The Mysterious Miss Muir: Actress and Model or Soldier and Thief?

View of Victoria Dock.  Lithograph dated c.1860.  © London Picture Archive

Tuesday March the 5th 1889, and a fashionably dressed young man was to be found in the region of the Royal Victoria and Albert Docks treating some sailors to a drink in exchange for their inside knowledge about ships that would shortly be sailing to the antipodes.  With the information provided he looked for stewards on two separate vessels and offered himself as an under-steward.  He was not in luck, as he lacked both a character reference and experience of cooking, prerequisites for a role that involved preparing meals, waiting and housekeeping for the crew and passengers.  Disappointed—and desperate—the young man decided that the only thing for it was to enlist in the army and be sent overseas.   

On the same morning Mrs Elizabeth Howell of 37 New Peter Street in Westminster was saying goodbye to her children as they headed off to school.  She heard a male voice calling for help from the lodger’s bedroom, and was startled, as the lodger was a young unmarried woman, an artist’s model by the name of Harriet Muir.  When she entered the room she saw no sign of Miss Muir, but in her place, with the blankets pulled securely up to his chin, was a young man.  With shame written all over his face he apologised for the fact that he was unable to get out of bed to greet her.  To do so, he explained, would be quite inappropriate, as he was naked save for his flannel vest.  At some point in the night, he went on, his clothes had disappeared, and with his clothes had disappeared Miss Muir.

LOOKING CLOSELY
Back to the smartly attired young man who was seen earlier lurking in the docks, and who now arrived at the recruiting office of St George’s Barracks at about one in the afternoon.  The barracks, which stood north of the National Galley and south of Orange Street, had been built in 1826, and housed a foot regiment.  More importantly, though, as the main recruiting depot in London it furnished a quarter of all army recruits.  In 1895, that is to say only a few years after our story, the specially selected recruiters would be paid between two shillings sixpence and five shillings for every able-bodied man they persuaded to join the army.  The lesser sum was for infantry regiment recruits. The greater for cavalrymen, guards and artillerymen.  

Photograph of recruiting sergeants in front of Westminster Abbey.  Image in Adolphe Smith and John Thomson Street Life in London (1877) between pages 8 and 9.

A Sergeant-Major Kelman was on duty that day, and he eyed the potential recruit, who, although of slim build with a soft girlish face, was a respectable five feet seven-and-a-half inches tall.  The young man, who identified himself as Richard Muir, a native of Scotland, explained with a blush that he was a medical student.  Kelman, an experienced and canny recruiter, was suspicious of the bashful Muir, and told him to see the army doctor.  Muir duly waited his turn.  Although he was now pink in the face, and clearly agitated, he was relying on rumours that an army desperate for recruits merely carried out a cursory inspection of hands and teeth.  In this he was wrong, for the doctor gave him a thorough examination, which quickly confirmed Kelman’s suspicions that “Richard” Muir was a woman. 

WE DO NOT APPROVE
At this point it might be assumed that Kelman would send the rejected recruit away with a flea in her ear for wasting his valuable time.  Instead a police constable was summoned to take Muir into custody.  As they walked down Hemming’s Way, a path linking Castle Street at the south end of the modern Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, a huge and boisterous crowd had gathered to see the shocking but titillating sight of a woman dressed in man’s clothing.  

An indication of contemporary attitudes can be found in Practical Etiquette, published in 1899, in which it is stated that

it is in very bad taste, even for a frolic, for a young woman to assume boys’ clothes, or get herself up in any way that will tend to make herself look masculine.

Women in men’s clothing might be tolerated on the stage of a music hall, as masculine garb only enhanced their femininity, drawing the imagination to all that was hidden.  But in everyday life cross-dressing was strongly disapproved of.  The reasons are many and complex, but there was certainly antipathy towards suffragettism and related dress-reform movements, for women who wanted to share male privilege disturbed the established order.  Although some women had adopted bifurcated garments for exercise—particularly cycling—they were mostly associated with those employed as manual labour or with sex workers.  Even knickers—”trousered underwear”—were initially regarded as obscene and not the preserve of a lady.

Sheet music of a nineteenth-century music hall song popularised by Vesta Tilley, proper name Matilda Alice Powles, who was renowned for her male impersonations.  Published by Francis, Day & Hunter.  © Victoria and Albert Museum

A SORRY TALL TALE
On Wednesday the 6th of March the young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court, charged with disorderly conduct by virtue of being attired as a man.  To the amusement of those in court she was still wearing the offending outfit, which consisted of fashionable striped trousers and a jacket made of pilot, the woollen twill from which pea-jackets or P-jackets get their name.  She was also sporting a silk neck scarf, a collar and tie, a waistcoat and braces, boots and socks and a hat and overcoat.  

