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The arrest of the dashing Captain Leslie Barker on February 28, 1929 seemed routine enough. After the war veteran failed to appear at a bankruptcy hearing in the previous December, a warrant for his arrest was issued for contempt of court. Despite his reputation as a sportsman, boxer, and womanizer, Captain Barker surrendered to police without incident.The big surprise came later when he was remanded to Brixton Prison to await his trial date. It's easy to imagine the prison doctor's astonishment when he gave Barker a routine medical examination and made a rather unexpected discovery: Captain Leslie Ivor Victor Gauntlett Slight Barker was a woman.
Despite early attempts at hiding the news of Barker's true gender, the information quickly leaked to the press. Although Barker's friends were astonished enough, the revelation was even more of a shock to his wife Elfrida. In a news interview which she gave shortly after her husband's arrest, she stated that she was "dazed, stunned! In our six years of married life I never once suspected that dear Victor was a woman too!" As she would later state, their lack of normal sexual relations had been explained away as being due to her "husband's" war wounds. Her family, who had been charmed by the gallant officer's courting of their daughter, also expressed their amazement at the revelation.
As police began interviewing Captain Barker (who had been hastily transferred to a women's prison), the full story gradually emerged. Born Lilias Irma Valerie Barker in 1895, available information on her early life suggests that her upbringing was fairly unremarkable. Her father was a wealthy proprietor on the Isle of Jersey and Lilias had been raised as a proper young woman of her generation. After serving in World War I as a Red Cross Nurse, ambulance driver, and horse trainer, she married Lieutenant Harold Arkell-Smith in 1918. This marriage ended in divorce after just a few months and she went on to have two children from another relationship that ended as well. It's hard to say when her fascination with cross-dressing began but, by 1923, she was already well established as "Colonel" Leslie Barker when she courted and married Elfrida Emma Howard.
Along with her two children, Leslie and Elfrida settled down to a somewhat unsettled family life while Barker drifted from job to job. Under the stage name of "Ivor Gauntlett", she pursued a career as an actor before drifting to jobs as a boxing club manager, furniture dealer, dog kennel manager, dairy worker, and farmhand. By 1928, Elfrida decided she had enough and returned home to her father in 1929 although she and Leslie remained married until his arrest.
Leslie Barker became involved in the British Organization of Fascists and quickly distinguished herself during the 1926 British General Strike by participating in various "Raids on Reds" (breaking up Communist mass meetings in London's Hyde Park). She also ran a boxing program for the Fascists and eventually found a job as a desk clerk in the Regent Palace Hotel (she had since demoted herself from being a Colonel to being a retired Captain). Unfortunately, financial problems led to the bankruptcy charge and her eventually exposure as a woman.
For obvious reasons, details of trial at the Old Bailey was eagerly followed by the people of London (many of whom had never heard the word "transvestite" before). Shortly after being outed as a woman, she sold her story to London's Daily Mail. Titled "My Own Story", it gave "Captain Leslie Barker" as the byline and presented some of the backstory to her strange life. Excepts from this story include: "I was reared as a boy and always thought a boy had a jolly good time" and "The first tragedy of my life was when the man I loved and should have married was made a prisoner early in the War. Now I am fond of nobody and have no feelings—I only adore my son."
The prosecutors were left floundering as to the exact nature of the charges that were laid against Lilias/Leslie in addition to the original bankruptcy charge. Although same-sex marriage was illegal in the U.K. (and still is), prosecutors declined to charge her under the U.K.'s Sexual Offenses Act. Instead, they decided to charge her with perjury due to her posing as "Colonel Leslie Barker" when she married Elfrida. As Barker had also posed as an officer when she was charged with possessing a forged firearms certificate two years previously, a second perjury charge was added as well. She was eventually sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison.
The time spent in a women's prison did nothing to change Lilias' cross-dressing habits and she quickly went back to being Victor Barker after her release. After drifting between different short-term jobs, she eventually became a sideshow attraction under the name of Colonel Barker by 1937. Using the name of Jeffrey Norton, she entered into a common-law relationship with a woman that apparently lasted for the rest of Lilias' life. During WWII, she worked at a switchboard operator in a London hospital while also serving in the Home Guard. After the war, she and her wife Eva moved to Suffolk where they lived until Ilias/Victor Barker died of Parkinson's Disease in 1960. Her death certificate gave her name as Geoffrey Norton and she is buried on the grounds of St. Edmund's church.
While not as well known as James Barry or the Chevalier d'Eon, Lilias Barker's case remains one of the most fascinating examples of its kind. There's no medical evidence to suggest that she was intersexual or suffering from a gender disorder (the diagnosis of which continues to be controversial even today). In 2002, author Rose Collis released a book titled Colonel Barker's Monstrous Regiment: A Tale of Female Husbandry, it ensures that Lilias Barker's amazing story will be remembered.
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