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Wednesday, 1 July 2020

New Month Old Post: Uncle Jimmy

(First posted 28th June, 2015. 1,600 words)

The life of an intersex man born in the 1890s

My mother always said it would have been better if Uncle Jimmy had been brought up as a girl. When I was older, she added: “You see, he didn’t develop properly when he was a little boy.” She also said: “His sister was completely the other way round.” 

Uncle Jimmy was not really an uncle or indeed any relative at all. He attached himself to the family just before the First World War when he crossed the Pennines to take a job in the local branch of the clothing and furniture retailer where my grandfather worked. As Jimmy had nowhere to stay, my grandfather took him home and asked whether they could put him up for a time. Jimmy soon found his own accommodation and later, perhaps surprisingly, a wife, but he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. He appears in no end of our family photographs: a surrogate uncle.

“A jolly little fat man with a high voice,” is how my brother remembered him, “Uncle Jimmy Dustbin,” not his real name but a pretty good homonym. He had been slightly built in his youth. His army attestation papers show he was five feet two inches tall (157 centimetres) with just a 31 inch chest (79 centimetres). He must have suffered terribly at the hands of childhood bullies and may have left his native Cheshire to begin life afresh where nobody knew him.

He tried to join up for war service six times but was rejected because of poor physique. After being accepted at the seventh attempt, he found himself passed rapidly from regiment to regiment like a bad penny. He first joined the York and Lancasters, but on mobilization was transferred back into the army reserve to grow and gain strength. He was mobilized again eight months later but within another six months had been transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. He managed three months there before being compulsorily transferred to the 5th (Cyclist) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was part of the Army Cycle Corps used for coastal defence work inside the United Kingdom. His situation seems to have improved for a while because he qualified as a signaller, but within a year his difficulties had returned and he was transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment. A month later he was judged physically unfit for war service, permanently discharged, issued with an overcoat and sent home. Jimmy’s war was thus based in such far flung locations as Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hartlepool and Aldershot. At no time did he see service in France.

Jimmy married while still in the army. He was almost twenty-five and his wife, let’s call her Beatrice, almost twenty-seven. They remained together for forty-seven years until she died. For some years they looked after one of Beatrice’s nephews but were unable to have children of their own. What Beatrice expected is not entirely clear, although she did once say to my grandmother she had little idea of what was supposed to happen on wedding nights, and remained just as mystified afterwards because nothing did. She seemed content to have settled for a marriage of crafts, hobbies and companionship.

Jimmy and Beatrice became grocers. Beatrice’s widowed mother had a corner shop in one of the town’s dense grid of terraced streets, so Jimmy moved in to help with the shop and eventually became the nominal owner. Beatrice did most of the work as Jimmy always found plenty of other things to occupy him. He became a churchwarden along with my grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. He collected glassware and was a natty dresser, but his greatest joy was motoring. He advertised his services as an express courier and hence became one of the first in town with a private telephone and private motor car.

1922 Bullnose Morris
Uncle Jimmy with his 1922 Bullnose’ Morris on an outing to Bridlington in 1928.
In the car (right to left) are my father (in cap), his sister (in bonnet) and Jimmys wife’s nephew.

His first car was a 1922 ‘Bullnose’ Morris. My father said that whenever his own family took their annual week’s holiday, in those days always to one of the Yorkshire coastal resorts, Jimmy would arrive in his car to join them for a day. On other occasions he would take my father and his sister on trips to the coast. They had a clear memory of one happy outing when they drove under the arched bridge between Bridlington and Filey where the railway embankment crosses the road, when Jimmy jokingly forbade them to shout as they passed through, which of course they did, their high spirited voices echoing back to them in the open-topped car. On another occasion he took my aunt for a ride in an aeroplane at Speeton airfield.

At Speeton Airfield

In later years, after my grandparents had died, Jimmy and Beatrice became surrogate grandparents, especially to my cousins. In fact they remember Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Beatrice by far the more clearly. They spent hours reading, singing, playing games and looking after them. Beatrice shared her jigsaw puzzles and taught them to crochet. Jimmy was the only one with the patience to feed to my elder cousin her breakfast in the way she wanted, one cornflake at a time, even though he was supposed to be at work in his shop. My uncle described him, in bemused admiration, as the only man he knew who had managed to get through life without working.

Eventually Jimmy and Beatrice retired from the grocers shop and moved for around fifteen years to a large house in a green and leafy part of town overlooking the river, but after Beatrice died Jimmy moved back to the same terraced street they had lived in previously, and was very lonely and unhappy. It was by then the nineteen-sixties. Society was changing and the street had lost its sense of community. Jimmy was a frequent visitor both to our house and my cousins’, arriving in his car, always a Morris. He showed a lifelong loyalty to the Morris marque.

