What the John Johnson Collection tells us about gender in early modern Britain

Written by Kasturi Pindar, Bodleian Libraries intern, Summer 2023

The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, held at the Bodleian Libraries Special Collections, contains a multitude of images of early modern people who transgressed gender norms. Amongst these images, no two are the same. One image depicts two figures standing in a laundry room. It is captioned ‘Abigail Mary Allen, Pretended Wife of James Allen’ and ‘James Allen, The Female Husband’. Others depict people who, assigned female at birth, donned men’s clothing in order to serve in the military, particularly at sea. One such image is of ‘Mary Anne Talbot, otherwise John Taylor, Foot Boy, Drummer, Sailor, etc. etc. etc.’ Another, shows ‘Miss Theodora de Verdion. The walking Bookseller, and Teacher of Languages, dressed as a Man.’ We also come across Anne Jane Thornton, who donned a cabin boy’s dress in order to sail to New York in pursuit of a romantic interest, continuing life at sea as a man for around two years, though her story is contested. Some of the individuals found in the collection are well researched by historians of gender such as Jen Manion, who has written about ‘female husbands’ and sailors who ‘transed’ gender in order to take part in life at sea. About others, less is known. Nonetheless, these images offer a way in to examine the lives of such figures, the myriad gender expressions of people living at the time, and how gender was perceived in 18th and 19th century Britain.

Abigail Mary Allen, pretended wife of James Allen (1829), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (19)

We can start to understand how gender was perceived in the past when we look at the images in the context of the collection and how it is categorised. In the catalogue of the John Johnson Collection, these images can be found under the headings Entertainment>Humans>4. The categories Humans 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 contain hundreds of images of people that would today be considered to have a disability, whether physical, mental or developmental, a disfigurement, an unusual cognitive ability, or who were transgender. Each person within these headings seems to have been considered a ‘curiosity’ and their images were generally published for the amusement of the general public. Taking a closer look at the images themselves, we can see in the print below the image that the heading ‘Humans’ was once called ‘Human Freaks’. This is the language that was used as the collection was first assembled by John de Monins Johnson and reflects the language of Victorian ‘freak shows’. Since arriving at the Bodleian in 1968, these headings have been reviewed and amended to remove harmful language (see A Note on Language at the end of this blog post). Nonetheless, examining the original language used helps us to understand the context of the images, which were perhaps seen as a printed exhibition for the public to browse, ogle, and laugh at. In fact, many of these images were collected from Kirby’s Wonderful Museum, a nineteenth-century publication which claimed to display ‘remarkable characters, including all of the curiosities of nature and art … drawn from every authentic source.’ Its intention as a source of entertainment through the exoticisation of anything and everything, including human bodies, is described in no uncertain terms. Categorising people as ‘curiosities’ may not have seemed out of place at the time, and it tells us how strange the notion of experimenting with gender expression was to these peoples’ cisgender contemporaries.

In some cases, the fetishization of transgender bodies goes hand-in-hand with the way that they were treated in their lifetimes. For one such person, Mademoiselle de Beaumont, also known as the Chevalier(e) d’Éon, this was certainly the case. D’ Éon was a French diplomat, spy and soldier born in 1728 and assigned male at birth. She lived for many years as a man, before beginning to live as a woman in 1777, eventually moving to England and being legally recognised as a woman. A clipping found next to her portraits in the John Johnson Collection demonstrates a fascination with her ‘questionable gender’. Though the clipping reads as an obituary marking D’Éon’s recent death, most of the text discusses the question of her gender, ending with the conclusion that, following an examination by a physician after her death, her body was that of a ‘perfect male!’ (emphasis in original). Other clippings from the collection also show a similar obsession with her gender that is reflected in how she is portrayed in Kirby’s Wonderful Museum.

La Chevaliere D’Eon (1791), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (22b)

Others, such as Charles Hamilton (b. 1721) or James Howe (b. circa 1716), were treated with comparable fixation, though their experiences at the hands of their contemporaries varied greatly. Hamilton and Howe were both assigned female at birth but lived much of their lives as men and went on to marry women. Following a scandal and a trial focused on Hamilton’s gender, his story was fictionalised, exaggerated and widely circulated in Henry Fielding’s book The Female Husband. In his book, Fielding claimed that Hamilton married fourteen wives in the course of his life (marriage records from the time show only one short-lived married to a woman, Mary Price), proving an enticing story for contemporary readers. Hamilton is thought to have deceived Mary Price into marrying him, as he did not reveal his ‘true’ identity. After finding out the deception, Price reported Hamilton to the authorities, and he was charged with vagrancy and sentenced to whipping and time in prison. In his lifetime, he was villainised and seen as a criminal.

