Life prior to crossdressing
Arkell-Smith grew up in the Channel island Jersey. She expressed desire about being born a boy. Arkell-Smith had a love for horses and cars, and she enlisted, as a woman VAD, 1914 and later joined the fledgling WRAF. In 1918, she married Australian officer Lieutenant Harold Arkell-Smith. She suffered a series of problems during her first marriage, including domestic violence and psychological abuse. The marriage lasted a short period of time, and they divorced shortly after they married. Arkell-Smith soon met another man, Ernest Pearce-Crouch, also from Australia. The couple moved in together, and they had two children, a boy and a girl. Arkell-Smith and Pearce-Crouch moved to a farm in Sussex, and Arkell-Smith started to dress in a more masculine way.
In Sussex, Arkell-Smith met Elfrida Hayward. By then, Arkell-Smith had begun to dress as a man. She left her husband in 1923 and began a relationship with Hayward. Hayward believed Arkell-Smith was a man. The couple began living at the Grand Hotel, in Brighton. By then, Valerie Arkell-Smith had begun to use the name Sir Victor Barker. On 14 November, Arkell-Smith and Haward married, in what was ultimately exposed as an illegal marriage, since Arkell-Smith was a woman.
In 1926 whilst living in London she accidentally received a letter inviting her to join the National Fascisti which had been addressed to a different Colonel Barker. Arkell-Smith replied to the misdirected letter with the missive "why not", reasoning that membership of what was a macho group would help her pose as a man. She lived at the group's Earl's Court headquarters building where she worked as secretary for the group's leader Henry Rippon Seymour, whilst also involving herself in training young members in boxing and fencing, two activities regularly practised by National Fascisti members. Arkell-Smith involved herself in the kind of rough-housing that became the hallmark of the group and later recalled that "I used to go out with the boys to Hyde Park and we had many rows with the Reds." The fact that she was actually a woman was never picked up upon by her fellow members.
In 1927 she was brought before the Old Bailey on charges of possessing a forged firearms certificate after Rippon Seymour had pulled her gun on another member, Charles Eyres, in a dispute over party funding. Arkell-Smith's lawyers managed to negotiate an acquittal for Colonel Barker, as she was tried as a man, and she left the group soon after this trial.
Prison and later life
In 1929, Arkell-Smith, as "Victor Barker", was arrested for bankruptcy but was ultimately charged with, and convicted of, making a false statement on a marriage certificate. The judge, Ernest Wild, sentenced her to 9 months imprisonment. Upon learning of her relationship with Hayward, Wild said from the bench that Arkell-Smith had "profaned the house of God". After being released, Arkell-Smith moved to Henfield, where she lived as "John Hill". While there, she was arrested again 1934, this time for theft.
Later, she wrote about her life three times in popular newspapers and magazines. As Colonel Barker, she also became the subject of a sideshow in the 1930s on Blackpool seafront.
Arkell-Smith died in poverty and obscurity, under the name "Geoffrey Norton", in 1960. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Kessingland churchyard, near Lowestoft, Suffolk.
The full story of the many lives of Valerie Arkell-Smith/Victor Barker is told in 'Colonel Barker's Monstrous Regiment' by Rose Collis, Virago 2001.
D. H. Lawrence, in the essay "A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover," cited Colonel Barker (namely the fact that "his" wife believed for years that she was married to a man) as an example of the culture's profound and pervasive ignorance about sex.
The Brighton museum and history centre celebrated her life during February 2006, as part of England's LGBT month's celebrations.
- Martin Pugh, Hurrah for the Blackshirts: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars, Pimlico, 2006, p. 54
- Pugh, Hurrah for the Blackshirts, p. 69
- Pugh, Hurrah for the Blackshirts, p. 55