Sunday, August 27, 2006

There's a particularly interesting 'life of the day' from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today:

Smith, (Lillias Irma) Valerie Arkell- [née Lillias Irma Valerie Barker] (1895-1960), sexual impostor and perjurer, was born on 27 August 1895 in St Clements, Jersey, the daughter of Thomas William Barker (1857-1918), gentleman farmer and architect, and his wife, Lillias Adelaide Hill (1868-1923). Her parents moved to Surrey in 1899, where her brother Tom Leslie was born. Valerie was educated at Huxley's School for Young Ladies at Prior's Corner, Surrey, and then at Upavon, Wiltshire, finishing her education at a convent school at Graty near Brussels.

In 1914 Barker took up war work as a VAD attached to St Hilda's Hospital, Haslemere. From 1915 she worked as a horse trainer for the Canadian army at Rodborough Common and then at the Bristol remount depot. She remained working with horses, moving on to a hunting stable near Shrewsbury and then to a stables in Meopham, Kent. While in Kent, Barker met her first husband, Lieutenant Harold Arkell-Smith (b. 1882/3) of the Australian 20th battalion. They married on 27 April 1918 but the marriage lasted only six weeks, although they never divorced, and she subsequently returned to her parents' house. On 26 August 1918 she enrolled as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

After the war Arkell-Smith worked in a tea-shop in Warminster, where she met her next partner, the Australian soldier Ernest Walter Pearce Crouch (1876-1923), who was married but separated. They lived together in Shepperton, and then from July 1919 in France, where he worked in the Paris office of The Times. Their son Tony was born on 27 February 1920 in Paris. Nine months later Pearce Crouch lost his job and they returned to England. On 15 June 1921 their daughter Betty was born. They managed to find work as tenant farmers at Bailiffs Court, an estate in Climping in Sussex. However, their relationship was unsatisfactory and Arkell-Smith spent her time with Elfrida Emma Haward (b. 1895/6), whom she had met in 1922 in Littlehampton. She left Pearce Crouch in 1923 and began a life as a man under the assumed identity of Victor Barker.

Arkell-Smith checked into the Grand Hotel in Brighton as Sir Victor Barker. The transition was easy for she had already gained a reputation for 'affecting masculine attire, and particularly for wearing men's heavy boots' (Daily Mail, 3 March 1929). As Colonel Victor Barker she married Elfrida Haward at St Peter's parish church in Brighton on 14 November 1923. The marriage was conducted by the Revd Laurence Hard, who was apparently unaware of the groom's real identity. 'I told Miss Haward that I was not what she thought I was; I told her that I was a man who had been injured in the war' (Sunday Dispatch, 10 March 1929). Elfrida always maintained that she believed her.

As the 'Colonel', Arkell-Smith followed a variety of careers, including that of an actor with the stage name of Ivor Gauntlett, boxing club manager, owner of a secondhand furniture business, dog kennel manager, dairy farm manager, cafe owner, and orchard worker. Owing to this instability Elfrida left the 'Colonel' in autumn 1928 and returned to her father's house. Arkell-Smith became politically involved with the National Fascisti, a militant breakaway group of Britain's fascist movement, in 1927, running a boxing programme for its members.

In 1929, after Arkell-Smith had changed both her name and rank to Captain Leslie Ivor Victor Gauntlett Bligh Barker, she found work as a desk clerk in the Regent Palace Hotel in London, posing as a retired officer. There she was arrested on a bankruptcy charge and was sent to trial at the Old Bailey in London. Put on remand at Brixton prison, she was found to be a woman. The charges against Arkell-Smith were in consequence increased to include perjury as a result of her marriage to Elfrida Haward.

The trial was sensationalized in the press. The prosecutor, Sir Ernest Wild, revealed that not only had Arkell-Smith married Miss Haward posing as an officer, but she had also been tried as a man two years previously in July 1927 in the Old Bailey for possessing a forged firearm certificate, although found not guilty. With the revelation of the new charges, she was found guilty of perjury and was sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison. Despite her marriage to Elfrida, Arkell-Smith was not charged under the amendments to the 1920 Sexual Offences Act.

When Arkell-Smith left Holloway she reverted to the identity of Victor Barker. After a variety of short-term jobs, calling herself John Hill, by 1937 she was attracting enormous crowds to her show, entitled On a Strange Honeymoon, in Blackpool, where she portrayed Colonel Barker.

Under another male identity, that of Jeffrey Norton, Arkell-Smith lived as the husband of Eva Norton. In the early part of the Second World War she worked as a switchboard operator in a hospital outside London, and also joined the Home Guard. After the war the couple moved to Kessingland, Suffolk, where Arkell-Smith called herself Geoffrey and became a shop assistant. She died of Parkinson's disease on 18 February 1960 at 3 Wrights Cottages, London Road, Kessingland, Suffolk, and was buried in the grounds of St Edmund's Church, Kessingland, on 23 February. On her death certificate her name was given as Geoffrey Norton, otherwise Lilias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith.

Emma Milliken


chiefbiscuit said...

As always, a fascinating journey through your latest posts has produced wonder and laughs, wisdom and inspiration, information and ideas - thank you so much Sarah.
I love the piccie of the allotment - that is such a British idea.
Have there been many stories / novels written about allotments? I know there've been many references in films etc. ... The whole idea of allotments fascinates me.

Sarah said...

Funny you should ask about novels and allotments, chiefbiscuit! Watch this space....