One of the challenges of uncovering LGBTQ+ histories is that we can’t go back and ask the individuals in question how they would define or describe their identities. Concepts of gender and sexuality have changed throughout history, and the labels we use today would probably make little sense to someone from the past.
However, what is clear from the glimpses that have reached us - from Princess Seraphina, who was assigned male at birth but lived as a woman, to Mary Frith, who dressed in men's clothing but retained her female identity - is that then as now, gender was not a simple binary.
Dressing in men's clothing
Many, many stories of crossdressing women were reported in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There was even a craze for ballads, chapbooks, and plays about 'warrior women'.
Phoebe Hessel and Hannah Snell apparently disguised themselves as men to follow their lovers into the army, several 'female husbands' were reported to have married women for either money or love, and many people who lived and worked as men were only discovered after death to have been assigned female at birth.
Whether they lived as men purely to access opportunities for work, travel, pleasure, love, civic participation, or personal safety which were denied to women, or as a form of gender expression, or a mixture of both, in most cases we'll never truly know.
Mary East to James How
The Chronicle begins by explaining that in the early 1730s Mary East (aged 16) and her sadly unnamed female friend (aged 17) decided to throw their lot in together after unhappy love affairs with men. They devised a plan:
being intimate, they communicated their minds to each other, and determined to live together ever after; after consulting on the best method of proceeding, they agreed that one should put on man’s apparel, and that they would live as man and wife in some part where they were not known; the difficulty now was who was to be the man, which was soon decided by the toss up of a halfpenny, and the lot fell on Mary East... Mary, after purchasing a man’s habit, assumed the name of James How...
Who knows how much of this is true. The love affairs with men, the coin toss... It may be completely accurate, but it also conveniently frames the following story in a non-threatening heteronormative and cisnormative way, in line with the dominant ideas of the time. It is perfectly possible that the two women were lovers, and that Mary took on a male identity because she wanted to.
The White Horse pub on Poplar High Street
However they got started, Mr and Mrs How lived together for over three decades, and ran a succession of taverns at Epping, then Limehouse, and finally the White Horse on Poplar High Street, where "James Howes" is recorded as the landlord in 1745.
An archaeological dig in 2004 revealed that a tavern existed on the site in Poplar from at least 1690. It was rebuilt in 1870 and 1928 (here is a photograph from the 1930s) before finally closing for good in 2003 when it was demolished.
On the site of the pub, on the corner of Poplar High Street and Saltwell Street, there is a block of flats and a post with the white horse from the pub sign which you can see in the picture above gazing towards Canary Wharf.
Mr and Mrs How
Apart from a quarrel with a young gentleman at Epping which left James with an injured hand and £500 in damages, Mr and Mrs How's lives were largely peaceful and prosperous. As Bram Stoker puts it they "throve exceedingly", managing to save money and buy more properties, and winning the respect of their community:
James lived with his supposed wife in good credit, and had served all the parish offices in Poplar, excepting constable and churchwarden, from the former of which she was excused by a lameness in her hand, occasioned by the quarrel I have mentioned; the other she was to have been next year, if this discovery had not happened; she had been several times foreman of juries; though her effeminacy indeed was remarked by most.
(Although women did hold parish offices in the 18th century, they were not permitted to sit on juries in England until 1919.)
Despite their good standing and friendly relations with their neighbours, for many years Mr and Mrs How lived a quiet, private life:
It is remarkable that it has never been observed that they ever drest a joint of meat in their whole lives, nor ever had any meetings or the like at their house. They never kept either maid or boy, but Mary East, the late James How, always used to draw beer, serve, fetch in and carry out pots always herself, so peculiar were they in each particular.
Extortion and exposure
In addition to the mysterious quarrel in Epping, there were other troubling incidents which disturbed their peace, as the couple were blackmailed by confidantes and old acquaintances.
According to the Chronicle, in 1766 Mrs How became gravely ill while staying in the country, and on her deathbed confided in her friend the truth about her relationship with James. The friend promptly visited the (presumably grieving) James How, and "insisted not only on their share of the whole effects, but more."
Shortly after his wife's death, James How was targeted by a Mrs B. who had been blackmailing the couple on and off over the years for sums like £10 and £5. This time Mrs B. hired two male accomplices who pretended to be heavies working for Justice John Fielding.
The pair accosted James at the pub and pretended to take him into custody for a (fictional) robbery committed decades before, making it clear that they knew James was really a woman, and demanding £100 or else he would be hanged.
Terrified, James turned to one of his neighbours for help:
an intimate acquaintance, one Mr. Williams, a Pawnbroker, happened to be passing by, she called to him, and told him the business those two men came about, and withal added this declaration to Mr. Williams, 'I am really a woman, but innocent of their charge': on this sincere confession he told her she should not be carried to Fielding, but go before her own bench of Justices, that he would just step home, put on a clean shirt, and be back in five minutes
While Mr Williams was gone the heavies dragged James back to Mrs B., who forced him to write out a bank draft for £100, to be collected from Mr Williams. However, when Mrs B. and one of her accomplices went to Mr Williams to collect the money shortly afterwards, they found that they had walked into a trap and were taken into custody themselves by a real constable.
James How to Mary East
The extortionists appeared before Justices of the Peace in Whitechapel and after "the strongest proof of their extortion and assault" were denied bail and detained in Clerkenwell Bridewell prison to await trial. Bram Stoker records that the male accomplice at least was imprisoned for four years.
James How attended the hearing (with Mr Williams) as Mary East, dressed in women's clothing, which apparently caused a stir among the crowd:
the alteration of her dress from that of a man to that of a woman appeared so great, that together with her awkward behaviour in her new assumed habit, caused great diversion to all...
After the hearing Mary East apparently lived the rest of her life as a woman. She died on 8 June 1780, leaving money to relatives, friends, and the poor of Poplar, and was buried in the churchyard of St Matthias'.
Although all that survives of the White Horse is the sign, and there are no remnants of the pub as Mr and Mrs How knew it, their bittersweet story still fascinates and inspires.
Songs From The Howling Sea, a musical project by R.M. Anderson drawing on east London's history, includes a song about the couple. An imagined portrait of the couple also appears in Ria Brodell's fantastic Butch Heroes series of paintings. They look peaceful, fat, and contented, which is how I like to think of them too.
- Rictor Norton. Ed. "Mary East, the Female Husband", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 6 December 2003
- Look Up London - Mary East, landlord of the White Horse
- Isle of Dogs Life - The story of Mary East by Bram Stoker
- UK Pub History Site - White Horse, 11 High Street, Poplar
- London Lives 1690-1800 - Justices of the Peace and the Pre-Trial Process
- The Historian - Petticoat Politicians: Women and the Politics of the Parish in England (PDF)
- First 100 Years - Women on the Jury