“Pull off this lady’s breeches”: The Case of Mary Newell

Little is known about Mary Newell before 1860, and perhaps she might have remained a relatively anonymous woman in mid-nineteenth century England. That is, if not for the events of the autumn of 1861 and her subsequent trial that winter, where her story shared newsprint with one of England’s most galvanizing tragedies.[1]

Born in 1839, Mary Newell’s name appears on the April 1861 census record in the household of William J. Barker. Residing with the Barker family at 29 Bessborough Gardens, City of Westminster, London, Mary’s occupation is listed as “Servant”; at the time of the census, she was twenty-one years of age, unmarried, and had been working at the Barker family home as a maid-of-all-work since March of 1860. Residing at the house alongside Mary were Mr. Barker and his wife, Louisa, both 45, and an aged aunt, Maria H. Meaden, 64. Under “Where Born,” the census taker lists Mary’s birthplace as only “London.”[2]

Figure 1. 1861 Census Record, Ancestry.com. Members of the Barker household, including that of Mary Newell, are indicated in red.

As a servant in the Barker household, Mary’s days would have taken on a familiar rhythm. With no children in the house and only the three adults to attend to,[3] Mary, as the only live-in servant, might have been responsible for any number of duties. Cooking, cleaning, and laundry may have been chief amongst them. Mrs. Barker would have been responsible for household accounts, which would have included doling out Mary’s salary. As a firmly middle-class family with positive prospects and no children in the home, working for the Barkers might have been an enviable position, and this, alongside several other factors, is why there are so many unanswered questions around the events that followed.

On 7 November 1861, after Mary had been working for the Barkers for over a year, chaos erupted at Bessborough Gardens. The account printed in the North Devon Gazette and in several other papers, reads as follows:

…the prosecutor went out in the morning as usual, and returned in the afternoon. In the evening he and Mrs. Barker went out, and on his return he found the door locked, and, receiving no answer to the ring of the bell, he went to his next-door neighbour’s, and got through his house into his own. He found the place completely ransacked, a poker with hair upon it smeared with what seemed to be blood, a window smashed, and the prisoner, whom he had left in charge of the house, gone. The inference he deduced from this was that the house had been robbed and the servant murdered. The plate was packed up in a parcel, as if ready for removal. The prisoner was traced by police to Yarmouth, where she was found in the guise of a man, wearing her master’s clothes, and courting a young woman as her sweetheart, no suspicion being for a moment entertained as to her sex. She had cropped her hair short, smoked cigars, took the woman “he” was courting to the theatre, and marched about the Marine-parade with a Spanish cap on.[4]

Figure 2. 29 Bessborough Gardens in modern London, Google Maps 2021.

Indeed, as the Gazette points out, “the case was one of the most strange that ever came before the court,”[5] but it is also an obscure example of queer life in the nineteenth century.[6] Although the accuracy of the papers can be questioned, the dominant focus of nineteenth-century writers’ commentary on the case lies in an anxiety around Mary’s dress and her ability not only to pursue women when dressed as a man, but to allegedly go unrecognized while doing so. The focus for Victorian writers seems to be on Mary’s cross-dressing, rather than on the crime itself. Whose blood and hair was on the fireplace poker, who broke the window and parcelled up the plate but chose not to take it, remains an obvious mystery, as do Mary’s own motives for fleeing, it seems, only with the men’s clothing she stole.[7] Victorian society depended on and enforced a strict gender binary in the nineteenth century; male and female were synonymous with other divisions such as public/private, inside/outside, and passive/active.[8] Marjorie B. Garber (1992) finds that “one of the most important aspects of cross-dressing is the way in which it offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of ‘female and male’, whether they are considered essential or constructed, biological or cultural.”[9] The cultural focus on the deviancy of Mary’s crimes, chief amongst them crossing gender boundaries, is apparent in written accounts of the case such as the Gazette’s, which provide both a salacious dimension to a servant’s theft, and a compelling means through which to police her actions.

Figure 3. 29 Bessborough Gardens, Google Street View. Google Maps 2021.

