Manchester Histories Festival

Harry Stokes – a female husband in Manchester.

Friday 8 April 2016

By Jenny White

I’ve been researching the life of Harry Stokes (c1799 – 1859), a master bricklayer who specialised in chimney construction. Harry’s life hit the headlines when he was outed as a ‘man-woman’, a ‘female husband’ – first in 1838 when his wife sought a separation due to his drunken rages and withholding of housekeeping; and then in 1859 at his death inquest after his body was found in the River Irwell. The phrase ‘female husband’ was used to describe a person born with a biologically female body but who lived life as a man, including taking a wife.

Extract from ‘A FEMALE HUSBAND IN MANCHESTER’, The Observer, April 16, 1838

Image: extract from ‘A FEMALE HUSBAND IN MANCHESTER’, The Observer, April 16, 1838

I first encountered Harry in the excellent Lesbian History Sourcebook, and was keen to find out more about this local LGBT historical character. There were discrepancies between the accounts of Harry’s life given in the various news reports, so it was great to find Harry listed in Manchester trade directories, rate books, and censuses, and to be able to separate some of the fact from fiction.

For example the 1838 news reports explain that Harry’s first marriage lasted 22 years but the 1859 reports highlight that it lasted just one day. It can be seen that the stories from 1859 used cheeky street ballads composed about Harry as their source for the tale of the marriage day gone wrong. The songs may have been based on those printed in 1829 about James Allen, a ‘female husband’ in London.

Extract from The Female Husband ballad, published 1829 by T Birt

Image: Extract from The Female Husband ballad, published 1829 by T Birt.

Manchester rate books and trade directories confirm that in the 1820s and 30s Harry built up a successful bricklaying firm. He’s listed as living down Potter Street, and Cumberland Street – in today’s Spinningfields – Cumberland Street was on the site where The Avenue is today. Harry is also listed as a special constable sworn in to police events where there were large gatherings of people with the potential for trouble, such as protest marches and demonstrations.

Pigot’s map of Manchester 1832, showing Harry Stokes’s stomping ground

After separating from his first wife, Harry set up home with a widow called Francis Collins. The couple moved to Salford for two years and then in 1840 they established a beerhouse at numbers 3 – 5 Quay Street, later moving to Camp Street. Francis’s son John from her first marriage was later reported as saying that he "always regarded Harry as his stepfather, and his mother assumed the name of Stokes and passed as his wife."In 1859 Harry’s body was found in the River Irwell, not far from where Media City is today.

Today we could classify Harry as a member of the LGBT+ community. But the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans only came into use relatively recently, and we can’t go back in time and interview Harry and other ‘female husbands’ about how they saw their identities and life choices.

Harry’s life can be clearly seen in the framework of trans history – he lived as a man because that’s what he considered his true gender to be. In the context of lesbian history ‘female husbands’ are seen as masculine women who passed as male to pursue relationships with women. Other historians view ‘female husbands’ as women who cross-dressed for financial reasons – women were barred from most skilled trades, and typically earned less than half of a man’s wage.

For more information about Harry’s life; how female husbands were viewed in the 1800s; and  Manchester’s other female husbands, check out the Warp & Weft blog at Jenny also be giving a talk on Harry’s life at the Manchester Histories Festival in June. And she recommends the 2011 film Albert Nobbs starring Glen Close and which explores the lives of ‘female husbands’.

Jenny White is an arts & heritage co-ordinator, blanket-stitch fan and part of Warp & Weft.

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