John Maria Campbell

John Campbell was born as ‘Marie’ or ‘Maria’. We don’t know much about their early life, such as where or when they were born.

An article in the Penny Illustrated Paper titled ‘A Woman Married to a Woman’ (13th January 1872) and also a reference in ‘Mill Girls and Strangers’ (Gordon, 2002) to a Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette article describing them as from ‘Inverness-shire’, yet that is the only mention we could find about their birthplace anywhere.

There is also conflicting evidence about John’s date of birth, with the marriage record between John Campbell and Mary Ann McKenna stating they were 19 at the time of marriage (1869) suggesting John was born in 1850, whilst the North Briton (6th January 1872) reported they were around 32 at the time of them contracting smallpox in 1871, implying that they would have been born around 1839. This leaves a large gap between two estimations and not enough evidence to ascertain a correct birth certificate or place of birth.

Going on the marriage certificate as a more reliable form of evidence, there were two people with names close to ‘Maria Campbell’ born in Scotland between 1849-1851; Mariah Campbell born to James Campbell and Agnes Dixon, St. Mungo, 1850 and Maria Campbell born to George Campbell and Catherine Keenan, Coatbridge, 1851 (Scotland’s People). However we are not able to determine which of these individuals is the John ‘Maria’ Campbell of this story, if it even is one of the two mentioned. Neither were born in Inverness-shire, complicating the narrative further.

All we have as evidence documenting John’s early life is an account written in a news report: ‘Campbell’s explanation of her extraordinary procedure is, that in consequence of bad usage, when she was about thirteen years of age, she left her parents house to shift for herself. Some time afterward, her brother, when he was dying, sent for her, and requested her to take his clothes and wear them, as that would probably enable her to better make her way in the world.’ From this account, we can guess that ‘Maria’ did as their brother suggested, and continued to dress in male clothes throughout their adult life, so that – the report goes on to say – they ‘became so accustomed to the garb that habit became a second nature’.

An article in the North Briton (6 January 1872) reports that John said that they wore male attire from the age of 13 ‘for no other purpose than keeping clear o’ these blackguard men’. This could have referred to sexual harassment or the fact that as an orphan Marie would have been subject to child exploitation and abuse, so dressing in male clothing was a strategy to offer them some protection. However this can only be viewed as speculation, and we can not say with certainty as to why ‘Maria’ decided to become ‘John’.

Without questioning John’s gender, the Reverend Henry Smith had married John Campbell and Mary Ann McKenna on 6 December 1869 (see marriage certificate) in East Calder, where they then lived in a family home in Kirknewton with Mary Ann’s children. Their marriage had raised some eyebrows locally as the two children, Julia and Francis, were born out of wedlock before she was twenty years old. Married life didn’t work out for the couple, and after just 5 months John deserted the family. It was later revealed that Mary Ann was pregnant with a third child that was also illegitimate. It is thought that John initially made their way to Tranent to work on a farm (Howden-o’-the-Brig) but attracted by the promise of higher wages, John left Tranent and headed to Renfrew.


In Renfrew, John (also known as ‘Johnnie’ at this time) began residing as a lodger with the Early family on Pinkerton Lane, whilst labouring at the local shipbuilders, Henderson, Coulborn and Co. It must be noted that there is no record of the ‘Early’ family on Pinkerton Lane in the 1871 census, so this information cannot be verified – the name could have been misspelled in newspaper articles or addresses mixed up in writing the reports. It is also suggested that Thomas Early had known John for some time, striking up a friendship while they had worked on farms in West Lothian, and offered John room and board.

John was held in high esteem by both colleagues and the Earlys during their 6 months together. They ‘won the esteem of all around him by the handy and intelligent manner in which he executed any task allotted to him’. Colleagues at the yard also acknowledged that ‘a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard.’

Mrs Early was reported to have later reflected on just how amiable, agreeable and helpful John had been since their arrival, often helping her in the kitchen, and fellow lodgers with darning and sewing. Newspaper articles document that when Mrs Early fell ill with influenza, John was so attentive and caring towards her that John’s gender was brought into question by neighbours. Despite this, it is suggested that John though occasionally exciting suspicion regarding her sex, cleverly removed any doubts by her after conduct’, including courting with a female lover.