Her solicitor recounted the tragic circumstances that had forced Miss Harriet Muir into such a desperate act.  When she was a small child her parents had emigrated to New Zealand, where they had left her in the care of friends.  Four years ago, having heard nothing from her parents, she had left home to gain her independence, supporting herself as an actress.  A stint in the chorus of the 1887 Puss in Boots at Drury Lane was followed by another as a member of the English Comedy Company.  Lately she had performed in pantomime in Bristol, but her engagement had ended, and with no money and few prospects she had determined to go to New Zealand in the hope of being reunited with her father, who by now was a wealthy sheep farmer.  She had arrived in London on Saturday the 2nd of March, staying in Anderton’s Hotel on Fleet Street while she set about obtaining a working passage to New Zealand as an under-stewardess.  But she had failed, and it was at this point that she had tried to enlist.

This sorry tale must have affected the magistrate, for he agreed to release Harriet into the custody of some friends, in the hope that the money would be found for her to join her father.  But this is not to say that the solicitor’s version of events was entirely consistent with the truth.  Where he claimed that Harriet was staying in a classy hotel on Fleet Street, and had tried to get a job as a stewardess, she was in fact living in dingy lodgings in New Peter Street, and had passed herself off as a steward.  And he failed to mention that she once worked as an artist’s model, which was not a respectable occupation. 

SUCH ADVENTURES!
On Thursday the 7th of March further information came to light, and Harriet Muir, alias Ettie McKie, was arrested again.  She was charged with stealing a suit of clothes worth three pounds and ten shillings, the property of George Johnson, a young musician of 5 Park Place in Battersea.  This time the blushing and demure Miss Muir—or was it Miss McKie?—appeared suitably clad in female attire.  The story went that on the Monday night between eleven and midnight—rather later than any respectable woman would have been out alone—George Johnson had got into conversation with Harriet in Victoria Street.  After partaking of some refreshments—ale and sausages—he had been invited back to her lodgings in New Peter Street.  There, after another glass of ale, he had fallen asleep, exhausted.  No mention was made of how he came to divest himself of all clothing except his flannel vest.  

George did not stir until six the next morning.  But Harriet was wide awake.  First she cut off her hair, which was long, and burnt it in the fireplace.  How the reek of the burning hair failed to wake the slumbering musician is hard to explain, but fail to wake him it did, and Harriet proceeded to put on his clothes.  She left him her own wardrobe, which was kind of her, and then went out into the night.  What adventures she had!  She walked over Westminster Bridge to a night-time coffee stall, spending the rest of the night in a cheap lodging house in a dormitory with over twenty men.  Then she had an early morning appointment with a barber, who tidied up her roughly chopped locks.  And then, as we know, she headed first to the docks and then to the recruiting office, still dressed as a man. 

Publicity material for the 1887 Drury Lane production of Puss in Boots.  © British Library

The magistrate remanded Harriet in custody while further investigations were made.  He was not entirely convinced by her story, and he was right not to be, as many inconsistencies were quickly revealed.  In the first place she had run away from home at the age of sixteen and not at the more respectable age of twenty-four.  Then again her theatrical ventures and her wealthy sheep farming father turned out not to exist.  The smart Fleet Street hotel she had apparently pitched up in on the previous Saturday was a front for her dingy lodgings in New Peter Street, an area of Westminster so poor that it was marked in black on Booth’s London Poverty Maps.  She had been living there for over five weeks.  She had also been an inmate in three homes for destitute women— see my earlier post on Sarah Gough and the Clewer House of Mercy—which suggests that she had been in a “fallen” condition.  One of the homes had helped her find respectable employment as a domestic servant, but after a very short time she had been discharged for staying out all night and drinking.  

The magistrate had turned up some pretty damning evidence, but in spite of everything Harriet had managed to redeem herself in the eyes of the law.  She had already written to Elizabeth Howell, her former landlady in New Peter Street, explaining that she had no intention of keeping George Johnson’s clothes as long as she could retrieve her own.  She had also apologised to Johnson in the hope that he would forgive her for putting him to inconvenience.  The magistrate acquitted her.

Model Seated Before a Mirror by Philip Wilson Steer.  © Tate  CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

A WELCOME ANONYMITY
There is little that can be definitely discovered about Harriet and George before and after their ill-fated meeting.  George was said to have lived at 5 Park Place in Battersea, but there is no sign of him there before or after 1889.  Although a family called Johnson lived nearby at no. 3 in 1881, they do not appear to have had a son called George.  Well, better perhaps to remain anonymous after such an embarrassing brush with fame.  If “fame” is the word. 

Sadly Harriett Muir—otherwise Harriet McKie, otherwise Ettie McKie—also remains an enigma.  If her age is given correctly, she was born in about 1861 in Creetown in Kirkcudbrightshire, where an eleven-year old Hariet McKie was living with her grandparents in 1871.  Possibly her father—a son of these McKies—had emigrated.  Possibly she was the illegitimate child of one of their daughters.  (Mere supposition, as there is no evidence of either her father or her mother.)  Ten years later in the 1881 census there is a slightly older Harriett Mackie working as cook for the family of a Lancaster cotton merchant.  If she was indeed our Harriet, she might have “inflated” her age to add gravitas to her culinary career.  But who knows if she was?  All we can hope is that Harriet found her way to a better life in New Zealand with a wealthy sheep farming father.

© london-overlooked 2020

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