Part II: husband, actor, manager
Part III: the trial
Part IV: reactions, and afterwards
Victor Barker did not pay much attention to an obscenity trial that took place in November 1928, that of John Radcliff Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, whose protagonist was a masculine woman. With much brouhaha the book was banned.
A bankruptcy notice and receiving order addressed to Barker was delivered to the Mascot Café, but Barker had left and did not go back. Hence he did not know that he was required to be present for a public hearing on 24 January 1929. An arrest warrant was subsequently issued, Barker’s presence at the Regent Palace Hotel was discovered, and he was there arrested. He was taken to Brixton Prison, where like all new prisoners he was medically examined. He was told to put his clothes back on and was quickly transferred to Holloway women’s prison.
It took a week before the first newspaper article about him appeared in The Times. This was quickly followed by articles in The Daily Herald and The Evening News. Government departments paid attention. The War Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions exchanged files.
Barker’s lawyers raised the issue that a person arrested as a man was being held in a women’s prison – which appeared to be unlawful. In addition they made application in the bankruptcy court that all information in connection with the bankruptcy had now been supplied and thus the offence had been purged. Barker’s immediate release was ordered.
However Holloway insisted that no woman would leave dressed as a man. This despite the fact that they had no women’s clothing that would match Barker, especially in girth. A special purchase was made, and the next day Barker was handed a coat, skirt, blouse, silk stockings and a large hat. A large crowd of reporters and onlookers awaited, but Barker was allowed to leave by the staff entrance at the back.
By now the police had tracked down Valerie’s second husband, Ernest Pearce Crouch, who had spent the last six years working sometimes in France, sometimes in England. He politely declined to give a statement.
Elfrida Haward (Barker) however was talking to the police, and to the press.
In the same weekend, 10 March 1929 both Mr and Mrs Barker published their respective accounts in the press. Victor’s story was in the Sunday Dispatch, illustrated with photographs of both Valerie and Victor.
“A man seems to have a better and easier time. There is, I am certain, more opportunity for a man in the world than a woman – that is why I became a man. I believe that, similarly placed, I would do much the same again. I do not mean that I would deliberately do those things which I now realize were wrong, but they were done in foolishness and not with any wrong intent.”Elfida’s account was in the Sunday Express.
“It could not have been more of a shock to any woman in the world than it was to me to find myself utterly deluded, utterly alone in experience, in a position that made my name known to every man and woman in the country.”The Director of Public Prosecutions was considering whether they could charge Barker under the Army Act for impersonating an officer and wearing medals that had not been awarded to him. Instead they settled for charging him with “wilful and corrupt perjury in an affidavit” re his bankruptcy “in which affidavit she swore that she was truly named Leslie Ivor Victor Gauntlett Bligh Barker”.
Wisely or not, Barker turned up for the hearing on 27 March in female clothing including a large hat and a large feather boa, so that he could hide his face.
Barker’s lawyer made the obvious point that there was no law against a woman dressing as a man, and in the affidavit Barker had used the name by which ‘she’ had been known for some time, and thus that was the name given. This was allowed in English law. The magistrate agreed.
However the prosecution than asked the magistrate to hear evidence and commit the defendant for trial on a different issue. In violation of the Perjury Act, 1911, the defendant had “knowingly and wilfully caused a false statement to be entered in a register of marriage”. The doctor from Brixton prison and Elfrida were called as witnesses. A copy of the marriage certificate was produced. Barker’s lawyer attempted the argument that “as two persons of the same sex could not marry there has been no marriage, and therefore no offence”. The magistrate was not having that.
The perjury in an affidavit charge was dropped, but Barker was formally charged with the second offence re the marriage register. £50 bail was granted, and the trial was set for 24 April at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey).
The judge was to be Sir Ernest Wild, KC, Conservative MP, Freemason, Recorder of London, who had been a strong supporter of the failed attempt in 1921 to criminalise “any act of gross indecency between female persons”, and who was firmly opposed to female jurors, especially in cases where the defendants were homosexual. The Prosecutor would be the same one Barker had faced in 1927 on a false firearms certificate charge.
