Arcadia in the Gutter: The case of George Campbell, the Shepherdess, and Victorian Drag Balls



In 1854, London was scandalized by the “suspicious case” of George Campbell and John Challis, who were brought before a magistrate accused of disguising themselves as women for the purposes of “exciting others to commit an unnatural offence.”  One can imagine the murmurs of disapprobation and the twitch of the magistrate’s whiskers as 35-year-old Campbell appeared before the bar “completely equipped in female attire of the present day.”

To be “completely equipped” would naturally involve corsets and layers of crinolines. 1854 fashions demanded petticoats be supported by a giant cage of whalebone and cord of complex and weighty design.  The case later revealed Campbell allegedly sported the season’s other must-have accessory of a white veil, while sharing a brandy with Isaac Summers, a baker who accused Campbell of stealing 19s when he drew him into an embrace. Nevertheless, Campbell may well have been upstaged in court by the older Challis, who displayed an even more stunning outfit: the “pastoral garb of a shepherdess of the golden age.”  Details were not listed, but the description evokes images of billowing fabrics and an ancient Greek arcadia. One wonders if he still carried his crook.

The case affords a tantalizing glimpse into a so-called “underworld” about which historical sources are so often silent. Campbell and Challis frequented an unlicensed drinking spot, Druid’s Hall, where it transpired drag balls had been hosted for over a year. The police had interfered little until this time, as it was “very difficult to catch them in the act.”  While the case against Challis was dismissed on account of his poor health, Campbell mounted a spirited defence and gained the begrudging support of prosecutor Sir R.W. Corden. As they joined forces to outwit the police, the court must have been transfixed and not a little amused:

Campbell:  “I wish to ask the inspector another question.  Was I dancing when you entered the hall?”

Inspector Teague: You were not.  But afterward I saw you dancing with a man.

Campbell: How do you know it was a man?

Inspector Teague: Because he had a beard and whiskers.

Sir R.W. Corden: That is no criterion, for Campbell has ringlets and yet he is not a woman.

Campbell: I had but one dance all evening and that was with an elderly lady who knew what I was.

Indeed, as the case against Campbell disintegrated, his banter with the prosecutor Corden bordered upon flirtatious:

Sir R.W. Corden: There is no evidence, Campbell, with regard to the dress and the white veil, and I therefore think Summers must have made a mistake. The charge against you is consequently dismissed.

Campbell: Will you grant me a private interview?

Sir R.W. Corden: No, certainly not (laughter).

Although the sitting magistrate was inclined to commit Campbell to prison as a rogue and a vagabond, his mind was swayed by Corden’s intervention on Campbell’s behalf. Corden stated that Campbell had been merely “indulging in extraordinary freaks.”  So Campbell went free, despite the fact he had been tried under a false name. He admitted he was really called Edward Holmes, although he denied further allegations that he was a minister of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, claiming he was trained as a lawyer.

Robert Downey Jr. sports Victorian drag in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Pic from

There our knowledge of Campbell/Holmes’ story ends, an articulate and educated cross-dressing man, who wished to sample the “joys of London life.” All other details we can glean about Victorian drag balls come from similar cases of regulation and persecution, such as a raid in Manchester in 1880 where a man dressed as a nun unwittingly admitted the police to a fancy dress party. All forty-seven attendees were men, twenty of whom were “attired in character as females.”  Indeed, patterns of regulation and prosecution dominate historical knowledge of same-sex relations and sexual “deviance,” particularly prior to the evolution of more coherent sub-cultures and the coining of the term “homosexuality” at the end of the nineteenth century. This often leaves us with a frustratingly skewed and narrow picture.

But for the men and women who enjoyed these occasions, the matter that we are now left guessing can only have been a good thing. The 1850s was a golden age of theatre and pantomime, and I for one would love to have read about “shepherdess” Challis and his companions’ costumes for a Christmas drag ball. But if they ever held such an occasion, we can only ever imagine, because the police must have had other business that night and they left them to party alone.

Sources: Daily News; Reynold’s Newspaper; The Times; Pall Mall Gazette; The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post; Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century by H.G.Cocks;  A History of English Costume by Iris Brook.

Kay Berrisford is a freelance historical researcher, who realized it was even more entertaining to make stories up and add a ton of fantasy, sex and BDSM fun. She loves writing stories set in any time and place where she can indulge her love for research while imagining two hot guys getting it on, but has particular passions for English folklore and the theatre. Her first novel, Bound for the Forest, an m/m historically-set paranormal romance, was published by Loose Id in September 2011. She is currently working on a novel about Herne the Hunter, and an m/m romance set in the Victorian theatre, both due to be published in 2012.

