James Miranda Barry (above) so completely refused to let her gender hold her back that in 1812 she became the first woman to graduate as a British doctor, and she managed it by dressing as a man. She entered medical school in Edinburgh as a bloke, apprenticed at Guys and St Thomas’ and practised as a surgeon in the army in South Africa before retiring to London. It was only discovered that she was a woman after her death. Clearly as talented an actor as she was a medic.
Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park are the sort of chaps who would be dancing the night away to a Lady Lloyd DJ set at Madam JoJos these days. They spent their evenings in silk and satin dresses cruising the Strand as ‘Fanny’ and ‘Stella’. They were tried for ‘conspiring and inciting persons to commit an offence’ in 1871, but acquitted due to lack of evidence that men dressing as women was actually breaking any law.
Vesta Tilley (born Matilda Powles) was one of the most famous music-hall stars of the late 19th century, partly down to her convincing male impersonations. She’d don the elegant outfits of a dandy and sing satirical songs like ‘Burlington Bertie’ and ‘Following in Father’s Footsteps’, gently mocking the manners of the rich.
Colonel Leslie Barker got into all sorts of trouble during the 1920s, although none of it was due to the fact that he was actually an Australian woman called Lillias Barker. Having been arrested for bankruptcy, being a member of the National Fascist Party, and illegal possession of a firearm, she even got married, explaining to her (clearly gullible) wife that her ‘impotence’ was the result of war wounds.
Information from ‘The Book of Lists: London’ by Nick Rennison, Canongate, £8.99.