First British Library Visit… Check!

I have just came back from my first official trip to the British Library in London (on my own) and accessed some materials. All a bit confusing, especially all the different reading rooms, but I am sure I will get the hang of it! Also,who knew there were so many microfilm machines? Just as I have mastered one in my Central Library a digital one takes over!

The devil incarnate!

Anyway, one of the main reasons to visit was so that I could access ‘An Authentic Narrative of the Extraordinary Career of James Allen The Female Husband’. Now a quick introduction to James Allen because he is someone who I feel a special connection with as it was his story that first got my research interests flowing when I located my first Female Husband article in the Newcastle Courant in 1826 which depicted James’s death.

Extraordinary Investigation, Morning Post, 1829 crop
Snippet of ‘Extraordinary Investigation’ about James Allen in the Morning Post, 1829

There were over 48 newspaper articles published about James Allen’s death in local and national newspapers from The Morning Post, Observer and Newcastle Courant to the Kentish Weekly Post. James was a dockyard worker in Dockhead and was described as being very skilled in his work. Although his first job was as a groom. James died in a freak accident at work in January 1829 when a piece of timber fell on his head. He died on the way to St Thomas’s Hospital in London and when an autopsy was convened it was discovered that James Allen was in fact a biological female. His wife of 21 years was informed and she claimed that she did not know her husband was a woman. Until now I have only been able to see little snippets of this pamphlet that was written just after his death so I was so excited to actually see it in the library – even better was that I took pictures and now have my very own copy of the pamphlet!

An Authentic Narrative of the Extraordinary Career of James Allen, 1829

Although I have felt pretty confident in understanding James’s life and his work ethic as evidenced through articles, this pamphlet essentially made me question everything I have already knew! One big issue that was clear was that the newspapers all referred to James’s wife as Mary Allen. In actual fact, her name was Abigail Allen (nee Naylor) – this now makes sense as to why I have been unsuccessful in locating their marriage record or census records.

I want to explore some aspects of the pamphlet throughout this post to uncover more of a picture about James Allen. I want to first look at the delightful picture of Abigail on the front page. To the eye she looks plump and curvaceous with fairly clean clothing and handsome in the face.

What intrigues me most is the quote underneath the portrait of Abigail:

Wife to the pretended James Allen, she resided with her Associate for more than 21 years, ignorant of her real sex! and what is more astonishing, kept the secrets of her injuries inviolable to the last, proving incontestably that a woman can keep a secret!

This reference to Abigail being able to keep  secret vs the untrustworthiness of women in general is repeated throughout the pamphlet. It seems so fascinating to the author (who remains anonymous although suggests they were a friend of James’s), that a woman could keep a secret – despite the fact that there are also remarks that Abigail was unaware of her husband’s biological identity.

Moving towards the equally attractive portrait of James Allen, it is impossible not to notice the feminised drawing of the body evidenced through the long limbs, curvy hips – almost hourglass in shape. Equally, the pamphlet explores the different occupations and careers of James who held employment as a sawyer, dicker, builder, pub landlord and a farmhand. Therefore, I am struck by his clothing, the top hat, pressed trousers, waistcoat, shined shoes, what looks like a cravat and perfectly coiffed hair. Surely these present a middle class man?

However, on further reflection, James’s first employment was a groomsman to a Mr Ward of Camberwell Terrace and later to Lonsdale. It was during this period that he met his wife Abigail where she was a maid. Therefore, it is possible that the artist may have wanted to depict the loving relationship between the pair as they look as if in conversation across the page staring at one another. Another reason I thought of this was the pamphlet investigated how James became a ‘degenerated labourer’ when he was working as a farmhand. It is possible that the author and artist wanted to represent James in a more respectable manner because after his death his wife suffered abusive behaviour and had the aid of police surveillance when necessary.

Opening of the 40 page pamphlet of James and Abigail in deep conversation

If we compare the pamphlet to newspaper articles of the period, there are inevitable stark differences. For instance the Newcastle Courant only fleetingly remarks that James had an ill temper towards Abigail and was a very jealous man. However, the pamphlet explores how James deserted Abigail for several weeks at a time quite regularly during their marriage. There was also the suggestion that Abigail identified as ‘wedded widowhood’ in that there was never a sexual relationship between James and Abigail, in fact the pamphlet suggests that she was as much as a virgin before the marriage as she was after and during. However, I will make the point that for me the sexual aspects of marriages or relationships for gender passing individuals are not important for my research. This is because there are different types of intimacy that can be recognised as sex that is not just penetrative intercourse – all of which would not have been discussed at the time in newspapers or pamphlets.

The introduction to the pamphlet boasts of the “Post-Mortem” Examination of the Body with a Variety of Other Interesting and Exclusive Facts” – now if that does not sound like a juicy headline in Heat magazine I don’t know what will! You can imagine how excited I was to get to the nitty gritty of the ‘exclusive facts’ to pamphlet brags to have. On the whole, I was disappointed! The only thing I deduced from these interesting and exclusive facts was that James had rather large breasts – that has been bound so tightly and concealed for so long that they sat underneath his armpit. I also understood that James must have had a vagina due to the overzealous descriptions of James’s body being ‘pure and entire’ (pg. 37).

Recently I found an article from the Observer which suggested that James had in fact given birth to a son who would have been in his 0s when James passed away. Obviously this was a new route that  was intrigued to explore. However, there was an endnote on the pamphlet that clearly stated that the newspapers were wrong about James’s life and seemed to suggest that only this pamphlet gave the complete life of James.

There were several things about this pamphlet that stood out to me, the first major things suggested that James was depressed. This was evidenced through his irrational behaviour, ill temper, he had been assaulted by colleagues who were curious about his identity, his life savings had been stolen from the Sun Inn (Baldock) when he was landlord and not to mention he was in constant fear of exposure or discovery. The other main concern was that newspapers lie!


Author confirming that the newspapers have not been 100% true with James’s story



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