Tuesday 31 January 2017

The Italian Job (Anarchy In The UK); Emidio Recchioni (1864-1934) Kensal Green Cemetery

On the 4th June 1932 a pair of bored policemen stopped and searched a 25 year old working man, Angelo Sbardellotto, in the Piazza Venezia in Rome simply because they didn’t like the look of his face. In one of his pockets they found a Swiss passport, a circumstance they found vaguely suspicious. As they continued their search through his other pockets they found first a pistol, further fuelling their mistrust, and then, abolishing suspicion in an instant and replacing it with cast iron certainty, not one but two unexploded bombs.  Sbardellotto was taken to police headquarters where fists, boots and truncheons soon got him to reveal that he was planning to assassinate no less a person than il duce, Mussolini himself, and the names and addresses of his accomplices. During his two day trial, which started on the 11th June and inevitably resulted in a guilty verdict, journalists remarked particularly on his simian appearance, his low forehead and his ‘surly and sinister’ looks. Sentencing was deferred to a Special Tribunal which sat on the 16th June and ordered the death penalty for the failed assassin. At dawn the following day at Bretta Fort in Rome he was shot in the back by a platoon of Militia. His last words before receiving a fusillade between the shoulder blades were ‘Long live Anarchy!’  One of those named in Sbardellotto’s blood spattered confession as soliciting and funding the assassination attempt was a certain Emidio Recchioni, a respectable 68 year old living in London and running an Italian delicatessen at 37 Old Compton Street in Soho.  The Fascist authorities were unable to act against a British passport holding ex patriate but word of Recchioni’s supposed involvement in the Mussolini plot was leaked to the press and on the 11th November the Daily Telegraph printed a story naming him. Further stories followed and in June 1933 an outraged Recchioni sued the Daily Telegraph for libel. The Gloucester Citizen of Tuesday 04 July 1933 tells the full story:


A plot to assassinate Mussolini led to a libel suit against Lord Camrose in the King's Bench Division today. The plaintiff was Mr. Emilio Recchioni, of Old Compton-street, London, W.1, and he sued Lord Camrose, as representing the Daily Telegraph, in respect of certain statements which appeared in that newspaper. Mr. Maurice Healy, K.C., for Mr. Recchioni, said that last year, a man named Sbardelotto was arrested in Rome. He was supposed to have been found lurking with bombs to throw at Signor Mussolini. He was condemned to death and executed. Last November the 11 the Daily Telegraph published a message from its own correspondent in Rome headed “Anti-Fascists in London." It referred to a confession by Sbardelotto and added “according to this the plot matured in Brussels and Paris, while the money (about £35) was provided through the agency of a man named Recchioni, who is said to be a prominent member of a group of anti-Fascists in London." Mr Healey said that the defence was that these statements did not refer to the plaintiff, and that the words did not bear the meaning Mr. Recchioni attached to them.

Not Ashamed To Be Anti-Fascist Mr. Recchioni had lived in this country for many years, and, latterly, had become naturalised. He was managing director of the Italian Produce Co., of Soho, and the Carrara Marble and Granite Company. Mr. Healy said that there would be evidence that Mr. Recchioni's family were the only bearers of that name in London. "The truth is," he added, "that Mr. Recchioni is a strong anti-Fascist, and is not ashamed it." But it was one thing to be an opponent of a particular political party, and quite another thing support it by methods which were against the laws of God and man and were despised by all decent people.

King Bomba - Recchioni's legendary deli
Black Looks The moment the article appeared, Mr. Recchioni began to receive ‘black looks’ from everyone. Things were scrawled on the shutters of his shop, there were insulting remarks, people passing him the street turned their heads away, and when he went to a cinema people turned and said, “What cheek for a man like that to come in here." Business people wrote asking that his accounts should closed, money was sent back from charities to which he had subscribed, and finally the Italian Chamber of Commerce here wrote him for an explanation. Indignant at the treatment he had received Mr. Recchioni resigned from the Chamber, but that did not prevent them from solemnly expelling him from membership.

