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Billie-Gina Thomason, Female Husband or the Man-Woman of Manchester? Review of Mister Stokes’s premier at the LGBT History Festival Launch

2016 May 6
by lucinda matthews-jones

Billie-Gina Thomason is currently undertaking an MRes in Modern History in Liverpool John Moores University and is beginning the historicisation of trans* identity. Billie-Gina’s research focusses on nineteenth century female husbands. By using newspapers her interests lie in how female cross-dressers lived in their communities despite living in a time of such gender and sexual rigidity.

Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester

Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester

Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester was written by Abi Hynes. The play was directed by Helen Parry and produced by Pagelight Productions and was made possible with funding from the Arts Council England. I attended the premier of the play on the 26th February 2016 in The Martin Harris Centre as part of the LGBT History Festival Launch following the Alan Horsfall Memorial Lecture which was delivered by Professor Susan Stryker. Mister Stokes tells the story of Harry Stokes; a man I came across during my BA when I researching ‘female husbands’ for my dissertation. Harry was a working-class ‘master-bricklayer’ and quite the celebrity in Manchester having moved there in 1820.[1] The historical information surrounding the life of Harry Stokes is very limited and is only evidenced in a handful of newspaper articles at the time. I was surprised to come across an article in the Manchester Guardian entitled, ‘The Female Husband in Manchester’ published in 1838 which told his story.[2] The article told the story of an anonymous bricklayer who was discovered to be biologically female despite living as a man and having a wife. Two weeks later a subsequent article disclosed the name of this female husband to be Harry/Henry Stokes.[3]

The performance was emotionally charged and began with Harry’s death. Ada (played by Jo Dakin) was asked to examine Harry’s body to confirm the stories about Harry Stokes (played by Joey Haterley) and his identity as a ‘man-woman’. From here the play quickly fast forwards to his death where he is thought to have committed suicide in 1859 due to financial worries and struggles.[4]

The set was simplistic; there was a coroner’s table as a central focal point, a mannequin in the background and a small table and chairs to the side. The dim lighting and one-dimensional set emulated the spartan conditions that would be familiar to many working-class Victorians. Similarly, the simplicity of the set illuminated the symbolic rigidity of sexuality, race, class and identity in Victorian Britain.

The performance was peppered with spectacle and joviality. Harry was constructed as a witty and personable man. The historical information surrounding Harry’s life is sparse.  It is therefore not surprising that Abi Hynes wrote a play that does not always stick to the facts that are available. For instance, one of the most moving scenes documented Harry’s first marriage to his wife Bette.  John Bull, in an 1838 article, highlighted that the couple were married for 17 years and his wife has learned of his biological identity three years previous. However, the play told of how Bette discovered Harry’s identity on their wedding night and was disgusted to learn of his ‘unnatural’ secret.  However, it was interesting to see how Abi incorporated primary material into her writing. Small details, such as the brief reference to Harry’s first wife exposing him for not paying housekeeping, were fascinating for someone who has researched Harry’s life.

In my own work I am interested to think about how physical appearance and clothing were used to enhance trans* identity. To this end the play was an interesting compilation of a nineteenth-century journalism and how this story relates to the trans* community today. Unsurprisingly clothes and manipulation of the biological body were a powerful symbol in the play.  For instance, in the performance Harry unveiled and removed his wooden ‘prick’ and subsequently threw it across the stage to Ada. This was a powerful scene, but was very much Hynes’ interpretation. I have been unable to uncover any nineteenth-century female husband articles that discussed the use of prosthetic genitalia. Furthermore, the audience witnessed the uncomfortable corset that Harry endured under his clothes to minimise his breasts. Although it is not clear whether Harry used a corset I did discover another female husband, James Allen, who bandaged his breasts to minimise their visibility.[5]

Similarly, an interesting theme developed throughout the play was the ceremonial and ritualistic function of dressing and undressing. This thematic approach began with Ada undressing the dead body of Harry Stokes, continuing with Harry undressing Ada in the flashback transitions and finally ending with Ada carrying Harry’s belongings out to the coroner. The continuity of dressing and undressing emphasises the significance of socially queering gender as this was the only way for Victorian trans* men and trans* women to be socially accepted. This is evidenced in other newspaper articles about female husband in which trans* men assumed masculine clothes and were employed in typically masculine jobs for instance, shipyard work, public house landlords and building work. It was paramount for Victorian trans* men to fit into masculine society and be accepted.

The use of mirroring in the play was an interesting technique as it highlighted the differences in how trans* people have been received and to an extent, reflects how they are received today. For instance, Bette represented the dramatic and selfish character on hearing of her husband’s identity. She was concerned for her own respectability in the community and was worried that she would be laughed at. Similarly, today Bette represents people who are unable to look beyond man or woman, homosexuality or heterosexuality, cisgender or trans* identity. On the other hand, Peggy represented the loving, understanding and supportive person who sees everyone for who they are rather than judging them on their biology. This play was a modern interpretation of past events and showed how past individuals possessing non-cisgender identities could overcome the struggle and prosper in an age largely perceived to be exceptionally rigid.

 

 


[1]The Female Husband in Manchester, The Morning Chronicle, (London, England), 13/04/1838.

[2]The Female Husband in Manchester, The Morning Chronicle, (London, England), 13/04/1838.

[3]The Manchester Guardian has the following sequel to the history which we last week related to the Female Husband, John Bull, 22/04/1838.

[4]The Man-Woman of Manchester, a Remarkable Story, The Golden Era, 18/12/1859.

[5]“Extraordinary Investigation, Or the Female Husband”, The Newcastle Courant, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne; England), January 4th 1829.

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