April Ashley came to public prominence in the 1960’s when she became on of the first people to undergo gender realignment surgery.
She was born as George Jamieson on 29th April 1935, the son of Roman Catholic Royal Navy cook Frederick Jamieson and his protestant wife Ada (née Brown). In her autobiography April Ashley records that she was “conceived one summer at the Fort Hotel (where my mother was a chambermaid) on the Isle of Man”. There were five brothers and sisters plus several others dying at birth. The family lived at 28 Upper Pitt Street L8 (now demolished) which she described as “a black dockland slum”. A few years after her birth the family moved to a council house at 51 Teynham Crescent L11 in Norris Green. She attended the nearby St Theresa’s primary school which she judged to be “a vicious and backward institution”.
Her father was away at sea much of the time and when home spent most of his time and money on drink. She would later say of him “he was a scoundrel, a heavy drinker and spent every penny on the booze. I was mad about him.” During his absences her mother had a succession of live-in boyfriends and the couple eventually separated. After leaving school she worked in a grocery business in the old St John’s Market before joining the merchant navy and heading to the cadet ship S.S. Vindicatrix. Joining the crew of the S.S. Pacific Fortune, on her second voyage she attempted suicide whilst in California and a consequent dishonourable discharge brought an end to her seafaring . Back home in Liverpool another suicide attempt, she threw herself in the Mersey, resulted in her ‘detention’ in a mental hospital in Ormskirk. A six month spell saw massive doses of male hormones and electro-convulsive therapy, all to little effect.
Moving to London and making ends meet with catering work, whilst on holiday in Paris she was introduced to Le Carrousel nightclub and started working in its transgender cabaret as a dancer, adopting the name Tony April. The star of the show was Coccinelle who enjoyed great fame in France having undergone transgender surgery in 1958. She recommended ‘Tony’ to the pioneering surgeon George Burou and after surgery at his clinic in Casablanca April Ashley was ‘born’ in May 1960.
Returning to Britain she began a successful career as a model, appearing in Vogue magazine and being photographed by David Bailey. She also gained a small role in the 1961 film The Road to Hong Kong starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. In 1960 she had met Hon. Arthur Corbett, the Old Etonian son of Lord Rowallan and the couple married in 1963. However, in 1961 a friend sold her story to the Sunday People who ‘outed’ her as transgender and provoked considerable public scandal. The marriage soon ended and resulted in a lengthy legal case which ultimately annulled the marriage as under the law April Ashley remained a man and could not therefore marry another man.
The scandal effectively ended her lucrative modelling career and over subsequent decades, and further marriages, she pursued various initiatives both here in the UK and in California. In 2005 she eventually received a birth certificate recognising her as a woman. In 2012 she received the MBE for services to transgender equality. Liverpool made her a Citizen of Honour in 2015 and an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool Life, Portrait of a Lady, ran for 12 months the same year.
She died, aged 86, on 27th December 2021.
The Jamieson family moved to this house in the mid-1930s
The young George Jamieson
The most comprehensive source available is her autobiography April Ashley's Odyssey co-authored with Duncan Fallowell [Jonathan Cape 1982]. It is a hugely entertaining account of her life written with much wit and self-deprecation. (I bought my copy some years ago and it is now quite rare - a copy on Ebay asking £100). She issued a later autobiography The First Lady in 2006 but the publishers withdrew it when it was found to contain much material lifted wholsesale from the earlier work. The Wikipedia entry is somewhat limited. The Guardian obituary is well worth reading. A range of information is available from her official site aprilashley.org. Among many clips available on YouTube there is a short interview feature from 1980.
© Liverpool Footprints