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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM KAY BERRISFORD!
In 1854, London was scandalized by the “suspicious case” of George Campbell and John Challis, who were brought before a magistrate accused of disguising themselves as women for the purposes of “exciting others to commit an unnatural offence.” One can imagine the murmurs of disapprobation and the twitch of the magistrate’s whiskers as 35-year-old Campbell appeared before the bar “completely equipped in female attire of the present day.”
To be “completely equipped” would naturally involve corsets and layers of crinolines. 1854 fashions demanded petticoats be supported by a giant cage of whalebone and cord of complex and weighty design. The case later revealed Campbell allegedly sported the season’s other must-have accessory of a white veil, while sharing a brandy with Isaac Summers, a baker who accused Campbell of stealing 19s when he drew him into an embrace. Nevertheless, Campbell may well have been upstaged in court by the older Challis, who displayed an even more stunning outfit: the “pastoral garb of a shepherdess of the golden age.” Details were not listed, but the description evokes images of billowing fabrics and an ancient Greek arcadia. One wonders if he still carried his crook.
The case affords a tantalizing glimpse into a so-called “underworld” about which historical sources are so often silent. Campbell and Challis frequented an unlicensed drinking spot, Druid’s Hall, where it transpired drag balls had been hosted for over a year. The police had interfered little until this time, as it was “very difficult to catch them in the act.” While the case against Challis was dismissed on account of his poor health, Campbell mounted a spirited defence and gained the begrudging support of prosecutor Sir R.W. Corden. As they joined forces to outwit the police, the court must have been transfixed and not a little amused:
Campbell: “I wish to ask the inspector another question. Was I dancing when you entered the hall?”
Inspector Teague: You were not. But afterward I saw you dancing with a man.
Campbell: How do you know it was a man?
Inspector Teague: Because he had a beard and whiskers.
Sir R.W. Corden: That is no criterion, for Campbell has ringlets and yet he is not a woman.
Campbell: I had but one dance all evening and that was with an elderly lady who knew what I was.
Indeed, as the case against Campbell disintegrated, his banter with the prosecutor Corden bordered upon flirtatious:
Sir R.W. Corden: There is no evidence, Campbell, with regard to the dress and the white veil, and I therefore think Summers must have made a mistake. The charge against you is consequently dismissed.
Campbell: Will you grant me a private interview?
Sir R.W. Corden: No, certainly not (laughter).
Although the sitting magistrate was inclined to commit Campbell to prison as a rogue and a vagabond, his mind was swayed by Corden’s intervention on Campbell’s behalf. Corden stated that Campbell had been merely “indulging in extraordinary freaks.” So Campbell went free, despite the fact he had been tried under a false name. He admitted he was really called Edward Holmes, although he denied further allegations that he was a minister of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, claiming he was trained as a lawyer.
There our knowledge of Campbell/Holmes’ story ends, an articulate and educated cross-dressing man, who wished to sample the “joys of London life.” All other details we can glean about Victorian drag balls come from similar cases of regulation and persecution, such as a raid in Manchester in 1880 where a man dressed as a nun unwittingly admitted the police to a fancy dress party. All forty-seven attendees were men, twenty of whom were “attired in character as females.” Indeed, patterns of regulation and prosecution dominate historical knowledge of same-sex relations and sexual “deviance,” particularly prior to the evolution of more coherent sub-cultures and the coining of the term “homosexuality” at the end of the nineteenth century. This often leaves us with a frustratingly skewed and narrow picture.
But for the men and women who enjoyed these occasions, the matter that we are now left guessing can only have been a good thing. The 1850s was a golden age of theatre and pantomime, and I for one would love to have read about “shepherdess” Challis and his companions’ costumes for a Christmas drag ball. But if they ever held such an occasion, we can only ever imagine, because the police must have had other business that night and they left them to party alone.
Sources: Daily News; Reynold’s Newspaper; The Times; Pall Mall Gazette; The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post; Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century by H.G.Cocks; A History of English Costume by Iris Brook.
Kay Berrisford is a freelance historical researcher, who realized it was even more entertaining to make stories up and add a ton of fantasy, sex and BDSM fun. She loves writing stories set in any time and place where she can indulge her love for research while imagining two hot guys getting it on, but has particular passions for English folklore and the theatre. Her first novel, Bound for the Forest, an m/m historically-set paranormal romance, was published by Loose Id in September 2011. She is currently working on a novel about Herne the Hunter, and an m/m romance set in the Victorian theatre, both due to be published in 2012.
She lives in Hampshire, UK, with her beloved “other half” Chris. When they aren’t both madly working, they enjoy drinking wine, visiting castles and gorgeous countryside, and stalking cats and greenfinches.
To find out more, visit http://kayberrisford.com/2011/04/10/about-bound-to-the-forest/
Kay will be giving away one ebook copy of Bound to the Forest – simply leave a comment to be entered into the draw. Winners will be announced on Christmas Day.
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)
17. Which book featured a pig called Snowball?