Milford.
This rapid turnaround notwithstanding, Arkell-Smith’s appeal has, it seems, been lost to history – he made promises about a ranch in Australia, which by all accounts didn’t exist, and on the couple’s London honeymoon, he proved himself a violent, impotent drunk. Within six weeks of their nuptials, Barker had returned to his parents, refusing reconciliation. Husband number one shortly thereafter returned to combat, and then to Australia. They never divorced, nor even spoke again.
Undeterred, Barker joined the Women’s Royal Air Force that August, realising a childhood dream of serving the Empire. But his adventure was cut short by the death of his father in October, and the November armistice. He returned to the family home in Milford, where he promptly met the recently-demobbed Officer Ernest Pearce-Crouch, with whom Barker ‘fell head over heels in love’.
Husband number two was gentler than his predecessor and had no objections to his wife’s penchant for men’s suits and cigars. After a year in Paris, Pearce-Crouch’s unemployment forced them to return to Surrey in November 1920, just as their first child, Tony, was born. A daughter, Betty, followed in June 1921, by which time the Pearce-Crouches were living in reduced circumstances as tenant farmers in West Sussex.
Barker recalled Pearce-Crouch’s drinking and neglect in this period with some resentment, but the trouble really began when Barker met Elfrida Haward, 26, in early 1922. They immediately fell into an intense relationship; Pearce-Crouch, perhaps enraged by an affair, perhaps out of cruelty, assaulted Barker after he had spent the night with Haward, confining him to hospital for several days. In Barker’s recollection, this incident precipitated both the end of his common-law marriage, and his ‘metamorphosis of sex’. Pearce-Crouch got the boot, taking Betty with him, leaving Barker his beloved son Tony.
Sans husband and daughter, Barker began to prepare for life as a man; in addition to ‘smoking a continuous chain of cigarettes… to coarsen my voice’, he set his sights firmly on Haward.
In his words, ‘I told her that I was a man who had been injured in the war… acting as a woman for family reasons. I made some excuse about it being my mother’s wish.’ He and Pearce-Crouch had ‘thrown [their] lot in together’ and decided to pose as a couple. They were both in fact widowers, with Tony and Betty coming from their respective previous marriages, hence Betty’s departure with Pearce-Crouch when ‘things did not work out’. In short, he was not Valerie Barker, but ‘Captain Sir Victor Barker’, war hero and heir to a baronetcy.
Though Barker claimed that Haward ‘believed it’ – and indeed, Haward would later testify that she had believed it – police records from 1929 indicate that she was aware her paramour was ‘not like other men.’ But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What we do know is that Haward’s parents seem to have bought this line, because they began to pressure their daughter to marry Barker almost immediately despite openly loathing him.
On 15 October 1923, Barker left the farm with a suitcase and a tweed cap in his pocket and boarded a train. Once aboard, ‘I brushed my hair back, put my cap on at a rakish angle as befitted a sporting baronet.’ He alighted at Brighton, headed straight for the Grand Hotel, and blagged his way into a suite he claimed was ‘reserved for Sir Victor Barker.’ He went to a tailor and purchased an expensive new wardrobe on credit, and was joined the following day by Haward (’Mrs. Victor Barker’) and his son. And with the Hawards’ blessing, on 14 November, Francis Thomas William Victor Barker married Elfrida Haward at the Brighton Registry Office.
The newlyweds lived far beyond their virtually non-existent means in Brighton. Though he had some stage success with the Brighton Repertory Company – billed as ‘Captain Sir Victor Barker’ – by the summer of 1924 his many creditors, not least the Grand Hotel, were getting louder. The Captain and his household beat a hasty retreat to Andover for a stint running an antique shop and racking up further debt, before arriving in Brixton as Mr. and Mrs. Ivor Gauntlett and son. As Ivor Gauntlett, thespian, Barker enjoyed considerable success for two years in West End and touring productions, starring opposite the original Eliza Doolittle Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and the briefly-infamous muse of Jacob Epstein, ‘Dolores’. Barker’s alleged affair with Dolores, was, if not the penultimate straw, then certainly a heavy burden on the Barker-Haward marriage, already strained by his flagrant spending and womanising. Recognised by creditors while touring as Ivor Gauntlett in summer 1926, Barker packed the family off to a series of farms in Sussex and Staffordshire as Mr. and Mrs. Colonel Barker. Green Acres it was not. Their sudden penury, and the appearance of yet another rival, a ‘red-headed woman’, eventually drove Elfrida back to her parents. Crucially, the now-estranged couple did not divorce.
The redhead, to whom Barker referred to as his ‘second wife’, would be his sometime cohabitant in a Soho flophouse in the autumn of 1926. It was here that the letter from the National Fascisti would arrive, where we will pick up our examination of Barker’s life in the next article.
There are, of course, political stakes to history and its practice.
Barker, whether considered for his fascist involvement or not, has always been political – in the 1980s, he was framed as a trouser-wearing subversive, whose ‘cross-dressing’ signalled an inherently political desire to break free from restrictive gender-norms, fascist attachments notwithstanding. In the 1990s and 2000s, he was framed as a similarly lesbian or queer sexual outlaw, who pursued same-sex desires and troubled gender with ‘female masculinity’.
