The Story of James Howe and Mary East

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The Story of James Howe and Mary East

It’s December1732. OK, not right now, but in this story it is.

It’s December, Christmas is coming on but for James Howe and Mary Snapes the festive season has already arrived. They have recently married and with £30 between them, they have taken the lease to run and live above a tavern in Epping. 

As is common in the 18th century, a tavern was often the center of any community, except perhaps the church. Every night husband and wife were to be seen working together, serving their customers, serving their community. They knew their regulars, and they ran a successful business.

One evening however, an altercation took place between James and a young man at the tavern that resulted in what was described as lameness in one of James’ hands. This is likely the permanent loss of function and after an action against the young man, damages were afforded to James in the order of £500. Around £125,000 in 2021.

This enabled James and his wife to move further into town, taking on the running of a tavern in Limehouse. Again making their mark on the local community, their success allowed them to take on an additional tavern.

There was only really one problem for the 18th century in this story, James Howe was really Mary East. The two Mary’s had met, fallen in love and then simply (allegedly) decided on a coin toss which of them would be husband. For the sake of clarity, we’ll continue to refer to Mary East as James.

AS with all such stories, happiness cannot last forever. A woman by the name of Mrs Bentley had known James in his youth and began the undertaking of blackmail at the rate of £10. While considered to have a somewhat womanly bearing, James had fulfilled many of the social roles afforded only to men at the time. Serving as a parish official and several times as a jury foreman, James decided to pay the blackmail.

All was silent for several years.

In 1765, Mrs Bentley again made a demand. At this time Mary Howe, had left the city, gravely ill, to stay with a friend. Prior to passing she confided the secret of Mary and James to her friend. This friend visited London to tell James, in grief over MAry’s death, and demanded money in order for silence.

Mrs Bentley, growing frustrated, hired two goons to intimidate James, impersonating a police and court official; they eventually badgered a money draft from James for £100 payable at a later date. 

Before they returned, James was visited by his neighbour, a pawnbroker named Williams, convinced James that the correct course was to inform the real authorities and thus avoid the never ending risk of extortion.

In the end Bentley and one of her stooges served four years for their crimes, while the other was lost.

James, outed by the affair, had reverted to female dress and comportment, something she was quite unused to. The papers that ran the story concocted falsities to explain the love the two women had felt for each other, abandoned earl by men was the oft given excuse.

This story, though nearly 300 years old at this point, resonates with us today in many ways. Persecution and the need for secrecy, but also the sense of competency isolated from one sex or the other. James and Mary were good business people, who served their community. Their gender and sexuality made no difference in the face of their competency, it didn’t matter what happened out of hours, because during business hours they were a success and outside of business hours it was nobody’s… business.

While we still face many hurdles to overcome with the intersection between the commercial world and the LGBT community, Stories like that of James and Mary, show us that people have always been willing to try, and endure, and in honour of them, we should too.

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