The history of cross-dressing is full of fascinating personalities: Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 because she persisted in wearing pants; Mary Read was a notorious 18th Century female pirate; Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a male soldier to fight in the trenches of World War One.
Others like the music hall star Vesta Tilley openly impersonated men as part of a successful theatre act.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays also feature female characters dressing up as men, although the actors playing them in his day were young men. More recently the TV comedy Little Britain featured two men wandering around town in female dress while insisting: ‘I’m a lady.’
Mary Mudge, however, never sought the limelight. Her ‘secret’ only emerged after her death, aged 85, in the market town of Tavistock, Devon, the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake.
Reynold’s Newspaper reported on March 31, 1889:
A MAN EIGHTY FIVE YEARS IN WOMAN’S CLOTHES
There has just died in Tavistock Workhouse an old person eighty five years of age, who was known to the authorities as Mary Mudge, and until some years ago kept a small dairy in that town. On the body being prepared for burial, it was discovered to be that of a man, although previously no suspicion had been entertained as to the sex of Miss Mudge, as deceased had long been called, and had all outward appearance of a woman. No cause has been assigned for the disguise.
Further details were given in The Bury and Norwich Post:
Not even the oldest inhabitant had any recollection of Mary’s childhood and there is no registration to be found. The earliest recollection of her in the village is a full grown young woman, when she was then noticeable for her particularly large size. ‘That girl ought to have been a boy’ seems to have ben a common saying at the time. ‘She seemed a very quiet retiring sort,’ said the old villager. ‘We never suspected anything. I was never so struck in my life as when I heard of it after her death.’ Nobody seemed to have known much about Mary. She had lived by herself since her sister’s death, shut up in her lonely house. The two or three cows supplied her bodily needs, and the village doctor does not remember ever giving her medicine; but sickness entered her house four years ago and found Mary Mudge alone in her lonely dwelling. She was recommended to the union infirmary where she entered in July 1885, and has since remained until her death.
It seems unlikely the newspapers (or the news agency supplying the story) would make it all up. And census records do show a Mary Mudge of the right age living as a dairy farmer in Milton Abbot, six miles from Tavistock, between 1851 and 1881.
In 1851 she was listed, age 48, at the Old House in Milton Abbot, an unmarried farm labourer, along with a 59 year-old lodger called Elizabeth Condon (or possibly Langdon).
Ten years later Mary, now said to be a 56 year-old farmer of nine acres, was still living there with Elizabeth and three other boarders.
In 1871 Mary Mudge, 66, unmarried, occupation ‘formerly dairymaid’, was staying alone at Cottage No. 3 on the Duke of Bedford’s estate. Her birthplace was said to be Lamerton in Devon.
Finally in 1881 she was living at ‘Green, Milton Abbot’, aged 77, with Richard Northcott, a 31 year-old gardener, his wife and two daughters. Mary was described as an ‘aunt.’
Further confirmation is provided by the registered death of a Mary Mudge, aged 85, in the Tavistock district, between April and June 1889.
The rest of her life remains unknown. Which is perhaps what Mary Mudge would have wanted.