Obscure Paragraph On June 27. in the Daily Telegraph, an 'obscure paragraph’ appeared to the effect that "Recchioni, whose name was mentioned in connection with the plot against Mussolini, had been excluded from membership of the Italian Colony in London.”  If the libel had appeared in certain journals a great deal of harm might not have been done, but the Daily Telegraph was a serious organ of public opinion, and shunned sensationalism. Yet, as far he was aware, it had not published a single word to correct the mischief.  Mr. J. G. Trapnell, K.C., cross-examining Mr Recchioni : “Have you described the Fascists' methods as ‘Fascist rascality’?” - It is a fact. They are against freedom. I have taken this action against the Daily Telegraph because it is a free paper in a free country, Mr. Recchioni added. No evidence was called for the defence. The jury returned a verdict for Mr. Recchioni, with damages at £1,750.

Emidio Recchioni photographed in the prime of life
£1750 was a substantial amount in the 1930’s and the supposedly defamed shopkeeper must have been particularly pleased with the outcome of the trial given that every single word in the article was true. The mild mannered Italian salami seller was not merely a prominent anti fascist, he was a committed anarchist who, contrary to what his counsel had said in court, was perfectly willing to support his cause “by methods which were against the laws of God and man and were despised by all decent people.” Quite why the Daily Telegraph failed to put up any defence remained a mystery until the files on the case in the national archive were opened in the late 1990’s. These revealed that when the Telegraph approached Special Branch for assistance before the case reached court the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner blocked any attempts to help the newspaper. The fragile coalition National Government was in power and they were concerned about the possible political fallout from revelations that Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s socialist past had involved a potentially embarrassing friendship with an Italian Anarchist. A newspaper search would have given the Telegraph’s barrister something to counter the barefaced lies of Signor Recchioni who was certainly no novice when it came to organising assassination attempts. For example,   the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reported on Tuesday 10 July 1894:

Rome, Monday. It is announced from Ancona that the police have succeeded arresting a well known Anarchist named Recchioni on suspicion of being an accomplice of the man Lega, who made the attempt on the life of Signor Crispi. Two other Anarchists, also believed to be accomplices, are still at liberty.

On June 16th 1894 the Italian Prime Minister had been returning home from lunch on the Via Gregoriani in Rome when 26 year old Paolo Lega had tried to shoot him as he sat his carriage. The pistol misfired and before Lega had time to draw and aim his second pistol the coachman had jumped on him causing a second shot to fire wide. Lega was tried and received a prison sentence of 20 years and 17 days. Recchioni and two others were arrested and tried as accomplices but acquitted on 30th November 1895. Despite the acquittal two days later Recchioni was put under house arrest before being transferred to the prison colony on the Tremiti islands.

Paolo Lega attempts to assassinate Premier Francesco Crispi in Rome, 1894

Emidio Recchioni was born in Russi, 8 miles southwest of Ravenna in 1864. He had worked on the railways and fallen under the influence of older anarchist colleagues. He became an activist who was regarded by the police as the anarchists “most active and influential propagandist.” He worked on several anarchist newspapers using the pen names of Rastignac and Nemo. He spent several spells in prison and in 1899 he left Italy and moved to London where he worked as a shop assistant, coal merchant and wine seller. In 1909 he opened his famous Italian grocery in Old Compton Street, King Bomba where his clients availed themselves of such exotica as tinned tomatoes, olive oil, salami, parmesan, prosciutto and torrone and later diversified into importing marble and granite from Carrara. The profits from his business enterprises went into financing anarchist activities. He married in 1911 and had two children, Vera and Vero, his son, a friend of George Orwell, later anglicised his name to Vernon Richards and became a well known left wing writer.  The family lived above the delicatessen and the flat above the shop was also the centre of a vigorous anti fascist movement which used a masonic lodge I Druidi as a cover for their activities. These most definitely included violent resistance to the Italian fascists. The fascists responded in kind – following the Daily Telegraph story two thuggish looking fascist foot soldiers appeared at King Bomba and threatened Recchioni with a firing squad a la Sbardellotto. The indomitable old anarchist produced a pistol and promised them a bullet each beneath their Neanderthal brow ridge if they didn’t quit his premises; they quit.

