|The Grand Hotel Brighton, Public Domain|
A marriage proposal addressed to a young woman - by another woman posing as a man dressed as a woman. A marriage that profaned the House of God and outraged the decency of nature.
At the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1920s, Lilias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith lived as "Colonel Victor Barker" along with her lover Alfrida Haward. Mrs. Arkell-Smith dressed and behaved like a man and was active in the Fascist party. She and Alfrida were married as man and woman, but the deception was exposed in 1929.
At the time, Mrs. Arkell Smith was thirty-three years old and, by then, notorious as the woman who, for several years, lived as a man, Colonel Victor Barker. When charged with perjury, she appeared before the recorder on the same morning as the report appeared in the newspaper. The case scandalised and titillated the general public and a crowd, most fashionably-dressed women, gathered, seeking entry to the public gallery. When the crowd was admitted to the court, there was a scramble for places and the gallery was full by 9.45am.
The Defendant Makes an Entrance
All eyes were riveted towards the door to the dock as Mrs. Arkell-Smith arrived. The newspaper report described her as: "A tall, upstanding figure, with her complexion deeply bronzed, she wore a red coat over a light grey costume and a felt hat was pulled down over her close-cropped hair. In the buttonhole of her coat was a bright red rose."
The charges were read out to her, the first charged her with committing perjury in an affidavit sworn on 29 June 1928 in an action in the King's Bench Division, and the second was for making a false statement in the marriage register on 14 November 1923.
"I plead not guilty to the first charge and guilty to the second," she replied.
Prosecutor, Mr. Percival Clarke said that in some respects the charge on which she pleaded guilty was the more serious. Mr. Clarke then set out the details to the court, saying that in 1922, Mrs. Arkell-Smith was passing as Mrs. Pearce Crouch. She was originally the wife of an Australian soldier and had married him in April 1918 in the county of Surrey, but they only lived together for six months. By the end of the war, Mrs. Arkell-Smith was running a teashop with a woman friend in Warminster, Wiltshire, where she met Australian soldier, Pearce Crouch. The couple lived together as man and wife; she took his name and had a son and daughter by him. At the time of the trial her children were nine and seven years old.
The Deception of Alfrida Haward
In 1923, Mrs. Arkell-Smith patronised a chemist's shop belonging to a Mr. Haward at Littlehampton, and although still using her husband's name, she dressed as a landgirl in riding breeches, open-necked shirt and coat. She lied to Alfrida, Mr. Haward's daughter, saying she was really Sir Victor Barker, Bart, and explained her father had died some years previously.
Her unlikely story was that her mother wished she should dress as a woman, but apparently Alfrida believed it. Then Mrs. Arkell-Smith proposed marriage to Alfrida, and the illegal ceremony took place in the parish church of Brighton on 14 November, where she entered the false details in the marriage register.
The Masculine Masquerade
Mr. Clarke set out before the court the deceptions used by the defendant. She claimed to have been a captain in the army and a member of the Distinguished Service Order. The name, rank and title enabled her to secure credit for clothing and, in May 1926, one of the firms to which she was indebted by about £40 brought an action against her, but the action was never pursued.
The recorder asked if the women were living together as man and wife from 1923 for around four years, and Mr. Clarke confirmed this. He mentioned that, at the beginning of 1927, Captain Victor Barker, DSO, joined the National Fascist Movement and was appointed secretary to one of the principals. A summons in 1927 for an offence against the Firearms Act led to Colonel Barker's prosecution, but eventually, the "Colonel" was acquitted. This was aided by the appearance in court of Colonel Victor Barker with his eyes bandaged while being led into the dock by a friend. The court was told that the Colonel had previously suffered temporary blindness from war wounds and the strain of the court case had brought on the trouble again.
At the recorder's amazed response to this account, Mr. Clarke said, "Not a soul in court - and I think I prosecuted her on that occasion - was aware it was other than a man in the dock."
Serious Debt Leads to Bankruptscy - and Worse
Mr. Clarke explained how, in 1938, a widow, Maud Roper Johnson, brought an action against Colonel Victor Barker in the sum of around £300. The prisoner swore an affidavit as Leslie Ivor Gauntlett Bligh Barker, colonel in His Majesty's Army, retired. The paper quoted the following affidavit.
"I have had experience in the time I was in cavalry I acted as a messing officer to various messes to which I was attached, for about eighteen months."
A Surprise for the Prison Doctor!
A bankruptcy order was made against Victor Barker on 13 October 1928. The "Colonel" did not put in an appearance, so tipstaffs were issued with a warrant for his arrest, which was carried out on 28 February 1929 at the Regent Palace Hotel. The tipstaffs found the defendant in masculine dress at a reception desk and conveyed him to Brixton Prison.
