It’s not entirely clear how exactly it happened – as in many other matters, neither Barker, nor others who have attempted to tell his story, could get everything totally straight. But it likely began with a letter.
In autumn 1926, a letter from the London headquarters of the National Fascisti, addressed to a Colonel Victor Barker, was delivered to a boarding house on Rupert Street, Soho. It extended either a warm invitation to said Colonel to join the Fascisti, or an offer of employment there. In any case, its eventual, if not intended recipient, shortly thereafter became live-in secretary to the National Fascisti’s President, Col. Henry Rippon-Seymour at their headquarters in Earl’s court.
As you’ve probably guessed, the Victor Barker who received this letter and took the secretarial post, the subject of this series, was not its intended recipient. He was also not actually a colonel; nor, it could be argued, was he necessarily a fascist. Nor was his name always Victor Barker – though, for the sake of clarity, we will call him Victor Barker, because if nothing else, that was what stuck, and what he generally stuck to. In any case, when the woman then living with Victor Barker as his ‘second wife’ asked him why he was joining the National Fascisti on the back of this stranger’s letter, his response was ‘why not?’. His son, Tony, was packed off to boarding school, and ‘Mrs. Barker’ seemingly left to her own devices.
To cut a long story short, this is how the transmasculine would-be-Colonel Victor Barker joined a small but notorious offshoot of the early British fascist movement.
In our previous instalment in this ongoing series investigating the many lives of Colonel Barker, we discussed Barker’s life up to this point, and the methodological and political stakes in telling his story. Today, we will tell that story in full, considering the depth of Barker’s Fascist attachments, and setting up his life on the eve of the explosive 1929 trial which would bring Barker’s estranged wife back into his life, and shove the estranged couple into directly the national-media spotlight.
As secretary to N.F. President Col. Rippon-Seymour, Barker found himself literally living in the power-circle of a small, often violent extremist organisation.
The mid-1920s were a time of intense upheaval in Britain in the wake of WWI. Discourses we would today identify as ‘fascist adjacent’ – eugenics, degeneration theory, jingoistic imperialism – were, if not bipartisan or widely-held in a developed or committed fashion, then part of an ambient social, cultural and political climate. With that said, ‘fascism’, whether as a sign or a coherent political programme, was never exactly mainstream in 1920s Britain. The British Fascisti, founded in 1923, were the key forebear of Mosley’s Union of British Fascists, which followed in 1932 and became the largest political movement of the interwar period under the banner of fascism. For a time the B.F. was accorded outsize historical importance by those who believed its claims of a peak membership of 200,000, which in reality never exceeded the thousands. Nor was the B.F. ever exactly ideologically unified. Despite an elaborate governing apparatus and considerable efforts to build institutions and social programmes, ideological differences fragmented the organisation. Following disagreement over participation in the 1926 General Strike, extant internal factions split from the group entirely.
The National Fascisti absorbed the more radical, recognisably ‘fascist’ element of the diverse B.F. membership which was loosely united by anti-Socialism and anti-trade-unionism. Nonetheless, from its inception in 1924, founders fundamentally disagreed on what the N.F. was – a paramilitary organisation dedicated to ‘smashing the reds and pinks’, or a natural ‘development of the Scout movement’. Though N.F. membership topped out at just under 400 in early 1927, its frequent violence attracted outsize publicity. In response to a series of negative articles by the Daily Herald covering the N.F.’s violent clashes with socialists, and an undercover sting operation resulting in an unflattering front-page story, in 1925 four N.F. members hijacked a Herald delivery van at gunpoint, deliberately crashing it. The B.F. and larger conservative organisations attempted to distance themselves from the N.F., which briefly became the focus of widespread anxiety about internal threats to democracy and political radicalism.
His ‘why not’ entry notwithstanding, Barker quickly insinuated himself into the broader fascist milieu. Long-time British Fascisti member and its then-President Brigadier-General Blakeney recalled Barker’s ‘devotion’ to the N.F. and fascist causes generally; ‘I thought Col. Barker was a very keen officer… whenever there were matters where it was necessary for stout fellows to take part, he was ready for the job.’ The N.F. frequently needed ‘stout fellows’ in its Hyde Park brawls with Communists and Socialists. In addition to secretarial work, Barker was brought on to train younger recruits for such combat, teaching boxing and fencing. He recalled ‘teaching the young chaps lessons in life’ with fondness.
Less clear are Barker’s feelings on the clashes themselves. Speaking in 1929 and 1937, he fondly recalled ‘thrashing the reds’ in much the same style as his compatriots. Later in life, he described his fear that ‘during one of these rough-houses, I should have the clothes torn from my back and be revealed as a woman.’ These registers – jocularity and introspective anxiety – suggest that Barker understood the Fascisti, the stakes and effects of his participation in it, on primarily ‘social’ rather than ‘political’ terms. His attachment to the N.F. arose from a desire for homosocial camaraderie within a hypermasculine, militaristic frame. N.F. membership provided him with an imperial masculine citizenship akin to that of the soldier, theretofore closed to him. It furnished him with the lived experiences which underlay the military significations he had frequently appropriated.
