A Regency Era Female Husband – James Allen

James Allen, Public Domain
James Allen, Public Domain

The idea that a woman would pretend to be a male was considered shocking in the Regency Era. One woman who perpetrated such a hoax was commonly known as James Allen. Allen’s situation came to light when Allen, who was 42 years old and a sawyer, was fatally struck in the head by a piece of timber while in a saw pit. Allen had been married for twenty-one years and the marriage had been solemnized at Camberwell Church on 13 December 1808. According to Allen’s wife, Abigail Mary (whose maiden name was Naylor), she had no idea Allen was female until the astonishing fact was discovered at St. Thomas’s Hospital when doctors undressed Allen.

According to Abigail Mary, more commonly known as Mary, their courtship began while they were in the service of a Mr. Ward of Camberwell Terrace and Mary was working as a housemaid and Allen as a groom. Allen, who was a native of Yarmouth and described as “reserved, sober, and industrious,” began to pay attention to Mary near the end of his service with Ward. The attention paid off and they married. It was then reported after “the matrimonial alliance took place … they retired together to the Bull, in Grey-in-lane.”[1]

Mary maintained that on their wedding night  after retiring to bed, “the bridegroom was taken ill, and continued, or pretended to be so, the remainder of the night.”[2] Mary also never revealed if the marriage was consummated and if it was how that was accomplished. But soon after their marriage, Allen returned to work as a groom for his former employer, Mr. Lonsdale, of Mayshill, Blackheath. Mary continued to work for Ward, and, during this time the newlyweds rarely saw each other, although Allen regularly corresponded with Mary. Allen “wrote most affectionately to the bride, addressing her in all the endearing terms of a wife, and concluding her letters by subscribing herself the bride’s most affection husband until death.”[3] After about eight months, Allen implored Mary to “give up her situation and live together as man and wife,”[4] and Mary consented.

During their eight-month separation Allen had been busy improving their financial status. Allen acquired a prosperous public house called the Sun, which was located at Baldock in Hertfordshire. The couple moved in, but, shortly thereafter, someone broke in and robbed them of all their money. This discouraged the couple, and they gave up the public house and moved to London settling in Dockhead neighborhood. In London, Allen soon found employment as laborer working in a “vitriol manufactory,” and then eventually gained employment in a ship-building yard as a pitch boiler for a Mr. Crisp, which is where she died.

Abigail Mary Allen, Public Domain
Abigail Mary Allen, Public Domain

To hide her sexuality, Allen generally dressed in sailor’s clothes, “like shipwrights, and always wore thick flannel waistcoats, which extended from the neck down to the hips.”[5] Additionally, Allen wore linen wrapped bandages bound around her chest and to explain them claimed they were worn to protect her lungs from the cold. Due to this, Mary maintained she never observed Allen’s chest and had no idea she had breasts. Despite Allen’s manly wardrobe, coworkers noted the peculiarity of Allen’s tone, “which subjected the deceased to raillery among the men with whom she was employed,”[6] but the men still did not doubt that Allen was male.

Although coworkers may not have been suspicious, Mary mentioned that she once pointed out Allen’s peculiarities and that Allen became “exceedingly angry,” which caused Mary to never “afterwards alluded to the subject, and … [to keep] the fact of her suspicions … a profound secret from all her family.”[7] Mary also claimed that Allen behaved similar to a man. Allen was an industrious worker, working night and day, and “the labour she was employed at could not have been performed except by a person of uncommon strength of body.”[8] Mary also maintained that Allen was sometimes ill-tempered and expressed jealousy and strong resentment against Mary if she paid attention to any man. Moreover, Mary maintained that when she did not conduct herself properly, Allen inflicted corporal punishment upon her.

On the day of Allen’s funeral, an immense concourse of persons attended. Apparently, word had spread about Allen’s sexuality and attendees were attracted by the fact that Allen was pretending to be male. The interest was so immense, newspapers reported that “‘resurrection men‘ were lurking about, in the hope of procuring the corpse of so remarkable a subject for dissection.”[9] To prevent Allen’s body from being snatched and dissected, great lengths were taken to ensure it was secure. The body was “deposited in a vault belonging to a private burial ground, in the parish of St. John’s, Bermondsey, access to which [was] impossible, it being well secured and guarded against the attacks of ‘body-snatchers.'”[10]

That was not the end of the speculation about Allen. An inquest was also held to determine whether Allen’s death was an accident. Numerous witnesses came forth, but the inquest involved mostly questions and answers about Allen’s sex. One co-worker noted Allen had a “very weakly voice, and was without a beard or whisker.”[11] Jane Daley, a neighbor, testified that Allen’s sex was never doubted by Mary until about eight months earlier when she told Jane “she was sure her Jemmy ‘was not a proper man.'”[12] It was also reported that with Mary’s permission, Allen’s body was opened, “and found perfect in all respects.”[13] This excited the curiosity of the jurors to the point they wanted to see the body, but they were refused, and the judge admonished them they were not there to determine Allen’s sex. So, in the end, the jury returned a verdict “that the deceased was accidentally killed.”[14]


  • [1] “The Female Husband,” in Caledonian Mercury, 22 January 1829, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Extraordinary Investigation; of the Female Husband,” in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 January 1829, p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “The Female Husband,” in Caledonian Mercury, 22 January 1829, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] “The Female Husband,” in London Evening Standard, 19 January 1829, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] “A Female Husband—Most Extraordinary Fact,” in Leeds Intelligencer, 22 January 1829, p. 4.
  • [12] “Extraordinary Discover,” in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 19 January 1829, p. 24. 
  • [13] “A Female Husband—Most Extraordinary Fact,” p. 4. 
  • [14] Ibid.

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