Beer history pubs

Thomas Walker, Victorian London’s “female barman”

It was only when barman Thomas Walker was arrested in London in February 1867 that anyone who knew him learned he had been born Mary Anne Walker.

Let’s pause here to say that writing about historic cases of gender nonconformity can get complicated. We don’t know whether Thomas Walker was a trans man, although it does seem likely based on the available evidence. And Thomas Walker was only one of several names by which he went. But we’ve chosen to use he/him, and the name Thomas, throughout this post.

Thomas’s story has been written about quite extensively by scholars of LGBTQ+ history, alongside other historic examples of people who did not conform to the gender norms of the period.

But there’s something quite pleasing about the fact that we learned about it from a 19th century printed ballad sheet of much as we might have done at the time.

The one we read was in a reprint of Curiosities of Street Literature by C.J. Hindley, which collects rare surviving examples of ballad sheets. It is also available online as part of the Bodleian Library’s online collection.

The Bodleian explains ballad sheets like this:

Broadside ballads, printed cheaply on one side of a sheet of paper from the earliest days of printing, contain song-lyrics, tunes and woodcut illustrations and bear news, prophecies, histories, moral advice, religious warnings, political arguments, satire, comedy and bawdy tales. Sold in large numbers on street-corners, in town-squares and at fairs by travelling ballad-singers and pinned on the walls of alehouses and other public places, they were sung, read and viewed with pleasure by a wide audience, but have been handed-down to us in only small numbers.

They tended to focus on the gruesome, titillating and apocryphal, and the ‘The Life and Career of Mary Ann Walker the Female Barman!’ is no different. It gets much mileage from the phallic qualities of beer pump handles, for example, in line with the general tendency of the time to sexualise barmaids.

For anything like facts, however, we need to go (relatively) upmarket and look at the newspaper archives. Here’s how the story was reported at the time:

A female barman A well-dressed and smart-looking person, who gave the name of Thomas Walker, was placed at the bar at Southwark Police Court, charged with stealing money belonging to Mr. Frederick Brown, landlord of the Royal Mortar Tavern, London Road, Southwark, the master of the accused… The prosecutor deposed that the prisoner entered his service as a barman three months ago, having a good character. Latterly, however, witness had occasion to suspect his honesty; consequently, he marked several half-crowns, shillings, and sixpences and placed them in the till and on the sideboard. In the course of Friday morning, he missed money from the latter place, which induced him to send for a constable, and give the prisoner into custody… Mr. Keene, the governor of the gaol, had an interview with his worship during the day and shared that when the prisoner was brought to him, he was ordered to the bathroom with the other men. On the passage there he declined taking the bath and, on being questioned, said that ‘he’ was a female… She admitted to him that she had donned the male attire upward of three years, and that before becoming a barman she had been a ship’s steward two years… Mr. Woolrych remarked that he had not the slightest suspicion of the prisoner’s sex. He took her to be a young man.

Numerous newspapers including Kentish Chronicle, 23 February 1867

The pub at which Thomas Walker worked for three months is recorded in the vast and comprehensive Survey of London, available online via the UCL school of architecture:

At the corner of Plumstead Road and Woolwich New Road, where a milestone marked ‘IX Miles from London’, there was another public house, first built as the Mortar soon after construction of the New Road. Used for the Royal Artillery officers’ mess before their barracks mess room was built in 1783, it came to be called the Royal Mortar Tavern. It was rebuilt in 1842 with a curved corner and, to the east, a house with a baker’s shop that survives, little altered, as 2 Plumstead Road. A low range facing the New Road was replaced in 1890–1 with the Royal Mortar Hotel…

As an aside, whenever you research a Victorian pub you’re bound to find an advertisement or two like this:

The Plumstead & Woolwich FANCY RABBIT SOCIETY… The summer show of the above Society will take place on Monday, October 4th, 1858, at the Royal Mortar Tavern, Beresford Square, when some of the longest eared rabbits ever exhibited by any Society will be produced…

Kentish Independent, 2 October 1858

At the time, Thomas Walker tended to be talked about as a rogue and adventurer, living an outlaw life. With hindsight, we can sense that it was a pretty desperate existence.

