Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
PIPPA HOLMES aka Philip Hanbury (# 16)
Pippa Holmes (aka Philip Hanbury)
Some changes have been made to protect the sitter’s identity.
Born in Kilburn, Derbyshire, England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: English
‘Pippa’ is the name of Philip Hanbury’s female persona and also the one he has adopted as his stage name. Born to poor working-class parents in the East Midlands at the beginning of the Second World War did not provide Philip with the most propitious start in life. Similarly, he would have been better off with a father who could have been more present in the home, but being a labourer and working in factories meant that he was little different from almost all the other men around who worked ‘down pit’. When, towards the end of his working life, he became a bus conductor, he did at least get to travel. Local male culture focussed on the pub and even though Philip’s father had been to grammar school on a scholarship (he had to leave when his father was killed in France in 1916) he nonetheless fitted into that pattern. Philip’s mother, who had had a difficult childhood, a problematic father, and now a difficult marriage, was generally inclined to mistrust men.
Philip had one older and one younger sister and their lives were tough, as were the lives of most of the people around them; a little more father and a bit more money might have helped. With his mother generally having three jobs to keep the family afloat, any parental presence was scarce. He felt that his sisters had got the hang of their family dynamic better than he did as they both succeeded in ‘adopting’ families in the neighbourhood and spent a lot of their time with them. Home was a very female society, with his mother, his two sisters and an aunt all living in their small house, Philip was often the only male around (the uncle was away, serving with the RAF in Palestine). “My mother’s attitude to men,” says Philip, “almost certainly had a great effect on my developing psyche. I began to share my mother’s very negative image of men and this made me feel an outsider in our very female household, even at an early age. I seemed to be a member of the wrong and detested sex.”
People like Philip, with their strong dual-gender identification, attract many descriptors, not all derogatory but, while Pippa might refer to herself as ‘transsexual’, Philip would prefer to refer to himself as ‘transgendered’. However, during childhood, like all youngsters, he was only aware of two gender states, male and female, nothing else. Asked if he felt there was anything unusual about his sexuality or proclivities, he does remember trying on his sister’s clothes very early on, mainly in secret, but occasionally he played at dressing up with one of his sisters - nothing unusual amongst siblings, he suspects. “I was quite happy in the company of other boys and most of my friends were boys. I didn’t really have that feeling, often described by the transgendered, that I was in the ‘wrong’ body.”
Philip started primary school in a small East Midlands town, where his parents rented two rooms in a house, and where he lived until the age of 17 when the family broke up. He moved up to junior school, where he remained until he was 11. Like some of his friends, he passed the 11+ examination but, unlike them, he was able to take up the place at grammar school as his mother was determined that he should. “Me Mam worked extra shifts and even got another job to pay for the school uniform. She was determined that her children should have the best chance possible.” The grammar school was not unlike other rural grammar schools, largely populated by middle-class children from more affluent families who aped their ‘betters’ at public school - that was the over-riding culture. In his own words, Philip says: “I never quite fitted in. My mother never went to Parents’ Evenings because she was conscious of not having sufficiently presentable clothes to go in. I remained in the top stream throughout the school and my ability was generally well-recognised by individual teachers. I simply loved Maths and Physics.”
Philip’s examination results were not only exceptional, they were also among the best in the County. He dreamt of teaching Physics and hoped to be able to continue into the Sixth Form and then take the next step on to university. But this was not to be: the Headmaster made it quite clear that staying on at the grammar school was not an option for him and that some kind of trade apprenticeship was the only appropriate avenue for someone with his social background. The dear old English class system cut in with full force, obstructing his progress as it had done for a great many of those who did not already belong to the establishment. “If you were poor, all the doors remained firmly shut against you,” says Philip, “even against those who were talented and showed real promise.”
Philip was 16 when the effects of puberty cut in and he started to fancy girls, but his desire to wear women’s clothes persisted too, though this had to be done clandestinely. “I was generally a lonely boy but this secret pleasure remained with me, hidden.” At around the same time, Philip discovered Louis Armstrong and Eddie Calvert and joined a local brass band, learning to play the cornet. He discovered the musical talent and the passion for music that have stayed with him until today. “We had a smart band uniform but even then, I longed to wear the uniform of the band’s lady players - it seemed to me simply more stylish. Ironically, though I desired women’s clothes, I desired the women too.”
Of course, living in the provinces a mere decade after the War, with no books in the house and a life bounded by conventionality, there was not even a remote opportunity of discovering if his own deep desires might possibly be shared by others. From a twenty-first century viewpoint, these could be described as almost the ‘dark ages’ of information about such matters as sex, sexuality and gender. Even conventional sex was discussed only in the most hushed tones and was always cloaked in mystery, couched in ‘double speak’, or the subject of humour that was hard for the uninitiated to penetrate. Phillip would have to wait until many years later to discover that he was by no means alone in the world, that there were others like him who felt outwardly and in many other ways male but who harboured deep down inside the continuing desire to be a woman.
