Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: A shocking case of deception

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: The British Empire learns of an astonishing case of deception in the Army.

IT WAS A STORY THAT ECHOED round the world and raised many unanswerable questions. How could a woman pass herself off as a man and live her entire life in disguise? And not only live but rise to a position of eminence in the exclusively male worlds of the Army and the medical profession? Those questions are only now being answered in detail; when the news first broke, they presented an insoluble mystery.

On Monday 14 August 1865, newspaper front pages in Britain and Ireland were taken up with Queen Victoria’s visit to Germany, an impending financial crisis (some things are with us always), a mysterious double murder at Ramsgate, and a devastating “Cattle Plague” which was baffling veterinary surgeons. However, across the Irish Sea in Dublin, Saunders’s News-Letter and Daily Advertiser carried another remarkable story, nestled in a corner of its front page, which nobody else was yet reporting.


Morning Post

24 James Barry photo

Dr James Barry had been something of a sensation in his day – a prodigy who had taken his medical degree at only fourteen years old, who had become an Army surgeon and personal physician to Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony, before the age of twenty, and performed amazing ground-breaking operations. As a British Army surgeon he had served in many outposts of the British Empire – the Cape, Mauritius, Malta, Jamaica, Canada – rising gradually to the rank of Inspector General of Hospitals, before retiring in 1859 and settling in modest lodgings in London. Having lived a high life, spending to the limit of his means, his retirement was a meagre one. In late July 1865, he died of cholera.

A charwoman was employed to lay out the body ready for the undertakers. Dr Barry’s standing instruction that he must not be examined and must be buried in the clothes in which he died was ignored or forgotten. Stripping the corpse, the charwoman was astounded to discover that Dr Barry was a woman. She had the body of “a perfect female”, and moreover there were signs of her having borne a baby at a very young age. For more than fifty years James Barry had lived as a man – forty-six of them in the Army.

At first the charwoman kept her stunning and potentially scandalous discovery to herself. She attempted to blackmail the Army with the information, knowing what an outcry it would cause. However, the Army either disbelieved her or was not interested. The story got out. For reasons unknown, the first newspaper to pick up on it was Saunders’s News-Letter in Dublin, and they published it on their front page on Monday 14 August 1865. Their account was garbled and filled with inaccuracies (it claimed that Dr Barry had died in Corfu, where he had once been stationed), but the one salient point was entirely correct – Dr James Barry, celebrated surgeon, irascible eccentric, fighter of duels, ladies’ man, friend of aristocrats, had been a woman.

Within a few days the story had hopped back across the Irish Sea, and that weekend was reported in the London Morning Post. It rapidly spread across the country, from Cheltenham to Dunfermline. It ran beyond these shores to the many corners of the British Empire where James Barry had served and was remembered as a remarkable character.

In England the story made a particular impact in Whitehaven, Cumbria, where James Barry was well known as a close friend of the local landowner, the Earl of Lonsdale. The Whitehaven News, which was no friend of his lordship, was filled with glee. They wondered at the nature of Barry’s and Lonsdale's relationship, and whether the Earl had been in on the secret.

Whitehaven News

Nobody could answer that vital question – Who was she? A rash of speculation broke out. People who had known Dr Barry or who knew tales about him shared them; a folklore began to emerge. Charles Dickens wrote a potted biography of “Dr James” in his magazine All the Year Round, and decades later there were books and plays based on his extraordinary life. None knew the truth – that “Dr James Barry” was in fact an Irishwoman named Margaret Bulkley, who had disguised herself as a man in order to study medicine, with the ultimate goal of joining in the struggle for independence in Venezuela. It was a story far stranger than any of the speculative fantasies concocted by gossip.

Dr James Barry_4 crop

You can read the the whole story of James Barry’s incredible life and career in Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield, coming August 2016 from Oneworld Publications.

Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time has been selected for BBC Radio 2’s Fact Not Fiction Book Club – find out more and download a free extract.


Alone among British newspapers that week in 1865, only The Times disdained to report on the case of Dr Barry. Instead, on Friday 18 August 1865 they carried a sensational alternative, also headed “A STRANGE STORY”, and proving that James Barry’s was far from being the only amazing life in the Victorian age.

Times Norfolk News

Who knows; further research may uncover in this unnamed individual another character worthy of a sensational biography.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017