The Fascinating Case Of Fanny And Stella, Two Gay Men Who Shocked Victorian England

00AAynnafApril 1870. London, England. Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton made national headlines in when they were arrested outside the Strand Theater. Boulton, dressed in an elegant cherry-colored silk evening gown trimmed with white lace, and Park, wearing a dark green satin dress with a black lace shawl and white gloves, were led from the theater by police. Their crime: Being men, and being suspected of homosexuality.

Contrary to widely-held belief, Victorian England wasn’t nearly as stuffy and puritanical as many people think. London actually had twice as many brothels as it did schools, churches, and charitable institutions, and there’s no shortage of gay porn from the era. Then, of course, there were people like Park and Boulton, who got their kicks by dressing up as the opposite sex and openly flirting with knowing — and sometimes unknowing — gentlemen.

0000fanstell111Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park would often arrive to their destinations as men, then excuse themselves to the bathroom, only to return in full-on women’s evening garb, complete with hair and make-up. They were frequently seen drawing attention to themselves in the balcony of the Strand Theater.

Biographer Neil McKenna writes in his new book Fanny and Stella: The Two Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England:

Fanny and Stella were hard to fathom. They had behaved with such lewdness in their box in the stalls as to leave not the faintest shred of doubt in even the most disinterested observer that they were a pair of hardened and shameless whores. And yet, close up, Stella was revealed as a beautiful, almost aristocratic, young woman who showed flashes of an innate, and most decidedly un-whorelike, dignity and grace… Fanny, too, was clearly a woman of some education and breeding, and was certainly very far removed from your common-or-garden whore.

044ynnafOn April 28, 1870, after a year of observing the women, police arrested them on their way out of the theater. As Park was getting into her carriage, an officer approached.

McKenna writes:

Just as the carriage was about to depart, one of the men who had been shadowing them all that evening jumped up and swung himself in through the door.

“I’m a police officer from Bow Street,” he said, producing his warrant card, “and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now.”

Both Park and Boulton were charged with “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offense” (A.K.A. homosexuality), which was considered a crime at the time. What ensued was a lengthy and sensational trial that drew enormous crowds.

Sir_Alexander_CockburnThe trial began on May 9, 1871 at the Court of Queen’s Bench. It was presided over by Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn. (That’s right, Cockburn.) During the hearing, Boulton and Park’s lifestyle attracted a great deal of media attention, especially when a trunkful of their dresses were brought in as evidence.

As part of their investigation, police raided Park and Boulton’s shared London address where they discovered 16 satin and silk dresses, a dozen petticoats, 10 cloaks and jackets, and various hats and other feminine accessories. Their landlady described the clothing as “very extreme.”

Ultimately, Park and Boulton were found not guilty after a slew of unreliable witnesses were unable to sway the jury’s minds and the prosecution failed to establish that 1. the pair had ever engaged in sodomy, and 2. that men wearing women’s clothing was against English law. The jury took only 53 minutes to deliberate. When the defendants were finally acquitted, loud cheers and cries of “Bravo!” were heard from the gallery.

Watch Neil McKenna talk about the fascinating case in the video below.

h/t Dangerous Minds

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  • jwrappaport

    Fascinating piece. This is the kind of stuff that Queerty ought to be putting out.

  • Billy Budd

    Oscar Wilde was not as lucky as these girls. He practically died from imprisonment and hard labor.

  • Billy Budd

    I strongly recommend you guys to read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde. It is insightful, culturally rich and important. More important than this book about Fanny and Stella.

  • DarkZephyr

    @Billy Budd: I appreciate that you have recommended the book about Wilde to us but c’mon the snark about this book at the end wasn’t necessary. There is room for both books and this one sounds fascinating.

  • DickieJohnson

    To me, it sounds like a really great gay movie, with artistic license, of course. Is the photo actually of Fanny and Stella?

  • james_in_cambridge

    @DickieJohnson: Yes to the movie! And I’ll bet you with the book’s release, it will indeed be released by a major studio (with a small budget). Or HBO will do it. This is the kind of stuff actors with some indie cred like Ryan Gosling can’t resist…

  • james_in_cambridge

    Also, Queerty made it seem like they were at the theater for no reason. They were performers, perhaps the first female impersonators in the world.

    The two men then formed a theatrical double act, touring as Stella Clinton (or Mrs Graham) and Fanny Winifred Park, and receiving favourable press reviews for their performances.[2] For around two years they also frequented the West End of London in both women’s and men’s dress, attending theatres and social events. They were ejected from both the Alhambra Theatre and the Burlington Arcade on several occasions. On one occasion they were bound over to keep the peace after being mistaken for women dressed as men.[1]

    A third person involved in the affair was Lord Arthur Clinton, who had lived with “Stella” as his/her “husband” and had exchanged love letters with him.[3][4][5]

  • Billy Budd

    @james_in_cambridge: Yeah, but the best and the true classic is Ellmann’s.


    I’m being auto-flagged and I can’t work out which is the offending word!

  • Ogre Magi

    I wonder if they were the inspiration for Emily and Florence from Little Britain

  • GeriHew

    @james_in_cambridge: “They were performers, perhaps the first female impersonators in the world.”

    Hardly. Don’t you know that in William Shakespeare’s time all the female roles were played by young men because it was considered unseemly for women to appear on the stage. It wasn’t until the 1660s, more than forty years after Shakespeare’s death, that women were first allowed to work on the English stage.

  • Billy Budd

    @GeriHew: And even after the 1660’s, for a long time women who became actresses were seen as (or were actually) prostitutes.

  • Lvng1tor

    @GeriHew: I think he,@james_in_cambridge: , was referring to “female impersonators” not merely men who are doing the female roles. He did actually wiki them to learn more. While I’m sure there were others earlier than this it would be interesting to look for others like these guys. See if there were any “wide audience” performers like they seemed to be. More a history of modern drag rather than (dr a g) as a stage note.

  • GeriHew

    @Billy Budd: Or just sexually liberated women by the standards of the day.

  • GeriHew

    Depends on your definition of “female impersonator” maybe.

    They were known as “Boy Players” as they were generally aged between 12 and 21. Most apparently switched from playing mostly or exclusively female roles to exclusively male roles as they grew older. Considering the complexity of some of Shakespeare’s female characters, and the fact that most of players were apparently so young, suggests to me that they were required to be at least fairly convincing as females. Also Shakespeare and other playwrights of the period wrote some very bawdy female roles. Mistress Quickly for example. I can’t imagine how a male could play such a role without coming across as a kind of drag act.

    If you’re looking for an example of a boy player who could be considered to be a part of queer history it sounds like Edward Kynaston was probably gay or bisexual.

  • siltor67

    i remember when LIttle Britain did this :)

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