In his childhood, Philip played a lot with Meccano and loved to play with construction toys of any kind, creating things out of components he found anywhere and showing a real talent for anything mechanical and three-dimensional. Having been denied the opportunity to carry on at the grammar school, he showed his initiative and wrote to every company in Britain that made aeroplanes, seeking an apprenticeship. His endeavours bore fruit and, on leaving school, he was offered a place with a local aero-engine manufacturer, where he did a five-year engineering apprenticeship.
“Around that time, after the family had broken up and while we were living with relatives, I remember staying in the house of a relative whose daughter was away and I had her room for a few weeks. The room was full of her clothes and I remember taking some of them, cycling into the countryside and, for the first time, dressing completely as a woman. It was my very first time - dressed in women’s clothes, and outside. I was 17. It was scary but it felt good. This was a difficult time for me; I had to start shaving and I had an aversion to it - I hated it for what it meant.”
The apprenticeship progressed well, work was deeply fulfilling and offered a great learning experience. At that stage, Philip started to go out dressed as a woman, quite regularly, and even ventured into the city in which he now lived; either he was very convincing or just lucky, but he never seemed to encounter any major problems. “I was quite jealous of women and I felt deeply that I wanted to be one. When wearing women’s clothes, I felt happy.” At that stage, though the Pippa persona did not yet exist, Philip gradually started to recognise a female version of himself but he kept these two worlds apart. “I did have girlfriends too, in my male persona, of course, and wearing men’s clothes. Managing to keep these two worlds apart wasn’t easy and in many ways, even now, 50 years later, there are still difficulties. If I am in the presence of people who don’t know anything about my female persona, I feel deeply that part of me remains unrecognised and is very much excluded from the company.” After some thought, Philip adds, “Being trapped in the wrong body is not quite what I feel; instead, for me, it is like not feeling completely who I really am.” While Philip is clearly a man, he deeply desires to be a woman.
While Philip qualified as an engineer, he also played trumpet quite extensively in orchestras and several local dance bands. In those days, everybody went dancing, so the dance band playing proved to be rather lucrative, indeed more so than his day job. “Of course, I always played in my male persona, nothing else could have been contemplated then.” With the earnings he was able to save, Philip started his mother on the way to buying her own house, the first home that she could call her own.
Once more tapping into his reserves of drive and determination, Philip decided to better himself; he left the East Midlands and his old life behind him and arrived in London. With a maintenance grant to live on and no fees to pay (these were the good old days for students in higher education) he studied Geology and Physics at one of the University of London colleges. He managed to get into a hall of residence, partly because he played the trumpet and the Master of the hall wanted to put a band together and badly needed a trumpeter. Arriving from the provinces to the London of the 1960‘s must have certainly been a life-changing experience. Philip was 23 and felt very immature in comparison with those around him. Living in a men’s hall of residence provided no opportunity for wearing women’s clothes but he did play music a lot - the opportunities were plentiful. He also met his wife to be: she had come over from the Continent and was living in London to learn English. They dated and got married (Philip was 25) and they are still together 48 years later. Although Philip was conscious of his desire to wear woman’s clothes, he felt, at that time, that it was just something that would go away when he got married and settled down. Thus the topic was not to come up in his marriage for many years, not until he discovered that something called ‘transgender’ existed and that he was not unique in his desires.
Philip graduated in the mid ‘60s and got a job with a Canadian oil and gas company. He moved to Canada with his new wife on a two-year contract and their first son was born there. Living in a new country, being a young father, enjoying an important and challenging professional job, these things would make up a story that could be told by lots of folk but of course, Philip was different. The internal psychological conflict between his two personas followed him always - while it was sometimes overshadowed, it was never dormant. The new job involved being away from home, travelling and working out in the field, and that offered some opportunities for dressing up, but always behind locked doors, of course, with the curtains drawn.
When the family returned to England, they settled in London where their second son was born. Philip returned to the aerospace field, becoming Chief Development Engineer for a small firm designing and testing helicopters. After this, he worked in Electronics for two years, following which, in fulfilment of his original grammar school dream, he took up teaching - Philip taught Engineering at what was then called a polytechnic. In 1980, he started up his own company, producing technical and computing books, and becoming the biggest independent technical publishing company in Britain at that time. This enterprise came to an end when a disastrous fire destroyed the entire building in which the company was housed and the business too went up in flames. Philip returned to teaching, the career he pursued until his retirement, and his engagement with the world of music continued: he ran two bands for young people.
