Harry Stokes – a gender variant Victorian in Manchester

Harry Stokes  c1799 – October 1859

Master bricklayer, pub landlord, special constable.

Research by Jenny White

I first encountered Harry Stokes in Alison Oram’s Lesbian History Sourcebook. A newspaper report from 1838 with the headline ‘A FEMALE HUSBAND IN MANCHESTER’ told an intriguing story about a chap in Manchester who’d just been outed by his wife of 22 years as being “not a man, but a woman”.

A quick search of the British Newspaper archives from 1838 brought up other reports about the case, revealing the husband’s name to be Harry Stokes. A further batch of articles dating from 1859 told of the inquest into Harry’s sudden death. 

In 2015 I got chatting to Abi Hynes who was writing a play about Harry, and I was curious to learn more about this local gender variant Victorian. There were some big discrepancies in the accounts of Harry’s life – the 1838 news reports explain that Harry’s first marriage lasted 22 years, but the 1859 articles told of how the marriage ended in tears after a disastrous wedding night. Most of the reports have the tone of a tabloid style exposé aimed at shocking and entertaining the readers. None of the articles are based on actual interviews with or testimony from Harry.

I was keen to see if I could separate some of the fact from fiction and began searching for evidence of his life in the archives, including Manchester Central Library, the Chetham’s Library Ballad Collection and Manchester Police Museum. It was exciting to see Harry’s name mentioned in trade directories, rate books and censuses – it made Harry seem more like a real person, not just a scandalous story in a paper.  

I gave a talk on Harry’s life at Manchester Histories Festival in 2016.


The extraordinary life of Harry Stokes

In 1838 Ann Stokes approached a Manchester magistrate about getting a formal separation from her husband Harry, a bricklayer and special constable. She couldn’t cope with Harry’s drunken rages and withholding of the housekeeping. She particularly wanted advice on the matter because, as she told the magistrate, Harry was ‘not a man but a woman’.

The shocked magistrate approached the police and Harry was examined by a police surgeon who issued a certificate declaring that Harry was a woman. Mr Thomas, Deputy Constable of Manchester mediated between Ann and Harry, and Ann ended up keeping the house and belongings. There was no talk of any immoral or criminal behaviour having occurred between Ann and Harry.

Nowadays we could see Harry as having a trans identity, but in the 1800s Harry was viewed as a woman in disguise and women were at that time seen as passive, non-sexual beings. 

Harry became the talk of the town. Ballad sellers composed songs about him which were sung in taverns and street corners. News reports mainly used female pronouns to talk about Harry and remarked how plucky it was for a woman to have raised her game, overcoming feminine weaknesses to act like a man. They warned that now the secret of Harry’s ‘disguise’ was out in the open, he’d have to start dressing as a woman or else leave town to set up business elsewhere.

Harry did neither. He began a relationship with local barmaid Francis Collins. They lived in Salford for a couple of years before moving to Quay Street to run a beerhouse. Francis’s son John from a previous marriage later spoke of how he had always regarded Harry as his step-father. In 1859 Harry’s body was found in the River Irwell, not far from where Media City is today.

Check out:

Timeline of Harry’s life, including info from trade directories, rate books, and Harry and Ann’s marriage record from Sheffield Cathedral.

How were gender variant Victorians like Harry viewed at the time, and how might we interpret their lives today?

Newspaper stories on Harry Stokes – 1838 and 1859

Thomas Green and John Jones – other gender variant Victorians in Manchester

Harry Stokes builder

Harry ran a successful bricklaying firm specialising in chimney construction.