Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England, compiled by Rictor Norton

Lesbian Marriages in 18th-century England

In English history and literature, much attention has been given to "breeches-clad bawds". Women disguise themselves as men in order to exercise the privileges and freedom usually reserved for men – freedom of movement, freedom to engage in business, freedom to travel unmolested, freedom to express oneself in a frank manner, freedom to be assertive and outgoing – and there are enough cases on record to fill a full-length study. There is a large body of literature from the late seventeenth century concerning "roaring girls", "Amazonian maids" and "female warriors"; these viragos were very often married to soldiers, and donned male clothing in the first instance in order to go in pursuit of their husbands and then became soldiers themselves and discovered that they had a great taste for battle; in their military adventures they sometimes laid siege to young women, but their lives were predominantly heterosexual, and their identities were usually discovered when they had to avail themselves of the services of a midwife. But however interesting may be the lives of such women as Courageous Betty of Chick Lane or Moll Cutpurse, in this study I must concentrate on those cases which seem to come closer to our modern understanding of lesbian experience.

Around 1695 in the borough of Southwark a mother advertised that whoever would marry her 18 year old daughter would receive a gift of £200 on the wedding day. Among the flock of admirers who offered themselves, the young woman especially liked a young Irish lad Mr K––, and she accordingly married him. But on the wedding night she received only a kiss or two. Her mother confided to her that a man is not always capable of duty, and not to despair. The next night she boldly put forth her hand to claim what was her due, but to her surprise she discovered that her husband was a woman. She leaped out of bed with such violence as to awake her companion, but pretended to have a convulsion so as not to reveal her discovery. But the "counterfeit bridegroom" suspected her discovery, and absconded with the dowry.

It was in fact possible for two women to marry one another without any fuss being made, at least to judge by two inexplicable entries from the marriage register of the parish of Taxal, Cheshire:

Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill,
          Parish of Prestbury. 4th September 1707.
Ane Norton and Alice Pickford,
          Parish of Prestbury. 3rd June 1708.

These are not clerical errors (except possibly the spelling Ane for Anne). "Normally in this as in other registers the man's name comes first but there does not seem to be any room for manoeuvre at all here — these four names are feminine. And why go to Taxal? Was the incumbent there more lenient? There does not appear to be any attempt to cover up".1

But counterfeiting was more common, and a surprisingly typical example is that of Mary East. In 1731 she donned masculine clothing, assumed the name of James How, and took a small public house at Epping for "himself" and "his" consort, another woman. Here, and subsequently at the White Horse public house at Poplar, the two women lived together as man and wife for eighteen years – "and raised a considerable sum of money". Though relatively wealthy, with £3,000 to £4,000, they kept no servants, and entertained no friends at home, presumably to keep the husband's real sex a secret. As "James How", Mary served on all the parish offices, and was occasionally a foreman on juries, establishing a very good reputation with "his" neighbours.

But the secret of Mary East's real gender was discovered by a woman who had known her in her youth, and the couple became the victims of an escalating extortion. Ultimately the price for silence became too much to bear, and in 1766 East, now dressed as a woman, brought the matter to court. She boldly prosecuted her blackmailer, William Barwick, for extorting considerable sums of money from her for concealing her sex; he was convicted and sentenced to stand four times in the pillory and four years' imprisonment. This public disclosure, however, made it necessary for the two women to abandon the White Horse, and the couple went into retirement. Mary boldly returned to the parish to settle her affairs and collect her property. "She was dressed in a riding habit, with a black hat and feather: so that her acquaintance could hardly believe her to be the same person, she having generally appeared in an old man's coat, woollen cap, blue apron, &c". "Mrs How" died after a total of 39 years of "matrimony"; Mary East survived her partner for a long time, but never took another "wife". Our historian claims that both women adopted this arrangement as a result of both their husbands-to-be having been hanged for highway robbery. They probably fabricated this explanation in an effort to account for what would otherwise be inexplicable for the conventionally-minded; surely they were lesbians.

