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13 February 2017

Victor Barker (1895 -1960) part I: origins

Part I: origins: daughter, wife, mother
Part II: husband, actor, manager
Part III: the trial
Part IV: reactions and afterwards

James Barker was a prosperous businessman in Oldham, Lancashire. His son Thomas (1857 – 1918) became an architect in Brighton, Sussex. In 1887 he wed the 18-year-old Lillias Hill (1868 – 1923), the fourth daughter of a country parson, and a distant relative of Olave Baden-Powell.

James Barker died in 1889, and Thomas, coming into his inheritance, abandoned his career and with his wife moved to the parish of St Clement, Jersey. Their daughter Lillias Irma Valerie Barker was born in 1895.

The family moved back to England in 1899, and settled in Bramley, Surrey, where a son, Thomas Leslie was born later that year. Later they moved to nearby Milford.

As it developed, it was Valerie who grew up with a love of dogs, horses, sports and pranks. Mr Barker, disappointed with his son, taught his daughter fencing, cricket and boxing. After attending two schools for young ladies, as a finishing, she was sent to a convent school at Graty, Silly near Brussels. Both at the convent school, and back home, Valerie would dress male whenever she could. At age 19, Valerie had her formal coming out ball.

During the First World War she was a nurse, an ambulance driver and then a horse trainer. Particularly the last position entitled her to dress in khaki breeches, tunic, cap and riding boots. At the end of the war she was working with horses at an estate in Kent, where she met the recuperating Harold Arkell-Smith, an Australian who had been successively promoted from private to lieutenant and awarded three medals. They were married in April 1918. - however the marriage lasted only six weeks, although they never did divorce.

In August using her married name, Mrs L I Valerie Smith enrolled in the newly established Women’s Royal Air Force. The WRAF was considered to have the smartest uniform of all the women’s services and it made no concessions at all to femininity. The women in the WRAF liked to refer to each other with male nicknames. Valerie Smith worked as a driver and was paid 38/- a week.

Thomas Barker died in October, age 63. His widow went to live in London with their son. The WRAF was disbanded after the Armistice. Valerie found work in a tea-shop in Warminster.

There she met another Australian, Ernest Pearce Crouch. He also was separated from his wife. Crouch was offered a job in the Paris office of The Times, and Valerie having agreed to join him, he applied for his wife, Valerie Pearce Crouch to be added to his passport. They lived in Paris just over a year. Valerie continued her preference for masculine attire, and they had a baby son. However The Times had falling sales, and Ernest was made redundant. They rented a house in Hook, in the London borough of Kingston, not far from where Valerie’s brother was living. However Ernest was unable to find work, and a daughter was born in June 1921. Neither child was ever registered.

The Pearce Crouches became tenant farmers at an estate outside Littlehampton, West Sussex, intending to also run it as a guest house. Valerie, as usual wore men’s clothing to do farm work, including a collar and tie, and was even spotted in a dinner suit. Ernest took to drink, and sometimes violence.

Valerie was developing a friendship with Elfrida Haward who worked in her father's chemist shop in Littlehampton.

Lillias Barker had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for six years, and died in September 1923, age 55. She left her daughter an annuity of £9 a month for life.

After an assault that put her in hospital for a few days, Valerie threatened legal action if Ernest did not leave. She agreed that he could take their daughter.


She sold off what she could of the farm’s assets. After purchasing some new men’s clothes, she bicycled to the next railway station, not Littlehampton, where she would be recognised. She then took the train to Brighton, and a taxi to the Grand Hotel, where a reservation for Sir Victor Barker DSO was waiting.

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The Grand hotel in Brighton in 1923 was one of the finest in England.   It was one of the first, outside London, to have lifts, electric lights and external fire escapes.

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