Doncaster woman 'lived as a man with two wives' for forty years

Sheffield Catherdral, where Harry Stokes married his first wife.
Sheffield Catherdral, where Harry Stokes married his first wife.

A Doncaster woman lived her life as a man, had two wives and several long-term relationships with women and became a police constable in Manchester.

Doncaster-born Harry Stokes was born a girl, but lived life as a man - and had two long term relationships with women - both of which lasted over twenty years.

She became known as "the man woman" and "female husband" in and around Manchester where she worked as a beerhouse manager and special constable.

Born in the Doncaster area in 1799, he assumed male identity at any early age and became a builder's apprentice in Bawtry.

He married his first wife in Sheffield in 1816, according to newspaper reports - there is a record of a Harry Stoake marrying an Ann Hants at Sheffield Cathedral in January 1817.

Following the marriage, Harry built up a successful bricklaying firm in Manchester - employing eight men and with his wife keeping the company accounts.

He was also a special constable during the 1820s and 1830s, policing large events where there was the potential for trouble, such as protest marches and demonstrations.

But he still kept his birth secret - and it wasn't until 1838 that he was exposed as a woman.

In April of that year, after 22 years of marriage, Harry’s wife approached a lawyer for advice on getting a formal separation and a maintenance settlement as he was withholding housekeeping money, getting drunk and ill-treating her.

She advised the shocked lawyer that her husband was not a man, but a woman, and "also stated, that she accidentally made the discovery of the sex of her husband as much as two or three years back; but that she had kept the secret till the present time."

Stokes was examined by a police surgeon who "gave a certificate declaring that the individual in question was a woman."

His gender became the subject of gossip and ridicule around Manchester.

Ballads were composed about him and sung in the streets.

There is some evidence that the ballads told the tale of an ill-fated, one-day marriage to a barmaid called Betsy.

On the wedding day Harry managed to play the part of a groom well enough, but on the wedding night there was a terrible row and he was charged with assault and sentenced to two months in jail. At his court hearing Betsy declared that she wouldn’t live with her husband because he was really a woman.

After separating from his first wife, Harry set up home with a widow called Francis Collins, a woman who had worked as a barmaid in his local beerhouse.

The couple moved to Salford for two years and then in 1840 they established a beerhouse at Quay Street, Manchester.

John Heaton who was Francis’s son from her first marriage was later reported as saying that he "always regarded Harry as his stepfather, and his mother assumed the name of Stokes and passed as his wife."

However, his life ended in tragedy.

On 15 October, 1859, a body was found in the River Irwell, bolt upright in the water with a top hat still jammed firmly on his head.

The corpse was taken to the Swann Inn, Pendlebury where an inquest was held. A juror recognised the body as that of Harry Stokes, advising that he was "not a man but a woman".

Harry’s body was inspected by two women who confirmed it was that of a woman.

The inquest into Harry’s death was reported in the local press, with headlines such as ‘A WOMAN PASSING AS A MAN FOR FORTY YEARS’ and ‘HARRY STOKES THE MAN WOMAN.’

The inquest verdict was ‘Found drowned – supposed suicide'. Harry's death was entered in the General Register Office under the name Harriett Stokes.

Today his life can be seen in the framework of LGBT history - he can be viewed as a trans man, or as a cross dressing lesbian.