Part II: husband, actor, manager
Part III: the trial
Part IV: reactions, and afterwards
John Radclyffe Hall, in the doldrums after her novel, The Well of Loneliness, had been found obscene and banned in November 1928, and who partially cross-dressed herself but never really tried to pass as a man, wrote: 'I would like to see [Colonel Barker] drawn and quartered. A mad pervert of the most undesirable type'. Radclyffe Hall considered herself an invert and Barker a pervert, but despite what was said at Barker’s trial about passing as male to earn a wage, it was Barker, not Radcliffe Hall who lived full-time as male.
The novelist DH Lawrence wrote a pamphlet, A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover, later in 1929. This was to explain his novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and cited Elfrida’s belief that she was “married normally and happily to a real husband” as an example of the profound ignorance about sex in 1920s England.
The sports star, Violet Morris, in Paris, rejected by the French women's sporting authorities for her practice of wearing male clothing and who had just had her breasts removed, sued for reinstatement. She insisted that she was not at all like Barker in that she did not attempt to pass as male.
William Hilton, a timber haulier’s carter in Evesham, Worcestershire expressed great indignation about the Colonel Barker case. However he had recently quit his job after his best workmate had died under the wheels of the horse-drawn wagon he was driving. His health declined and when he was admitted to the infirmary with enteric fever, he was transferred to the women’s ward.
The farm that had been run by the Peace Crouches had since been acquired by Lady Evelyn and Colonel Guinness. Their son Bryan became engaged to Diana Mitford. Diana and her sisters had pored over the Colonel Barker story and she was thrilled to visit the scene of the crime. However she quickly learned that any mention of Barker was taboo by the dictat of Lady Evelyn. (The marriage of Bryan and Diana lasted three years; her second marriage of 42 years was to Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.)
On release Victor continued to live as a man. He still had his £9 a month annuity, but that was mainly taken by his son’s boarding school fees. Barker became John Hill.
He worked six months at a furniture store in Tottenham Court Road, and then became a car salesman, but was twice recognised by female customers who had read of his trials in the newspapers. He worked a little as an extra in films at Elstree studios.
In the summer of 1932 he was in Shanklin, a seaside resort on the Isle of Wight working as an assistant to a fortune teller and also to a diver who went off the end of the pier in an asbestos suit, soaked in petrol and set alight.
In 1934 he was working as a kennelman for 15/- a week in Henfield, West Sussex. On 18 August he found a forgotten purse in the village’s only phone box. On 27 September he was charged, as John Hill, for theft by finding. However his legal name as Valerie Arkell Smith was revealed to the court, which enabled his lawyer to explain his odd behaviour as a fear of being found not to be a man. The jury understood and returned a verdict of not guilty.
John Hill spent the rest of 1934 and 1935 as an assistant chef at two large hotels in Cornwall and Devon. For a few months he was a manservant to a South African millionaire. Then he was servant to a Mrs Adrian Scott, who administered a charity and received 400-500 letters a day from around the world enclosing contributions. There were piles of money in every room. Despite the piles, Hill took five one-pound notes from Mrs Scott’s handbag. A police detective-sergeant came round. Hill unbuttoned his waistcoat to be searched. The detective-sergeant noticed that he was “full in the chest” and realised that he was Victor Barker.
Hill then confessed, and was taken to Marlborough Street Police Court. He was remanded for a week which he spent in the hospital ward at Holloway prison. Although he pleaded guilty the detective-sergeant recounted that Hill was also Barker and also Arkell Smith etc. Hill was fined twenty shillings, and ordered to pay back the five pounds within a month.
This brought Hill/Barker to the attention of Luke Gannon, an impresario in the popular seaside resort of Blackpool.
Gannon’s previous star attraction had been the ex-Revd Harold Davidson, defrocked for immoral conduct with young women.
In 1937 Hill again became Colonel Barker, 'The most famous intersexual character of our time'. The set arranged by Gannon on the Golden Mile at Blackpool allowed viewers who had paid two pence to look down upon two beds separated by a belisha beacon and traffic lights permanently on red; Barker in one bed, his wife in the other.
|Colonel Barker in Blackpool|
At the boarding house where he stayed, Barker gave the name Jeffrey Norton. The wife from the exhibit, Eva, shared his bed.
After the ex-Revd Davidson’s unfortunate demise in July 1937 (the lion, with whom he shared his act in Skegness, mauled him) his wife sold her story in several parts to The Leader, a weekly publication. As she finished, The Leader started “Colonel Barker, the Man-Woman who Hoaxed the World”, which purported to be Barker’s soon-to-be-published autobiography, although no such book ever appeared.
With the coming of war in September 1939, and subsequently identify cards and then ration cards, Jeffrey Norton and his wife Eva were registered in those names. Jeffrey was working on the switchboard of a local hospital. At the suggestion of the police, he, like many men of his age, joined the Home Guard ("Dad’s Army").
Victor’s son had joined the Grenadier Guards in 1938, and after earning his commission had transferred to the RAF to be trained as a pilot. Mr and Mrs Norton moved back into London, and Jeffrey worked at a factory making Hurricane fighter planes, but he found that his legs could not take the long hours standing at the factory bench. He left and became a night porter at an expensive apartment building in Grosvenor Square.
Victor’s son, now a fighter pilot, announced his marriage, to be held in a church. The father was understandably nervous about signing the marriage register, even as a witness, as the groom’s father would normally be expected to do. So he pretended to have got into the wrong train, and arrived late.