Jimmy lived to eighty-one. During his last illness, unable to eat, he turned to my aunt for help and she told him she thought he should be in hospital. “All right,” he said, “but let’s have a cig first. We’ll have one of yours.” It was his last one. My aunt, a nurse, looked after him during his final days, and in dealing with his most intimate needs was disturbed to observe just how incompletely developed he was, “more female than male” she later confided.

Again, we were spared the details but some years ago, thirty five years after his death, I looked at Jimmy’s army service record in an online genealogy resource. It included Army Form B, 178A, Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W, W(T), P or P(T), of the Reserve. Across the various sections of the form I was dismayed to read:

Feminism. Undesirability of retaining with hommes militesque. Congenital. Poor physique from infancy and puberty. Pain with equipment. Tastes and habits male. Married 12 months, no children. Enlarged breasts, female type, none secretial. Poor general physique. R. testicle incompletely descended. Penis abnormally short. Embryonic pocket in scrotal line. Voice female. Was rejected 6 times on grounds of physique and accepted the 7th time. Discharge as permanently unfit.

And what of his sister, a back-slapping sporty woman who my mother said should have been brought up a boy. She also married but after several years her husband was granted an annulment. She then became a champion ladies golfer who represented her county. It was said she astonished other golfers by driving consistently long distances from the men’s tees. She spent her life organising competitions and golfing associations, and was still playing in veterans’ tournaments at the age of seventy. Did she have a similar congenital condition? We can now easily see that there were four other siblings who survived into adulthood. What about them? They seem to have produced few children and grandchildren.

Today, abnormal sexual development is much better understood than when Jimmy and his sister were born in the eighteen-nineties. For example, research into sex hormones did not make any real progress until the nineteen-thirties. The various conditions are now handled sympathetically and have a range of treatments. How very different from when Jimmy and his sister were young. What desperately miserable and lonely episodes they must have endured. Yet to us, Uncle Jimmy always seemed happy and jovial. He was kind and thoughtful, very much loved. I think we must have given him something of the family life he would never otherwise have had.

There was one last thing we could do for him. It was saddening to see his medical record on public display. Although British Army First World War service and pension records, if they survive, are now accessible through online genealogical resources, medical records are usually confidential. We wrote to the National Archives at Kew to ask whether it was possible, on the grounds of respect and decency, to remove the medical report from the online resource, to which they agreed. Genuine researchers can still go to Kew, look up the microfiche copy of his army service record, and find Army Form B178A included, but in the online version it is no longer there.*

In wanting to tell Jimmy’s sad and touching story, albeit with names changed, and in quoting from the form, I hope I am not indulging in the kind of prurience we want to avert.


* Unfortunately, since the original post, other genealogical resource providers have been permitted to scan the documents and it is now visible on several sites.

41 comments:

  1. When you say you remember Jimmy as happy and jovial, I believe this is what he genuinely was when he was around your family. As you say, he was much loved, and this has hopefully made up for at least some of the loneliness and suffering he must have endured earlier in his life, and again after the death of his wife.
    Speaking of which, a marriage based on friendship and companionship is much better than what many men and women can say about their own married life.

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    1. Much of the credit has to go to my aunt who was very caring towards everyone she met. And your last paragraph is so true: I cannot see how marriages without friendship and companionship can last.

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  2. That was a beautiful little biography of someone who did not fit in but found happiness along the way. He made something out of his misfortunes they did not dictate the story.

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    1. He was lucky to find people who accepted others are they are and cared. There is a lot to be said for church-going societies even if one doesn't believe in the whole thing. Would people be so understanding today?

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  3. Being brought up as a girl and then possibly marrying a man who would have had expectations could have made his life much worse. Jimmy seems to have made the most of the hand he was dealt in life, and been loved. We can't ask for more.

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    1. I've never thought of that but now you say it I absolutely agree. As the army doctor reported, his interests were male. His sister may have had exactly the same condition but in a more severe way so was brought up as a girl, and her marriage did not last. She could well have lived in a different kind of relationship these days. It baffles me how either found a partner, and wonder how many people had suspicions that they were not fully male and female, but in those days sexuality would rarely have been talked about resulting in lack of knowledge and understanding.

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  4. My father's dream car was a Bullnose Morris. He never got one.

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    1. It's a beauty isn't it. As mentioned in a previous post, I've still got the Pratts petrol can that is tied to the running board - either that or one exactly like it - see post 1st May 2019. It would once have been spruce green but it's rusty now.

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  5. What a fascinating account. Uncle Jimmy seems to have had a pretty good life, despite the obvious difficulties of being "different" at a time when such things were little understood. It seems he was fortunate to have met your grandfather when he did, otherwise his life could so easily have taken a less pleasant path.

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    1. My grandfather and his mother had strong Christian principles, as did my aunt who was closest to Jimmy in later life. I'm not sure about my grandfather's father, though. He was a tough sea captain, but may have been away a lot during the period Jimmy stayed with them.

