Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: We’ve come a long way since Fanny and Stella

Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton as their alter egos Fanny and Stella

Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton as their alter egos Fanny and Stella - Credit: © Faber&Faber

Whilst attending the launch of the Essex Book Festival in Chelmsford Library the other day, my eye was drawn to a small exhibition of unusual photographs.

The portraits were of Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton, who in 1870 shocked and scandalised English society.

The girls, both part-time actresses and part-time prostitutes, were actually young men: Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton. The two female impersonators happened to be performing in Chelmsford when the photographic studies – which belong to Essex Record Office – were taken.

England it seems, even in the suffocating bombazine folds of the mid-Victorian era, has always retained a liking for drag acts. “Most Englishmen don’t need to be asked twice to put on women’s clothes,” a grinning Mick Jagger once remarked.

In April of 1870, however, having made a particularly brazen display of themselves at London’s Strand Theatre by ogling and “chirruping” at the men in the stalls, Fanny and Stella were arrested by the Metropolitan Police, who on May 8 subjected them to a show-trial at Westminster Hall.

There followed some humiliating, intimate examinations conducted by a police surgeon. After the prosecution failed to establish that any actual illegal acts had taken place, it not being an offence merely for a man to dress as a woman, the two young men were acquitted.

Since the prosecuting authorities were judged to have been over-assiduous in their examinations, the matter, even in those starchy days, constituted a perceived breach of human rights. Fanny and Stella’s subsequent acquittal was greeted with popular acclaim.

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After this victory, the pair disappeared from public gaze. Their story, the subject of a recently-published book by Neil McKenna, Fanny & Stella, makes for an interesting and still-shocking read.

One striking thing about Wivenhoe, the town where I’ve lived for many decades, is its long-established acceptance of gay people. Wivenhoe, like Brighton to the south and Hebden Bridge to the north, was familiar with gay culture before certain other towns in the UK were. Less flamboyant than Brighton, Wivenhoe doesn’t possess a gay community or “scene” as such, although it’s fair to say there’s probably a larger than average number of same-sex couples living here.

There’s no Gay Pride march here, either. There’d probably be more likelihood of seeing an Accountancy Pride march. Almost above anything else, Wivenhoe is an academic town and most academics, as we know, have all the sartorial panache of... well, you remember 1970s Open University TV presenters, don’t you? So move along, please; there’s nothing to see here.

The Fanny & Stella story, subtitled The Young Men Who Shocked England, remains interesting. For it demonstrates, if nothing else, that gay rights have undergone a long trip in order to arrive at their current station. For instance, the majority of us no longer errantly associate homosexuality with paedophilia, or transvestism, as may have been the case only decades ago. If Fanny and Stella were to walk into a Wivenhoe pub today, there’d possibly be a small frisson of excitement but there’d no longer be any outright condemnation.

When, during the 1860s, they toured Essex, Miss Park and Miss Boulton played to market town assembly rooms or performed in the drawing rooms of private houses. Something in the English psyche likes and has always liked these aspects of the showbiz demi-monde. Its popularity endures and is reflected in our affection for certain characters, such as those introduced by TV’s Little Britain: Emily “I am a lady” Howard, for instance.

Meanwhile, a new battlefront has opened up and war is raging over whether same sex marriages should be allowed in churches.

I confess that I can’t quite see the church’s problem here. It’s like looking at a cartoon of a bride hammering on a studded door, with a caption reading: “How much longer are you going to be in that closet?”

Personally, I tend to subscribe to Robert Louis Stevenson’s view of marriage as “A type of friendship recognised by the police.” Quite apart from this, even if I were gay and of the marrying kind, I wouldn’t want to be married by any authority so reluctant to conduct the ceremony. It’s all a bit of a rum old do, I reckon.

• Essex Record Office’s Fanny and Stella exhibition is at Chelmsford Library until March 28. The book Fanny & Stella, by Neil McKenna, is published by Faber at £16.99