Saturday, 15 February 2014

Colonel Barker

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Colonel Barker, the most famous ‘man-woman’ of them all...

by Rosie Logiudice
Valerie Arkell-Smith (1895-1960), better known as Colonel Barker, was a cross-dresser who posed as a Royal Air Force officer after World War One.

Although in the earlier part of her life Arkell-Smith married and went on to have two children with another man, before her death in 1960 she had been living in poverty and obscurity, under the name Geoffrey Norton.

After the birth of her two children, Arkell-Smith found herself living at a farm in Sussex with their father, Ernest Pearce-Crouch. At this time Arkell-Smith started to dress in a more masculine way as Rose Collis outlines in her biography Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment. A local villager describes hearing rumours of Arkell-Smith cross dressing at this time:
During the day she would walk up and down the village street in breeches and a pullover, with a cigarette between her lips. After she had been here a few months we heard strange stories of her parades in the evening along the lanes adjoining her house. We actually saw her sauntering along one of these lanes in a dinner suit, smoking a cigar.” (1)

In 1929, readers of the Sunday Express were shocked by what they read. In My Story by the Man-Woman’s Wife, Elfrida Howard, from Littlehampton, West Sussex - “a pretty little woman...slim, and with a mass of auburn shingled hair” - revealed how she had unknowingly lived as the ‘wife’ of Colonel Barker.

Several years earlier, Elfrida Howard, then in her mid-20s, had befriended a woman called Mrs Pearce Crouch, a newcomer to the area, who ran a farm with her husband. Mrs Crouch came into Elfrida’s father's chemist shop, and they struck up a friendship. After a few months, Mrs Crouch asked Elfrida to call her 'Bill', and confessed that she was “a man masquerading as a woman”.

Bill explained that his wife had eloped and he was worried about their son’s future. Elfrida believed ‘Bill’; “everything about her suggested that she was really a man. Her figure, manner, handwriting, interests - every conceivable thing was masculine.” Friendship soon turned to romance. “Polite, courteous and fascinating” Bill swept Elfrida off her feet, with trips to the theatre and gifts of expensive jewellery. Bill soon proposed and Elfrida accepted straight away. They were married at St Peters Church in Brighton, on the 14th of November 1923.

Elfrida claimed there was nothing to suggest to her during the early days of their marriage that anything was not as it should have been. Although Bill preferred to change his clothes in another room, Elfrida took that for embarrassment about scars on his back and neck, which he said were shrapnel wounds from his part in World War One.

Elfrida and Barker settled at Uckfield, where Bill first gained a job as a farm manager but shortly after, began touring with a theatre company under the stage name Ivor Gauntlett. In late 1926, Elfrida received a letter telling her that he had met another woman, and would not be coming home. Elfrida returned to her parents' house in an attempt to forget about Barker.
After leaving Elfrida, Arkell-Smith took on the name for which she would be remembered most: 'Colonel Barker'. Moving to London she joined the right-wing National Fascisti. In 1927, Barker was arrested for possessing an unauthorised revolver, discovered during a raid on the National Fascisti headquarters.

During this period, Barker lived in an expensive flat in Park Lane with a woman and Barker’s nine-year-old son who believed Barker was his father. Barker ran a restaurant, which failed, leaving him bankrupt. By the time the police caught up with him, Barker - who had left a trail of debts behind him - was working as a reception clerk at the Regent Palace Hotel in Piccadilly. Barker was transported to Brixton prison, where he protested against being examined by the prison doctor, calling it "an indignity to which a man of his rank should not be subjected.” Finally, forced to confess the real reason, the Colonel was transferred to Holloway women's prison, refusing to give her real name.

The police tracked down Elfrida Howard, who informed them that the Colonel was her former ‘husband’ and Barker was sentenced to nine months imprisonment for making a false statement on a marriage certificate. After leaving prison, Arkell-Smith continued to live as Victor Barker, but he was forced into lower and less well paid jobs culminating in a stint in Blackpool.

The sideshow in Blackpool featured Colonel Barker in bed in a pit separated from a woman wearing a nightdress in another bed by a row of Belisha Beacons. Tourists could view the scene from above, often verbally abusing the two individuals. Advertising claimed that the Colonel was watched in the pit, day and night, but there is evidence to suggest this was not the case and Barker had lodgings elsewhere in Blackpool.