A better-known case is that of Hannah Snell, who even at the age of 10 had organised "Young Amazon Snell's Company" of soldiers among her playfellows in Wapping, and who dressed herself as a man upon being deserted by her husband. She served as a soldier from 1745 to 1750 in the British Army under the name of James Gray. While in Carlisle for manoeuvres, she was asked to pimp for Sergeant Davis, but she turned the tables and became intimate with the lady in question; the Sergeant accused her of neglect of duty and "a crime which Nature put it out of her power to perpetrate" and gave her 500 lashes. She fled to Portsmouth and later joined the British marines. She experienced many adventures as the ship's boy, and wrote her own account of the famous siege of Pondicherry; seriously wounded in the groin, she extracted the ball herself so as not to disclose her sex.

At Fort St Davids she found it difficult to explain why she did not share the homosexual appetites of her mates. Although her fellow sailors did not recognise her gender, they did take note of her lack of a beard, and dubbed "him" "Miss Molly Gray" – that is, they treated her as if she were an effeminate man, a molly. Hannah much resented this, and in order to prove her masculinity, when the ship put in to Lisbon, she made a number of conquests over the women of the port. Thus we have the paradox of a female transvestite establishing her "manhood" by a series of lesbian adventures. Similar encounters occurred at Portsmouth when she heard that her husband had been hanged. Eventually she revealed her true gender to her fellow-sailors, in an unseemly manner that left no doubt in their minds, and then capitalised on the publicity by going on the stage.

A less happy fate was meted out to cross-dressing women who had the audacity to marry other women. In 1746 Mary Hamilton, alias Charles, George, and William Hamilton, was tried for fraud at the Quarter Sessions at Taunton in Somersetshire, for posing as a man and marrying a woman. The following summary is from Henry Fielding's The Female Husband: or, The Surprising History of Mrs Mary, alias Mr George Hamilton (London, 1746). Mary was born on the Isle of Man on 16 August 1721. During her childhood she never gave "any cause of suspicion that she would one day disgrace her sex by the most abominable and unnatural pollutions", but sometime around the age of 14 she was seduced by her neighbour Anne Johnson, who converted her to Methodism as well as lesbianism. "These two young women became now inseparable companions, and at length bed-fellows", and she went to live with Mrs Johnson, who "was, it seems, no novice in impurity, which, as she confess'd, she had learnt and often practiced at Bristol with her methodistical sisters". Criminal transactions "not fit to be mention'd past between them". They moved to Bristol and took lodgings together, but soon their "vile amours" were ended when Mrs Johnson fell in love with a Mr Rogers and married him. Mary was frantic with jealousy at this unhappy turn of events: "she tore her hair, beat her breasts, and behaved in as outrageous a manner as the fondest husband could, who had unexpectedly discovered the infidelity of a beloved wife".

Abandoned by her first lover, Mary dressed in men's clothes and embarked for Ireland, where she became a Methodist teacher. She first took lodgings in Dublin, in a back street near St Stephen's Green, in a house with a 40 year old widow, whom she began to court as a man, but the widow shortly afterwards married a cadet in an Irish regiment. She was now about 18 years old, and the next object of her affection was Mrs Rushford, widow of a rich cheese monger, age 68. Mary had intended to reveal her real sex after gaining her affection, "hoping to have the same success which Mrs Johnson had found with her", but she proceeded to marry the widow as a man. There was a public wedding with the usual joking and merriments, and afterwards Mary continued to deceive her wife, "by means which decency forbids me even to mention".

The old lady eventually discovered the truth, and Mary fled, with as much money as she could stuff into her breeches' pockets. She sailed to Dartmouth, then went to Totness, where she pretended to be a doctor. There she eloped with her first patient, the young daughter of Mr Ivythorn. They were married in Ashburton in Devonshire, and returned to Totness to the welcoming embrace of the father, relieved that his daughter had been made respectable by marriage. After a fortnight, a sudden violent storm in the night caused the doctor's nakedness to be exposed to her wife, who sadly declared "you have not – what you ought to have".