He moved constantly from job to job, from name to name, with constant threat of ‘discovery’ by prying landladies or acquaintances.

Once he had become famous, this became more difficult. Throughout the late 1860s, newspapers delighted in reporting that ‘the female barman’ had been found out again, and taken to court.

Eventually, he made some attempts to capitalise on his reluctant fame. In 1870 he went into business with one Solomon Abrahams with the idea of being the celebrity landlord of a pub in Shoreditch. Walker ended up in court again after a dispute over the takings with Solomon. (Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser, 15 January 1870.)

Eventually, perhaps having run out of options, in the 1870s, Thomas began performing as Mary Walker, “the original Female Barman”, on the music hall stage.

By the end of that decade, traces of Walker in the newspaper archives peter out. The last account, from 1879, suggests that he had taken to working in pubs as a novelty attraction:

A Walsall innkeeper has published an announcement in which he states that he has made special arrangements with Miss Mary Walker, the renowned female barman, to serve behind the bar from and after Monday, the 7th April next, until further notice…

Monmouthshire Merlin, 11 April 1879

Difficult as Walker’s life might have been, it doesn’t sound as if he ever really compromised.

We’ll finish with a newspaper report from 1870 about life on the notorious New Cut behind Waterloo Station. It’s a nasty, sneering piece, whose authors encounter Walker serving in a neighbourhood pub:

All have heard of Mary Walker, the Female Barman. On the occasion of our visit we betook ourselves to a house to gaze on this romantic being. Oh! delicious sensation, to receive a brandy and soda from her delicate fingers, and to witness the fragile form of one of the gentler sex, attired comme nous! We were waited upon by a coarse, brewer-like potman, with upturned sleeves, short crop, arms of beef-steak colour, using language quite in character with the district, and learned afterwards, to our disgust, that we had been gazing on the Female Barman for at least 10 minutes without being aware of the fact. The blissful illusion was dispelled.

South London Press, 1 January 1870

For all the disgust the writers intend to display, doesn’t that sound to you like someone being, against the odds and despite expectations, completely themselves?

3 replies on “Thomas Walker, Victorian London’s “female barman””

Through 21st-century eyes it certainly sounds as if Thomas Walker was a trans man. That concept wasn’t really available in Walker’s own time AFAIK – or, if available, it certainly wasn’t widespread – so the default reading would have been that Mary Walker was a woman who was trying to pass as a man. (Indeed, that would have been the default assumption not very long ago, although more recently people would be more likely add “…and why not, let her live how she wants”.)

I can’t see any reference to pump handles in the ballad you linked to (although there is one line about ‘cocks’ (=taps)). I don’t know how widespread the practice was, but there is a lot of F-M crossdressing in ballads of the time (M-F, not so much). Usually it’s treated with a bit more dignity than the rather Carry On example here, although the slightly prurient “…and then, oh dear, her jacket fell open” reveal is a recurrent trope. William Taylor was a very popular ballad (popular enough to have its own parodies); the ending owes more to wish-fulfilment than social realism, but it’s interesting that that particular wish (with the woman accepted into the Navy) struck a chord. At the other extreme from the ballad you posted is The Female Rambling Sailor (right-hand column), a sad and dignified tribute to a woman who died doing what she loved. It was collected in Australia (an awful long way from Gravesend!) and is still being sung. And, as if to prove my point about how much of this stuff there was in ballads, the other ballad on the same sheet is “The Female Tar” – although that song hasn’t survived, probably because nothing much happens to the female tar: she passes for a man, goes to sea, comes home, dresses as a woman again and marries her original boyfriend. (Pretty much the plot of David Bowie’s She’s Got Medals, so there’s that.)

Comments are closed.