BBC History Magazine

6 The state vs Stella and Fanny

In 1871, a media storm erupted around the trial of two cross-dressers for “corrupting public morals”


The arrest of a group of rowdy patrons at the Strand Theatre in London in April 1870 produced a scandal that challenged Victorian assumption­s about gender, sexuality and respectabi­lity.

At the centre of the storm were Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, both from respectabl­e middle-class families. By the late 1860s the friends were better known as their alter egos, Stella and Fanny. As female impersonat­ors on stage, they barely raised an eyebrow. Increasing­ly, however, Ernest and Frederick took their characters off stage, parading through the streets and frequentin­g West End theatres and clubs in flamboyant dresses and elaborate make up. Soon, their unconventi­onal behaviour was drawing significan­t attention.

Given their celebrity, the arrest of Ernest and Frederick came as a surprise to many. However, it was later revealed that the pair had been under police surveillan­ce for a year. They were “greeted with shouts of laughter and hisses” as they were conveyed the next morning from the cells to the Bow Street Police Court. When placed in the dock, still in evening dresses from the night before, “great surprise was manifested at the admirable manner” in which Ernest and Frederick “had ‘made up’”.

Dressed for court

The friends were charged with committing sodomy, conspiring to induce others to commit sodomy, and, by wearing women’s clothes, “openly and scandalous­ly outrag[ing] public decency and corrupt[ing] public morals”.

By the time of their trial, in May 1871, two of the three charges had been dropped. Ernest and Frederick both appeared in suits, but each “with a bouquet of flowers in a buttonhole of his coat”. They were acquitted, after the prosecutio­n failed to prove that the defendants had done anything other than dress as women for fun.

Despite the pair’s exoneratio­n, the trial served to link cross-dressing with homosexual­ity in the public mind. And the verdict prompted the addition of a clause in the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which enabled gay men to be charged with gross indecency where sodomy could not be proven. Among those subsequent­ly prosecuted were playwright Oscar Wilde and codebreake­r Alan Turing.

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