During a routine medical examination, the surprised doctor discovered that Colonel Victor Barker was a woman, and she was transferred to a different prison. She swore another affidavit now describing herself as Lillias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smithg, known as Leslie Ivor Gauntlett Bligh Barker, married woman. The exposure of her lies, said Mr. Clark, showed that the defendant had "a total disregard for truth or the sanctity of an oath." He was shocked she had chosen to perpetrate her deception by abusing the sanctity of the church, rather than using a register office for the marriage, and that the marriage was by license.
"You will realise how important it is that marriage registered should not be falsified."
The recorder commented that the maximum penalty for Mrs. Arkell-Smith's crime was seven years imprisonment.
D.I. Walter Burnby Explains the Transition from Woman to Man
The Detective Inspector summarised Mrs. Arkell-Smith's life. She was born on 27 August 1905 in Jersey of parents who were respected. She arrived with them, in England, in 1912 and went to a convent in Brussels for two year. At the outbreak of war, she was employed in various ways, and all of these occupations were undertaken as a woman.
The detective inspector then confirmed her family details, finally adding that she and Pearce Crouch were estranged in 1923, having lived together for about four years. After this, she met Miss Haward, and it was at this time she began passing herself as a man, and continued to do so until her arrest.
"I Must Hear Something of this Travesty of Marriage!"
There was some confusion between Mr. Clarke and D.I. Burnby about the marriage, although the question was not published in the Argus article. The recorder said, of Burnby's uncertain response: "The witness must not be as vague as that. If there is anything that ought to be said, let me see it in writing. I do not want anything prurient to stand in Court. Perhaps I can get it from Miss Haward." Mr. Clarke insisted he did not want to call Miss Haward.
Then the defence said, "I object to its being given in writing in this way." The recorder responded that he must learn something about "this travesty of marriage." The witness was examined, establishing that Mrs. Arkell-Smith had only one charge made against her in her life, of which she was acquitted. She had been consistently employed, had supported her children, including paying for her son to go to a good school. She was a genuinely hardworking mother-of-two."
As far as the bankruptcy charge was concerned, Mrs. Arkell-Smith said she never got it.
Alfrida Haward's Evidence
Alfrida Haward was called and the paper's reporter described her as follow: "A rather slight woman dressed in brown with a brown fur and hat to match, she appeared nervous as she entered the witness box." Mrs. Arkell-Smith hung down her head and avoided eye contact with Alfrida Haward. The recorder advised Alfrida not to be nervous.
Alfrida confirmed she had lived with Mrs. Arkell-Smith for about three years. When shown a blue-pencilled passage from a typewritten document by Mr. Clarke for the prosecution, she was asked if it was true.
"No," said Miss Haward, then adding that she didn't understand. "It was true and it was not true," she said.
Sir Henry, for the defence, then asked her if she thought it was true when the incident happened and she agreed that she did. She also agreed that she knew Mrs. Arkell-Smith as Mrs. Pearce Crouch when she first met her. "Did you understand the two children were hers," asked Sir Henry. Alfrida replied that she thought the boy was, but not the girl.
To Sir Henry's questions about Mrs. Arkell-Smith's appearance, when she first knew her, Miss Haward replied that her hair was cropped, but she couldn't remember whether it was long at first and subsequently cropped. Miss Haward confirmed that she believed Mrs. Arkell-Smith to be a woman at that time, which was around the beginning of 1923.
She also told Sir Henry that Mr. Pearce Crouch treated Mrs. Arkell-Smith very badly, including in her own presence. Arkell-Smith/Colonel Barker complained to Alfrida Haward that her husband consistently knocked her about and, in June 1922, she escaped from him and turned up at Miss Haward's flat.
Afrida Haward remembered the defendant checked in to a Brighton Hotel as Mr. Victor Barker in October 1923 and Miss Haward joined her there the next day, where she remained with the defendant up to the date of the marriage, sleeping in the same room, and bed. At this point, Miss Haward appeared faint and was offered a seat. She described how her parents, newly returned from their holiday, were told of her situation. Her father, believing Mrs. Arkell-Smith to be a man, insisted that, under the circumstances, they must be married.
Repeating again the question about her gender, and receiving the same answers, the recorder asked how the children were explained away. "He told me the boy was by another woman and the girl was Pearce Crouch's," explained Miss Haward. At the next question, she asserted that she did not discover Mrs. Arkell-Smith's gender until she saw it in the papers.
"Were you sleeping in the same room?" asked the recorder.
"Yes," said Miss Haward.
"You never knew from first to last?"
"Never, after she told me she was a man," replied Miss Haward and then added, "She left me some years ago for another woman." When asked how Colonel Barker kept up the deception, Miss Haward said, "I don't know." She said everything appeared perfectly normal and he appeared to behave as a husband would to a wife.
"After the form of marriage," asked Sir Henry, "did you always occupy the same bed?"
