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John Brown was married to Ann Steel on the 3rd of January 1756 (1757 in modern dating) in All Saints Church, in the parish of Bolton Percy, about 8 miles from York. The two did not purchase a special licence, instead being married by banns. That is, their intent to marry was announced in the parish church on three successive Sundays before the intended date and no objections were made. The wedding service was conducted by the curate, John Wise, and included in the parish register transcripts that were sent to the archbishop. However, if you were to look up the marriage entry in the parish register, you would find it neatly crossed out by a later hand. The explanation for this unusual entry can be found in the curate’s own register, which notes under the marriage entry that ‘John Brown was afterwards proved a woman dressed in men’s apparel, and, of course, separated from Ann Steel.’

The circumstances of this discovery are not expanded upon by the curate, but a small piece from the York Courant, later repeated by the London Gazette, provides some answers. Dated to the 29th of January 1760, the piece relates how John Brown came into York to enlist in the local infantry regiment when they were recognised by a local who knew them from childhood. They were recognised however not as John Brown, but as Barbara Hill. When the sergeant was told of this, John/Barbara was discharged, and gave an account of their life. They had left York and abandoned their female identity 15 years prior, travelling to the south and working first as a stonecutter’s apprentice, then a farm labourer, then a coach driver, before returning to Yorkshire to live in Pontefract. The newspaper reports that some years earlier they had married a woman in Bolton Percy with whom they ‘lived very agreeably ever since’. In fact, John/Barbara’s wife came to York ‘in great affliction, begging that they might not be parted.’ Unfortunately, these protests seem to have fallen on deaf ears. What became of John Brown or Barabara Hill after this remains unknown, though Ann Steel is recorded as having gone on to marry again in Bolton Percy in 1765, this time to a William Browne

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