Recchioni was involved in various other attempts to assassinate Mussolini, financing the entry into Italy of a hired assassin to kill the dictator, plotting an attack in Geneva with Camillo Berneri and when that failed coming up with another plan to bomb, by plane, il duce’s villa in Rome. The plots were as ingenious and unsuccessful as the various CIA conspiracies to murder Castro. In 1933 Recchioni developed cancer of the throat and in 1934 he went to Paris to undergo an operation. He died in the operating theatre at the hospital of Neuilly-sur-Seine on the 31st of March. His body was brought back to London by his family. The inscription on his tomb at Kensal Green reads: ‘Only a handful of earth and ashes, but impregnated with the spirit of a man who lived, suffered, and deserved well of mankind. He knew no fatherland but the world, no family but the human race, no religion but love. No tomb can prison his soul. From such rare spirits must spring the roots of a society worthy of memory in which life will be worth living.’

Monday 23 January 2017

Sex, Lies & Parchment; The Pepys' Motet - Benjamin Till; Elisabeth (1640-1669) and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) St Olaves, Hart Street

Elizabeth's (sic) entry in the burial register of St Olaves, Hart Street

The entry in St Olaves’ burial register for November 13 1669 reads:  “Elizabeth wife of Samuel Pepys, Esqe, one of his Matis  Comission rs  of ye navy, obit X Novem r , & buryed in ye Chauncell viij instant.”   Elizabeth was only 29 when she died unexpectedly of typhoid fever; her death left her husband shocked and bereft. He commissioned an elaborate and costly memorial with a bust of his young wife leaning out as if to watch over him as he sat in his pew (perhaps even Samuel was aware that he was  one of those errant husbands who needs to have a close eye kept on him). Her unusually long epitaph reads:

Elisabeth Pepys
Wife of Samuel Pepys who serves the Royal Navy
She was educated first in a convent, and then in a seminary of France.
She was distinguished by the excellence of both at once,
Gifted with beauty, accomplishments, tongues,
She bore no offspring, for she could not have borne her life.
At length when she had bidden this world a gentle farewell,
After a journey completed through, we may say, the lovelier sights of Europe --
A returning pilgrim, she took her departure to wander through a grander world.

The 15 year Elizabeth de St Michel married Samuel Pepys at St Margaret’s in Westminster in December 1655. Despite taking place in a church this was a civil ceremony; the religious ceremony had probably taken place in October shortly before the bride’s birthday. Samuel always fondly remembered his wedding day and Elizabeth’s petticoat trimmed with gold lace. She was from a poor Huguenot family (her penniless relatives later became a source of friction between husband and wife) but at the time of the marriage the 22 year old Samuel was almost as impoverished as his wife. The couple separated temporarily in the early days of their marriage, possibly became of Samuel’s jealousy, an episode he didn’t like to be reminded of. At the time the up and coming Naval administrator started his diary the couple were living together again. During the ten year period of the diaries Elisabeth is mentioned no less than 2022 times. ‘My wife’ must be the single most common phrase in his million word epic; despite his obsessive philandering Pepys clearly loved Elisabeth.

The man himself, Sam Pepys
In 1669, shortly after failing eyesight forced him to bring his diary to a close, Samuel took Elisabeth on a tour to France and probably the Low Countries. Elisabeth came back from the trip ill; the sickness worsened rapidly leaving her husband frantic with worry. On 2 November he wrote to a close friend to apologise for failing to get in touch since his return from the continent:   “I beg you to believe that I would not have been tens days returned into England without waiting on you, had it not pleased God to afflict mee by the sickness of my wife., who, from the first day of her coming back to London, hath layn under a fever so severe as at this hour to render her recoverie desperate; which affliction hath very much unfitted me for those acts of civilities and respect which, amongst the first of my friends, I should have paid to yourselfe.”  On 10 November Elisabeth died, leaving her workaholic husband so stricken with grief that he failed to attend his office or deal with any Navy Board business for four weeks. Five months later, in May 1670 he wrote to a Captain Elliot apologising for failing to thank him for his help in an election: “I beg you earnestly to believe that nothing but the sorrow and distraction I have been in by the death of my wife, increased by the suddenness with which it pleased God to surprise me with therewith, after a voyage so full of health and content, could have forced me to so long a neglect of my private concernments; this being, I do assure you, the very first day that my affliction, together with my daily attendance on other public occasions of his Majesty’s, has suffered me to apply myself to the considering any part of my private concernments.” A man of Pepys passion and amiability was never going to spend the rest of his life alone (and he was only 36 when Elisabeth died) and he later met and lived with Mary Skinner. Despite living as his wife until his death Pepys never regularised Mary’s position and Elisabeth remained his one and only legal spouse. He also made sure that when he died at Clapham in 1703 his body was taken back to the city and buried with Elisabeth at St Olaves, “in a vault by ye communion table,” according to the burial register.

