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07 July 2017

William Sidney Holtom (1886 – 19??) haulier, navvy

Sarah Withers married a farm labourer, William Holtom at the age of 18. However Sarah felt quite wrong in the situation, and after two years left. “The idea struck me that it would help me if I dressed as a man, as I did not like the idea of domestic service. I spent the few shillings I possessed in buying men’s clothing, and then tramped to Birmingham.” The one thing that Sarah took from the matrimonial home was her husband’s name. Sarah was now William Holtom.

In 1924 William Holtom was working on a coal wharf in Birmingham where he met Mabel, the sister of his employer. He was already living with a woman, and Mabel had a young daughter. They met again in Worcester, where Mabel was in service. Although he refused to marry her, they both left their existing partners and set up common-law in Evesham, Worcestershire.

William worked as a coal heaver, a cow-man, a road mender and a timber haulier. In the latter he had been employed taking large trees from the Cotswold hills, driving four or six shire horses. In 1927 his best workmate was killed under the wagon that he was driving, and his nerves went to pieces. This led to his quitting that work. After medical treatment he worked as a navvy in a team building a bridge. He also did odd jobs and repaired boots.

William smoked the extra-strong Black Twist, specially ordered by the local tobacconist. He drank cider, and went with mates from the pub to the English Football Cup Final. He was also a thoughtful and considerate husband and father. In 1928 Mr and Mrs Holtom had a baby son, whom they named William after his father. In April 1929 the Colonel Barker story was prominently in the newspapers, and Holtom expressed indignation at the masquerade.

However two weeks later, Holtom was taken ill, and admitted to the Evesham Poor Law Hospital men’s ward with enteric fever. He was then 42. This led to a discovery of strapping around his chest, and he was hastily transferred to the women’s ward. The story was quickly picked up by the local, and then the national press. He was moved to a private ward for privacy.
Oram p69


As William recovered, the police considered charging Mabel with making a false statement to the Registrar of Births and Deaths at Evesham with regard to the father of her second child. Holtom, under the name Sarah Holtom, was called as a witness before Evesham Borough Police Court and admitted that he did not know who the father was. Mabel appeared at the Birmingham Assizes 11 July and plead guilty. The court heard that her estranged husband, abandoned five years before, was willing to take her back, if he could find work where they were not known. Mabel was bound over in the sum of £30 ‘to be of good behaviour for two years’.
  • “An Evesham ‘Col Barker’: A Man-Woman Timber Haulier”. Evesham Journal, 11 May 1929:2.
  • “Another Man-Woman: Amazing Fortitude of Masquerader”. News of the World, 12 May 1929:5.
  • “Man-Woman’s Pose for 15 Years”. The People, 12 May 1929:3.
  • Rose Collis. Colonel Barker's monstrous regiment: a tale of female husbandry. Virago, 2001: 182-3, 189-93.
  • Alison Oram. Her Husband was a Woman!: Women's gender-crossing in modern British popular culture. Routledge, 2007: 1-2, 68-73.
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The spelling of William's name varies.   Oram settled on Holton, Collis on Holtom.

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