Mary fled once again, this time into Somersetshire, and arrived safely at Wells, where she took the name of Charles Hamilton. Shortly afterwards at a dance, she met the beautiful 18 year old Mary Price, with whom she fell madly in love. "With this girl, hath this wicked woman since her confinement declared, she was really as much in love, as it was possible for a man ever to be with one of her own sex". The doctor wrote two letters to Mary Price:

I assure you, my angel, all I write to you proceeds only from my heart, which you have so entirely conquered, and made your own, that nothing else has any share in it; . . . do let me have once more an opportunity of seeing you, and that soon, that I may breathe forth my soul at those dear feet, where I would willingly die, if I am not suffer'd to lie there and live. My sweetest creature, give me leave to subscribe myself
          Your fond, doating,
                     Undone SLAVE.

And Mary Price replied:

I haf recevd boath your too litters, and sur I ham much surprise hat the loafe you priten [pretend] to haf for so pur a garl as mee. I kan nut beleef you wul desgrace yourself by marring sutch a yf [wife] as mee, and Sur I wool nut be thee hore of the gratest man in the kuntry. For thof [though] mi vartu his all I haf, yit hit is a potion I ham rissolv to kare [carry] to mi housband, soe noe moor at presant, from your umble savant to cummand.

Such innocence and purity captivated the doctor's heart, and there followed a tender and delicate interview between the lovers. They were married within two days, on 16 July 1746 at Wells, and continued happily married for two months.

But during a trip to Glastonbury, Charles Hamilton was recognised as Mary Hamilton by an acquaintance from Totness, who reported the story of her previous marriage. This quickly got back to Mary Price's mother, who confronted her daughter with some searching questions, but Mary insisted that the report must be false. In her eagerness to defend her husband, she endeavoured to prove too much – "she asserted some things which staggered her mother's belief, and made her cry out, O child, there is no such thing in human nature". Soon everyone in Wells was talking about the affair, and by the time Doctor Hamilton returned from Glastonbury, she was laughed at in the streets, and her neighbours threw dirt at her and verbally abused her. Mary's mother had gone to a magistrate and a warrant was granted for the arrest of the Doctor, who was seized on 18 September. Mary was resolved to stand by the side of her husband, claiming that the information was malicious, but the truth was revealed to her; she fell into a fit and recovered but with difficulty.

Appearing before the Justice, Mary had to admit that she had been tricked "by the vilest and most deceitful practices", and she revealed her plight to the authorities: "After their marriage they lay together several nights and that the said pretended Charles Hamilton who had married her aforesaid entered her body several times, which made this woman believe at first that the said Hamilton was a real man". And before the Justice was exhibited "something of too vile, wicked and scandalous a nature, which was found in the Doctor's trunk, having been produced in evidence against her", presumably a dildo, whereupon Mary Hamilton was committed to Bridewell to await trial. As she was conveyed to the gaol, "she was attended by many insults from the mob", and even her deluded wife was cruelly abused.

No one was quite able to define exactly what crime Mary Hamilton had committed, as no statute covered such an outrage; at the advice of a learned counsel, she was prosecuted under a clause of the vagrancy act, "for having by false and deceitful practices endeavoured to impose on some of his Majesty's subjects". Mary revelled in the notoriety given to her case by all the newspapers. As reported in the Bath Journal, "There are great numbers of people flock to see her in Bridewell, to whom she sells a great deal of her quackery; and appears very bold and impudent. She seems very gay, with Periwig, Ruffles and Breeches; and it is publicly talked that she has deceived several of the fair sex by marrying them". In fact it was claimed at the trial that she had married fourteen women.

