rthur Munby's penchant for working girls led him down some unexplored back-alleys of the contemporary social scene. Like Henry Mayhew, he recorded his findings in minute detail, leaving in the Munby Archive at Trinity College, Cambridge, "94 volumes, 30 boxes," covering the period 1850s-1907. That this trove includes the diaries and letters of his maidservant and later wife, Hannah Cullwick, adds considerably to its interest.

Hannah Cullwick in 1861, from the Munby Collection at Trinity College Library, via Wikipedia, where it is described as being in the public domain.

Fascinated by the large rough hands and masculine-looking feet of women in menial occupations, Munby always takes a particular interest in those who actually pass as men — a street-dancer on Oxford Street dressed as a Highlander (131) or a "lusty young woman" in Yorkshire, wont to drive the plough in ploughman's clothes (137). He had Hannah photographed in men's clothes in 1861, and around that time both of them wondered whether she might adopt such clothes more permanently, to camouflage their unusual relationship. Munby was deterred by Hannah's essential womanliness, and his own scruples — "is it safe, possible, right?" (133). Still, he kept a file of paper-clippings on cross- dressing (see Reay 95).

Around the same time, Munby attended Westminster Police Court to observe a maidservant called Mary Newell. This young woman had robbed her master and run away to Yarmouth in man's clothes, acting like a man. She had even "made love" to her landlady there. Thinking of it beforehand as an escapade, Munby had rather "admired her pluck, skill and humour" (110) only to be disillusioned about her after conversing with her master, and hearing his complaints against her.

However, another case, that of Mary/Thomas Walker in 1867, called out a different response. It is worth quoting this diary entry in full:

Wednesday, 20 February [1867]... About noon today I went to the Southwark Police Court, to hear the case of one Thomas Walker, barman at a publichouse in the — London Road, who the other day turned out unexpectedly to be a young woman. The Court was densely crowded outside & in, with roughs, male & female: but I had a place near the magistrate & not far from the prisoner, & saw & heard — with ease.

It did not appear who or what Thomas Walker really is; but there she stood, alone in the dock, conspicuous and central: and to the outward eye she looked a bluff and brawny young man, of four or five & twenty. A broad bronzed face, fullcheeked & highboned; well cut-straight nose, sharp eyes, determined mouth: rough dark hair, short as a man’s, and evidently worn in man’s fashion for a long time past. Her head was bare, and so was her strong bull neck: about [above?] the waist, she wore nothing but a blue sailor’s shirt, with the sleeves partly rolled up. Standing there, with broad shoulders squared and stout arms folded on the dock rail, she seemed just such a fellow as one may see drawing beer at an alehouse, or lounging about a seaport town; and it was almost impossible to believe that she was not a man. No one suspected her, indeed; she confessed her sex to avoid the prison bath....

She was a ship’s steward two years, before she was a barman: and before that again, she was errand boy, & afterwards light porter, at a cheesemonger’s in the New Road. When I arrived, the cheesemonger was charging her with not repaying him some of her receipts as his porter: ... And thus poor Thomas, who only said “Nothing Sir" in a low tone when asked if she had ought to say, was committed for trial; and the ruthless Peeler hauled her down through the crowd; whereby one saw that she was of average woman’s height & no more. The magistrate was pompous and petulant and grandiose, as one might expect.... [237-38]

This young person has gone further than Mary Newell. She has thoroughly immersed herself in the man's world, and lived as man over a long period of time. Now, she cuts rather a pathetic figure. As on the previous occasion, in 1867 Munby has booked a seat for the hearing which enables him to see all the proceedings. In a sense, he is like the "roughs, male & female," who have come to gawp at the unfortunate person in the dock. But he has not just been impelled by voyeurism. Nor, this time, does he turn against the accused. The epithets that he uses in this entry show clearly where his sympathies lie. The "Peeler" who conducts the "poor" woman from the dock is "ruthless" and the magistrate earns a whole string of critical adjectives ("pompous and petulant and grandiose").

From other commentaries on this case we learn that Mary/Thomas had first started presenting herself as a man for purposes of employment — and also that there was a lesbian element here, just as there was in the Newell case. She was, we hear, visited in jail by a young woman who expected to be married to her. We also learn that, with the public at large, the "stain of sexual impropriety" (Derring 95) counted more against her than her embezzlements. Munby has nothing to say about this. But later on, he would denounce lesbianism. In a diary entry of 2 May 1870, he reports that he had been discussing Shakespeare's sonnets with Swinburne, and that the conversation had led to Swinburne's professing "actual admiration" of lesbianism — to which he himself had responded by expressing "disgust pretty strongly" (283).

Neverthless, Munby's interest in cross-dressing indicates that he was just as fascinated by gender and role reversal as he was by "class transformation" (Davidoff 118). This interest was not in itself unusual. The Codrington divorce trial of 1864, involving the "troubled friendship" of Helen Codrington, wife of an admiral, and the early feminist Emily Faithfull, had caused a good deal of gossip and innuendo (Vicinus 75). The intimate relationships of other high-profile women of the late-Victorian era also came in for gossip. Among such women were Mary Benson (whose husband became Archbishop of Canterbury and who was generally known as "Ben"), the poet Amy Levy, the novelist Marie Corelli and the theorist and critic Vernon Lee (real name, Violet Paget). On another level, pantomime dames and male impersonators made comic capital of such "impropriety" for entertaining their audiences — the impersonators becoming increasingly popular towards the end of the period. But Munby provides vital insights into an aspect of actual, lived and often very difficult working-class experience to which he, "unlike other men of his education and background," had acquired access (Bullough and Bullough 168).

It was typical enough that on these occasions Munby encountered such women in court, because that is where their true gender tended to be revealed: Caroline Derry writes, "When female husbands came to the criminal courts attention, they did so for other offences" (94). In the diary entries about Mary Newell and "Thomas Walker," therefore, Munby throws light not only on his own obsessions, but on a certain type of behaviour in the society of his time. In the process he reveals the general reaction to transgender lives — a mixture of prurient interest, which could be catered for in private or on the boards, and moral outrage, reinforced by sexual norms and the social conventions surrounding marriage.

Related Material


Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993.

Davidoff, Leonore. "Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick." Feminist Studies 5/1 (1979): 87-141. Accessed via Jstor. Web. 23 April 2020.

Derry, Caroline. Lesbianism and the Criminal Law: Three Centuries of Legal Regulation in England and Wales. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Hudson, Derek. Munby: Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828-1910. London: Abacus, 1974. [Quotations from Munby are all from here.]

"Papers of A. J. Munby including those of his wife Hannah Cullwick." Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

Reay, Barry. Watching Hannah: Sexuality, Horror and Bodily De-formation in Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Vicinus, Martha. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Created 23 April 2020