Helen Oliver aka John Oliver c. 1795-c. 1820 England
gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches
2011

When Helen Oliver was in her late teens or early twenties she worked as a maid on a farm in West Kilbride. It was reported that “a particular intimacy took place” between her and a ploughman at a neighboring house, they were “frequently seen walking together in queit [sic] and sequestrated places, they were regarded as lovers; ultimately however this “ploughman” turned out to be also a female."

Soon thereafter, Helen left her home in Saltcoats dressed in her brother’s clothes and assumed the name John Oliver or sometimes John Thomson. John went to live with a cousin in Glasgow and learned the plastering business. As a journeyman plasterer he moved from town to town in search of employment (sometimes working as a flesher or weaver as well). While working in Johnstone, John courted and married a young woman. Six months after their marriage, John was forced to leave town because he was recognized by a man from Saltcoats who knew his parents. At least twice his identity was published in broadsides like the Glasgow Chronicle, under the description “Rustic D’Eon” or “eccentric character.” Each time his identity was revealed, John was forced to relocate and seek new employment. 


Sources:


“Broadside Report Regarding a Woman Masqueraded as a Man, c.1820.” The Word on the Street. National Library of Scotland. 2004.

Drew, Thomas. The Lives and Portraits of Curious and Odd Characters. Worcester: 1852.

Norton Rictor, “Lesbian Marriages in 18th century England”, Lesbian History, 18 August 2009, updated 11 February 2010.