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30 September 2023

William Smith (1824 - ?) boot cutter

William had been raised as a girl called Sarah Geals, and trained in the family trade of boot-making. In the 1840s Smith arrived in London, began to dress as male and gave out the name of William Smith. His brother – and possibly his mother – knew of his gender change and were supportive. Soon after he was joined by Caroline, his apparent wife. They lived in a small house in Shoreditch, an area then known for furniture making. Money was tight, but William found work as a ‘clicker’ cutting out leather for boots and shoes, a high status role in the shoe industry. Much of this was work-at-home, but also some shop work, for James Giles, a boot-master on the Hackney Road. This arrangement continued for over a decade. At a time when most working-class couples did not socialize together in pubic, William and Caroline were often seen walking together, especially on Sunday.

In January 1863 Mrs Giles took to her bed with a severe illness. James asked William if his wife could come and nurse, which she did. However Mrs Giles died three days later. Caroline continued to go during the day to organize the household and help out, and this continued for a few months. At some point she let it slip that William was a ‘woman’.

Giles took advantage of this insisting that William dress as a woman, and also that Caroline become his wife. In exchange, William – now to be Sarah again - would be set up as manager of Giles’ second shop on Bow Street in Covent Garden and would continue at a man’s wage. And ‘Sarah’ and Caroline were allowed to spend Sundays together.

Sarah and her brother only were present at the wedding of James and Caroline. James lodged Sarah in what he called ‘respectable apartments’, actually a row of tenements on the Mile End Road owned by a single landlord where many of the other tenants were sex workers. After two years Giles decided that the profit at the Bow Street shop was inadequate and it should be closed. After an altercation which was remembered differently by all three, Giles received an unsigned letter which was clearly from Sarah in which she wrote that she was a “woman for spirit”, and suggested that he pay for emigration to New Zealand. 

A month went by with no answer, and then Sarah went to Giles’ shop with a gun, aimed at his face and pulled the trigger. The gun was incorrectly loaded, and he was unhurt. Giles was somewhat traumatised and it was a while before he summoned a constable. The policeman found her at home, and she went quietly to a police station. It was decided that the case warranted being sent to the Central Criminal Court. Sarah was taken to Newgate prison where she waited for her case to come to trial. 

The trial at the Old Bailey was on Wednesday 20 September 1865. The charge was:

"Feloniously attempting to discharge a loaded pistol at James Giles, with intent to murder him. Second count: with intent to do him some grievous bodily harm".

The first witness was Giles who emphasised that he had ‘helped’ Sarah regain her rightful identity and that her attack was supreme ingratitude. Two employees of his shop testified as did the police constable. All stated that the pistol had been incorrectly loaded. The defense called several persons who had known the defendant as William, and spoke of his excellent character. Caroline did not appear. Sarah never spoke. The judge instructed the jury as to the gravity of the crime, but added that if they believed she had merely intended to frighten or threaten the complainant, they might find her guilty of the second count only. Which they did. Sarah was then sentenced to five years – the minimum that incurred penal servitude rather than time in a local prison.

Sarah was removed to Millbank Prison, (located on the river front where the Tate Art Gallery now stands, ⅔ of a mile from Parliament) where she was given her first work assignment. She was to sew or pick thread from ropes for 10 hours a day, and was separated from other inmates for the first several months. In February she was transferred to Brixton Prison (then a women’s facility). The three-monthly report in the prison ledger for Sarah always stated: "Surgeon's report: good. Behavior: good". After 3 ½ years she received a ticket of leave, and was released 5 February 1869. 

Neither William Smith nor Sarah Geals was heard of again.

  • Camilla Townsend. " ‘I Am the Woman for Spirit’: A Working Woman's Gender Transgression in Victorian London”. Victorian Studies, 36, 3, Spring 1993.


Why did Caroline tattle on William? Townsend muses: 

“There are several possible reasons for Caroline's actions. She may have thought the new situation would be economically advantageous for both Sarah and herself. She may have feared exposure, or have been threatened by James, who could apparently be violent. (She was "frightened almost to death" of him, according to Sarah, which was not unreasonable, as he once held Sarah herself until her arms were "black and blue.") Or she may have been tired of feeling different, wishful of being a real ‘wife’.”

Was five years penal servitude lax or harsh in the context of 1860s penology? Townsend compares with three other sentences from the same judge that same morning: 

“a man who had run over a child and killed her received nine months; a man who had killed another man in a fight received twelve; a man accused of rape was released”. 

So was she also being punished for gender transgression, and also in that Giles was of a higher station?

Townsend never uses male pronouns, despite the almost twenty years lived as William.

Apparantly William and Caroline had a fairly nice life - by the standards of the time - but then it fell apart, and even more so when the shop in Bow Street was closed.  Understandably William was aggreived.  This should have been understood.   A middle-class jury did not do so; the judge - who was of an even higher station - did not do so.   Townsend compares newspaper accounts and find that those aimed at the middle classes were generally negative, the penny and half-penny news-sheets aimed at workers were much more sympathetic, understanding why a 'woman' would pass as a man to get a man's wage. 

The Shoreditch Observer, 29 July 1865 page 3

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