Female husbands was a term used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe women who dressed as men and married women. To contemporaries, they were women taking part in a deception, although many noted how convincing their “act” had been. Many of these female husbands would probably identify as trans men today. Some female husbands may have been lesbian women who used the disguise of a man to make their relationships socially acceptable, but many female husbands were found to have been dressing as men for years prior to their marriage which suggests that they did indeed identify as men.
One notorious example of a female husband who lived in Hertfordshire for a while was James Allen. We have chosen to use male pronouns for James through the article, as it seems most likely that this is how he would wish to be referred to.
James Allen was born in Great Yarmouth and assigned female at birth, but little is known of his childhood. He appears to have given birth to a child at some point – around 1808, according to newspaper reports, although this isn’t clear. He first appeared working as a groom in the service of Alderman Atkins. After he left Atkins’ service, he went on to work as a groom for Mr Ward of Camberwell Terrace (London) where he was described as a smart and handsome young man who was a good employee. Whilst he was working for Mr Ward, Allen met a young woman named Abigail Mary (known as Mary) who served as Ward’s housemaid. Allen courted Mary who agreed to marry him. The couple were married in St Giles Parish Church, Camberwell, in December 1808.
After their wedding, Mary and James stayed the night at the Bull public house in Grey Inn Lane. However, their marriage was not consummated that night as James took ill. After their marriage, the couple initially spent little time together. This was not always uncommon for those working in service at the time, as they often stayed with their employers. Mary returned to working as a housemaid whilst James moved to Blackheath, but the couple wrote each other many affectionate letters. After about eight months, James persuaded Mary to give up her job so that the couple could live together as husband and wife.
James had spent this period saving up his money, and now that Mary had left her job the couple moved to Baldock in Hertfordshire. James became landlord of the Sun public house (now The Victoria) in Baldock and the couple were doing very well for themselves. However, they were not in Baldock for long before the inn was broken into and all their money stolen. With the loss of their money they could no longer keep the business going, and the couple moved back to London. James took up work as a labourer and then worked at a ship-builder’s yard.
Whilst working at the ship-builder’s yard, James once again gained a reputation for being hard working, and later those who worked alongside him said although his voice had an unusual tone to it, they never otherwise suspected anything about his identity. James always wore thick flannel waistcoats which covered him from the neck to the hips, and Mary later said that James wore bandages around his chest which he said was to protect him from the cold.
In January 1829, James was involved in a tragic accident at his work. Whilst working in a sawpit in Dockhead, a piece of timber fell from the top of the pit and struck James’ head, immediately killing him. When James’ body was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital it was discovered that he had a female anatomy. This was an astonishing turn of events for contemporaries, and when Mary was brought in to identify James’ body she said that she had no knowledge of this. She consented to a post-mortem, where it was found that James had given birth and probably breast fed at some point in the past.
James’ “real” identity was a huge cause for gossip, and the story spread to newspapers across the country and beyond. Contemporaries were not quite sure how to portray James. James had been living as a married man for 21 years, and as a single man long before then, and all of his coworkers, friends, and in-laws had never suspected anything. Mary’s own father was reported in the London Evening Standard saying that “Allen was as handsome a young man as ever the sun shone upon when he married his daughter”. As such, most newspaper articles did in fact refer to Allen with male pronouns in their articles – quite significant for the time – although they did sometimes revert to she/her when talking about the post mortem.
In the aftermath of Allen’s accident, officials were very careful to respect Allen and not display him as an oddity or attraction. His body was placed under protection and was buried in a vault in a private burial ground in Bermondsey to protect it from body-snatchers. His funeral was filled with people who had come to witness the burial of such a famous person.
Mary Allen was thrust into the limelight with the stories about James, and she was quick to try and distance herself from the scandal. She said there had been a couple of times when her suspicion had been aroused, such as questioning James’ strange voice, but that James had become angry and often violent whenever she questioned him, so she avoided probing. James was physically violent towards Mary during their marriage, including just a few days before his death.
It is difficult to assess how much Mary knew about James’ identity and thus what her own identity may have been. No one else in James’ life had suspected he was not assigned male at birth, so it is possible that Mary may have not known either. However, the couple were married for 21 years and so it is easy to argue that Mary must have known something. Some newspapers did indeed report that at one point in the past James had become so sick it seemed he may die, at which point Mary conspired with a close female friend to hide James’ identity upon death.
If Mary did know that James had been assigned female at birth, then James’ identity would affect our knowledge of Mary’s own sexuality. If James would today have identified as a trans man, then Mary may have been a heterosexual who was very accepting for her time and simply considered James a man and her husband. If James still considered himself a woman and just used dressing as a man as a disguise (which seems unlikely), then Mary may have been bisexual or a lesbian. Newspapers did suggest that James would become excessively jealous if Mary paid other men attention, which does suggest Mary was attracted to men.
However, attitudes of the time make it impossible to know what Mary knew and how she identified. Although it wasn’t strictly illegal, it was seen as very improper and immoral for women to have same sex relationships at this time, and so Mary could not be seen to admit that she knew her husband was a woman (in their eyes). It was scandalous enough that Mary was married to James even without knowing his identity. Her reputation would have been forever ruined if she admitted knowing his identity.