05 September 2019

My Girl Bill: A Transgender Celebrity in 1906 Brisbane

People in mid-1906 Brisbane were somewhat startled to discover that Bill Edwards, a popular young man who had been living and working among them for the previous year, was not all he seemed. Bill, as it turned out, was actually a woman named Marion... and wanted by the Victorian Police.

The Herald (Melbourne), 10 October 1906

Marion Edwards was born in 1874 at Murchison, Victoria, to a Welsh-born blacksmith and his Scottish wife. It has been suggested that her father was the role model for Marion's male 'persona'. Her own account of her early life - the memoir Life and Adventures of Marion-Bill-Edwards (Melbourne, 1907?) - is thought to be rather fanciful. According to that publication, she worked on her uncle's farm on the Goulburn River, and then as a waitress, and 'refused offers of marriage and 'made hot love' to women'. Also listed in her resumé were the jobs of French polisher, store assistant, and wool sorter.

It was around 1896 that she decided to dress and live as a male, claiming that doing so earned her more money (a move that has resonance even today). Her career after that time - if her memoir is to be believed - included entertaining troops in Africa during the Boer War as a female impersonator, and delivering horses to India.

Then she got 'married' on New Year's Day 1900 (as 'William Ernest Edwards') at St Francis's Catholic Church, Melbourne, to 30-year-old widow Lucy Minihan. Edwards later claimed this was only a marriage of convenience, and they separated soon afterwards. 

Marion fled to Brisbane in April 1905 after being arrested for burglary in Collingwood. She had been caught in the Studley Arms Hotel (dressed as a man) at 3 a.m., although she claimed she was trying to catch a prowler. She was arrested and charged as a male, but apparently was afraid that her gender would be revealed during a trial, so she left for Queensland. A woman 'claiming to be her wife' had put up bail of £50, and subsequently spent a month in prison for her alleged husband's default.

She worked at various jobs in Brisbane, including as a barman at the Ekka in August 1906. By this time, the local Criminal Investigation Branch knew that the Bill Edwards who had fled Melbourne was now working in Brisbane bars, and suspicion fell on the small man who - to the trained eye of Detective Donnelly - was wearing a disguise. He confronted 'Bill', who promptly confessed everything and was taken into custody in September.

Word soon got around, and her appearance in the courts at Elizabeth Street caused a sensation. As she arrived in a prison van, the road was lined with many curious men, women and children, while others had positioned themselves outside the courtroom. When the doors opened, there was;
"...the unusual sight... of respectably-dressed women jostling with men and boys, in their endeavour to get a glimpse of the notorious female. The corridors likewise were the scene of a surging mass of people, who maintained a constant pressure towards the courtroom doorways, through which only a fortunate few had an opportunity of witnessing the proceedings inside. On the side veranda men scrambled on to the window sills, and the railings, determined not to be baffled in their curiosity." (The Week, 12 October 1906)
Marion was called into court later:
'She came in smiling, and was dressed as on her previous appearance namely, in a neat fitting suit of navy blue serge. She carried a brown felt hat, and her short light brown hair was nicely parted. Her collar and shirt cuffs, as before, were spotlessly clean, and altogether she looked a rather attractive youth.' (The Week, 12 October 1906)

Truth (Brisbane), 30 September 1906

While she was awaiting transfer back to Melbourne, Marion spent a fortnight in Boggo Road prison where she would have been wearing the female inmate uniform and was reportedly popular with the staff there.

Even when she left Brisbane by steamer there were animated scenes at the Adelaide Steamship Company's wharf, with crowds still jostling to catch a glimpse of her;
"Amongst those who gave Marion a hearty farewell in the fore cabin of the Wollowra were several of her woman friends, These, perhaps, had a motive far greater than mere curiosity, but the same cannot be said of the majority of the men and small boys who lounged about in the expectation of being able to see her before the vessel left the wharf. Many of them forced their way into the cabin, in fact, so great was the number who streamed down the companion-way that Water-Police Constable Tuesley was stationed at the foot of the stairway in order to prevent the people blocking the entrance." (Brisbane Telegraph, 10 October 1906)
The celebrity treatment continued after her return to Melbourne, and after she was found not guilty of burglary in her November 1906 trial she took full advantage of the publicity, releasing her memoir (complete with photos of her posing in male and female clothing), and then performing appearing as a sharpshooter in an exhibition between film shows at the Fitzroy Cyclorama. A likeness of her was installed a local waxworks exhibition, billed as 'The Far-famed Male Impersonator'.

A depiction of Marion in the Truth (Brisbane)
newspaper, 4 March 1951.

The 1910s proved to be the peak of Marion's fame, and over the following decades she seemed to work in a variety of situations. A 1927 newspaper article referred to her as a pony trainer at Port Melbourne, while during the 1930s she was living in West Melbourne, still wearing male clothing, and at different times working in hotels, factories, iron foundries, and as a starting price bookmaker. She was listed on electoral rolls as a dyer.

In her old age she was placed in the Mount Royal Geriatric Home, where the staff forced her to dress in women's clothes. Marion died in March 1956 at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was incorrectly stated on her death certificate that she was Sarah Isobel, also known as Marion Edwards, an actress. It was perhaps a sad ending to a life she had determinedly lived on her own terms. Her experiences as an object of frenzied attention in Brisbane certainly say a lot about the social norms of the times, as she wouldn't have raised an eyebrow today. She was something of a pioneer, and her life was the subject of the play In Male Attire, performed in Melbourne in 1984.