She lives in Hampshire, UK, with her beloved “other half” Chris. When they aren’t both madly working, they enjoy drinking wine, visiting castles and gorgeous countryside, and stalking cats and greenfinches.

To find out more, visit

Kay will be giving away one ebook copy of Bound to the Forest – simply leave a comment to be entered into the draw. Winners will be announced on Christmas Day.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

17. Which book featured a pig called Snowball?

24 Responses

  1. What a delight this story was. I had no idea. And such a cheeky bastard Campbell was. While I am sure that other similar court cases did not end as well, I am so pleased that Campbell got off, with Sir Cordon’s amused and terrific defense. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been an observer at that trial?

    • Thanks for reading 🙂 It was certainly a fascinating case to research, given the period and our preconceptions about it. The newspaper write up certainly seemed to hint at a bit of flirting/cheekiness, even if we can’t know quite what really happened.

  2. Fascinating story! Good on Campbell/Holmes…I was rooting for him. *g* I enjoy reading old court transcripts (I was thrilled when so much of that Old Bailey material went online), but it’s always best when it has a happy ending.

  3. I was pleased to find this tale had a happy ending too, but would love to see if I can glean any more info on Campbell/Holmes when I get some time. It would be fascinating to find out if he really was a man of the Church, as was alleged.

    Thank you so much for reading 🙂

  4. yeah definitely, this is positively intriguing! 🙂

  5. Fascinating story! Nice to see a little light relief in the court records – from what little I’ve seen of this sort of thing, they usually make for much more sombre reading.

    • Quite! When I was doing this research, I found enough depressing tales, but this one really stood out, which is why I thought it deserved to be told…and maybe researched more one day, I hope to do that soon 🙂

      Thanks for reading.

  6. I do wonder whetehr he eventually got his private interview.

    And oh to have seen pictures of this trial. I hope they were more alluring than Holmes/Downey.

    • Oh, me too — it was so tempting to turn this into fiction, but the real sources were so wonderful I wanted them to speak for themselves first 😀

      Haha, about the pic, me too — it was hideously difficult to find anything to suit, but I thought the current tie-in wasn’t a bad thing 😉

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  7. This is super. There are such wonderful, and tragic, stories in amongst the legal records. This one is nice because it seems to have been a quite good humoured case.

    • Thank you — and, yes, the case was surprisingly good humoured, given our many preconceptions about the era, another reason why original research is always so useful, and so fascinating 😀 😀 😀

      Thanks so much for reading 🙂

      • Matt Houlbrook mentions drag balls in “Queer London”. They used to be held quite regularly in the east end in the 1920s. I can really recommend that book, by the way. So many plot bunnies in it 😀

  8. I’ve heard of that one, but not yet had a good look at it — will move it to the top of my ‘to do’ list 🙂 Thanks!

  9. I do like that story.

  10. This is fascinating. And though it is of course sad that anyone shsould even be prosecuted for this sort of thing, it is also oddly comforting knowing that people had some place to be themselves.. given all the comments I get about gay people not existing until the 20th century.


    • Hi Nan, thanks so much for reading 🙂 Yes, same sex love has a very long history, and far more hints of forgotten culture can be traced than people even realize — good, old fashioned research often pays off, as it did here 😀 I sometimes wish we could write fiction with footnotes, just to pre-empt all the comments saying “that couldn’t happen” 😉

      • The funniest one I ever saw llike that was the woman who commented on one of Brandy Purdy’s Tudor novels… she was incensed that Purdy portrayed Elizabeth as not a Virgin anywmore Queen. Poor Purdy got a lot of grief for the gay characters in “The Boleyn Wife”.

        I was just thinking today that those of us who write M/M and gay historical fiction ought to set up a web site where we all collect this wonderful info.


    • Oh, and just been to your website — wow!! So much I want to read and find out about 😀 😀 😀

    • Nan — I think your suggestion for a site is splendid, and love that your blog is already devoted to debunking some of the assumptions and myths 😀 😀 😀

      *christmas hugs*

      • I know that the software for Wikis is free.. maybe I’ll go learn more about it and how its works.. we can create our own gay history and historical fiction wiki. I know i’m willing to spearhead if no one else has her or his heart set on such a thing.. or there is not something like it already. I just love this sort of work.

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