Behind every great man there had to be a great woman

London Historian

Posted 04/03/15
By The London Historian


It’s finally March folks and this month “the sisters are doin’ it for themselves”! Mother’s Day arrives on 15th March and International Women’s Day is marked across London and worldwide on 8th March. This year’s theme is #MakeItHappen and that is exactly what the heroin of this story did. This is the tale of one woman’s battle to succeed in a male dominated world and a conspiracy reaching from the friends of famous painter James Barry, across the Empire and to the court of Queen Victoria herself. I’ll be revealing the person behind a deception so great that it would rewrite history and shine a light into the very heart of gender inequalities and the historic injustices of Britain’s military and medicinal establishments. What you are about to read may sound like a farfetched Hollywood script but is actually the reality of one lady, buried in London, who reached the highest ranks of military medicine and became the first man to conduct a successful caesarean.

Margaret Ann Bulkley was born in rural Cork, Ireland, during the 1790s. It was a time when men went out to work and women kept the home. Still more than seventy years away from the formation of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage and over a century before women were given the right to vote in 1918. Margaret’s brother vacated the family home to marry and her father Jeremiah, a grocer, compelled his daughter and wife to impending financial hardship when he was imprisoned. Luckily salvation came in the form of Margaret’s maternal uncle, famous Royal Society of Arts painter James Barry. James Barry had left Cork in his twenties to travel Europe visiting Paris, Rome, Florence, Bologna and fell in love with the art world’s appreciation of the female sex. The last image of Barry’s ‘The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture’ (pictured), a collection of 6 murals inside London’s RSA labelled by critic Andrew Graham-Dixon as “Britain’s late, great answer to the Sistine Chapel”, illustrates his overwhelming and unequivocal support of women’s rights. In the background of the painting is St Paul’s Cathedral, where Barry was buried following his death in 1806. Barry describes his own depiction of “a distinguished example of female excellence, Mrs Montagu (British social reformer, patron of the arts), who is earnestly recommending the ingenuity and industry of a young female, whose work she is producing”.

James Barry could not praise women enough, as supported by a letter dated 25th July 1797 addressed from his home in Castle Street Oxford Market, now Eastcastle Street near Oxford Circus. In his writing he posed the query: “Why the ancients, who reasoned so deeply, should, in their personifications of the sovereign wisdom, have chosen Minerva a female” and “why the conversation of the serpent was held with Eve, in order that her influence might be employed in persuading Adam”.

The artist was a Liberal, regarded by some as anti-establishment, but had friends in influential places, not just amongst his contemporaries at the Royal Society of Arts. One such acquaintance was David Steuart Erskine the 11th Earl of Buchan, a fellow supporter of women’s rights and one of the masterminds behind the plan to sneak James Barry’s sister and niece into Edinburgh to start a new life. The desire for equality set into action one of the biggest cover-ups in history. Researchers believe that famous Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda was one of the instigators of the plot, alongside the Earl and young Margaret Bulkley’s mentor Edward Bryers – a senior figure in the medical profession. The deception started as soon as Margaret and her mother left Ireland for Scotland, in the winter of 1809, when the family solicitor received a letter from ‘James Barry’ proclaiming that it was “very useful for Mrs Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country”. Margaret’s new journey had begun in more ways than one as she began living as ‘James Miranda Stuart Barry’, adopting the names of her famous uncle, the revolutionary and the Earl. Barry qualified with an MD in 1812, entered into the Royal College of Surgeons in 1813 and after qualifying as a Regimental Assistant served at military hospitals in Chelsea and Plymouth before being promoted to Assistant Staff Surgeon and posted to the corners of the British Empire, including India and South Africa.

Shortly after Barry arrived in Cape Town she performed the first recorded Caesarean where both child and mother survived. It was a medical first and with praise landing at the feet of a ‘man’ no one batted an eyelid. The baby was named James Barry Munnick after the heroic ‘man’ who delivered him. She then saw postings around the world – Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Helena, Malta, Corfu, Jamaica, Canada and the Crimea alongside the likes of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Dr Barry had reached the rank of Inspector General of Military Hospitals in which capacity she fought for better food, sanitation and proper medical care for soldiers, as well as prisoners and lepers. Benevolent, yet anti-establishment like her uncle, Dr Barry’s “eccentricities attracted universal attention” and Lord Charles Henry Somerset, Governor of the Cape of South Africa 1814 – 1826, had described ‘him’ as “the most skilful of physicians”. To put the achievements into context: the University of London was the first to admit women to its degrees, but not until 1878 (66 years later). Oxford and Cambridge did not formally award degrees to women until 1920 and 1947 respectively. 1865 saw Whitechapel feminist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson become the first Englishwomen to qualify as a physician and surgeon, little did she know that Margaret had done so half a century earlier by fooling the system in the most audacious of ways.

