All For Love: The Legend Of Dawn Langley Simmons

Like many other aspects of the life of Dawn Langley Simmons, her date of birth remains a matter of some dispute. While she always claimed to have been born in 1937, official records reveal the year of her birth as 1922; and the timing of some of Dawn’s own recollections certainly make that date far more plausible. Dawn’s mother was Margery Hall Ticehurst, a domestic servant, and her father, Jack Copper, the resident chauffeur at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Though the pair eventually married, Margery’s family were initially enraged at the thought of her having a child out of wedlock, so much so that her brother viciously kicked her in the stomach while pregnant. Dawn later suggested that she believed this incident was the cause of confusion, among both doctors and her parents, over her gender. Mistakenly believing her to be a boy, she argued, they had consequently brought her up as one.

Christened Gordon Langley Hall, although affectionately known by her family and friends as ‘Dinky’ on account of her slight frame, as an adult Dawn would fervently maintain that she had been born with a condition that caused swelling of the genitals, thereby leading doctors to wrongly identify her as male at birth. In his 2004 book Peninsula of Lies, based upon Dawn’s life, the journalist Edward Ball states that Dawn genuinely was born male, a fact certified to him by the doctor who carried out Dawn’s gender reassignment surgery in 1968. Yet regardless of whatever Gordon Langley Hall’s sex might have been at birth, Dawn Langley Simmons was a most remarkable woman.

Reminiscing about her childhood many years later, Dawn admitted to having a distant relationship with her parents, but an exceptional bond with her maternal grandmother, Nellie, whom she greatly admired. Nellie would inspire Dawn to follow her own path recalling how, ‘Knowing that because of my affliction I would never be able to contract a proper marriage, she decided early to fortify me with so much knowledge that I would be able to hold my own with anybody.’ Growing up at Sissinghurst, Dawn spent much time with the castle’s bohemian owners, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, both of whom were homosexual; and through Vita’s lover, Virginia Woolf, she would also encounter the highly intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group for whom notions of gender and sexuality were often blurred. This was to leave an indelible mark upon her, as a close friend revealed to Edward Ball, ‘All this is what Dawn saw when she was growing up – a bunch of messed up artists.’

When asked by Virginia Woolf what she wanted to be when she grew up, Dawn remembered telling the novelist without hesitation, ‘a writer.’ Woolf’s own work also played a part in influencing the impressionable young Dinky, particularly her 1928 novel Orlando, about an epicene character with the ability to change sex, apparently based upon the androgynous Vita Sackville-West. Indeed, Dawn acknowledged, I had a recurring dream in which I saw an old fashioned glass hearse with plumes turning to go into the cemetery. And in the casket was Gordon. And that was a recurring dream. And of course, I grew up at Sissinghurst. And Virginia Woolf had written Orlando, the wonderful story about her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. How over the years Orlando had turned from a beautiful young man into a beautiful woman. And so I felt in my heart that I was the living Orlando.’ As Woolf had done, Dawn displayed a precocious talent for writing from an early age, and at nine years-old even had a regular column in a local newspaper, The Sussex Express, for which she once interviewed Mae West.

During the Second World War, Dawn was deemed unfit for service, but made herself useful by taking theatre classes and entertaining the troops, an endeavour that would have been unlikely had she been born in 1937. Still living as a man, in 1950 she moved to the United States, where she became the society editor for the Nevada Daily Mail in Missouri. A year later, she left for a brief stay in Canada, and found teaching work at an the Ojibway native reservation, an experience which would inspire her to write her 1955 book Me Papoose Sitter, the first of her critically acclaimed works. Continue reading

The Soldier’s Heart And The Effort Syndrome: Mount Vernon In Wartime

Described by and named after the American physician Jacob Mendes Da Costa, as he studied the effects of combat on Civil War soldiers, cases of Da Costa’s syndrome surged during the First World War as scores of traumatised young men, whose nerves had quite literally been shot to pieces, returned home. Believing the syndrome to be caused by ‘the irritable heart of the soldier,’ Da Costa observed that while symptoms varied, heart palpitations and significant cardiac pain were almost always present; this led to it being commonly known as ‘Soldier’s Heart.’

Writing about the physical effects of Soldier’s Heart in his 1918 monograph The Soldier’s Heart and The Effort Syndrome, the cardiologist Thomas Lewis noted that fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness were also reported. In many cases, physical exertion was liable to bring about an attack, and as Lewis explained, ‘because these symptoms and signs are largely, in some cases wholly, the exaggerated physiological response to exercise’ thus, he christened it ‘the effort syndrome.’

