15 minutes of fame | Fern Riddell chooses Charley Wilson
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Dr Fern Riddell explains why she chose Charley Wilson
Who was Charley Wilson?
Born in Axbridge, Somerset, in 1834, Charley Wilson was a transgender man living in the Victorian era. Through interviews that he gave between late 1890 and 1910, Wilson became a well-known figure, as he shared how he experienced the world.
“We tend to think that discussions about sex and gender identity are a modern thing,” explains historian Dr Fern Riddell. “But Charley Wilson’s story shows us otherwise.”
Charley Wilson’s life
Charley Wilson was born into the Coombes family in the 19th century, and was brought up with an ordinary middle-class female upbringing. He attended Cheltenham Ladies College, during which time he was “semi-educated, trained for looking pretty, not really thinking very much and going off to get married,” explains Riddell.
As a teenager, Wilson was forced into a marriage with his cousin Percival, who was 23 years his senior, and during this marriage, he faced a lot of violence and abuse for refusing ‘womanly’ clothes. Knowing that he could not continue living this way, Riddell explains how Wilson ran away, cut off his hair, lived safely with his brother, and “decided to live as his true self”.
From that moment on, Wilson began to live as a young working man to gain experience. He lived near the Victoria docks in London, and worked decorating various Peninsular and Oriental Company (now P&O) ships, later travelling to Australia and back again. It seems, Riddell explains, that nobody knew that Charley had a previous life as a woman – for 43 years “he lived absolutely as a working man”.
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However, Riddell recounts, Wilson’s identity was revealed in 1897, when he unfortunately fell into poverty. When he ended up in a workhouse, in keeping with the treatment of the day he was stripped and bathed and checked for disease. Finding that Wilson was not physically a man, workhouse authorities forced him to wear a dress and he was placed on a women’s ward. Before long, newspapers ran the story.
Surprisingly, explains Riddell, the media attention was not particularly negative, as reporters simply wanted to know why Wilson had been living as a man. Riddell believes that, at a time when women had very few rights, a common perception was that many women were willing to live as men to have success. They saw Wilson as the “romanticised ideal”, Riddell explains.
But in every interview he gave, Wilson made sure to let everyone know that he was not simply posing as a man, but he was a man. This is particularly important, explains Riddell, because the history of transgender people is often based on assumption or uncertainty, due to a lack of records or appropriate terminology with which people of the past could identify. But Charley Wilson “is one of those people [who] gives interviews stating: ‘I am male.’”
Why does Charley Wilson deserve his 15 minutes of fame?
“We don’t have many examples of ordinary trans people just living their life in our past,” explains Riddell. Wilson was loved and welcomed by the working-class community, a community that had always known him as a man, and did not see the revelation that he was physically female as an issue.
“It’s incredibly important to show communities in the past were accepting and non-judgemental of people living lives that today we seem to be demonising,” says Riddell, “and Charley Wilson’s story is the perfect example of that.”
Wilson’s identity, concludes Riddell, is essential to our understandings of LGBTQ+ history because stories like his are often overlooked, but they do exist and “they’re just waiting for people to uncover them.”
Dr Fern Riddell is a cultural historian, and an expert in sex, suffrage and entertainment in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Her most recent book is Sex: Lessons from History (Hodder and Stoughton, 2021)
Article compiled by Isabel King