That anxiety prompted something like reflection in Barker; the ‘social’ stakes of his N.F. membership were such that his fear of ‘exposure’ went beyond his embodied difference, to encompass a deeper feeling of fraudulence. Serving as colour-bearer in a fascist Armistice Day demonstration at the Irving Statue war memorial in 1926, Barker felt deeply ashamed of posing as a veteran as he marched alongside fellow travellers who were actual veterans. What ‘haunted’ Barker, even from his retrospective position in the England of 1954, was not his participation in a fascist demonstration, but guilt over stolen valour. So powerful was the sense of belonging he experienced in the N.F. that fear of ‘exposure’ led him to derealise his own performance of soldier citizenship. Where Barker’s core sense of his own masculinity made him comfortable with other ‘more daring’ performances of elite masculinity, this particular appropriation felt ideologically wrong, and incited feelings of otherness. This shame perhaps signals a deeper attachment to the quasi-military life of the Fascisti than Barker had previously experienced.
Barker’s fascist adventure would halt as a long-simmering power-struggle in the N.F. came to a head.
In December 1926, four members of the Croydon branch of the N.F. had attempted to overturn Rippon-Seymour’s ‘self-elected’ presidency, accusing him of ‘systematically misappropriating funds of the society’. Though assembled leaders demurred and instead ousted the four, on 8 March 1927, several Croydon members arrived at the Hogarth Road headquarters where Rippon-Seymour and Barker lived to force a confrontation. Barker attempted to stop them, but they broke in with clubs bursting into Seymour’s office, where the president pulled first a sword, and then a Webley pistol. During the ensuing standoff, the police arrived, arresting all parties and confiscating the unregistered gun. Though Rippon-Seymour was initially charged for its possession, this charge was transferred to Barker, its actual owner. Barker attempted to forge a certificate before he was brought in, but was unable to convince the police, who arrested him and committed him for trial at the Old Bailey.
Though neither Barker’s last nor his most auspicious moment on the stand, his court appearance on 25 July 1927 was perhaps his most absurd. In a gambit Barker and his solicitor Freke Palmer ginned up in lieu of an actual defence, the defendant arrived at his trial for forgery and illegal possession of a firearm with his eyes entirely bandaged, feeling his way to the stand with a cane. Barker informed Judge Atherley-Jones that the stress of his arrest had exacerbated the neurasthenia he had been left with by war wounds, leading to temporary blindness. Amazingly, this bid for sympathy worked on the jury, and he was found not guilty and discharged.
However, behind the scenes, wheels began slowly turning – the Director of Public Prosecutions contacted the War Office, who found no record of Colonel Victor Barker. The War Office soon after informed the DPP that Andover police had been attempting to trace a ‘Captain Sir Victor Barker’, a prolific fraudster who was in fact ‘a woman masquerading as a man’. Similar queries had come from Stourbridge and Staffordshire.
No matter: after summer cooling his heels in Hampton-on-Thames, the death of Barker’s estranged brother Tom brought a windfall of around a thousand pounds. That October, Barker and yet another otherwise-anonymous woman he called his ‘second wife’, moved into an expensive furnished flat on 8 Hertford Street, Mayfair, where Mr. And Mrs. Colonel Sir Victor Barker lived extravagantly. By wearing various military uniforms and medals he had somehow obtained at one of London’s elite nightspots, Barker managed to ingratiate himself into an old-boys network of high-ranking servicemen. In December 1927, Barker went so far as to establish a ‘Brotherhood of the Mons’ for veterans of the August 1914 battle in Belgium, over which he presided as President. By the following August, he was leading 1,500 ‘fellow Mons veterans’ in procession from Embankment to the Cenotaph. He claimed to have dined at Buckingham Palace shortly thereafter. Accounts abound from well-known military men and veterans of battles and regiments Barker claimed to have participated in, attesting to the absolute brilliance of his invented backstories. Barker had achieved the elite masculine citizenship he had always desired, and enjoyed the power that came with it.
If, as the truism goes, fascism is about the introduction of aesthetics into political life, then it seems possible to argue that Barker’s fascism was only skin deep – to think of his ‘fascism’ as a sign without any ideological import, like a name he briefly adopted which, in developing no deeper personal history, remained an alias rather than becoming a ‘life’. Based on the reflexivity of his deference to militarism, and the spontaneity of his stint as a British blackshirt, it seems somewhat fair to say that his attachment to the ideologies underlying their aesthetic and social forms was in some crucial way ‘thin’ or insubstantial. Certainly, Barker’s associations with the Fascisti and the army seem to be primarily motivated by the aesthetics of masculine citizenships that these associations gave him access to, costumes which in turn opened privileged homosocial worlds of camaraderie to him. We’re veering into psychoanalysis here, but what I want to underline is that while Barker’s motivations seem to have been more social and ‘psychological’ than ‘political’, these fascist and military aesthetics were perhaps portable and fungible, but by no means plastic or detachable. To don them with one’s own agenda is neither inherently subversive, nor is it ‘only’ or necessarily collusive in effect. These signs still carried ideological resonance, and moreover, the citizenships and social groups they conferred were, regardless of Barker’s understanding of them, necessarily bound up in politics and ideology.
