Colonel Barker, born Valerie Barker on 27th August 1895, lived an extraordinary life filled with different identities, careers, relationships and criminal convictions. Throughout the years Barker was also known by the names Valerie Barker, Leslie Ivor, Victor Gauntlett, Bligh Barker and John Hill; married twice to both a man and a woman; bore two children; served a prison sentence for fraud and attracted spectacular crowds to a peep show on Blackpool Marquee in 1937.
It is difficult to know whether Colonel Barker would have lived such a secretive and eventful life, had it not been for the societal attitudes surrounding same sex relationships and gender that existed at the time.
Life started out in a seemingly traditional manner. After Barker’s coming out party (a party where a young debutante woman is formally introduced to society) in 1914, Barker took up work as a nurse, an ambulance driver and a member of The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Barker married an Australian army Officer, Lt. Harold Arkwell-Smith on 27th April 1918. The marriage only lasted six weeks and soon Barker became involved with another Australian, Earnest Pearce-Crouch. They lived together and had two children until Barker left him in 1923, after growing tired of his binge drinking and violent behaviour.
Barker felt helpless living as a woman, unable to do what they wanted and so assumed a new identity as Colonel Victor Barker, instead of their birth name of Valerie Barker. In their own words, “I could not use my knowledge of horses, dogs and farm work and I simply had to become a man – I had to!” This suggests that male privilege and the opportunities that came with it, could have played a role in Barker’s decision to live as a man, and that Barker’s decision to conceal their gender was part of a wider decision of how they chose to live their life.
After leaving Pearce-Crouch in 1923, Barker began a relationship with Elfrida Haward. When they met, Barker told Elfrida that they had been wounded during the war, sustaining injuries to the abdomen. Under pressure from Elfrida’s parents, the couple married at a Brighton church in 1923. It was never clear whether Elfrida knew Barker’s secret, with Elfrida claiming she did not realise her husband was ‘anything but a man’.
In 1929, Barker was charged with perjury in relation to bankruptcy proceedings and taken to Brixton Prison, whereby their ‘true’ gender as a female was revealed and Barker was therefore transferred to Holloway Prison for women. When on trial Barker was condemned by the judge as “evil” and said that Barker had “profaned the house of God”. Ultimately Barker was convicted of making a false statement on a marriage certificate, rather than the original charge of perjury. Although Barker had committed a crime, the opinions and prejudices of the time are reflected in the judges’ comments, the conviction, and punishment of a prison sentence.
In 1937, Barker and Elfrida attracted spectacular crowds to their peep show on the Blackpool Marquee. During the season, thousands of people paid to walk past a pit and glimpse down on Barker and Elfrida – Colonel Barker in red pyjamas and Elfrida the bride in a nightgown, both lying in single beds. Billed as ‘the most famous intersexual character of our time’, the popularity of Colonel Barker’s seaside show drew a complex web of reactions from mainly working class patrons.
Colonel Barker continued to live as a man until their death in Kessingland in 1960.