In contrast, James Howe lived thirty-two years married to his wife, Mary Howe, before she died. It is thought that Mary Howe knew that James was assigned female at birth from the beginning of their relationship. Throughout their lives, the Howes were extorted a few times under threat to reveal James’ ‘true’ identity. Following Mary’s death, these threats intensified, and Howe began to re-associate himself with womanhood, using his birthname Mary East. He did so in order to protect himself, his freedom and his reputation. Though accounts of his life were widely reproduced, Howe was presented as a person of integrity due to his hard work, dedication to his wife, and successful business. Although there was a lot of public interest in Howe’s story, he was afforded grace, as he was seen to have been ‘fair and honest’.

The lives of people who broke with gender norms in order to set sail tell us even more about early modern perceptions of gender, as well as the non-fixity of gender for such people. James Gray (aka Hannah Snell, b. 1723) and John Taylor (aka Mary Anne Talbot, b. 1778) were both assigned female at birth but transed gender in order to work at sea. When, after some years of living and working as a man, James Gray publicly revealed that they had been raised as a girl, they were painted as a hero rather than a criminal. They were seen as having abandoned their gender for a greater good: in service of the military. According to Jen Manion, even after reclaiming the category of woman Gray ‘continued to live in a gender that was neither strictly that of a man or a woman,’ demonstrating a fluid or non-conforming approach to their gender.

Hannah Snell, born at Worcester (1789), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (31)

Unlike Gray, who chose to present as a man, John Taylor was initially coerced into disguising themselves as a man: Captain Essex Bowen took them aboard a ship bound for the Spanish colony of San Domingo dressed as a foot boy. After around four years—working in a variety of roles on a number of ships, as a drummer, a powder monkey, a midshipman, and after having been injured, captured and imprisoned—they eventually retired from life at sea, moving to London and resuming life as a woman. However, at times they continued to disguise themselves as a seaman in order to drink in pubs with their former messmates, again demonstrating a measure of fluidity in their gender expression. Their tale is said to have aroused sympathy after being published in Kirby’s Wonderful Museum, though little other public reaction is recorded. Like James Howe, mentioned above, there was some fascination with Gray’s and Taylor’s gender presentation, but attitudes towards them seemed to be more compassionate, even indifferent.

Anne Jane Thornton’s (b. 1817) story is different yet again. At 15 years old, Thornton dressed as a sailor in order to pursue her love interest, Captain Alexander Burke, to New York. Sources differ as to why she was unsuccessful: Burke had either died or married a few days before she arrived at his father’s house in St Andrews, New York state. In order to support herself, she continued to dress as a sailor, taking up employment, first aboard the Adelaide and then the Sarah, using the name Jim Taylor, before her eventual return to London at age 17. After her identity was revealed, the captain of the Sarah praised Anne Jane for performing the duties of a seaman ‘to admiration’. On hearing her tale, the lord mayor of London applauded her courage and offered her financial support to return home to her father in Ireland. Though Anne Jane presented as a man for practical reasons, she was nonetheless required to trans gender in order to pursue Captain Burke, and then in order to protect and support herself. The attitudes of her contemporaries tell us something more: that transing gender was acceptable, even admirable, if the person in question was able to achieve something extraordinary by doing so.

It is difficult to say why each of these people were treated so differently. Manion suggests a few reasons: Hamilton was prosecuted and vilified because he had deceived a woman into marriage and sexual intimacy under false pretences. Gray was lauded as a hero because they had abandoned their sex ‘in service of the greater good.’ Similarly, Howe had done ‘everything and more expected of a model man’ and as a result was treated with comparative sympathy and respect, though he did have to return to living as a woman in order to protect himself. The stark contrast between how different people were regarded by their contemporaries hints at perceived ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ ways to transgress gender boundaries in early modern Britain. In learning about early modern attitudes to gender, we also learn about the priorities and values of the times. Could being seen to have lived a good, honest life, or to have behaved admirably, alleviate anxiety about gender norms?