During their time in Renfrew, John entered a relationship with local lass Kate Martin ‘with all the usual ardor of an affectionate beau’. It is reported that on one occasion they visited Edinburgh on a romantic trip, and they returned and slept in separate beds in the lodgings. ‘In Renfrew (s)he still adhered to the old habit of loving and associating with the lassies’. Reports also imply that John having a female lover discredited any questions about their gender, as same-sex relationships were not accepted or commonplace at the time.

On 29th November 1851 John fell ill with smallpox. A doctor was summoned to the home, and insisted that John needed hospitalisation. It is reported that they ‘disapproved’ of going to hospital and wished to leave the town. Dr. Allison questioned their reluctance to visit hospital, asking ‘was it because of sex?’ to which John replied ‘yes’, and ‘the subsequent explanation was that the supposed ‘Johnnie’ was a lassie’. The doctor informed Mrs Early of this discovery and told her that she must get women’s clothes to dress Johnnie so they could be admitted to Paisley Infirmary as Marie Campbell.

It was at the Paisley Infirmary that the medical officer on duty – Dr. Lewis – received a letter from the inspector of the poor from Kirknewton (near Edinburgh) suggesting that Marie Campbell might be the person wanted by their parish since May 1870 for deserting Mary Ann McKenna and her children, especially as she was pregnant with a third child thought to be John’s. It turns out that when John deserted Mary Ann, she raised the cry that her husband was a woman, but her testimony was ignored because she already had two illegitimate children before marrying and it was thought that John had deserted her because of this reason. Having children outside of this marriage at this time was extremely stigmatised, and Mary Ann’s character and testimony was dismissed because she admitted that she had children who were not born from John.

On their visit to Paisley Infirmary, the parish authorities requested that Mary Ann should accompany the Inspector of the Poor, and also Will Waddell, who had been a witness to the wedding. When they visited the hospital both witnesses positively identified John as ‘Maria’, and on seeing Will it is reported that John exclaimed ‘Is that you Will Waddel; how’s the wife and bairns?’ John also suggested Mary Ann had known of their assigned gender at birth before they were married, reportedly saying ‘Mary Ann knew that I was a woman; it was to make us more comfortable that we lived together.’ and that the wedding had taken place as a result of a ‘mutual understanding.’

Mary Ann, however, denied this assertion claiming that she only became aware of John’s true identity some days after the wedding. Whatever the truth, in the knowledge that John was not the father of Mary Ann’s third child (born after the wedding), the Kirknewton parochial board decided that John ‘Maria’ Campbell was not chargeable to the parish.

The investigation then turned to whether either party had married, in light of the truth about John’s sex. A warrant was received from the Edinburgh County police authorities arresting John for contravening the Registration Act by making or causing to be made, a false entry in the register at the time of marrying Mary Ann. When recovered from smallpox, John was removed in custody to Edinburgh. John was then reportedly taken to Watsons Hospital on Wednesday 3 January 1872.

An entry in the marriage Register of corrected entries dated 21 September 1872 states that the whole marriage register for number 6, 1869 relating to the marriage of John Campbell and Mary Ann was cancelled under the direction and written authority of the Sheriff in consequence of the declaration dated 10 August 1872. Unfortunately, further information about their life or death could not be found, so we don’t know what happened to them after they were taken into custody.

Unanswered questions

As this article shows, there is conflicting evidence and questions unanswered in the story of John ‘Marie’ Campbell. However, what we can gather from the sensationalist news reporting about ‘a woman married to a woman’ is how fixed gender roles were in Victorian Scotland, and how same sex relationships were stigmatised.

Their story is not isolated, and there are other known examples of people assigned female at birth living their life as men in Victorian Scotland, such as Dr. James Barry (1789-1865). Barry studied at University of Edinburgh Medical School, qualified for an MD in 1812 and worked as a doctor for the British army in locations around the world, performing some of the first safe Cesarean Sections on women in South Africa. Barry is now sometimes referred to as the first ‘female’ graduate of the University of Edinburgh, however they lived the majority of his life as a man, and would in contemporary times be able to identify as a trans man if they wished. This example, amonst others, shows how cross-dressing and same sex relationships were more common than Victorian society would have liked to admit.

Overall, the sensationalist newspaper reports about the ‘extraordinary career’ of John ‘Maria’ Campbell demonstrate the shock experienced by people at the time that someone born female could have been living and working as a man, contradicting Victorian notions of women as naturally born weak, unintelligent and confined to domesticity.