The Importance of NOT being Ernest


Edinburgh, capital city of my beloved Scotland, was a strictly Presbyterian and sabbatarian place in the late 1860s.  No doubt then a lovely young lady walking along the main thorougfare of Princes Street with soft, feminine features, pretty blonde tresses beneath a bonnet, carrying a frilled parasol, wearing a dress which hugged a shapely figure, and sporting a small bustle as was the fashion of the times, would have injected a little light and colour into the otherwise dour lives of the citizens, and not a few raised eyebrows and disapproving tuts to boot.  Not least of these however was one such young lady by the name of Stella Boulton who stayed in Princes Street for six month in 1869.  You see dears, Stella was in fact Ernest Boulton, a female impersonator stage performer, who also openly crossdressed in public, carried on affairs with men, and who went on to scandalise Victorian Edinburgh.

Scots author Neil McKenna has outlayed the story of Ernest / Stella Boulton and his friend Frank “Fanny” Park, in his new book Fanny & Stella of how they came to be charged and how the careers of a Post Office Manager and a United States Consul were destroyed through association with them.

Ernest Boulton came to Edinburgh to recuperate after an operation at the behest of an admirer, Louis Hurt, who met him while the two were working for the Post Office in London.  It was here that Ernest really appears to have fully taken on the persona of Stella.  As such, she found Hurt pretty boring.  He was not into crossdressing at all and wanted Stella to appear more manly, and even grow a moustache.  Nonetheless, whilst Hurt in his position as a manager toured rural post offices, Stella went with him, even up to Thurso and Wick, the two northernmost towns on the Scottish mainland.

Back in Edinburgh it seems Stella, whose features were indeed feminine, could get away with appearing in public as a woman, although some things did give her away.  While most of Scots society refused to believe homosexuality of any kind even existed in the UK, but must have come from the European continent – more of which later – she nevertheless found herself widely accepted as something of a curiosity by some.  She was also to discover a hidden subculture in the Scots capital and soon there was no shortage of “gentleman callers” at Hurt’s lodgings in what was then the most prestigious street in the whole of Scotland.  What Hurt’s landlady, who would not even allow “weekday tunes” to be played on the piano on a Sunday, thought of this one can only wonder.

There was the rough and ready John Jameson Jim, “Honest” Jack from Musselburgh (a town neighbouring Edinburgh to the east), and a counter assistant from Kensington and Jenners Store (now Jenners; it was and remains the most up-market store in Scotland).  There was also a Mr John Safford Fiske, US consul to Edinburgh and Leith.

Fiske was living at the time in nearby George Street, parallel to and then equally as prestigious as Princes Street, and his life consisted of attending social functions and arranging his marriage to an American heiress whom it was planned would come to Edinburgh to meet him.  It seems however he was marrying purely out of duty and to hide his homosexuality, as many gay men did do right up until it was no longer illegal in the UK.  He had liaisons with two brothers, Donald and Robbie Sinclair, who introduced him to Stella, and from the moment he met her, Fiske was captivated.  The two entered into an affair, apparently highly sexual in nature, and exchanged love letters, telegrams and even photographs (gay porn is nothing new dears), including some of Fiske in female attire.

Stella returned to London to continue her stage career with Fanny Park but she and Fiske kept up their correspondence.  On 28 April 1870 however, Boulton and Park were arrested in London on charges of indecency.  When John Fiske learned of this, he burned all of the correspondence he had received from Stella Boulton.  However, the Metropolitan Police in London had his correspondence to her, including an explicit love letter written 12 days before Boulton’s arrest, in which he stated he still had 11 photographs of Stella and four notes from her.  The long arm of the law was soon to reach all the way up to Edinburgh.

Fiske hoped the US Consulate would protect him and said the letter was “just foolishness”.  His protestations however fell on deaf ears and Inspector James Thompson of the Metropolitan Police wired Detective Officer Roderick Gollan of the Edinburgh City Police, requesting that he search John Fiske’s home.   In the subsequent search Gollan found three letters and two telegrams from Louis Hurt, and a number of photographs of young men in compromising positions.  Gollan asked Fiske if there was anything else and knowing the game was up, he handed over a box full of more such photographs (I’m wondering who the photographer was dears).  He was taken into custody and eventually taken to London to face trial.

Louis Hurt meanwhile, when the story broke, feared the worst and requested leave from the Edinburgh Post Master General. This was granted, although the latter asked for him to provide a full written explanation of “his relations with the young men in women’s clothes”.  Hurt knew that the police must have found compromising letters from him too.  Wanting to know the full extent of the damage, he did the worst thing he could have done; he went to London, where he was promptly arrested.

Had John Fiske and Louis Hurt kept their nerve, then their careers may have been saved.  For in a bizarre twist, all four men were acquitted.  The legal profession simply could not believe that such acts could take place on British soil, and even wondered if this penchant for dressing in womens clothes and committing homosexual acts came from France believe it or not.  This was the Britain of the days of the Empire upon which the sun never set; a Britain of real men and it could not be let known that in such a Britain any man could be seen as effeminate.  And it really was upon that basis apparently that Boulton, Parke, Hurt and Fiske were all set free.

Stella Boulton went back to her stage act, and even toured the United States.  Whether it were with or without Fanny Park is not recorded.  The damage to Hurt and Fiske however could not be healed.  Louis Hurt travelled Europe afterwards, hoping to escape notoriety.  Eventually he settled in Vienna, where he became a teacher of English and where he died in 1836, aged 91.  John Fiske, his diplomatic career completely shattered as well as ambitions for Washington DC (and his gold-digging sham marriage), went to Italy where he lived and spent his time painting and cultivating his garden.  Apparently his photos of Stella became part of the “Linlithgowshire Rogues Gallery” and are now in the hands of Edinburgh City Libraries.  I’ve just got to try to see those dears.

Those are just the bare bones of the story, which I thought would interest you to show you that crossdressing is by no means a new phenomenon, and that the Victorian age was far from as staid and upright (or cisgender and heterosexual) as we have been led to believe.

I have ordered the book Fanny & Stella by Neil McKenna from my local library darlings, and once I’ve read it I shall tell you more.




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