With this said, how should we consider the significance or effects of Barker’s belonging to such groups?
As discussed in the introductory article, to think of Barker’s attachments in terms of ‘subversion’/’collusion’ might lead us to theoretically interesting, but perhaps historically dishonest conclusions that Barker ‘queering fascism’ – while one could argue that Barker’s very presence in the National Fascisti undermined fascist gender ideologies, what would be the historical import of such an observation? What would it tell us about either the queer agent or fascist ideology? The National Fascisti had hardly developed explicit stances on transmasculinity for Barker to subvert, but more crucially, his was a ‘transmasculine presence’ which materially furthered the interests of the cause rather than undermined them. Barker’s ‘transness’ notwithstanding, he participated in fascist demonstrations, beat up socialists and communists with his compatriots, and hobnobbed with luminaries of British fascism even after he left the N.F.
While ‘hegemony’ and ‘masculine citizenship’ are useful heuristics for considering some of Barker’s lives, these analytics might create the undue impression that Barker’s various guises or desires to belong were motivated by some consciously political or ideological impulse, or that his attachments were ‘calculated’ to disguise or distance himself from the ‘queer’ he truly was. Barker was not Machiavelli, and he certainly didn’t think of himself as ‘queer’ in any way that resonates with modern conceptions of ‘queerness’ as radical and liberatory. It is perhaps easy to think of Barker in these abstract terms of relative levels of ‘queerness’ and ‘normativity’ in part because Barker’s life was so bizarre that he seems to stand outside of historical circumstances, in some ahistorical space where we can project our own conceptions of ‘queerness’ and ‘normativity’ onto him and his behaviours. But Barker’s ‘problematic’ personal life and political attachments may actually be used to historicise and de-exceptionalise him. We can better situate him within wider trends as one of the many ‘ordinary people’ who made such attachments in the interwar period. The waxing and waning of his ambivalence and enthusiasm can also elucidate something of the structure and function of such ‘ordinary’ fascist and conservative attachments; because, like anyone, Barker often thought of his attachments as apolitical.
“It is perhaps easy to think of Barker in these abstract terms of relative levels of ‘queerness’ and ‘normativity’ in part because Barker’s life was so bizarre that he seems to stand outside of historical circumstances, in some ahistorical space where we can project our own conceptions of ‘queerness’ and ‘normativity’ onto him and his behaviours. But Barker’s ‘problematic’ personal life and political attachments may actually be used to historicise and de-exceptionalise him.”
In essence, while it is important to grapple with their wider significance and how they situate Barker within violent systems of imperial governance, considering Barker’s masculinity and masculine belongings through the simplistic paradigm of ‘collusion’/’subversion’ with political systems can prevent us from understanding how he understood himself and his affiliations with existing groups and the ideals they modelled. Moreover, thinking from Barker’s perspective might enable a more nuanced consideration of how military or fascist groups and ideologies functioned in broader social life.
Of course, the incredibly lavish lifestyle Col. Sir Barker and his ‘second wife’ were living among the wealthy and powerful quickly dried up Barker’s inheritance and credit line. In February 1928, Barker’s by now fantastic debts led him to lease a Leicester Square café, which he would run and populate with his elite connections. But the Mascot Café folded within four months of its 12 May opening. By autumn Barker was truly broke and, facing court summons from his landlord and other creditors, he contacted a solicitor, signing a sworn affidavit as ‘Col. Sir Leslie Victor Gauntlett Bligh Barker, DSO’, retired cavalryman. Leaving the Mascot shuttered, Barker moved to Markham Square with his sometime-wife, and began working as a reception clerk at the Regent Palace as Mr. Victor Barker.
However, Barker’s time on the straight-and-narrow wouldn’t last.
The bankruptcy notice and receiving order on Col. Gauntlett Bligh Barker for public examination at bankruptcy court on 24 January 1929, delivered to the now-abandoned café, went unanswered. Officials finally traced Barker to the Regent, where he was arrested on 28 February and taken to Brixton Prison. Upon medical examination, it was determined that he be transferred to the all-women’s Holloway Prison. Within a week, the first headlines describing Barker’s ‘amazing masquerade’ hit newsstands – behind the scenes, various officials connected dots, and Barker’s former lives began to catch up to him.
Next week, we will discuss Barker’s trials – first for bankruptcy and then for felonious marriage – and the media circus that made him a celebrity.
David Alderson. ‘Queer Romances with Fascism’ Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, 13, 77–93
Julie Wheelwright (1989) ‘Colonel’ barker: A case study in the contradictions of fascism, Immigrants & Minorities, 8:1-2, 40-4
Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011), 147–71
Collis, Rose, Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment: A Tale of Female Husbandry (London, Virago, 2001)
Doan, Laura, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experiences of Modern War 1914-1918 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013)
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
Amin, Kadji, Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History (Durham, Duke University Press, 2017)
McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race. Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York and London: Routledge, 1995
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.