From 1914 to 1918, up to 60,000 British soldiers were diagnosed with Effort syndrome with as many as 44,000 being discharged from the Armed Forces as a result. Many of those who suffered with this debilitating and often distressing affliction, contributed to the pioneering research undertaken by Lewis at The Military Hospital, in Hampstead. Lewis was joined there by the Canadian cardiologist, Thomas Cotton and a number of other highly eminent physicians, including Sir William Osler, Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt, Sir James Mackenzie, Jonathan Campbell Meakins, John Parkinson and A. N. Drury.

The Military Hospital was originally founded as the North London Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, work began on the site at Mount Vernon, Hampstead in 1880, with the building’s design adopting a French Renaissance style. The following year, the Western Block which contained 34 beds was built; by 1893 this number had grown to 80 after the Central Block was finished, yet five years later only 60 of these were occupied. In 1901, the hospital was renamed The Mount Vernon Hospital for Tuberculosis and Diseases of the Lungs and two years later, the Eastern Block was finally completed.

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A Romantic Imagination: Joseph Merrick at Bedstead Square

‘There is now in a little attic room off one of our attic wards a man named Joseph Merrick, aged about 27, a native of Leicester, so dreadful a sight that he is unable even to come out by daylight to the garden,’ the Chairman of the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Francis Carr Gomm wrote in a letter to The Times published on 30th November 1886. Carr Gomm appealed to those who were touched by Merrick’s circumstances, and inquired not only as to whether a more suitable home could be found for him, but if anyone might be able to offer him financial assistance.

Within days so many generous donations had poured in that Merrick would be provided for, for the remainder of his life. In December 1886, he was moved to his own private rooms in the grounds of the hospital; Merrick’s time there was to give him the security he had never known and contrasting his previous life with his one at Bedstead Square, he revealed in his own short autobiography, that it was a place where he was ‘as comfortable now’ as he was ‘uncomfortable before.’

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester on 5th August 1860. In accordance with Victorian superstitions he believed that the deformity that blighted his life was a result of his mother having been frightened by a procession of circus elephants whilst pregnant. In 1909, it was suggested by the dermatologist Frederick Parker Weber, that Merrick had Neurofibromatosis Type I, however, current medical opinion is that Merrick in fact suffered from Proteus Syndrome; yet the exact nature of what caused his condition remains a mystery. What is known is that his deformities only began to present themselves at around the age of 5. The death of his mother when he was 11, and his cruel treatment at the hands of his stepmother, caused Merrick to leave home and he worked as a hawker on the streets of Leicester until he was no longer physically able to. He subsequently spent three years at a Leicester infirmary where he underwent an operation to remove some of the excess flesh that covered his face. Continue reading

Irreparably Damaged: The Madness Of James Kenneth Stephen

James Kenneth Stephen is just one of the many individuals, whose lives have been pored over in the hope of discovering the true identity of the Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The most detailed account of Stephen’s life is Deborah McDonald’s, The Prince, His Tutor and the Ripper: The Evidence Linking James Kenneth Stephen to the Whitechapel Murders. But whilst portraying him as a popular and gifted individual, the book’s sensationalist title highlights how interest in Stephen’s life is indelibly linked to the murders; sullying the reputation of a man whose legacy should be radically different, were it not for his brush with mental illness and the comparative ignorance of the psychiatry of his time.

Stephen was first named as a suspect in the Whitechapel murders in 1972, by Michael Harrison in The Listener. Harrison elaborated this allegation further in his book Clarence: Was he Jack the Ripper? Twenty years later, Dr David Abrahamson not only suggested that Stephen was involved in the murders, but that he and Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, (whose tutor Stephen was at Cambridge) had committed them together. With no substantial evidence linking him to the murders, it is the mental instability that plagued Stephen that has been used to lend credence to this accusation. His allegedly misogynistic poetry has also been seen as supporting the possibility of his involvement, particularly the poem; ‘Men and Women’. The lines, ‘I did not like her: and I should not mind, If she were done away with killed or ploughed,’have been cited as proof of his hatred of women. Despite these words, which were more likely written in jest than malice, Stephen had several love affairs and hoped to eventually marry.

Known as ‘Jem’, James Kenneth Stephen was born in 1859, the son of the prominent Judge and writer, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen; a man who, as Hermione Lee has noted, unfalteringly refused to acknowledge his son’s mental illness and died only two years after him. He was also the nephew of Sir Leslie Stephen and a first-cousin of Virginia Woolf, who was herself afflicted by lifelong bouts of madness until her suicide in 1941. Attending Eton as a King’s Scholar before going up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1880, Stephen became an Apostle and President of the Cambridge Union Society. The writer and education reformer, Oscar Browning was his tutor at King’s, and remained a lifelong confidante and friend. Continue reading