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  6. Replies
    1. Thanks Enda. Keep up your good stuff too - I don't comment as much as I should.

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  7. Such an interesting story and I suspect not all that unique in those days long before things were fully understood and long before any hormone treatment. I would guess he was very lucky to have found your family and become part of it.

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    1. I don't know what the incidence is - one web site suggests around 1 in 2000, which means there must have been a lot of other First World War soldiers and women with the condition to varying degrees. There's a book to write there for someone with access to the resources to research it.

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  8. Things are different now but it still takes an awful lot of courage to 'come out' in any way as different. And there is still prejudice causing pain.

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    1. In some ways I suspect (assuming untreated) he would have more problems finding acceptance today than a hundred years ago.

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  9. You told this story with great compassion. Much more than Jimmy and his sister likely encountered in their day. How fortunate that they came to be a valued part of your family--for all of you.

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    1. I don't think I ever met Jimmy's sister, although my parents did. Jimmy must have had a terrible time in the army, as the doctor's report suggests.

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    1. Thanks. As commented above, though, probably not unique.

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  11. We're only now truly beginning to understand intersex people and their complex lives, and still have far to go. Sounds like Uncle Jimmy and his sister led the best lives they could under the circumstances.

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  12. This is a beautiful and well told story. Although there was a difficult and sad side to Jimmy's life he obviously overcame much and with the help of your loving and understanding family lived a good life. It shows how important acceptance, understanding and love really is in a person's life.

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    1. Thank you Bonnie. It could have turned out very different.

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  13. *Intersex Realities and the Church/ The Unwelcomed, Unwanted Neighbour* by Val Hiebart (a professor of sociology) is worth watching on YouTube.
    There are two TED talks on YouTube about intersex by Cecelia McDonald and Susannah Temko, and vlogs by Emily Quinn.
    As the comments all say, you write with care, Tasker. I like that phrase about *crossing the Pennines*; and details like the Army Cycle Corps, jigsaw puzzles, grocery shop, the Bullnose Morris etc. Jimmy and Beatrice are worth remembering.

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    1. Far more is understood now, although academic approaches can sometimes struggle to capture the lifelike detail.

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    2. Lawrence said the novel is *the bright book of life*, so is writing like yours. Beatrice could step out of that photograph and brighten my day; I feel as if I knew her.

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    3. If only, but it's nice to have a fan. The photograph is actually Jimmy aged 56 with my aunt aged 23.

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    4. Your aunt, of course, she is young and pretty. Ladies looked wonderful in coats and frocks of that period. Bernadette Banner does a YouTube vlog on past-times dress in cinema.

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  14. He was living a life as best he understood it, and so was his wife. I had an aunt, married in the 19th century with no clear understanding of the sex act and her role. She quickly left that marriage and never remarried. The family passed her about and took care of her. Beatrice must have been much like, and is so fortunate to be able to continue in a platonic relationship, due to the limited understanding of both.

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    1. I don't think we can know what they did understand. I also wonder how much the doctor said during the army examination.

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  15. It makes me think of Josef Mengele.

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    1. His 'treatment' would have applied to a much wider range of conditions than this. Possibly even to me with different colour vision.

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    2. Some didn't have any conditions at all.

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  16. A moving story. In the grey area between masculinity and femininity there are more people than we might imagine. It's not an either/or, it is a spectrum. How brave Jimmy was to live the life he did - braver than most soldiers. I agree with you that even though he is dead, the intimate details of his physique should not be "out there" for all and sundry to dissect. That in itself is a final outrage - revealing the secrets he kept so well.

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    1. Not in a form associated with his identity but I hope that in anonymous form they are informative. When you read further, or look at the videos Hameldy found, it becomes apparent how little understood this still is.

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  17. Jimmy found love, companionship and it sounds like contentment, thanks to your family and, of course, Beatrice. It's a lovely story. Things may have been different if he'd have been born today but he seems to have had a successful life and that's not guaranteed in any generation.
    It's a shame his medical records are now available, but shows a brave man willing to undergo examination in his desire 'to do his bit'.

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    1. It seems strange today that he was so determined to join up. I'm assuming his attempts to do so were as a volunteer rather than a conscript and must have been because he was finally successful only shortly after conscription was introduced, but he had made 6 earlier attempts. Now we'd all be looking for any excuse not to have to go, me included.

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  18. A very touching post, movingly written.

    I've added your blog to my list on Mild & Mellow Melancholy Musings. Perhaps you'd reciprocate? The link is http://kidr168.blogspot.com - take a wee look and see what you think.

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    1. Thank you. I don't do reciprocal "I'll follow you if you follow me" but your blog looks interesting and I might visit from time to time.

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  19. Well, in that case, why not add it to your bloglist purely because you find it interesting? That way, your readers get the opportunity of finding it interesting too.

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I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).