Mary Hamilton was duly convicted of fraud. During the winter of 1746, she was publicly whipped in the four market towns of Taunton, Glastonbury, Wells, and Shipton-Mallet, and then sent to prison for six months. It will have taken a great deal to break her spirit:

These whippings she has accordingly undergone, and very severely have they been inflicted, insomuch, that those persons who have more regard to beauty than to justice, could not refrain from exerting some pity toward her, when they saw so lovely a skin scarified with rods, in such a manner that her back was almost flead [flayed]: yet so little effect had the smart or shame of this punishment on the person who underwent it, that the very evening she had suffered the first whipping, she offered the gaoler money, to procure her a young girl to satisfy her most monstrous and unnatural desires.

Similarly brutal treatment was meted out to Ann Marrow, who was also convicted of fraud. In July 1777 she was found guilty "of for going in man's cloaths, and personating a man in marriage, with three different women, . . . and defrauding them of their money and effects". She was sentenced to three months in prison, and to stand in the pillory at Charing Cross on 22 July 1777: there she was pelted so severely, primarily by the female spectators, that she was blinded in both eyes.

Discovery did not always have such severe consequences, but it invariably led to separation and ostracism. Around 1815 Helen Oliver, a maidservant, dated a ploughman from a neighbouring farm in West Kilbride, Scotland, who turned out to be a woman, and who persuaded Helen to abandon female dress and duties. Helen donned men's clothes and took the name of her brother John, and went to work for her cousin in Glasgow, who did not recognise her as a woman. Later she went to Paisley, then to Johnstone, where she married a young woman. Eventually she became an apprentice plasterer in Hutcheson, but after four years her real sex was discovered, and in 1821 she was forced to leave town, and disappeared from view.

Women who had the necessary force of character to live like men were often desirous of publicity, and even wrote memoirs. Charlotte Charke (1710—1760) in her autobiography derived much pleasure from exhibiting the success of her disguises. She worked as a strolling actress playing the breeches parts, "a grocer, a clerk, a pastry cook, a hog merchant". After a marriage that lasted only one year (and produced a daughter), she left her husband and adopted men's clothing offstage. She played her various parts well: "Making seeds and plants the general subject of my discourse, was the true characteristic of the Gardener; as, at other times, a Halter and horse-cloth brought into the house and awkwardly thrown down on a chair, were emblems of my stable profession". At various times she worked as a small shopkeeper, a sausage maker, a pastry cook, and she gained penetrating insights into the symbols and roles of male dominance. Even at the age of four she confessed to having "a passionate Fondness for a Perriwig", but she never fully revealed her private life; throughout all of her vagabond adventures she was accompanied by her companion Mrs Brown, a younger woman who repeatedly nagged her into settling down. But we are told little else about "My Friend", and we are never given any explanation as to why she decided to pass as a gentleman — "My going into Mens Cloaths, in which I continued many Years; the Reason of which I beg to be excused, as it concerns no Mortal now living, but myself". She was not approved of by her daughter when she grew up, or by her father the famous dramatist Colley Cibber, though her brother Theophilus Cibber gave her financial help. She wrote a novel, The History of Henry Dumont (1756), in which there is an effeminate male cross-dresser, a "male-madam" who is ducked in a fish pond.

1. Mary Turner, "Two entries from the marriage register of Taxal, Cheshire", Local Population Studies, No. 21 (Autumn 1978), p. 64. However, it is feasible that both "Hannah" and "Ane" or "Ana" are derived from "Hana", which is an Anglo-Saxon man's name, similar to the German name "Hannah" occasionally given to a male, which is related to "Johann". [Thanks to Melanie Wilson for raising this issue with me.) It hardly seems likely that two women would be formally married and entered into the marriage register without comment, so perhaps these are just old-fashioned men's names.

(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This article may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "Lesbian Marriages in 18th century England", Lesbian History, 18 August 2009, updated 11 February 2010 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/lesbmarr.htm>

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