Alongside the papers, social commentators concurred in their estimation of Mary’s character. “Went out to the Westminster Police Court,” Arthur Munby records in his diary on 19 November 1861, alongside “a great rush of people,” “to the examination of Mary Newell, the maid of all work who robbed her master last week.”[10] As the papers will report later that year, Mary “went off in man’s clothes, travelled down to Yarmouth, took lodgings there, smoked cigars, & made love to her landlady.”[11] Munby’s account is obviously compelled by the salacious prospects of Mary’s case:[12] “Assuming that she had as I was told done it only for a lark, I admired her pluck skill and humour, and wished to observe her person & character.” [13] Munby finds her “a sullen but fairly good looking girl, of moderate height, and not unfeminine. Drest in shabby finery: her hair, which she had cut short, hanging over her forehead. Her hat, coat, trousers, and the rest of her male clothing were exhibited on a table.”[14] He cites her abnormally (according to himself and his seat-neighbour) large hands as the reason she was able to pass herself off as a gentleman.

For Munby, it is only the assumption that the crime was committed for a “lark” and Mary’s “pluck skill and humour” that render the crime more hilarious to Munby than troubling. Munby records that she is “not unfeminine,” a curious double negative to describe the woman before him, especially in conjunction with her large, masculine hands that Munby records, and the insinuation made by the male clothing exhibited next to her. Munby searches for some inherent “unfeminine” attribute in Mary Newell to account for her choice to don men’s clothing, conveniently displayed nearby. Munby here precludes later sexologist writings by Richard von Kraft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis.[15] Ellis writes that although “the chief characteristic of the sexually inverted woman is a certain degree of masculinity,” “a woman who is inclined to adopt the ways and garments of men is by no means necessarily inverted.”[16] In other words, inverted—or lesbian—women retain some marker of masculinity in or out of men’s clothes, and Munby searches for such an attribute in Mary Newell when he attends her hearing on November 19.

Ultimately, Munby is disappointed. For him, Mary Newell is nothing more than a “practised thief and a dissolute girl.”[17] Munby meets Mr. Barker—whom he refers to as a “surveyor”—and “his pupil, [18] the young man whose name and garments she assumed.”[19] Mr. Barker recounts to Munby that Mary was “a dirty and untidy servant” and “was in the habit … of stealing out to low theatres alone, hiring cabs to go in and smoking cigars with the cabmen.”[20] “A London girl,” Munby reports, her “mother a charwoman,” as if this might explain Mary’s motives for robbing “more than one former master.”[21] Meanwhile, Mary’s real motivations in November 1861, and the events surrounding her disappearance, remain a mystery.[22]

However, while Munby leaves Mary Newell and her dissatisfying story behind on November 19, her tale does not end there. In December 1861, while the nation mourned the death of Prince Albert on 14 December, Mary stood trial for felony in the Middlesex Sessions Court on 16 December[23] after a delay in proceedings at the request of the defence attorney reported by the Bury and Norwich Post on 10 December.[24] In their account of the trial, the Gazette writes that Mary’s defence told the jury that “the prisoner had a kind of monomania for the romantic, and, though not exactly insane, was at the time she did this under some idea that she was playing the part of a heroine in some melodrama.”[25] Indeed, the defence put forward that Mary “was of very weak mind,” and this was the case of “a diseased mind” under a “temporary delusion.”[26]

Figure 4. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

The defence sought an acquittal by trivializing Mary’s intelligence and mental faculty. Not only was she incapable of making rational decisions, but her choices evidenced a diseased and disturbed female mind.[27] Mary’s potential queerness/cross-dressing is subsumed under theatrical performance (“melodrama”), and, like her felony, is a symptom of a larger mental illness. The defence and the paper’s reportage evidence an anxiety around Mary’s choices; both the felony and the cross-dressing/seduction of another woman are equally deviant, despite the fact that only one act is on trial. Indeed, the Roscommon Messenger follows this line of thinking in their story from 21 December 1861 entitled “A Cure for Miss Newell,” in which they link her crime with mental disease.[28]

Figure 5. Prisoners Log, 16 December 1861, Ancestry.com. Mary Newell’s name, her crime, and her sentence appears in the middle of the list at #7. All of the women’s names have been underlined.

Despite her defence, the now 22-year-old Mary Newell was found guilty of “Larceny by Servant in Dwelling House” and sentenced to 18 months hard labour for her crimes. Her name appears as the seventh on a Prisoners Log on behalf of the Middlesex Sessions Court, listing her crime and her sentence.[29] She is one of nine women on that page of the log who were held at Clerkenwell House of Detention. After that, Mary Newell passes out of the lives of the Barker family. About her time in prison there is no information, as the records remain undigitized. Regardless, the records are unlikely to show, as none of the above accounts have, her feelings in regard to her crime or her sentence. Whether she cared about the death of the Prince Consort, what her first Christmas in prison—just days after her sentence—was like. Indeed, even her short-lived bout of notoriety appears only minimally in the personal and public records of Victorian London. And yet, the mystery of her motives and of her movements during the days after her flight from the house in Bessborough Gardens seems far more complex than a case of mental illness and reads as more boldly queer than the papers of the time were willing to believe.

