Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Whilst attending the launch of the Essex Book Festival in Chelmsford Library the other day, my eye was drawn to a small exhibition of unusual photographs. The portraits were of Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton, who, in 1870 shocked and scandalised English society. The girls, both of them part-time actresses and also part-time prostitutes, were actually young men, Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton. The two female impersonators happened to be performing in Chelmsford when the photographic studies which belong to the Essex Records Office were taken. England it seems, even in the suffocating bombazine folds of the mid-Victorian era, has always retained a liking for drag acts. Most Englishmen don't need to be asked twice to put on women's clothes. a grinning Mick Jagger once remarked.
In April of 1870, however, having made a particularly brazen display of themselves at London's Strand Theatre by ogling and 'chirruping' at the men in the stalls, Fanny and Stella were arrested by the Metropolitan Police, who on May 8th subjected them to a show-trial at Westminster Hall.
There followed some humiliating, intimate examinations conducted by a police surgeon. After the prosecution failed to establish that any actual illegal acts had taken place, it not being an offence merely for a man to dress as a woman, the two young men were acquitted. Since the prosecuting authorities were judged to have been over-assiduous in their examinations, the matter, even in those starchy days, constituted a perceived breach of human rights. Fanny and Stella's subsequent acquittal was greeted with popular acclaim. After this victory, the pair disappeared from the public gaze. Their story, the subject of a recently-published book by Neil McKenna, Fanny and Stella, makes for an interesting and still-shocking read.
One striking thing about Wivenhoe, the town where I've lived for many decades, is its long-established acceptance of gay people. When, few years ago, my cherished young daughter's video tape of The Wizard of Oz became jammed and tangled in the player, within minutes, I was able to purloin a replacement copy from a neighbour. That, I suppose, is the gold standard. In this place, you really wouldn't have to go more than a couple of doors down the road to find a copy of that particular film or Priscilla Queen of the Desert come to that. There's even an affectionate local joke which runs: The burglars round here? They don't nick anything, they just break in and criticise your soft furnishings.
Wivenhoe, like Brighton to the south and Hebden Bridge to the north was familiar with gay culture before certain other towns in the UK were. Less flamboyant than Brighton, Wivenhoe doesn't possess a gay community or 'scene' as such, although, it's fair to say that there's probably a larger than average number of same-sex couples living here.
There's no Gay Pride march here either. There'd probably be more likelihood of seeing an Accountancy Pride march. Almost above anything else, Wivenhoe is an academic town and most academics as we know have all the sartorial panache of... well, you remember 1970s Open University TV presenters, don't you? So move along please, there's nothing to see here. The village of Ardleigh, in fact, recently put up a more impressive show than Wivenhoe when a local pub landlord successfully fought the council for his right to fly a Gay Pride flag from the building.
The Fanny and Stella story, subtitled The Young Men Who Shocked England remains interesting. For it demonstrates, if nothing else, that gay rights have undergone a long trip in order to arrive at their current station. For instance, the majority of us no longer errantly associate homosexuality with paedophilia, or transvestism, as may have been the case only decades ago. If Fanny and Stella were to walk into a Wivenhoe pub today, there'd possibly be a small frisson of excitement but there'd be no longer be any outright condemnation.
When, during the 1860s, they toured Essex, Miss Park and Miss Boulton played to market town assembly rooms or performed in the drawing rooms of private houses. Something in the English psyche likes and has always liked these aspects of the showbiz demi-monde. Its popularity endurs and is reflected in our affection for certain characters, such as those introduced by TV's Little Britain: The only gay in the village, or Emily I am a lady. Howard, for instance.
Meanwhile, a new battlefront has opened up and war is currently raging over whether same sex marriages should be allowed to take place in churches. I confess that I can't quite see the Church's problem here. It's like looking at a cartoon of a bride hammering on a studded door, with a caption reading, How much longer are you going to be in that closet? From the Church's point of view, it's not as if the barbarian's at the gate: he's already in the living room, sat at the sewing machine and running up new curtains. Personally, I tend to subscribe to Robert Louis Stevenson's view of marriage as: A type of friendship recognised by the police. Quite apart from this, even if I were gay and of the marrying kind, I wouldn't want to be married by any authority so reluctant to conduct the ceremony. It's all a bit of a rum old do, I reckon.