Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Fanny and Stella - Daring to be Different in Victorian England

Stella Boulton (left) and Fanny Park
 When we think of Victorian England, we tend to think of the prim and straitlaced society, dominated by the Queen ("God Bless Her") who was alleged not to find much amusing. We also think of the rich tapestry of creative talent; the likes of Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, the Brontes and the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, to name just a handful.

Two names have largely dropped from popular history, although they certainly caused quite a stir in their day, not least for their penchant for cross dressing in an age where practising homosexuality among men was a crime, punishable by hard labour or even life imprisonment.

Their names were Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton - also known as Fanny and Stella - and, in 1870, they were arrested outside the Strand Theatre and charged with sodomy. What made them even more famous was that they were acquitted, even though it was said that, "their bottoms had been rogered by half of London".

Stella Boulton was possessed of a fine singing voice while Fanny Park acted in sterner character roles in their act, which they toured to country houses and other private venues. Dubbed, the 'He-She Ladies', they revelled in their membership of a wonderful, seedy demi-monde of gaudy performers and ladies of dubious virtue. 

They attracted plenty of admiring attention from well connected, wealthy young men. Stella even found herself an aristocrat (Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton) with whom she lived as husband and wife. Fanny joined this triangle as a sort of 'sister'.
Fanny (standing) and Stella with Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton

It came as a great shock to them to be arrested, even though some of their behaviour might be considered fairly outrageous even today. In those days, anyone accused of sodomy had to submit to humiliating medical examinations, including the insertion of a 'professional finger'. 

Reports of this, plus their trial, were gobbled up eagerly by the salacious press of the day. (Not much changes, does it?) At the trial itself, the prosecution failed to establish that there was anything illegal about men wearing women's dress and the examinations themselves had been carried out without recourse to higher authority, so were, essentially, invalid. In light of this, the police failed to provide conclusive evidence that any act of homosexuality had been committed. Things may have turned out differently, were it not for the sudden death of Lord Arthur, on the day after he was subpoenaed to appear . Many believe it was suicide, although the official account was that he had contracted scarlet fever.

The high profile trial served to expose the hypocrisy and crassness of society's attitude to anyone who dared to be different, and the more enlightened, liberal minded were greatly relieved when the jury took just 52 minutes to acquit the pair. Had they been found guilty, a witch hunt by the more bigoted members of society could well have ensued - and even escalated  to hound out anyone who dared to be different.

A blue commemorative plaque has recently been unveiled on the wall of a United Reformed Church in Wakefield Street in London, the site of their former cross-dressing rooms. Some might say there is a delicious irony about this! Consigned largely to the footnote of history, I, for one, am delighted that they have once again been thrust into the spotlight.

Neil McKenna has recently published a biography of the pair: Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England and his excellent website provides more information on this strangely endearing pair. Now wouldn't they have made fascinating dinner guests?


  1. What a fascinating story! Cross dressing is nothing new. of course, but for sure the Victorian age it on the dangerous side. I imagine that entertainment field, over the ages, has hidden many *different* people, lol!


    1. I think you're right, Sia! Thank you for dropping by

  2. Wow. I found this story fascinating! Had no idea of this history.

    1. Thanks, Milly. I would have loved to meet them!

  3. Very interesting story. Thanks for sharing it. I love little untold histories.

  4. Antonia. This a fabulous story. I'd never heard of these two, but am so glad I have now. I passed it on to someone close to me who also thought it was great. We've come a long way - and yet nowhere - when it comes to society's opinion of anyone who's different. However, the laws are slowly changing (alas not in Australia yet), and I live in hope that ALL people will one day be treated with the dignity they deserve, no matter how different they are. Noelle Clark.

  5. Brilliant Antonia. What more can I say?!! Your posts always are and very informative too.