“It would be easy to read Barker’s con-artistry, philandering and fraud as delightfully camp, the historical realisation of the dictate to ‘be gay, do crimes’. […] to present-day sensibilities, Barker is ‘problematic’.”
But these readings ignore both Barker’s frequent statements that he was not subject to the ‘unnatural passions’ of lesbianism, and his framing of his relationships with women as ‘heterosexual’ – signs not of his gender insubordination, but his normative, respectable masculinity. Perhaps more significantly, such readings make of Barker someone whose personal politics or political import is not only congruent with modern feminist or queer sensibilities, but useful in present-day political projects as affirmations of a perennially subversive feminist or queer political or sexual essence. Reading Barker as trans, even while attempting honesty about his political ambivalence, could arise from similar motivations and produce similar effects.
It would be easy to read Barker’s con-artistry, philandering and fraud as delightfully camp, the historical realisation of the dictate to ‘be gay, do crimes’. But Barker’s life was not fodder for pastel infographics. Though his ambivalent transversals of social rules and hierarchies had anti-authoritarian resonances, he was not necessarily himself anarchic in his motivations or effects. Barker’s masculinity may have been a transmasculinity, enacted in performances which appropriated signifiers from hegemonic social forms – aristocracy, imperial militarism, elite education – and used them in projects of living which could be ‘queerly anti-social’ in certain respects, but these performances were not politicised bids to deconstruct hierarchies. Rather, they reflect his desire for masculine citizenship. This is all to say that to present-day sensibilities, Barker is ‘problematic’.
However, to understand his transversals of gender, class and politics as ‘collusions with hegemony’ is to retain a politicised aperture blind to the vagaries of human self-interest and political ambivalence. Thinking of Barker’s masculinity in terms of collusion and subversion with political systems can prevent us from understanding how he himself thought of his affiliations with groups and the ideals they modelled; because, like anyone, Barker often thought of his attachments as apolitical.
The ‘subversion/collusion’ paradigm also misses the complex ways in which Barker affected the structures to which he was attached. One could argue that his enfolding in old-boys networks of high-ranking military men problematises the norms which undergird and motivate the violent enforcement of biopolitical projects of imperial governance. But this argument also depends upon a willingness to abstract material realities – in his brief blackshirt days, Barker beat up Communists and participated in fascist demonstrations. He was vociferously nationalistic all his life, enthusiastically embracing the imperialism with which he was inculcated, was a proponent and sometime beneficiary of class and military structures. He was a philanderer prone to neglecting his female partners, who spoke disdainfully about the weakness and idiocy of women. Certainly, this is because he saw these things as vital constituents of British masculinity, but their larger ideological import is not extricable from their masculine social valuation. In essence, the ‘social’ was a structural constituent of Barker’s attachments, but not something wholly-distinct from the ‘political’. Moreover, these attachments did not merely structure his own psyche and worldview; they led Barker to march in fascist demonstrations and idealise imperial-masculine service of King and country.
This is less to say that there was a ceiling or limit to Barker’s ‘subversion’, such as it was, and more an indication that his actions should be understood with reference to both their political and personal contexts and effects. It also crucially demonstrates that a nuanced engagement with historical politics necessitates a parallel confrontation of the politics of history as a practice – the political motivations behind the stories we tell about the past, what we find and what we want to find. When we consider his fascist and military attachments, we complicate the politically-satisfying image of Barker the subversive ‘being gay and doing crimes’. He ceases to become an ancestor of which we can be proud – or indeed, one we can iconise and deploy in a politics of Pride.
While Barker doubtless disrupts rather than affirms our present conceptions of gender, British masculinity, and the political attachments we make to queer and trans identities, to read him as solely ‘disturbing’ would be to reconfigure a living historical person as critique of historical practice. If we are to ask ‘who was Colonel Barker?’ we must do so without anticipating or seeking any political link with the present, whether as part of a shared tradition, or as a disruption or complication of present-day politics. We must consider him on his own terms. Those terms include a grounded historical understanding, and crucially, a recognition of the political desires which animate our histories, and the reality that some pasts refuse to be politically unambiguous, let alone ‘useful’.
Barker’s ambivalence, his ‘disturbing attachments’ and categorical troublemaking might prompt us to reconsider some of those figures we have iconised – not because Marsha P. Johnson or Alan Turning were secretly ‘problematic’, but because the creation of icons often involves the destruction of history. Because they were, first and foremost, people.
Next time, we will discuss some of Barker’s more outrageous ‘lives’ after Elfrida Haward, and detail his military and fascist attachments.
Collis, Rose, Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment: A Tale of Female Husbandry (London, Virago, 2001)
Vernon, James, ‘For Some Queer Reason’: The Trials and Tribulations of Colonel Barker’s Masquerade in Interwar Britain’ Signs 26, no. 1 (2000) 37–62
Cvetkovich, Ann, An Archive of Feelings Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, Duke University Press, 2004)
Felski, Rita, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, University Chicago Press, 2015)
Mannion, Jen, Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Halberstam, Jack, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York, New York University Press, 2007)
Love, Heather, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Durham, Duke University Press, 2007)
Love, Heather, Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Title image taken from Rose Collis’ website.
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.