He married his first wife in either the Old Parish Church of Sheffield or Sheffield Cathedral in January 1817. Through the 1820s and 1830s they lived in Manchester where he built up a bricklaying firm that specialized in chimney and flue construction. His wife was the company accountant, and at its peak the company employed eight men and an apprentice.
Harry had been sworn in as a Special Constable in 1829 in the 13th division, and acted in that capacity in the first days of the Chartist Riots, 1838.
In April, also 1838, after 22 years of marriage, Harry’s wife approached a lawyer as she wanted a separation. Harry was withholding housekeeping money, getting drunk and ill-treating her.
This was almost 20 years before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Divorce was governed by ecclesiastical courts and the canon law of the Church of England. In practice only the very wealthy, who could afford a private bill in Parliament, were able to get a divorce. However there was a chance of annulment.
Mrs Stokes also stated, that she accidentally made the discovery of the sex of her husband “as much as two or three years back” but that she had kept the secret till the present time. Harry was then examined by a police surgeon who did certify that he was a woman. This led to stories in the press, gossip and ridicule, and ballads that were composed and sung in the streets.
While no legal proceedings were taken, Harry had several conversations with the deputy constable and was persuaded to give the family home and contents to his wife, but refused to set aside any sum as a provision for her. Harry ceased to be a special constable in that he not present himself to be re-sworn at the annual procession at Manchester’s New Bailey.
A year later Harry met Francis Collins who, initially out of pity, took him on as a lodger in nearby Salford for a couple of years. She was 10 years his senior, a barmaid with an adult son and daughter. They returned to Manchester and established a beer-house under her name. They were assumed to be a couple and Collins took the name of Stokes. Eleven years later they opened a second beer-house under the name of her son.
However Harry in later years fell into decayed circumstances. In October 1859, a body was found in the River Irwell. The corpse was identified as that of Harry Stokes, then aged 60. The stories of 1838 being remembered, two women were deputed to examine the body. They reported back that it was of a “woman”. Again there were various newspaper stories about the “man woman”. Francis Collins Stokes maintained that despite sharing a bed with Stokes for 20 years she did not know that he was a woman.
- "A Female-Husband". The Manchester Guardian. 11 April 1838:2. Online.
- "The Woman-Husband". The Manchester Guardian. 14 April 1838: 2. Online.
- “A Female Husband in Manchester”. The Weekly Dispatch, 15 April 1838: 175. Reprinted in Oram & Turnbull.
- "A Woman Passing as a Man for Forty Years". The Manchester Examiner. 22 October 1859. Online.
- “ ‘Harry’ Stokes, The Man Woman”. Salford Evening News, October 1859. Online.
- The Lancet: A Journal of British and Foreign Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, Physiology, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Public Health and News, Volume 2, 1859:649-650. Online.
- Alison Oram & Annmarie Turnbull. The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780–1970. Routledge, 2001: 21-3, 26-8.
- Esther Roper & Eva Gore-Booth. “Harry Stokes – Manchester’s ‘female husband’ “. Warp and Weft, https://wearewarpandweft.wordpress.com/harry-stokes-a-female-husband-in-manchester.
- Esther Roper & Eva Gore-Booth. “Harry Stokes – timeline “. Warp and Weft. https://wearewarpandweft.wordpress.com/harry-stokes-a-female-husband-in-manchester/harry-stokes-timeline.
Some accounts (Lancet, Salford Evening News) ignore the first wife married in Sheffield and instead tell of a one-day marriage to a widow, Betsy, who kept a beerhouse, but objected that her new husband was a woman and charged him with assault, which led to his spending a month in the New Bailey prison. Warp and Weft think that maybe this was misremembering because of the ballads that were sung in 1838.