The recent ‘fake man’ case reminds me that history is littered with men posing as women and vice-versa. One of the more highly publicised cases was that of Colonel Leslie Ivor Victor Gauntlett Bligh Barker. In the late 1920s he ran a restaurant, hunted and boxed, and had enough spare time to be a leading light in the National Fascist party.
It was only after the colonel’s arrest at the Regent Palace hotel on bankruptcy charges, and subsequent examination in the reception area of Brixton prison, that she was hastily shuffled off to Holloway and released after a day. Unfortunately, the damage was done and she now appeared at the Old Bailey charged with causing a false entry to be made in a marriage register. She had been married as a woman and then, towards the end of the first world war, had two children by an Australian who had left her. She then adopted men’s clothing, gazetted herself and took a title. Thinking it better for her son Tony, to whom she was devoted, to have a woman’s influence, she married a chemist’s daughter, Elfrieda Hayward. A lack of sexual intercourse was explained away by war injuries.
At the Old Bailey she gave the sad explanation that ‘the world offers more opportunities for advancement to a man than it does to a woman’. Unfortunately, she found the recorder of London, Sir Ernest Wild, in intransigent mood. He sentenced her to nine months’ imprisonment before taking her counsel Henry Curtis-Bennett back to his room to explain the reasoning behind the sentence: ‘I sentenced her for the profanation of holy matrimony and for her unfeminine conduct. She outraged the decency of nature and broke the law of man.’
Barker’s son was killed in the second world war without knowing his father was in fact his mother. She went to live, again as a man, in a village in Suffolk where she died in 1960. She had outlived Wild by nearly a quarter of a century.
Wild could manage some splendid gaffes while on the bench. One of his better ones came when he was dealing with a gross indecency case: ‘As long as I sit in this exalted seat I will cleanse the public urinals of our great metropolis with the utmost vigour and determination.’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor