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Reform Magazine | December 15, 2017

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Called to scandal

Called to scandal

The stories of two Victorian comic actors inspire more than admiration, as Roberta Rominger discovers

Recently, a series of blue plaques began to appear in the streets around United Reformed Church House, sponsored by our local Marchmont Community Association. This corner of London doesn’t have a lot of character, and those of us who work at Church House are not normally aware of being part of a local community. But these last few months we have learned that the place is full of history. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) lived a few blocks away. Lenin lived in a house on Tavistock Place while he was in London. Sir John Barbirolli (a fellow cellist!) was a neighbour.

In January, a request arrived for the installation of a blue plaque on the wall of Church House, naming two people we’d never heard of: Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park (pictured below), “Victorian cross dressers”.

Boulton and Park were both born in 1848, each to a good family. From earliest childhood each was regularly mistaken for a little girl, and each loved dressing up, play acting and singing. Park was home-schooled to protect him from the bullying he would have received at the boarding school favoured by his family.

Boulton was sent to the London & County Bank in Islington so they could make a banker out of him, and Park was sent to law school. But their love was the theatre. That’s where they met. They formed a double act, with Boulton playing the part of a young lady and Park a matronly dowager. They stepped into a tradition which had deep roots in British culture, from Shakespeare to Christmas pantomime. Whatever is going on at a deep psychological level, this is an entertainment the English have always enjoyed, and Boulton and Park excelled at it. In their alter egos of Stella and Fanny, they would sometimes head into town dressed as women, completely convincingly. Their biographer says that Boulton caused more of a stir if he went out in men’s clothing, so sure were people that he was actually a woman trying to pass for a man.

The two friends rented a room at 13 Wakefield Street, approximately where I am sitting as I write. They stored their frocks and make-up here and often would arrive as men and leave as women. The reason for the plaque is that they left here on the evening of 28 April 1870 and never came back. They were arrested at the Strand Theatre and charged with responsibility for homosexual acts and conspiracy to induce other men into homosexuality and cross dressing, so as to cause outrage to public decency and corrupt public morals.

Their trial a year later was prosecuted by the attorney general himself on the order of the home secretary, the first time this had happened in 240 years. It was heard at the Court of the Queen’s Bench, the highest court in the land, with the Lord Chief Justice presiding. During the trial it emerged that the police had shadowed them for weeks before their arrest. Witnesses had been paid and coached; police officers were given bonuses for every piece of incriminating evidence they produced. Clearly Boulton and Park had been chosen as scapegoats.

Ultimately, the evidence collapsed and the trial ended with a unanimous acquittal. This is a trial we would all have heard of, had Oscar Wilde’s trials for gross indecency not eclipsed it 30 years later. Wilde suffered the punishment that could have fallen to Boulton and Park: two years’ hard labour. Prior to 1861, such “gross indecency” had carried the death penalty. As it was, they spent a year in Newgate Gaol suffering treatment that I leave to your imagination.

Is this a story to remember? Absolutely. Should the United Reformed Church have agreed to the installation of the plaque? I was not party to the decision, but I support it. Some have felt that by agreeing to the plaque we have somehow promoted cross dressing. I don’t see that, any more than our neighbours up at 36 Tavistock Place should be assumed to support Leninism. The principle is straightforward: it’s history and it happened here.

But there is more. When the community gathered for the unveiling of the plaque in July, we were treated to a lively description of the place and the times. We met Boulton and Park, full of youthful spirit, and heard how outrageously they had behaved, scandalising the good citizens of the West End. We laughed. And then we were silent. To me the story is full of poignancy. Here were two human beings systematically rejected for who they were, who might well have hid away. Instead, they were defiant, demanding to be noticed, refusing to conform. I see immense courage. The URC, like others, is divided as to what fullness of life might have looked like for Boulton and Park, and what it looks like now for people like them, but surely we stand united in the conviction that fullness of life is what God intends. Looking past the outrageous ecently, a series of blue plaques began to appear in the streets around United Reformed Church House, sponsored by our local Marchmont Community Association. This corner of London doesn’t have a lot of character, and those of us who work at Church House are not normally aware of being part of a local community. But these last few months we have learned that the place is full of history. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) lived a few blocks away. Lenin lived in a house on Tavistock Place while he was in London. Sir John Barbirolli (a fellow cellist!) was a neighbour.

In January, a request arrived for the installation of a blue plaque on the wall of Church House, naming two people we’d never heard of: Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park (pictured below), “Victorian cross dressers”.

Boulton and Park were both born in 1848, each to a good family. From earliest childhood each was regularly mistaken for a little girl, and each loved dressing up, play acting and singing. Park was home-schooled to protect him from the bullying he would have received at the boarding school favoured by his family.

Boulton was sent to the London & County Bank in Islington so they could make a banker out of him, and Park was sent to law school. But their love was the theatre. That’s where they met. They formed a double act, with Boulton playing the part of a young lady and Park a matronly dowager. They stepped into a tradition which had deep roots in British culture, from Shakespeare to Christmas pantomime. Whatever is going on at a deep psychological level, this is an entertainment the English have always enjoyed, and Boulton and Park excelled at it. In their alter egos of Stella and Fanny, they would sometimes head into town dressed as women, completely convincingly. Their biographer says that Boulton caused more of a stir if he went out in men’s clothing, so sure were people that he was actually a woman trying to pass for a man.

The two friends rented a room at 13 Wakefield Street, approximately where I am sitting as I write. They stored their frocks and make-up here and often would arrive as men and leave as women. The reason for the plaque is that they left here on the evening of 28 April 1870 and never came back. They were arrested at the Strand Theatre and charged with responsibility for homosexual acts and conspiracy to induce other men into homosexuality and cross dressing, so as to cause outrage to public decency and corrupt public morals.

Their trial a year later was prosecuted by the attorney general himself on the order of the home secretary, the first time this had happened in 240 years. It was heard at the Court of the Queen’s Bench, the highest court in the land, with the Lord Chief Justice presiding. During the trial it emerged that the police had shadowed them for weeks before their arrest. Witnesses had been paid and coached; police officers were given bonuses for every piece of incriminating evidence they produced. Clearly Boulton and Park had been chosen as scapegoats.

Ultimately, the evidence collapsed and the trial ended with a unanimous acquittal. This is a trial we would all have heard of, had Oscar Wilde’s trials for gross indecency not eclipsed it 30 years later. Wilde suffered the punishment that could have fallen to Boulton and Park: two years’ hard labour. Prior to 1861, such “gross indecency” had carried the death penalty. As it was, they spent a year in Newgate Gaol suffering treatment that I leave to your imagination.

Is this a story to remember? Absolutely. Should the United Reformed Church have agreed to the installation of the plaque? I was not party to the decision, but I support it. Some have felt that by agreeing to the plaque we have somehow promoted cross dressing. I don’t see that, any more than our neighbours up at 36 Tavistock Place should be assumed to support Leninism. The principle is straightforward: it’s history and it happened here.

But there is more. When the community gathered for the unveiling of the plaque in July, we were treated to a lively description of the place and the times. We met Boulton and Park, full of youthful spirit, and heard how outrageously they had behaved, scandalising the good citizens of the West End. We laughed. And then we were silent. To me the story is full of poignancy. Here were two human beings systematically rejected for who they were, who might well have hid away. Instead, they were defiant, demanding to be noticed, refusing to conform. I see immense courage. The URC, like others, is divided as to what fullness of life might have looked like for Boulton and Park, and what it looks like now for people like them, but surely we stand united in the conviction that fullness of life is what God intends. Looking past the outrageous behaviour, I meet the eyes of two real human beings and I feel deeply challenged by them. What would we say to them today? What different life do we offer them?

I am also aware of the other principal character in the story. Police inspector James Thompson was the man who targeted them. Obsessed with the mission of bringing them down, he broke every rule in his own book. Where does such single-minded, ends-justify-the-means self-righteousness come from? If it had not been for Thompson’s determination, there would be no blue plaque and no one would be telling the story today. Insofar as the crowd gathered outside our building was cheering for anything, it was for the defeat of Thompson by the good people of the high court jury.

What I have realised is that the experience of bitter debate in the church over issues of human sexuality has made me want to shy away from controversy. But what if it is God who has given Boulton and Park to us to open a conversation we’re meant to have? Behind those two 19th Century men are the 97% of gay youth in this country who say that they have experienced bullying in school. Or the gay adolescents of the United States, for whom suicide as the result of bullying is the principal cause of death.

It has been my privilege as general secretary to meet regularly with people from across the wide range of belief that our church encompasses. Everywhere I go I meet faithful, earnest people truly committed to living the way of Christ. Is it possible that a church like ours, deeply united by conviction and love, might actually have a role to play in helping to break the global deadlock that sets Christians against one another so fiercely in our generation? Are we capable of stepping together into a space where genuine dialogue can happen? We’ve been saying for years that we are seeking the mind of Christ on issues of homosexuality, but how often do we take the time required to get beyond our respective default positions to a place of real encounter, with one another and with Christ? It’s just a suspicion, but what if God has put an outrageous story in front of us to call us to a project in faithfulness that has our name on it?

The Revd Roberta Rominger is the general secretary of the United Reformed Church

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This article was published in the September 2013 issue of  Reform.

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