Samuel's 1703 entry in the burial register

306 years after his death the authorities at St Olave’s commissioned Benjamin Till (composer of the impressive ‘London Requiem’) to write a piece of choral music to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Pepys first putting pen to paper. Never a man to do anything by halves, Benjamin came up with a six movement, 40 voice motet (according to Merriam-Webster a motet is ‘a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment’)  producing a piece of music so complex it took him almost six years to get it all recorded. He says;

I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of this recording. It took four years to record and studio sessions happened as and when we could afford them. We ran quizzes to pay for extra studio time. The music is daring and incredibly complicated and we spent over 200 hours mixing the piece. It’s recorded unlike any other classical piece of music with each of the 20 singers individually close-mic’d in separate recording booths. The singers on the album come from every conceivable vocal tradition from gospel and folk through to musical theatre and opera. The work itself is a fusion of different forms of music. Sound engineer, Paul Kendall has an astounding ear for detail, and the work is best heard whilst wearing headphones for the full unique, engulfing sonic experience.

The words to the motet are all Pepys’ own, drawn from the diary so that the motet is, for my money, the most concise and entertaining abridgement you can buy. I don’t know if the composer read the entire opus cover to cover or, Jack Horner like he just stuck in a thumb to pull out the plums, but it is a brilliant selection with set pieces covering the plague and the great fire (and Deb Willets) and an extraordinary collage of words depicting the rest of Pepys’ life.  The first movement starts with words from the very first entry of the diary; “My wife after the absence of her terms for seven weeks gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again.” As in the diaries Elisabeth’s unnamed presence (she is always ‘my wife’) looms large over the Motet (and as for the thwarted hopes of pregnancy, Pepys felt strongly enough about his childlessness to mention it on Elisabeth’s epitaph). My own, personal favourite quote concerns an argument over a dog presented to Elisabeth by her wastrel (but well loved) brother Balty; “my wife and I had some high words upon my telling her that I would fling the dog which her brother gave her out of the window if he pissed the house any more.”

Words and music gel perfectly in the motet. One man’s words sung by so many different voices could become confusing but the words are skilfully chosen and the music so artfully done that it never threatens to become a cacophony; the man shines through the words and the words glow in their musical setting. As in the diaries all human life is here and the music complements the changes of mood and tempo from low comedy to high tragedy. My favourite movement is number 5, ‘Deb Willets’ which cleverly sets the scene with a vignette of Pepys the sex pest “St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design.” After this timely reminder that Samuel was a man willing to take the liberties he felt his sex and position in society entitled him to we get the story of his romance with his wife’s servant girl Deb from the day she calls him back from the office to see her pretty new maid to his increasingly bold attacks upon her virtue that culminate in the famous, and still shocking, episode when Elisabeth stumbles upon her husband and maid in a compromising position; “after supper, to have my head combed by Deb., which occasioned the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world, for my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girle also.” The music for this episode is as sexy, sleazy and painful as the events it accompanies, at times with an irresistible swing, swelling in full throated, joyful climax or descending into stammered, staccato justifications and excuses.  Pepys was a great music lover and it is hard not to wonder what he would make of his most private words and thoughts being set to music – personally I think he would be immensely gratified. And I think he would adore the Motet, even if it is rather modern for his tastes.

According to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) “the late 13th-century theorist Johannes de Grocheo believed that the motet was "not to be celebrated in the presence of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety, nor are they delighted in hearing it, but in the presence of the educated and of those who are seeking out subtleties in the arts." So are you common? Or are you cultured? Pepys Motet can be purchased as a digital download from Amazon and itunes or, if you would like a tangible rather than a virtual copy, on CD from the composer. There are no discounts for buying two CD’s but I would have no hesitation in recommending that you get yourself a copy of the ‘London Requiem’ while you are at it.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

The Batman of Rorke's Drift and the Australasian Impostor; Arthur Howard (1851-1935) Brockley& Ladywell Cemetery