Editor Gary Cross in his text Worktowners at Blackpool best describes the conditions and scene that those happy to pay 2d would find as they entered the ‘show’.
You pay at a circular pen-desk to a middle-aged female. Ticket, 2d., yellow. Up two steps, then anticlockwise between wooden walls decorated with cardboard cupids and Richard Coeur de Lion in red war-suit who is blessing the bride and bridegroom. Through glass, you look down on the couple in pit below. Two beds, and beside each a Belisha Beacon; between the beds is a broad track marked out with metal traffic studs on the floor. Traffic lights at red. A table and stand are beside the beds, covered with papers and novelettes, Craven A cigarettes, comb, etc. In each bed is an alive woman.
Holiday-makers pass in an almost continuous line queueing during peak periods, staring down, kept on the move by attendants.

Following the stint in Blackpool, Arkell-Smith led a less adventurous life. After suffering with deteriorating health, she passed away in 1960. Geoffrey Norton, as Arkell-Smith was known at this time, was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Edmund’s Church, Kessingland.

The story of Arkell-Smith is a sharp reminder that still in recent history a person that stepped outside the ‘norm’ could be persecuted, ridiculed and imprisoned. However, Arkell-Smith's story reveals more than this, in fact unravelling a culture’s profound ignorance about sex in the early to mid-20th century. It is hard to believe Arkell-Smith, who was still physically female, could be married to a woman who claimed she knew nothing of this and that there had not been any cause for her to be concerned that Barker was not the man he said he was. You might even question whether Elfrida was as innocent to Colonel Barker’s unnoticed female anatomy as everyone was led to believe. Whatever the case, the British public were happy to believe this was possible and accepted the story with wide-eyed wonder.

When I first read about Arkell-Smith/Colonel Barker I was shocked by her story, the attitudes of society towards her and how she was perceived in the press. It would be easy to condemn post Victorian Britain for its ignorance. However, only last year a young woman was in the same way convicted in court for misleading two other teenage females into thinking she was a young male. In 2008 Christine Wilson, then 21, pretending to be 17-year-old Chris seduced two teenage girls, who thought she was a male teen, into having sex with her. However, the judge in the High Court in Edinburgh gave Wilson probation as she genuinely believed that she was in fact male. (3)

Likewise it is hard to believe people were happy to pay a fee to view a sideshow with two women lying in separate beds from each other but they did. Similarly in recent years thousands have watched and jeered at contestants that took part in the television programme Big Brother, paying a telephone fee to vote for their favourite contestant, another case of modern technology sugar coating a tried and tested format.

It is easy to cast stories such as Colonel Barker's to the sea bed of history but sometimes it is worth considering whether things really have changed, or in 2014 are they just packaged in a different way?


1. Collis, Rose, Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment: A Tale of Female Husbandry, 2002, p71.
2. Cross, Gary, editor, Worktowners at Blackpool, Mass-Observation and popular leisure in the 1930s, 1990, p193-194.

Not all our foremothers wore taffeta and lace
Colonel Barker and Chris Wilson are, of course, not the only people born physically female who have chosen to express their gender identity differently. user, pennylrichardsca, has set up a small online gallery of vintage photos that illustrate some of the ways that this has happened in the past.

The image below is of Ellen Tremaye alias de Lacy Evans (usually known as Edward) . On the reverse side of the photo is written “The woman of Bendigo always dressed as man”.
The image is believed to be a fake cut-and-paste portrait produced after de lacy Evans was discovered to be a woman in September 1879, after 22 years of dressing, living and working as a man. Registered by photographer, N White, of Sandhurst, Bendigo, Victoria, the image was probably sold as a curiosity.

From the Mitchell Library, State Library of New
South Wales, Australia

<< Back to Index <<    << Previous - The Song of a Yorkshire Jack the Lass <<

>> Next - Oh, You Pretty Things >>


  1. Hi Writing a piece on the Regent Palace Hotel wanted to know if I could use the image of Valerie Ariel - Smith alias Colonel Barker

    1. As I 'borrowed' the image myself, I can't really give permission for its use, I'm afraid.