That was the end of Miss Haward's questioning and she was allowed to walk slowly to the back of the court to her seat.
The Greatest Punishment - Please for the Defence
Sir Henry Curtis Bennett began his speech for the defence, pointing out that in a case of this kind, the court would be surrounded with prejudice, but it should be dealt with on its merits alone, and he asked the court to put "those matters" out of their minds.
"One of the greatest punishments the defendant has already been made to suffer is that members of the public come to gaze at her wherever she moves. At the police court, she had to be got away in secret ways. Wherever she goes when she is out of doors, she is followed about. Today, even some people are taking an interest for sorry reasons in her having to stand in the dock. That is a very serious punishment for any man or woman."
Summing up for the Defence
Sir Henry said the defendant was a hard-working woman up to 1923, when she changed her sex to the outside world from woman to man. At nineteen she joined the Red Cross and was employed in Haslemere, Surrey. At the beginning of 1915, she went to France and drove ambulances right up to just behind the lines for twelve months. Early in 1916, she returned to this country as her nerve had broken. From summer 1916 to March 1917, she was head lad - although known as a woman - to the Shropshire Hunt. In Autumn 1917, she went to the Military Remount Depot in Bristol and there she dressed as a male, in fact, as a land-girl. (sic)
She was engaged in looking after and breaking in horses, and, in 1918, she met Mr. Arkell-Smith, whom she married in April, aged twenty-three. But the marriage was doomed from the beginning due to her husband's heavy drinking and his ill-treatment of her. It was so bad, she left him after only six weeks. During the marriage, she only ever received £25 from her husband, and had received no allowance from him since his return to Australia. Subsequently, serving as a driver for a mess officers, her duties included ordering for the mess herself.
After the war, at Westminster, she met Pearce Clarke, and after six months they began to live together. Pearce Clark was demobilised in April 1919, and went to work in Paris. Their son was born in February 1920.
The last thing the defendant wanted was to get married at all. Miss Haward was then twenty-seven and Sir Henry suggested that it was idle to suggest that Miss Haward did not know perfectly well she was living with a woman. But her father naturally believed the defendant was a man, and it was as a result of his insistence on the marriage that the defendant was placed in that position for so many years. "Today, she was going through the greatest ordeal of her life," he added.
The recorder said it was a case of unprecedented and peculiar characters. He need time before passing sentence, so the verdict was postponed until the following day.
Sentence is Passed
On 25 April, the Argus reported that "Colonel Barker" had been sentenced to nine months imprisonment in the Second Division. Again, the public gallery was full, although the paper reported "fewer fashionably dressed ladies." Mrs. Arkell-Smith, however, had now emphasised her masculine appearance. She was allowed to sit while sentence was passed. "You have had the advantage of being defended by one of the most able and eminent advocates at the Bar, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett," began the recorder. "He has made what I may describe as a masterly defence on your behalf."
Then the recorder voiced his rejection of the argument which, he said, might be relevant in a case of bigamy, but was irrelevant in a charge of perjury. He said Mrs. Arkell-Smith's situation was described as though she was on the "horns of a dilemma" because, having lived together with Miss Haward, she was forced to agree to the marriage due to Mr. Haward's insistence.
"In my judgement, you were on no such horns. You had merely to show that you were a woman. I cannot see how it could have put you in any difficulty. It may have disturbed your pride, but it was no such dilemma as it would have been, had you been a man."
The recorder continued that he was impressed by Miss Haward and her assertion she had believed the defendant was a man, and also believed the explanation about the children. Even so, disregarding the truth or falsity of Miss Haward's evidence, he said that in considering the case, he felt Miss Haward must have known the defendant was a woman even before the illegal marriage. He would, however, mitigate the sentence because of the morbid interest the case had aroused, which was part of the punishment for the defendant's "perverted conduct".
Describing the defendant as an unprincipled, mendacious and unscrupulous adventuress, he added, "You have, in the case before me, profaned the House of God, outraged the decency of nature and broken the laws of man. You have falsified the marriage register and set an evil example which, were you to go unpunished, others might follow."
The maximum sentence to be imposed was seven years penal servitude, but using all leniency he could, the recorder passed sentence of nine months in prison in the Second Division. The newspaper report said the accused was unmoved by the sentence, rose to her feet, bowed to the recorder and was escorted by a warder to the cells below.
"At one point only did Mrs. Arkell-Smith display any emotion. This was during the scathing remarks of the recorder. The defendant had shrunk into her chair and lowered her eyes to the ground. She was in tears, but she pulled herself together, gradually regaining her former calm."
The couple had been married at St. Peter's, Brighton's Parish Church and they had honeymooned at the Grand Hotel.
· Newspapers as mentioned in the text.
· Cameron, Janet, LGBT Brighton and Hove, Amberley Publishing, 2009.