He must have thought that any part he played in the war against the Zulus had long since been forgotten. It certainly would never have occurred to him that he was in any way newsworthy and if he hadn’t been blind the 79 year old Arthur Howard would have been astonished to see a story about himself widely reported in the newspapers. Not least because it was his death on another continent that was making the news and, as far as he was concerned, aged and decrepit he may be but he was still alive and still living at 7 Harton Street in Deptford and was definitely not dead on the other side of the world in Sydney; 

A RORKE’S DRIFT HERO. Death of Natal Battle Survivor. SYDNEY, Monday (Reuter).—The death is announced of Mr. Howard, an Englishman aged 74, a survivor of the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Mr. Howard arrived in Australia in 1908. As recently as Friday he complained of an assegai wound received in the fight. In addition to Neuville’s famous picture of the defence of Rorke’s Drift, the Sydney Art Gallery has a picture showing Mr. Howard assisting and carrying a wounded man from a blazing hospital.
Portsmouth Evening News - Monday 10 February 1930

When word got out that Reuters was wrong a reporter from the Daily Mirror turned up at Deptford to interview the old war hero. "I have been living in Kent for 40 years, and never have been to Australia." be said to the reporter. "As you can see, I am quite alive. How the Sydney Art Gallery can have a picture of me leaving the burning hospital shouldering a man I cannot understand. It was as much as I could do to leave the building myself when the Zulus burned it, without carrying anyone. There were only 86 of us. And I cannot think of another Arthur Howard among the number." Arthur charitably assumed that it was a case of mistaken identity but there are a couple of details in the original Reuters’ report, the claim that Arthur had arrived in Australia in 1908 and that he had been complaining of an old Assegai wound as recently as the previous Friday, make it more probable that the news agency had been unwittingly duped by the death of an imposter.  Fake survivors of the heroic action were not uncommon; there were at least three known cases for example of impersonators who claimed to be John Williams, the only survivor of the battle to be awarded a Victoria Cross. A man convicted at Tredegar Court of burglary sought the mercy of the court saying he was the John Williams, the Rorke’s Drift survivor fallen on hard times (but received 14 days hard labour when his deception was discovered). Another man arraigned at Cardiff for theft also claimed to be Williams and said that if convicted he would lose his army pension; the sympathetic magistrate let him off with a caution and the malefactor promptly disappeared causing a minor scandal which the real Williams was obliged to clear up by getting a notice printed in the paper protesting his innocence.  In Australia the ersatz Arthur Howard presumably got away with 22 years of bragging about being one of the hopelessly outnumbered heroic 150 who had seen off 4000 Zulu warriors and had uncountable pints of warm beer bought for him by admiring Aussies after he showed them his appendectomy scar and gave them some cock and bull story about how he thought he had breathed his last when the biggest, toughest and strongest warrior of the whole lot drove his razor sharp assegai up to the hilt into his belly. No one had the faintest idea that he was a lying pommy bastard until his death was reported in the papers and over in Deptford the real Arthur Howard came forward to express his surprise at finding out that he had died in Sydney. 
The real Arthur Howard was born in 1851 in Eynsford, Kent, the son of an agricultural worker.  When he left the village school he worked on local farms eventually becoming a groom. At the age of 20 he decided to enlist and joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Woolwich Barracks. His military records show that he was just under 5 foot 7 and weighed a very modest 10 stone despite his muscular development being noted as good. He was posted to Newcastle in 1872 where he was admitted to military hospital for 10 days suffering from syphilis, presumably caught from some good time Geordie girl on a drunken night out on the town. In 1875 he was posted to Ireland and in 1877 he was transferred to the 5th Brigade as servant and batsman to Major Arthur Harness (the Major would have called him Howard and he would have called the Major Sir, preventing the confusion that sharing the first name Arthur could have caused in a more democratic institution).  In 1878 Arthur and Arthur found themselves aboard HMS Dublin Castle and on the way to active service in South Africa in the 9th Cape Frontier War and the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.