By 1944 the son was a bomber pilot flying over Germany. Jeffrey volunteered to be a driver of an ‘incident lorry’ – to go out during air-raids and mark any signs of bomb damage with red lamps. One night, while driving near Regent’s Park, an explosion blew him out of his lorry, but he survived.
However his son died in the daylight bombing of German garrisons in France after the D-Day invasion.
In 1948, Geoffrey and Eva Norton (he had changed to the other spelling of his name) moved to Kessingland, Suffolk. They kept to themselves. In 1956 Geoffrey’s health deteriorated, and the village doctor had him admitted to Lowestoft Hospital, 4 miles (6 km) away. Initially in the men’s ward, he was quickly moved to the women’s, and then to a private room, although he was not asked to pay for the private room. Eva came regularly, even though the journey required two buses. She pushed him around in a wheelchair.
Despite the National Health Service being up and running, and therefore having no medical bills, Geoffrey Norton was still in need of money, and his solicitor acted as an agent and arranged for Barker’s life story to be sold to Empire News and Chronicle. It appeared 19 February till 15 April 1956. Barker, again writing as Valerie Arkell-Smith, insisted that there was nothing ‘perverted’ in the life that he had chosen.
He had “suffered no ‘tendency’ to become a ‘man’ … I have undergone no physical operation to turn me from woman into man, and physically I am, as I started out in life to be, 100 per cent woman. But so long have I lived as a man, that I have come to think as one, behave as one, and be accepted as one.” This was all done for the sake of his boy. “I ask for no pity or sympathy. You may feel that I do not deserve it anyway and maybe you are right.”
The story was not picked up by the local press in Suffolk, but the nurses at the hospital read it with interest. The Empire News and Chronicles sent the novelist Ursula Bloom to interview Barker at home as by this time he had been discharged.
He was not diagnosed while in hospital but over the next few years it became obvious that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease as did his mother. Barker was in hospital again in 1957, and in 1958 Eva was admitted, and died in hospital. A neighbour took on the task of looking after Geoffrey, assisted by the district nurse.
He sank into a coma and died in February 1960. He was buried in the grounds of the parish church, in an unmarked grave. He was 64.
The definitive account is, of course, that by Rose Collis, which I have largely followed. An excellent book.
Barker lived in many places. If you consult the EN.Wikipedia page for each you will find that in none of them is he listed among the notable residents.
Barker’s account in the Empire News and Chronicle was April 1956, two years before the press brouhaha about Michael Dillon, but two years after Betty Cowell’s autobiography. Most newspaper readers would not then know of female-to-male surgery, but Barker still feels a need to deny it.
Barker claimed at the 1929 trial that he lived as a man for the better wages and for his son, and claimed in his 1956 newspaper autobiography that he was 100% woman. However he never reverted to living as female, not after his son died in the skies over France, not when he was no longer earning more than a woman would. His existential need was to be male.
There is no record that Victor Barker ever met Joe Carstairs or any other trans man. The term was not then in use, of course. The most common term between the wars was 'female husband'. Collis gives episodes about other female husbands who were featured in the press, and one assumes that Barker read about them. There is good discussion in Alison Oram's Her Husband was a Woman! about how the newspapers at that time fitted such tales into standard patterns (although Oram refers to Barker only as 'she' and 'her').
*Not the novelist.
- Valerie Arkell-Smith. “The Man-Woman – My Story” Sunday Dispatch, 10 March 1929.
- Elfrida Barker. “My Story: By the Man-Woman’s Wife: Mrs Barker Reveals the Truth”. Sunday Express, 10 March 1929.
- Valerie Arkell-Smith. “Colonel Barker, the Man-Woman who Hoaxed the World”. The Leader, 11 September 1937.
- Valerie Arkell-Smith. “I Posed as a Man for 30 Years! My Amazing Masquerade – a wife confesses”. Empire News and Chronicle,19 February 1956
- Valerie Arkell-Smith. “I posed as a man for 30 years”. Empire News and Chronicle 19 February 1956.
- Julie Wheelwright. Amazons and Military Maids: Women who Dressed as Men in the Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness. Pandora 1989: 1-5,10,11,70,157,165.
- Julie Wheelwright. “’Colonel’ Barker: A Case Study in the Contradictions of Fascism”. In Tony Kushner & Kenneth Lunn. The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right, and Minorities in Twentieth-Century Britain. Riutledge, 1990: 40-8.
- James Vernon. “’For Some Queer Reason’: The Trails and Tribulations of Colonel Barker’s Masquerade in Interwar Britain”. Signs 26, 1 Autumn 2000: 37-62.
- Rose Collis. Colonel Barker's monstrous regiment: a tale of female husbandry. Virago, 2001.
- Laura L. Doan. Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. Columbia University Press, 2001: 82-94.
- Alison Oram & Annmarie Turnbull. The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780–1970. Routledge, 2001: 15, 38-43.
- Judith Halberstam. Female Masculinity. Duke Univ. Press, 2006: 91-5.
- Martin Pugh. Hurrah For The Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars. 2006: 54-5. 69.
- Alison Oram. Her Husband was a Woman!: Women's gender-crossing in modern British popular culture. Routledge, 2007: 2-3, 63-7, 76-7, 124-5, 150.
- Lyndsy Spence. Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, the Thirties Socialite. The History Press, 2015: 54.
WomenOfBrighton EN.Wikipedia Aangirfan