Rachel M. Friars (@RachelMFriars) is a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her work centers on neo-Victorian lesbian narratives and nineteenth-century lesbian history, with secondary research interests in true crime, life writing, and the gothic. Her writing has appeared in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies (2020) and Neo-Victorian Madness: Rediagnosing Nineteenth-Century Mental Illness in Literature and Other Media (Palgrave 2020).

Notes & references

[1] I am deeply indebted to Connor DeMerchant and Emma McTavish, whose archival skills have aided me throughout this project. I write this for them.

[2] “Bessborough Gardens, Parish of St. John the Evangelist, City of Westminster, County of Middlesex.” 1861 Census. Pg. 11. Ancestry.com.

[3] The Barker family’s census records also list a “Charles Hall” residing at the address as a visitor. This may have been a polite way of saying “lodger,” which would have meant another adult for Mary to tend to in her duties. Newspapers at the time reported that Mary stole clothing from both her master (Mr. Barker) and Mr. Barker’s pupil, a Mr. Heath; however, Charles Hall and Mr. Heath could be the same person due to a misprint in the paper.

[4] “The Case of Mary Newell.” North Devon Gazette, Tuesday 24 December 1861. The British Newspaper Archive, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001193/18611224/ 019/0002.

[5] “The Case of Mary Newell.” North Devon Gazette.

[6] For an account of the queer potential of Mary Newell’s case, see Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women and Britain from 1780-1970 (London: Routledge 2001) or Jacqueline Banerjee “Arthur J. Munby, Cross-Dressing and Lesbianism” (Victorian Web, 2020, Arthur J. Munby, Cross-Dressing and Lesbianism (victorianweb.org)).

[7] Oram and Turnbull cite a street ballad entitled “Mary Newall: The Artful Girl of Pimlico” that posits that Mary faked her own murder with her shorn hair and animal blood (2001, 29-31).

[8] For further reading, see Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[9] Marjorie B. Garber Vested Interests Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety (London: Routledge, 1992), 10.

[10] Munby, Arthur Joseph. “Tuesday, 19th.” 11 Sep – 31 Dec, 1861. Diary of AJ Munby: Volume 11. Gender: Identity and Social Change At Trinity College, Cambridge. GBR/0016/MUNB. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, Gender: Identity and Social Change. http://www.genderidentityandsocialchange.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/TCC_0016_MUNB_B011.

[11] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[12] For an in-depth discussion of Munby’s own interest in cross-dressing women, see Banerjee’s article on the Victorian Web.

[13] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[14] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[15] See Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) and Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1900).

[16] Havelock Ellis Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion. (London: F.A. Davis Company, 1915), 140.

[17] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[18] The North Devon Gazette reports that this “pupil” was “a gentleman by the name of Heath,” but again, this could be in reference to Charles Hall, residing with the Barkers in April of 1861.

[19] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[20] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[21] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[22] Munby, 19 November 1861.

[23] While newspapers at the time record Mary’s trial date as Tuesday 17 December 1861, the prisoner’s log records her sentencing as Monday 16 December 1861. For accuracy’s sake, I have chosen to trust the prisoner’s log.

[24] “The Case of Mary Newell.” Bury and Norwich Post Tuesday 10 December 1861. The British Newspaper Archive, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000156/1861121 0/046/0003.

[25] “The Case of Mary Newell.” North Devon Gazette.

[26] “The Case of Mary Newell.” North Devon Gazette.

[27] See Elaine Showalter The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Penguin Books, 1885) for a discussion of the gendered dynamics of madness in the nineteenth century.

[28] “A Cure for Miss Newell.” Roscommon Messenger Saturday 21 December 1861. British Newspaper Archive, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000833/18611221/011/0002.

[29] “County of Middlesex Return of all Prisoners Convicted or Bailed to appear for Trial, or Indicted at the Adjourned General Session held at Clerkenwell on the 16th day of December 1861, shewing the nature of their Offences, and the result of the Proceedings.” Prisoners Record, 1861, pg. 231. Ancestry.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *