Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Mystery of Catherine Tozer

The essential details of the life of Solomon Tozer, a sergeant in the Royal Marines assigned to HMS Terror, are well-known, and have been documented in Ralph Lloyd-Jones's article "The Royal Marines on Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition" (Polar Record 40 (215) (2004). He was born in Axbridge, near Cheddar, in 1815 or possibly 1817, and may have been a Nonconformist (a religious term from the day, signifying those who did not agree with the 29 articles of the established Church of England). 

However, what is far less well-known is that he may have had a sister, Catherine, who was a nonconformist in a much more modern sense of the word. According to the 1913 press article, she'd worked as a schoolmistress, but suffered so much abuse from her husband that she left him (it should be borne in mind that divorce was essentially impossible at this period in time), and chose to adopt male attire for the rest of her life, going by the name of "Charley Wilson" and finding employment as a painter. Further details about her are scarce -- the two newspaper items in this post contain almost all of what is known, and my efforts to contact the family descendant who first drew my attention to her story have not (so far) met with success, but apparently the family genealogy is -- by that account -- fairly certain.

(The few other items about her online are often accompanied by a photograph said to be hers -- but in fact the image is a glass plate photograph of Marie Høeg (1866-1949), a Norwegian photographer and suffragist who had taken private photographs of herself wearing a theatrically fake mustache). 

The Catherine Tozer known in these newspaper columns seems to have been born in 1837, which would make her twenty years younger than her brother, quite a stretch but not an impossibility. By this earlier account, she first came to public attention after a scandalous affair -- circumstances rather different from those described in the Cheltenham Chronicle years later. The details are in this item from the Bury Times of September 8, 1860 (the dates given here are inconsistent by two years with those of the other article). 

One of the last records I could find was a notice from the Gloucestershire Echo of 15 October 1897 noting that she will be able to leave a workhouse in West Ham thanks to the support of the Painters' Union and an offer of employment in "some light business." If I have her correct date of birth, she would have been sixty years old at that time. 

More recently, a lengthy research article on the Tozer family has come to light, compiled by a user known as @dustygnome; a link to this article may be found via Tumblr. There's a tremendous amount of valuable information in this article, which covers several generations of the Tozer family. I've also located a couple of additional resources in more specialized archives, including this trans history page which links to a newspaper article that contains an actual interview with Charley Wilson conducted shortly before his death. From this site, it's also fascinating to learn that Wilson was employed painting ships for the Peninsular & Oriental shipping company, including the Rome, the Victoria, the Oceania, and the Arcadia. P&O, as it was known, continued in business until 2006, when it was sold to DP World; a reconstituted part of the company operates P&O Ferries, infamous for sacking its entire staff in 2022. Charley Wilson is said to have died in 1911; I have so far been unable to locate a burial site.