In the first decades of the twentieth century, variety shows in British theatres often contained a popular act in the form of a woman who dressed up as a man and sang. Some of these women, such as Vesta Tilley and Daisy Burrell, became huge stars and photographs of them dressed in male clothing appeared in the pages of magazines and newspapers such as The Tatler, The Era and The Sphere. Everyone knew that these ‘boys’ were really females; they were always given the title of ‘Miss’ in theatre programmes, so there was no misunderstanding. When it came to females in ordinary life who ‘disguised’ themselves in male clothing, for whatever reason, there was less approbation, and when such a female was discovered, it could lead to a disturbance and an appearance in court. Once such case occurred in London in 1913.
On 25 January 1913, the Cheltenham Chronicle reported that a ‘Cheltenham girl’ had been arrested in London. Lilian Cawley, who gave her address as Queen’s Road, Bayswater, had appeared at Marylebone Police Court, looking ‘very downcast and depressed’. She had been arrested on a charge of ‘behaving in a disorderly manner by masquerading in male attire in Bishops-Rd, Paddington, and thereby causing a crowd to assemble’. A police constable had found her on Saturday night, surrounded by a crowd, and took her into custody ‘for her own sake’.
The magistrate, Mr Plowden, thought the matter quite amusing and asked if she had been dressed as a field-marshal. The police constable replied solemnly that the girl had been dressed in normal male clothing. Lilian Cawley said that she had previously worked as a domestic servant in Cheltenham, but on coming to London she thought she would stand a better chance of getting a job if she dressed as a man. Mr Plowden told her that she had been very foolish, for ‘no-one would ever take her for a man’. On her promising not to do it again, she was dismissed from court.
This might have been the end of the story, if the Gloucestershire Police had not been sent the girl’s details and found that her description matched that of a servant named Annie Cownley, who a few weeks earlier had disappeared from her master’s house, taking some of his clothing and money with her. She was taken into custody in London and Detective Frank Hallett went to fetch her from Paddington Green Police Station and bring her back to Gloucester on the train.
It transpired that Lilian or Annie Cownley, who was 23 years of age at the time of her arrest, had been born in Worcester and had gone from an orphanage into domestic service in Malvern, then spent eight years in Cheltenham. (The 1911 census has her as Lilian Hilda Cownley, living at Atherstone Lawn, Cheltenham, as a domestic servant in the household of Alfred Loxley Creese, a fancy draper.) By January 1913 she was a servant in the home of Charles Henry Organ, of 25 Brunswick Square, Gloucester. She had been employed there for only five weeks when she was found to have gone missing on the morning of 6 January, along with male clothing and a purse containing around £14 in cash.
On being charged with theft, Cawnley admitted her guilt. She told Detective Hallett that she didn’t know why she had done it. She said she had left Mr Organ’s house at 3 o’clock in the morning, wearing her master’s clothes. She had gone to Worcester, then to London, where she had bought a suit of men’s clothes for two guineas, a gent’s overcoat for two pounds, a trunk for 18 shillings and six pence, a pair of men’s boots for eight shillings and six pence, and paid five shillings and six pence in advance for a month’s lodgings. She spent the next three weeks masquerading as a man and looking for work, without success. The trunk, containing Organ’s clothes, was found at her lodgings. She had the purse with her, containing five shillings and six pence and a pawn ticket.
Cawnley appeared before the city magistrates at Gloucester on 27 January, charged with stealing £13. 10s in gold and a quantity of male wearing apparel, the property of Charles Henry Organ. The newspapers reported that she sat dejectedly in court with her eyes fixed to the ground. She was dressed in female clothing, which was described in detail (long blue coat, black skirt, black mushroom felt hat with silver-grey band, and a blue muffler over her shoulders). She was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour, which the Chairman of the magistrates ‘hoped would be a warning to her for the rest of her life’.
A story about a woman dressing as a man was always a popular read in the newspapers, and there were several such cases reported by the Gloucestershire press at around the same time. In June 1913, a young girl was taken into custody in Cheltenham after people became suspicious that she was a female wearing boy’s clothes. It was discovered that she had run away from her family in Swindon and had dressed herself in some of her brother’s clothes, partly in the hope of remaining undiscovered, and also because she thought she would have a better chance of finding work as a boy. Although very reluctant, she was eventually persuaded to return home.
During the First World War, attracting suspicion because of what you were wearing had an added danger. In 1915, again in Cheltenham, a woman dressed as a man nearly caused a riot when a crowd gathered round her, apparently as word spread that she was a German spy. She took refuge in a hotel bar to escape the mob and a policeman went in afterwards to look for her. It took him some time to realise that the confident young fellow drinking and smoking in the corner was in fact the suspicious female. The constable took her out of a back door to avoid the crowd gathered outside, where she disappeared into the streets, before the authorities had a chance to question her.
Newspapers: Cheltenham Chronicle, 25 Jan 1913, 28 June 1913, 23 Oct 1915; Gloucester Journal, 1 Feb 1913. (All accessed on British Newspaper Archive, March 2018)
1911 Census, Cheltenham, District 11. Household of Alfred Loxley Creese, Atherstone Lawn Cheltenham. (Accessed on ancestry.co.uk, March 2018)
*Image From The Tatler, via britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk. ©The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.
©Jill Evans, 2018