A letter printed in 1876 describes Barry as having “reddish hair, high cheekbones” with “a certain effeminacy in his manner, which he seemed to be always striving to overcome. His style of conversation was greatly superior to that one usually heard at a mess-table in those days”. One of the ways to overcome the revealing effeminism was through “fragrant breaches of discipline”. “While at the Cape he fought a duel and was considered to be of a most quarrelsome disposition”. This was part of Dr Barry’s clever machismo side, which won her the admiration of her peers and that of Lord Somerset who was suspected of having an on-off ‘homosexual affair’ with the doctor and who set her up with a private apartment in his residence. It is possible that Somerset was aware of Dr Barry’s true identity, as he too was a friend of the Earl of Buchan.  The rumours of a homosexual liaison reached London and a royal commission was set up to investigate the scandal. Somerset returned to England and Barry was later exonerated.

The 19th century conspiracy was potentially wide reaching and even encompassed the court of the British Monarchy. New information revealed during my investigations shows that Dr Barry met the newly crowned Queen Victoria (presented by Viscount St Vincent) one month after her coronation. The meeting took place at St. James Palace in 1838 during Queen Victoria’s first levee – a reception with the monarch attended only by gentlemen. This took the form of a lavish formal reception at St James Palace at which officials, diplomats and military officers of all three armed services were presented individually to the sovereign. A flagrant breach of royal protocol showed bravery indeed, but that was not Dr Barry’s first royal engagement. Barry had previously been presented by her ‘lover’s’ brother Lord Edward Somerset, to King William IV in the company of The Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel. The secret was certainly well guarded enough that Dr Barry’s long serving manservant John was oblivious to her true gender. Pictured with Dr Barry, and her feisty lapdog Psyche, John was the first to discover Dr Barry, following her death from dysentery on 25th July 1865. With Barry collapsed in her chair he touched her heart to feel whether it was beating. At the feel of a breast he spat on the corpse, in rage at himself for compromising his religious beliefs. Unable to marry, but having succeeded to make a life for herself without doing so, Barry died alone at 14 Margaret Street London, just a street away from the house where her famous uncle lived and from where he himself had championed the rights of women.

Ignoring Barry’s wish to be buried ‘as found’ the charwoman who prepared the body for burial was the first to sound the alarm regarding Barry’s true identity. Some had suspected her of being a hermaphrodite but Sophia Bishop described her as a ‘whole woman’ who had stretch marks on her body indicating that she may have even borne a child. Sophia did not reveal the secret until after the funeral and there was no evidence to back it up, as no post-mortem was undertaken. The military attempted to bury the story by not issuing an obituary and placing an embargo on her military records for 100 years. When George Graham of the General Register Office heard of the unbelievable story, he wrote to Barry’s doctor “As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother? Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information”. The doctor replied, recollecting his conversation with Sophia Bishop who “said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me”. He finished by summing it up perfectly with “The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years”. Dr Barry (1795 – 1865) is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London.

Dr Barry was not the first lady to masquerade as a man in order to join the Army. Hannah Snell moved from Worcester to London in the 1740s and, following desertion by her husband she borrowed a male suit from her brother-in-law and joined the army looking for her runaway husband. She was discovered and sentenced to 500 lashes, which she evaded by absconding. She later found out her husband had been executed for murder, but with a taste for the front line promptly joined the Marines in Portsmouth. After revealing her sex to her shipmates she won a petition to receive a pension and became a minor celebrity appearing on stage around London. She later kept a pub called The Female Warrior in Wapping.

This March we enjoy the labour of Mother Nature, commemorate the labour of female workers and give thanks for the labour of our Mothers. We also honour the life of Margaret Ann Bulkley, a lady who trail blazed around the world and who rests here in our city marked by a grave under her alias of Dr James Barry. She held centre stage as the main character in one of the most remarkable conspiracies in medical and military history. Margaret Bulkley lived a life of courage and controversy, stoically working to help our nation’s army and forcing historians to rewrite history in the process. The very fact that Margaret had to assume the alias of Dr Barry provides us with an invaluable insight into the history of gender equality and why we should all celebrate her achievements this month of March.