LBU Together

Jenny has gone for a soldier: cross-dressing women in the British army, c.1814-1915

Throughout history, women have shaped the human experience and transformed our world culturally, socially and politically.

Published on 02 Mar 2021
Old Broadcasting House, City Campus

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the achievements of progressive women who broke down gender barriers throughout history to give the women of tomorrow the opportunity to progress and fulfil their unique potential. However, some stories remain less well known. To celebrate this year’s IWD, this blog post will uncover some of the difficulties faced by trans/non gender conforming individuals and their treatment within the armed forces over the long nineteenth century.

In 2018, women were finally allowed to serve in all combat roles in the British Army, the culmination of over a century of being involved in auxiliary roles throughout the services. However, over the last 200 years there have been a number of documented examples of women passing for men in order to serve in the British Army and Royal Navy. In this blog we will explore the stories of two such individuals.

The extraordinary individuals we have chosen are great examples of brave women who ventured into unseen territories that very few women had seen before them. The first of them, James Barry, was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, but presented as male from the age of ten. Barry went on to establish himself as a well-respected figure in the military medical professional field, reaching the rank of Inspector General in charge of Military Hospitals.

The second figure is that of Dorothy Lawrence When war was declared in 1914 Lawrence was living in Paris, and by 1915 she had returned to France where she disguised herself as a man to join the war effort. She entered the Royal Engineers under the name of Denis Smith and served at the front for a short period of ten days before her identity was uncovered. Unlike Barry, Lawrence’s end was bitter. Despite her willingness and desire to fight for her country, her bravery was dismissed as a “prank” that caused bother to numerous officers. Lawrence spent most of her adult years in London County Mental Hospital and Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.

Introduction to their lives and achievements 

James Barry (1799-1865) was an army medical officer, remembered for his medical reforms and performing the first successful Caesarean section, when stationed in Africa. Born in Cork, Ireland, as Margaret Ann Bulkley, Margaret took on a new identity as James Barry in 1809. After qualifying as a doctor in 1812, the following year James became an army surgeon. As part of the British army, Barry travelled across the British Empire, serving first in South Africa.

Throughout his lifetime, James Barry kept his biological sex a secret within both his public and private life, identifying only as a man. It is believed that this was in order to be accepted both as a university student and as an army medical officer. Following Barry’s death in 1865, Barry was announced to have had the anatomy of a female. From this discovery ‘speculation and scandal began to spread’. For a woman in the 1800s to have deceived the army and had this level of education was perceived as wrong. However, due to Barry’s high voice and build those who knew him weren’t surprised and some had even already guessed the truth.

Although James Barry was well-respected and was able to keep his sex a secret, Dorothy Lawrence was unable to keep hers hidden. Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964) was an English journalist who posed as a male soldier. Similarly to Barry, Lawrence took on the role as a man to join the British army. In order to experience the effect of the war first-hand, Lawrence joined the army at 19 years old and fought in the trenches during World War I. She flattened her chest with a corset, cut her hair and convinced a pair of British soldiers to smuggle her a uniform. Dorothy Lawrence snuck through French lines and established herself among the French army, and later got through the British front at Albert. This is where she got her name “Sapper Dorothy Lawrence” as a member of the Royal Engineers, where she claimed to have done tunnelling work.

In her auto-biography - Sapper Dorothy Lawrence, the Only English Woman Soldier – she wrote about her personal experience as a soldier. Lawrence wrote, ‘that I endured insects, heat, delayed baths and vigilant gendarmes’ (Lawrence, 1919, p. 37). Dorothy was able to remain undercover for almost two weeks before the physical and mental stress of the war damaged her health and her sex was discovered by her superiors. Lawrence was suspected of espionage for her short height and high voice on numerous occasions. She was later court martialled at 3rd Army Headquarters at ST. Omer and sent back to England. Lawrence was eventually committed to an asylum where she spent the rest of her life in care.


Today, in comparison to Dr James Barry, Dorothy Lawrence is largely unheard of outside of the area where she lived for some of her life. It’s hard to find any mention of her in national publications, except for her autobiography which was reprinted in 2018. It was the Wiltshire at War project, that marked the centenary of the First World War, which helped to bring her story out of the shadows at a regional level. Lawrence’s story also formed part of the Heroine's Project in 2017. Today, Lawrence is often remembered as the brave woman who put her life on the line to serve her country, but whom the world sadly forgot after she died in an asylum. 

Both Lawrence and Barry share a place in history as feminist heroes. James Barry continues to attract international attention long after his death. Type his name into Google, and you’ll find a wealth of information and publications about this mysterious character whose life remains shrouded in mystery.  Barry has his own Wikipedia page and a Green plaque on the house where he lived in London. He is often portrayed as having had multiple identities. Barry is now recognised as the UK’s first female-born qualified doctor. He was a skilled and dedicated surgeon; but also a woman who was in charge of her own destiny and chose to live her life as a man.  
Societal views of trans-men and women have drastically changed over time. In 2014, after years of fighting for equal treatment, all members of the LGBTQIA+ communities can apply to serve in the UK armed forces without fear of discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.  As The Guardian reported in February 2021, ‘Thousands of British military personnel who were dismissed on grounds of homosexuality will be able to have their service medals restored’ (Guardian, 16/02/21). The twenty-first century is finally acknowledging historical injustices towards people such as Dorothy Lawrence and James Barry and acknowledging their services to the country.