’A Woman Married to a Woman’: Shock Revelations and Intrigue in Victorian Scotland

History has shown us that same-sex relationships were not uncommon in the past, although different meanings have been attached to them.  There has been a good deal of debate about whether the many men and women who had intimate relationships with their own sex in the past were all in fact homosexual, or whether some of their relationships were intimate but asexual.  The example that we have unearthed which we outline below, raises similar questions. However, in this case, one of the parties identified, for much of her life, as a man.

When John Campbell, a 21 year-old Renfrew shipyard worker, fell ill with smallpox in November 1871, few could have foreseen the startling story which emerged. A well-liked young man, John had been lodging with the Early family in Pinkerton Lane, Renfrew since the summer of 1871. Like many young men his age John had been ‘adher[ing] to the old habit of loving and associating with the lassies’. He made himself an invaluable member of the Early household: Mrs Early was impressed by John’s helpful nature, especially his willingness to assist in the home, even helping fellow lodgers with repairs to work clothing. When Mrs Early had fallen ill, in the winter of 1871, John was a tower of strength, tending to his landlady’s needs, so much so that Mr Early had grown jealous of the attention John had lavished upon his recuperating wife.

What his landlords did not know was that John was married, and had deserted his wife Mary Ann in Kirknewton in May 1870. John left behind a pregnant wife and 2 children. The Reverend Henry Smith had married John and Mary Ann in December 1869, and after some relatively happy months John had deserted his family. He had initially made his way to Tranent to work on a farm but attracted by the promise of higher wages, John left Tranent and headed to Renfrew where he secured employment with Henderson, Coulborn and Co., working in the forge of the local shipbuilding firm. Higher wages and reasonably secure employment meant that John chose to settle in Renfrew and began a relationship with local lass, Kate Martin, taking her on occasion for romantic trips to Edinburgh. Well-liked by his work colleagues and by his housemates, all was rosy. However, a smallpox infection mean that John’s life in Renfrew was about to disintegrate.

On calling at Pinkerton Lane, Dr Allison insisted that John needed hospitalisation. John was insistent that he could not be admitted to Paisley Infirmary. When the doctor pressed, John agreed but only if he could be transferred and admitted fully clothed. Dr Allison’s suspicions aroused, he queried whether this was a result of his sex. While others had briefly wondered about and then dismissed suspicions of John’s sometimes ‘feminine’ qualities, the doctor was not fooled. Realising that his cover was blown, John admitted that he was in fact Marie Campbell, and that she had been dressing as a male since the age of 13. The reasons she offered were that she had worn male attire due to ‘bad usage’ when a child, or that her brother, on his deathbed, had advised her to wear his clothing as that would ‘probably enable her the better to make her way in the world’.

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Meanwhile in Kirknewton the parish authorities sought to establish the whereabouts of Mary Ann McKenna’s missing husband. When they received word that a woman named Marie or Maria Campbell had been posing as a man, John Campbell, they were stunned. Although Mary Ann had claimed that John was in fact a woman, the parish authorities had quickly dismissed the revelation. As Mary Ann had admitted that her children were not John’s and were illegitimate, they had questioned her character and decided that Mary Ann’s accusation was nothing more than diversionary bluster. Suitably humbled by the revelation the parish authorities requested that Mary Ann should accompany the Inspector of the Poor and another, Will Waddell who had been a witness to the wedding, on a trip to Renfrew. When they visited Paisley Infirmary both witnesses positively identified Maria alias John. Maria, on seeing Will exclaimed ‘Is that you Will Waddel; how’s the wife and bairns?’

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With identification confirmed, the investigation then sought to discover whether both parties had contracted marriage in full knowledge that John Campbell was a woman. Campbell claimed that McKenna knew that she was a woman, and the wedding had been undertaken as a result of a ‘mutual understanding’. Campbell also claimed that the marriage ‘was to make us more comfortable that we lived together’. McKenna, however, denied this assertion claiming that she only became aware of Campbell’s true identity some days after the wedding. The fact that they had remained together in the marital home for some months before Marie’s disappearance suggests otherwise. Whatever the truth, the Kirknewton parochial board was relieved that Campbell was not the father of McKenna’s third child, born after the wedding, and thus was not chargeable to the parish.

Campbell’s former work colleagues in Renfrew, although disappointed at the deception, started a subscription for her, stating that ‘a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard’, and that they regretted hearing about ‘her unfortunate apprehension.’ As a result of a police investigation Marie was charged with contravening the Registration Act. As one newspaper at the time commented, the surprising revelation had brought an ‘unhappy termination to an extraordinary career’.

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