The story of Jockey John
In the eighteenth century St Mary’s Workhouse, situated on the site of the current Victoria Bus Station, was a grim place to pass your last years, described at the time as ‘dank, verminous, ill-ventilated and utterly unable to accommodate the 168 inmates’.
Jockey John was one of these unfortunate residents who died there in 1797. John had been a jockey and groom for Sir Harry Harper, and according to many local women the father of several illegitimate children. Image the authority’s surprise when John’s body was laid out, for they found that he was a she!
We know very little about John’s life so we can only speculate on why she passed as a man. We know that women did cross dress as men at this time – often joining the army or going to sea – their reasons were personal, financial or social. Some found passing as men provided freedom from social norms, access to better paid work, allowed them to work in a particular occupation, to avoid wedlock, or to be safe from male predators. Perhaps they were lesbian and wanted to be safe in their relationships or maybe they simply identified as male.
We can only speculate on John’s motivation, but the fact that he was accused of being a father suggests that he did have relationships with women. Even after his career was over he chose to remain in a male role, which suggests that he was happy to identify as a man.
We may not know the answer but it’s important to recognise our communities hidden history.
Old and new Nottingham, Wylie William Howie (1853)
Nottingham Heritage Gateway