It’s a man!

Arthur Munby and pit brow lass Ellen Grounds in 1873
Photo: Trinity College

Arthur Munby was a lawyer and poet whose private life was ruled by an obsession that remained a secret until decades after his death, at which point his diaries and letters revealed all. For much of his adult life, unbeknownst to family and friends, Munby sought out, interviewed, photographed and drew the working class, “unbecoming” women of London, and in 1873, twenty years after first stopping her in the street armed with questions about her work, he secretly married a domestic servant named Hannah Cullwick. Munby’s diaries are filled with reports of his conversations with milk maids, prostitutes, miners, acrobats, and others, and of the sights he witnessed whilst on the lookout. The following entry, concerning a dancer named Madeleine Sinclair, was written in July of 1861.

The Diary Entry

Wednesday, 23 July

Home to the Temple at 6, and to Mudie’s. Coming thence along Oxford Street, I saw before me, striding along in company with an Italian organgrinder, a tall young man in full Highland costume; wearing a Glengarry bonnet, a scarlet jacket, a sporan and a tartan kilt & stockings, his legs bare from the knee to the calf. It was not a man—it was Madeleine Sinclair the street dancer, whom I used to see in a similar dress a year ago. She and her companion turned into a quiet street, and she danced a Highland fling to his music, in the midst of a curious crowd.

For no one could make out whether she was man or woman. Her hair and the set of her hips indeed were feminine; but her hard weatherstained face, her large bony hands, and her tall strong figure, became her male dress so well that opinions were about equally divided as to her sex. “It’s a man!” said one, confidently: “I believe it’s a woman”, another doubtfully replied. One man boldly exclaimed “Of course it’s a man; anybody can see that!” I gave her a sixpence when she came round with her tambourine; and she told me she had been in Paris five months for pleasure, and was now living on Saffron Hill, and dancing in the streets every day, always wearing her male clothes…

Further Reading

Arthur Munby’s detailed diaries are kept at Trinity College Library. In 1972, extracts were published by John Murray with the title MunbyMan of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828-1910, edited by Derek Hudson. Now out of print, second-hand copies can be found in the usual places.


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