Plan of Rorke's Drift showing position of hospital 
Following an order to move up country to Rorke’s Drift Arthur the batman, our Arthur, was admitted to the small hospital suffering from fever. During the legendary defence of the mission station Arthur was in the north-west corner room of the hospital with Gunner Evans and a borrowed rifle. The two soldiers took pot shots from the veranda and the window at the mass of Zulu warriors who had gathered in front of the building. When the Zulus set fire to the hospital roof the two gunners were forced to flee the burning building. Arthur, unfortunately, turned the wrong way when they ran out of the front of the hospital and found himself confronting a horde of enraged Zulu warriors. Left with little choice he leapt the defences and crawled into undergrowth where he found himself surrounded by dead horses, the victims of the first onslaught by the Zulus.  His greatest anxiety, he said later, was to hide the red stripes of his overalls which he thought might give him away even in the darkness. He also had a close call when a stray bullet mortally wounded a wandering pig. The dying animal, squealing piteously, settled down amongst the dead horses and expired very slowly and noisily, almost giving Arthur’s position away. Miraculously he managed to remain undetected until the following morning despite being almost trampled on several times during the night by successive waves of attacking and retreating Zulu’s.  Rorke’s Drift wasn’t the last action Arthur saw; he was also present at Ulundi, the last battle of the Zulu War. 

Sydney Art Gallery's painting of the defence of Rorke's Drift by Alphonse de Neuville
In October 1879 the Arthur returned to England on HMS Edinburgh Castle and was posted to Hillsborough Barracks in Sheffield. Whilst up north he met a pantry maid called Frances Bird who he brought back to London with him when he was transferred to the Cadets Academy in Woolwich. The couple were married in 1882 and had a daughter, Elsie, the following year. Elsie was barely six when her mother died in 1889 and was sent to live with relatives in Sheffield. The following year Arthur obtained his discharge from the army so that he could be with his daughter and was granted a pension of 11 pence a day. He moved briefly to Sheffield but then brought Elsie back to Woolwich where he had found a job at the Royal Arsenal as an ammunition case examiner and lodgings at Parry Place in Plumstead.  He died on 15th July 1935 at St Alfege Hospital in Greenwich; his death certificate stating that he died of senility. He was buried in Brockley Cemetery in an unmarked grave paid for by his Deptford landlord Walter Tanner. The headstone that now marks the grave was unveiled at a special ceremony in September 2012 presided over by the Mayor of Lewisham and HRH Prince Shange of Zululand following a campaign by Corporal Bugler Tim Needham of the Royal Marines to memorialise the graves of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. 

Friday 6 January 2017

The Changeling - fairy born and human bred; James Miranda Stuart Barry/Margaret Ann Bulkley (1789-1865) Kensal Green Cemetery

This is a well known story to which is hard to add anything new. There are at least four full length biographies of the cross dressing, duelling, pioneering surgeon Dr James Barry (the most recent published last year), a couple of novels, one successful stage play (starring Sybil Thorndike in 1918) an unsuccessful one (by the Irish writer Sebastian Barry, no relative), countless newspaper articles (the first published a few weeks after his death and continuing, more or less uninterrupted, ever since) and a projected film with actress Rachel Weisz signed up for the main role.

A portrait of the young James Barry
Outwardly James Barry lived a life of almost exemplary colonial dullness. When his biographies deal with the known facts of his life they generally make dreary reading; he studied at Edinburgh and became a surgeon, joined the army, served in South Africa, Mauritius, St Helena, Jamaica, Malta, Corfu and Canada, was dedicated to his job to the exclusion of almost all other activities, was promoted, never married or formed many close relationships and died in obscurity and genteel poverty in London. He was generally acknowledged to be a cantankerous and argumentative individual but one who was very good at his job. His greatest medical achievement was performing the first successful caesarean section in British medicine, the criteria by which success was judged being the survival of both mother and child. The operation was performed in South Africa where the usually staid progress of his life was interrupted in June 1824 when he became the subject of a scandalous libel written in large block capitals in a disguised hand and nailed to a post on one of the bridges over the canal at Heerengracht in Cape Town.

“A person, living at Newlands, takes this method of making it known to the public authorities of this Colony that on the 5th instant he detected Lord Charles buggering Dr Barry. Lady Charles had her suspicions, or saw something that led her to suspicion, which had caused a general quarrel….The person is ready to come and make oaths to the above.”  