The characters found in Humans 4 of the John Johnson Collection demonstrate a diversity of ways in which gender was expressed and articulated in 18th and 19th century Britain. Some, such as James Howe, lived lives of love and devotion to their wives. Others experimented with gender to allow themselves to take on roles usually reserved for men. Many, including the Chevalier(e) D’Éon moved between gender expressions, spending some time as a man, a woman, or neither. They also allow us to see how varied the attitudes of others could be towards people who had transgressed gender boundaries and how other priorities figured in society’s judgements of such people. Manion argues that though we may be tempted to label some of these people as ‘trans’ or ‘not-trans’, to do so is futile. After all, our understandings of gender in the 21st century are very different from how it was understood before, and there is so much else that we can learn from these peoples’ lives.

A note on language

This article explores examples of people living in the 18th and 19th centuries who, in modern terms, we might consider to be transgender, genderfluid, or gender non-conforming. Whilst the people discussed in this article would not have understood their gender using such language, these terms can be useful as analytical tools, or as a lens through which to understand gender expression in the past. Care has been taken in this article to use language that helps us to understand examples of early modern transgender people without applying this language in anachronistic ways.

Some of the language used in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera is outdated and offensive. The same applies to the original materials, produced in the early modern and modern periods. This language has only been reproduced with the intention of understanding how such language was used in the past to classify and categorise.

On pronouns. It is impossible to definitively state which pronouns the subjects of this article would have used, or if they would have had an explicit preference. When discussing people who displayed a fluid gender, ‘they/them’ pronouns have been used. When discussing people who showed a firmer preference for one or the other, the appropriate ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’ has been used.


A correct portrait of Ann Jane Thornton, as she appeared in her cabin boy’s dress (c.1832), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (34). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/correct-portrait-ann-jane-thornton-as-she/docview/2823535365/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 21 August 2023]

Abigail Mary Allen, pretended wife of James Allen (c. 1829), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (19). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/abigail-mary-allen-pretended-wife-james-shelfmark/docview/2823535339/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 28 August 2023]

‘Chronicle,’ in Burke, Edmund, The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year (1836). https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Annual_Register_Or_A_View_of_the_His/oXsEAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0 [accessed 22 August 2023]

Chevalier D’Eon (1810), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (26). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/chevalier-deon-shelfmark-humans-4-26/docview/2823535566/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 28 August 2023]

Hannah Snell (1789), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (31). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/hannah-snell-born-at-worcester-1723-shelfmark/docview/2823535254/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 28 August 2023]

Kirby, R. S., Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum vol. 6 (1820). https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9sccAQAAIAAJ&newbks=0&source=gbs_navlinks_s [accessed 17 August 2023]

La Chevaliere D’Eon (1791), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (22b). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/la-chevaliere-deon-shelfmark-humans-4-23b/docview/2823535242/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 28 August 2023]

Mary Anne Talbot, otherwise John Taylor, (1804), Oxford, Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Humans 4 (33b). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/mary-anne-talbot-otherwise-john-taylor-shelfmark/docview/2823535453/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 28 August 2023]

Miss Theodora de Verdion the walking bookseller, and teacher of languages, dressed as a man, (c. 1770-1802), Humans 4 (28). https://www.proquest.com/pamphlets-ephemeral-works/miss-theodora-de-verdion-walking-bookseller/docview/2823535500/se-2?accountid=13042 [accessed 28 August 2023]

Batey, Charles and Julie Anne Lambert, ‘Johnson, John de Monins’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34203 [accessed 1 September 2023]

Manion, Jen, Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge, 2020)

Manion, Jen, ‘Female husbands’, Aeon (2020). https://aeon.co/essays/may-we-all-be-so-brave-as-19th-century-female-husbands [accessed 16 August 2023]

Not Just the Tudors, ‘Transgender Fairies in Early Modern Literature’ (2023), History Hit, podcast. https://shows.acast.com/not-just-the-tudors/episodes/transgender-fairies-in-early-modern-literature [accessed 28 August 2023]

Wheelwright, Julie, ‘Snell, Hannah [alias James Gray]’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2017). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/25975 [accessed 21 August 2023]

Wheelwright, Julie, ‘Talbot, Mary Anne [alias John Taylor]’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/26935 [accessed 21 August 2023]

Wheelwright, Julie, ‘Thornton, Anne Jane’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/49664 [accessed 22 August 2023]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.