Sunday, 15 May 2011

The infamous Colonel Barker

 "Married to a man-woman"

Valerie Arkell-Smith, aka 'Colonel Barker'

 In 1929, readers of the Sunday Express devoured a shocking case of gender-bending along with their tea and toast. In 'My Story by the Man-Woman’s Wife', Elfrida Howard, from Littlehampton, West Sussex – “a pretty little woman...slim, and with a mass of auburn shingled hair” – revealed how she had unknowingly lived as the ‘wife’ of the infamous female transvestite, Colonel Barker.

Several years earlier, Elfrida Howard, then in her mid-twenties, had befriended a woman called Mrs Pierce Crouch, a newcomer to the area, who ran a farm with her husband. Mrs Crouch came into Elfrida’s father's chemist shop, and they struck up a friendship. After a few months, Mrs Crouch asked Elfrida to call her 'Bill', and confessed that she was “a man masquerading as a woman”. 

Bill explained that his wife had run away and he was worried about their son’s future. Elfrida believed ‘Bill’ implicitly: “everything about her suggested that she was really a man. Her figure, manner, handwriting, interests – every conceivable thing was masculine.” Friendship soon turned to romance, and “polite, courteous and fascinating” Bill swept Elfrida off her feet, with trips to the theatre, and gifts of expensive jewellery. She saw him as “a marvellous cavalier – the kind that every girl dreams about.”

When one night Bill proposed, and Elfrida accepted unhesitatingly. Elfrida's parents were not quite as keen on the Colonel, who introduced himself as 'Mrs Crouch's twin brother'. Nevertheless, suited and booted 'Sir Victor Barker' and his fiancĂ©e were married at St Peters Church in Brighton, on the 14th of November 1923.

"A wife and no wife”

“During out married life I am prepared to take my oath that everything proceeded in an entirely normal way,” Elfrida claimed. “My honeymoon was a perfectly normal one.” Bill preferred to change his clothes in another room, but Elfrida took that for embarrassment about scars on his back and neck, which he said were shrapnel wounds. Besides, the dashing Bill was proving rather susceptible to women: “He never could see a woman without paying her compliments and saying pretty things to her. In every hotel we stayed at women had fallen in love with him and I was tired of hearing them tell me how attractive he was.”

They settled at Uckfield, where Bill gained a job as a farm manager, but soon he was off, touring with a theatre company under the stage name Ivor Gauntlett. Meanwhile, in late 1926, Elfrida received a letter telling her that he had met another woman, and would not be coming home. She “destroyed all his letters and burnt his photograph, thinking to have finished with him forever,” and returned to her parents' house.

But who was the mysterious Bill? Valerie Barker was born in Jersey, in 1895. She had a typical middle-class upbringing, growing up from a tom-boyish girl into a strapping woman, “nearly 6ft high and powerfully built.” In 1914, aged 19, Valerie volunteered to serve as a VAD, and four years later, married an Australian Officer, Harold Arkell-Smith. The marriage failed, and they divorced. The scars she tried to conceal from Elfrida may have been the results of domestic violence. Valerie moved in with Ernest Pearce-Crouch, another Australian, with whom she had two children. At some stage while living with Crouch in West Sussex, she started dressing like  a man, and in 1923 left him for Elfrida Howard.

After leaving Elfrida, Valerie adopted the name of 'Colonel Leslie Barker', headed to London and joined the right-wing National Fascisti. She taught fencing and boxing to teenage recruits, and advised them to avoid getting mixed up with women. "I used to go out with the boys to Hyde Park," she recalled, "and we had many rows with the Reds." In 1927, the Daily Herald ran a piece entitled 'Fascist and his firearm' on Colonel Barker's arrest for possessing an unauthorised revolver, discovered during a raid on the National Fascisti headquarters.

During this period, the Colonel lived in an expensive flat in Park Lane with a woman and his nine-year-old son. He ran a restaurant, which failed, leaving him bankrupt. One of his neighbours said: “We all looked upon ‘him’ as a man who was the best type of Army officer.” The caretaker of the flats recalled how the Colonel enjoyed associating with other 'war heroes': "He tried to form a new branch of the Mons club and held the first dinner in his flat...he talked to them in language which was used by soldiers on active service and did it so realistically that nobody could have through he was anything other than a wartime soldier.”

By the time the police caught up with the Colonel - who had left a trail of debts behind him - he was working at the Regent Palace Hotel, in Piccadilly as a reception clerk. Calling himself 'Colonel Leslie Ivor Victor Gauntlett Bligh Barker', he was transported to Brixton prison, where he protested against being examined by the prison doctor, calling it "an indignity to which a man of his rank should not be subjected.” Finally, forced to confess the real reason, the Colonel was transferred to Holloway women's prison, refusing to give her real name.

The police tracked down Elfrida Howard, who swiftly unmasked the Colonel as her former ‘husband’ and Victor Barker/Valerie Arkell-Smith was sentenced to nine months imprisonment for making a false statement on a marriage certificate. After this disgrace, Valerie re-entered the world as Victor Barker, but he was forced into lower and less well paid jobs. He took on increasingly menial work, and served another prison sentence for petty theft in the mid-1930s.

Valerie Arkell-Smith died, all but forgotten in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Kessingland churchyard, near Lowestoft.
You can read the full story of Valerie Arkell-Smith's life in Colonel Barker's Monstrous Regiment: A Tale of Female Husbandry, by Rose Collis, (Virago, 2001).

Valerie Arkell-Smith also has her own Wikipedia entry and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography page

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