During the 1970’s, Philip’s explorations of his female self became more frequent; he discovered the Beaumont Society and even plucked up the courage to attend a few of their meetings - he was now into his 40’s. “All of this was still very much clandestine although, by this time, I had discussed my desires with my wife, but to discover that other transgender people existed was a great eye opener, a great relief. I no longer had to live with the thought that I was the only one harbouring such conflicting feelings. My wife found that period exceptionally difficult. Having discovered that I wished to attend such meetings, her first reaction was to ask: ‘Are you gay?’ - my being gay might well have brought our marriage to an end. She did not see me dressed as a woman for many years to come - it had to be that way. My relationship with my wife was, and continues to be, my most important one and I would avoid doing anything which might cause her pain or discomfort.” Overall, this period proved a depressing one for Philip; with the passage of time, the tensions within him sometimes became almost impossible to bear. Having to lead a dual existence, keeping things hidden from his wife, this felt wrong. Eventually, while she did feel able to go with him to a few of the Beaumont meetings, the learning process was slow and uncomfortable for her, and for Philip too. The very thought of coming out to his sons was something that could not even be contemplated at that time.
“I have considered having gender reassignment therapy,” Philip says, “but to be honest, I am now too old for it, and it would be too dangerous at my age. If I had known then what I know now, I should not, as a younger man, have hesitated in initiating the process of ‘transition’, but having chosen to have a wife and a family, I feel that with those choices come obligations and commitments too.” He explains how he feels that, as one gets older, social patterns build up that create a momentum of their own which, combined with other motivations, determines the path of life for you.
But Philip’s brilliant, talented, enterprising, adventurous mind and spirit are not designed for stagnation and decline into old age. Philip has raised the art of the dual existence to new heights and is to be admired for his perseverance and his ingenuity. While he lives a mostly conventional life, as a man, he continues to undertake extraordinary things with his hands and his mind: he now designs, manufactures and recreates long-lost musical instruments, a field in which he is an established expert, recognised throughout Europe. It is the unique combination of engineering skill with his love of music that allows him to break new ground and makes Philip a remarkable music archaeologist.
But there is more to Philip yet: in his parallel life, Philip becomes ‘Pippa’, an accomplished musician and performer. Pippa has played in London’s Gay Symphony Orchestra and, for the last five years, she has been a member of the colourful Trans-Siberian March Band which itself pushes the boundaries, in contemporary reinterpretations of traditional Balkan music. They perform all over the UK, are seen at the major UK festivals, and have toured Europe several times. Their music has been heard at national events, in a growing number of venues throughout the UK and, of course, at the Glastonbury Festival too. By everyone in the band, Pippa has always been accepted as a woman and she tours as a woman.
However inspiring and extraordinary Philip’s double life might be, he still needs to adapt to and respect the feelings of those around him who do not accept this double life. Perhaps one day people who question their gender will be freely accepted but, for now, this double existence needs to be hidden.
Being asked what he considers to be the disadvantages of being an outsider, Philip says: “Never feeling part of any one community. The transgender community is probably the only exception and that is not very satisfactory; it as a community of people who are equally dissatisfied. It is like being in prison - everyone else there is a prisoner too.”
Asked if he sees any advantages in being an outsider, Philip says: “Very few indeed. Perhaps one might be the insights into different relationships in society. It is also fascinating to observe how differently I am treated as Philip and as Pippa, male and female. Amusingly, I am conscious that if I sit on the Underground as Pippa, women will sit next to me in an empty carriage and frequently engage this old lady in conversation; that is not the case when I travel as Philip.”
To hypothesise about Philip’s being able to choose not to be transexual and thus not to be an outsider would be absurd, of course; it is not a matter of so-called ‘lifestyle choice’. Philip knows who he is, but mostly he is unable to be who he really is, a woman. Philip says: “I grew up in a mining town, very macho, very rigid in its views, where any deviation from gender roles was unacceptable. That is my background and that became very much a part of me. I fight it, of course, but that is where I’m coming from. The struggle never quite ends; the elephant is always in the room.”
Interview Date: 20th June 2013
Updated: 26th January 2014
To learn more about the Trans-Siberian March Band, use the following link:
The Beaumont Society is a national self-help body run by and for those who cross-dress or who are transexual. They can be contacted online at:
Philip leads a mostly conventional life as an older man, yet continues to apply himself to some extraordinary projects, gaining Europe-wide recognition for his design and manufacture of long-lost musical instruments. But Philip also has a female persona, ‘Pippa’, and while he thinks of himself as ‘transgendered’, she might refer to herself as ‘transsexual’. ‘Pippa’ is also the stage name adopted by this brilliant, talented, enterprising and adventurous spirit who, at 74, has no plans to stagnate or decline into a graceful old age: Philip may be the distinguished musicologist and maker, but Pippa is his vibrant, outré alter ego who loves to perform with the colourful Trans-Siberian March Band.
Photography: London 20th June 2013