On This Day – from a Welsh newspaper 23 January, 1829
“The following particulars have been collected relative to the female who styled herself James Allen, and upon whose body an inquest was held a few days since. The woman who had been married to the deceased has produced the certificate, by which it appeared that it was solemnised at Camberwell church, on the 13th day of December, 1808. Previous to its having taken place, the deceased lived as a groom in the service of a Mr. Wood, No. 6, Camberwell-terrace.
Our informant, Mary Allen, was also housemaid in the same gentleman’s family, and it was while living there she first became acquainted with the deceased, who was at that time considered a smart and handsome young man, and an excellent groom, doing all the work belonging to the situation quite to the satisfaction of the gentleman with whom he acted in that capacity. Mary Allen remained a housemaid with Mr. Wood for three years, and it was at the latter part of this period the deceased began to be extremely attentive to her, and was viewed in the light of a lover by Mary: who at length consented, at the earnest entreaties of the deceased, to be married.
The matrimonial alliance took place between the parties at the time above specified, and from the church they retired together to a house called the Bull, in Gray’s Inn Lane, where they slept; very soon after they had retired to bed the bridegroom was taken ill, and continued or pretended to be so the remainder of the night. Previous to the marriage the deceased had lived in the service of Alderman Atkins as groom, and with other gentlemen in the same capacity. Subsequently to the marriage Mary Allen went back to service, and the deceased was hired into the service of Mr. Lonsdale, of Maze-hill, Blackheath, and stayed there some time, during which period the new-married couple seldom saw each other, but carried on an epistolary correspondence, in which the deceased always wrote most affectionately to the bride, addressing her in all the endearing terms of a wife, and concluding his letters by subscribing himself the bride’s most loving and affectionate husband until death.
They were absent from each other eight months and, at the expiration of that period, the deceased prevailed on the bride, Mary Allen, to throw up her situation, and both live together as man and wife. Mary consented and at this period the deceased, having accumulated some money, became landlord of a public house called the Sun, at Baldock, in Hertfordshire, and was getting on most prosperously in business until their house was broken into one night, and robbed of all the money they possessed.
After this misfortune it appears the deceased gave up the business and came to London with his wife, and took lodgings in the neighbourhood of Dock-head. Here the deceased determined to work as a labourer, and obtained employment in a shipwright’s yard, as a pitch-boiler. During the time the deceased was in this situation her sex was never discovered by any of the men with whom she laboured, and with whom she was in the constant practice of associating. When she left the above situation she got employment in the yards of other shipwrights, and was always considered a sober, steady, strong, and active man; there was rather a peculiarity in the tone of her voice which subjected her to the raillery of the men with whom she worked, but they never for a moment thought that she was of any other than the male sex. The deceased also worked in a vitriol manufactory previous her having entered the service of Mr. Crisp, at Dockhead, in whose employ she had worked for a considerable time preceding the accident which deprived her of life. The woman to whom the deceased was married, on being questioned as to whether she knew her sex, declared most positively that she never did.
The deceased was described as of rather an ill temper, and expressed strong resentment against the poor woman to whom she was married whenever the latter noticed a man particularly. Upon those occasions the deceased never failed to act the part of the jealous husband and has often inflicted corporeal chastisement on the wife when she considered that she was not conducting herself as she ought to do. The deceased person, Mary Allen, as she had been called ever since the solemnization of marriage, assigns for not disclosing her suspicions relative to the sex of the deceased to her friends, that it was in consideration of her generally kind and affectionate behaviour towards her for the deceased worked early and late for their subsistence, and the labour she was employed at could not be performed, except by a person of uncommon strength of body, which the deceased possessed to an extraordinary degree.
The deceased generally dressed in sailors’ clothes, like hipwrights, and always wore thick flannel waistcoats, which extended from the neck down to the hips. She also wrapped a bandage of linen over her chest, for the sham purpose of protecting her from the cold, as she was in the habit of being much exposed to cold and wet, after working over her knees in water, when engaged in clearing out the ways – that is, clearing a part of a shipwright’s yard of the mud collected on the receding of the tide.
The deceased was of a most ingenious turn, and was a very expert carpenter, in addition to her other qualifications: in fact, as Mary Allen describes, she could turn her hand to anything. During the whole period they lived together, Mary Allen never heard of any relatives belonging to the deceased, who at one time stated that she was born at Yarmouth, but as to whether this was true or not there was no evidence, no person coming forward who knew the deceased previous to the time she had adopted the garb of man, and laboured in that character. Subsequently to the examination, the body of the deceased was placed in a coffin, and conveyed to the lodgings of Mary Allen, who appeared greatly affected at the death of her “lord.” The former seems to be in very indignant circumstances, and can scarcely scrape up money enough to pay the undertaker for the expenses of interment. It appears that the deceased was a member of a benefit club for many years, and regularly paid up her arrears to the society. Since her decease, however, some demur has been made to the benefits arising from the society, on the ground that the deceased had been all along imposing on it, by representing herself as a man, and always appearing in the character of one when she attended their meetings.
Since the publication of the inquest on the body of the deceased, no person has come forward who knew her previously to her having adopted the garb of a man, and the circumstances which caused her to endeavour to conceal her sex will never be discovered.
The deceased appears to have been an interesting looking girl; her limbs were well proportioned; and the only thing of a masculine character that we observed about her was her hands, which were large, and the flesh extremely hard, owing to the work which she performed for so many years.”
(Image: Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. “Portrait of Abigail Allen. Portrait of the female husband!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7a0064ce-e99e-060b-e040-e00a180672b8)