On the day of the trial there was large queue for the public gallery. Victor Barker appeared dressed as his true self, but was summoned under the name of Lillias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith. The prosecutor admitted, with some embarrassment, that the defendant had been prosecuted in this same court as a man two years previously. He made the comment
“If she wanted to marry another woman she could have gone through a ceremony in a registry office. There is no justification for her abusing the Church to go through this ceremony”.And then:
“Your Lordship will appreciate how important it is that marriage registers should not be falsified. That is an aspect of the case which is of considerable gravity”.
Elfrida was the main witness. Despite admitting that she first met the defendant as Mrs Pearce Crouch, she claimed that she did not truly know Barker as a woman until she saw it in the newspapers. Barker's lawyer in summing up concentrated on Barker’s need to earn a male wage, and once having taken that step she had to keep it up or lose the employment. He did not defend the point about a false statement being entered in a register of marriage.
Sentencing was delayed until the next day when Recorder Wild commented:
“Without expressing any view as to the truth or falsity of Miss Haward’s evidence, I am assuming in your favour that Miss Haward must have known before the alleged marriage that you were a woman”. He concluded: “I have considered and carefully pondered on everything which can be said in your favour, and the result at which I have arrived is this. You are an unprincipled, mendacious and unscrupulous adventuress. You have, in the case before me, profaned the House of God, you have outraged the decencies of Nature, and you have broken the law of man. You have falsified a marriage register and set an evil example which, were you to go unpunished, others might follow. So grave in the eye of the law is the offence which you have committed that the maximum penalty for it is seven years’ penal servitude. In all the circumstances of this case, showing all the leniency that I can, I pass on you a sentence of nine months’ imprisonment in the second division.”
The police considered action against Ernest Pearce Crouch who had made a false declaration in applying for Valerie Arkell Smith to be added to his passport; however they decided not to pursue the issue.
In Holloway prison, it was found that they had no uniform large enough to fit the new inmate known as Valerie Arkell Smith who weighed 16st 8 lb (105kg). It took a fortnight for the uniform to be ready, most of which Arkell Smith spent in the prison hospital. In the regular prison he was dismayed by the sanitation, by the food and by the non-recognition of class. The required work was tedious.
While Barker was in jail, Violet Morris, in Paris, also a masculine woman who always wore male clothing, sued the women's sporting authorities for rejecting her. She insisted that she was not at all like Barker in that she did not attempt to pass as male.
Overall Arkell Smith was regarded as of good behaviour, and was released 15 December 1929. By now his weight was down to just above 13 st (82.5 kg).
Not only was there no law against a woman dressing as a man, there was no specific law against any cross-dressing. This had been established in the trial of Fanny and Stella in 1870. Those persons arrested while transvesting were charged with ‘disturbing the peace’, ‘mischief’ etc.
Women’s fashions during the 1920s approached very close to transvestity. Barker, of course, had gone much further than making a fashion statement.
The second Mrs Barker seems to have quietly disappeared. Only the Sunday People speculated about her: "'Col. Barker's' Red-Haired 'Wife' Vanishes: She Was 'His' Second". Front page, 10 March 1929. Despite a detailed series of articles on Barker, The People strangely carried no account of the actual trial.
The prosecutor made the comment “If she wanted to marry another woman she could have gone through a ceremony in a registry office”. Now this is odd in that such a ceremony, for gay men, lesbians or a couple containing a trans person, in a registry office would not be legal until the government introduced civil unions in 2004. Even after the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 such a ceremony is still not allowed in an Anglican church.
Barker’s lawyer focused on the practical aspect of men getting jobs more easily and earning more. The issue of Barker being a congenital invert (to use the language of the time) did not come up, and as we will see in Part IV, this led to misunderstandings.
The three trials, that of The Well of Loneliness, of Victor Barker and of Violet Morris, marked the end of the 1920s acceptance of female masculinity. The 1930s would be very different.