Lord Charles Somerset
The libel caused uproar; the alleged buggerer was Lord Charles Somerset, 20 years Barry’s senior, the son of the Duke of Beaufort, Governor of Cape Colony and member of the Privy Council. Barry was his personal physician and everyone knew the two men were on exceedingly good terms with each other, they just hadn’t realised quite how warm relations between the two were. The scandal did not confine itself to Cape Colony, the news reached England and questions were asked about it on more than one occasion in both the House of Commons and the Lords. Lord Charles was eventually recalled to explain himself, which he evidently did to everyone’s satisfaction as no charges were ever proffered against either him or Barry. Barry eventually lived down the South African disgrace and carried on devoting his life to his career.  It was only when he died that a fact emerged which made the sodomy scandal pale into insignificance (or perhaps cast into a rather different light). A month after his death a Dublin newspaper, Saunder’s News Letter and Daily Advertiser, ran the story of the military surgeon who was, unbeknown to and apparently unsuspected by everyone who knew him (except perhaps for Lord Charles Somerset) a woman. The story was picked up by the English provincial newspapers which ran the Irish story word for word:
A STRANGE STORY.  An incident is now being discussed in military circles so extraordinary that, were not its truth capable of being vouched for official authority, the narration would certainly deemed absolutely incredible. Our officers quartered at the Cape between 15 and 20 years ago may remember a certain Dr Barry attached to the medical staff there, and enjoying a reputation for considerable skill in his profession, especially for firmness, decision and rapidity in difficult operations. This gentleman had entered the army in 1813, had passed, of course, through the grades of assistant surgeon and surgeon in various regiments, and had served such in various regiments, and had served as such in various quarters of the globe. His professional acquirements had procured for him his promotion to the staff at the Cape. He was clever and agreeable, save for the drawbacks of a most quarrelsome temper and an inordinate addiction to argument, which perpetually brought the former peculiarly into play. He was excessively plain, of feeble proportions, and laboured under the imperfection of a ludicrously squeaking voice. Any natural chaffing with regard to these, however, especially roused his ire, but was at length discontinued on his ‘calling out’ a persevering offender, and shooting him through the lungs. About 1840 he became promoted to be medical inspector, and was transferred to Malta. There he was equally distinguished by his skill and his pugnacious propensities, the latter becoming so inconveniently developed upon the slightest difference of opinion with him, that at last no notice was allowed to be taken of his fits of temper. He proceeded from Malta to Corfu, where he was quartered for years, still conspicuous for the same peculiarities. When our Government ceded the lonian Islands to Greece, and our troops, of course, quitted the territory Dr Barry elected to leave the army and take up his residence for the rest his days at Corfu. He there died about a month ago and upon his death was discovered to be woman! Very probably this discovery was elicited during the natural preparations for interment, but there seems to be an idea prevalent that either verbally, during his last illness, or by some writing, perused immediately after his (for I must still use the “masculine”) death, he had begged to be buried without post mortem examination of any sort. This, most likely, only aroused the curiosity of the two nurses who attended him, for it was to them, it appears, that the disclosures of this mystery is owing. Under the circumstances, the fact was deemed so important that medical testimony was called in to report and record its truth. By this investigation not only was the assertion placed beyond a doubt, but it was equally beyond a doubt brought to light that the individual in question had, at some time or other, been a mother! This is all that is yet known of this extraordinary story. The motives that occasioned, and the time when commenced this singular decoction, are both shrouded in mystery. But thus it stands indubitable fact that a woman was for forty years an officer in the British service, had fought one duel and had sought many more, had pursued a legitimate medical education, had received a regular diploma, and had acquired almost a celebrity for skill as surgical operator! There is no doubt whatever about the “fact,” but I doubt whether even Miss Braddon herself would have ventured to make use of it in fiction.— Irish Paper
Stonehaven Journal - Thursday 31 August 1865

No sooner had the story been published then individuals who had known Barry before his death rushed into print to let the world know that they had always had their doubts about the masculinity of the good doctor, a letter from a Dr McGowan of Paisley for example appeared in the Whitehaven News of 07 September;

