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When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate. I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground. I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going. Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers. And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.
The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic. Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.
This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend. During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me. Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions. Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform.
Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful. ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply. Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around. Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether. After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.
The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever. I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station. Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course. From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.
What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge. We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read. We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently. Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.
As a twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify with the people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but its roots are little longer
Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.
So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….
But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;
‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)
Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:
‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)
It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.
You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives were firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.
This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.
McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:
- National Archives in Kew
- British Library/British Newspaper Library, London
- Metropolitan Police Service Archive, London
- Wellcome Institute, London
- Parliamentary Archives, London
- Libraries of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, London and Edinburgh
- National Archives of Scotland
Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.
It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..
McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), ‘Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]