THE LATE DR. BARRY. We have received the following letter from a medical gentleman resident at Paisley :
Dear Sir, ln reference to notice taken in your paper of a Dr. Barry, who has lately died, I would take it kind if you could give me some information of this extraordinary person, for I had the pleasure of knowing him intimately twenty-three or twenty-four years ago, in the Island of Trinidad, when he held the appointment of Inspector General Hospitals. He was always suspected of being female from his effeminate features and voice, and having neither beard nor whiskers. He was a very bold person, and challenged one or two of our officials for naming him a diminutive creature. He had a favourite little dog, which always carried about with him, and it was currently said that had made a will, leaving the dog all his effects, and Sambo, £100 as a legacy. He lay at the point of death one time, and gave strict injunctions to my friend, Dr. O’Connor, who attended him, not to allow his body to be inspected or disturbed in the event of his decease, but to be buried immediately with his clothes on. He always took care never to be seen . . . like any ordinary man. He was highly respected, and was a frequent attendant at the Governor’s levees. He was a strict vegetarian, and his regulation sword was as long as himself. He resided at a country house, a gun-shot from St. James’s Barracks, about two miles from Port Spain, in Trinidad, my native place.
You are at liberty to make use of this letter you please; and let me have your answer as soon as convenient. Meantime. I am, dear sir, yours very truly,
R. T. McGowan, M.D. Paisley, Sept. 2nd, 1865.
P S.-I may state that Dr. Barry was looked upon by some in the Island as the illegitimate offspring of some English nobleman, from the great influence and haughty bearing which he used to possess. R. T. McC.

James Barry by George Richmond
The story in Saunders News Letter was full of errors including fundamental ones like the location of Barry’s death.  He did not die, or even live, as the paper claimed in Corfu. Barry was living as a lodger in rooms rented from a dentist at 14 Margaret Street, just north of Oxford Circus.  Although he was living in straitened circumstances he continued to be attended, as he had been for the best part of thirty years by his faithful black valet. No one knew the valet’s name and he was dubbed Black John by the newspapers or Sambo by rude and ignorant individuals like Dr R.T. McGowan of Paisley. His valet was with him when he died as a result of chronic diarrhoea caused by dysentery at 4.00am on 25 July 1865. A woman called Sophia Bishop, a charwoman employed by the dentist’s wife, was asked to prepare Barry’s body for burial. Responsibility for his interment was taken by the army which bought a 3 guinea plot in Kensal Green to bury him in. They also bought a headstone, a plain inexpensive slab of white stone which they had inscribed with his name, job title (Inspector General of Hospitals) and the wrong date of death. It was only after the funeral that Sophia Bishop made her way to the office of the registrar and demanded to speak to the doctor who had certified Barry’s death, Dr D.R. McKinnon. It was only after the story broke in Saunders that the registrar general wrote to Dr McKinnon to ask him what he knew of the strange affair that the doctor related what he had been told by Sophia Bishop:

On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that he might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a married woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’    The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite.

The only known photograph of Barry taken with his valet and his dog Psyche at a studio in Kingston, Jamaica

Although it had been suspected for some time, research carried out by South African urologist Dr Michael du Preez,  published in his recent book “Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time”, finally confirmed beyond doubt that Dr James Barry was born around 1789 in Cork to Jeremiah and Mary Ann Bulkley and christened Margaret Ann.  As a teenager Margaret Anne was the victim of unwanted sexual attention, possibly from a family member, and became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter Juliana who was passed off their own by her parents. Jeremiah’s grocery business fell on hard times and he presumably fell into temptation regarding quick and easy ways to make money as the last known record of him is on a convict ship bound for New South Wales. Mary Ann took her daughter to London where she had a wealthy relative, the Royal Academician James Barry. She must have been in despair when her brother died but probably perked up considerably when she was told he had died intestate and therefore, as the only surviving relative, she had inherited his entire fortune. Quite why Mary Ann took her daughter to Edinburgh and went along with her plan to disguise herself as a man and enrol in the university as a medical student we will never know. It seems highly likely that not only her mother but several of her uncle’s influential friends including the Venezuelan General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, the Earl of Buchan, were aware of the deception and either encouraged or colluded in it. The plan may have been to qualify as a doctor disguised as a man and then move to Venezuela and practice as a woman but General Miranda’s early death put paid to that idea. Evidently Margaret Ann was comfortable enough in her role as a man to continue with it for the rest of her life. Her autobiography would be fascinating but colossal deceptions require absolute dedication to never breaking cover and no word regarding the truth of her sex or how she felt about her secret life ever escaped her lips.    

The grave in an earlier, more pristine, incarnationn