Frederick “Fred” Jester Barnes was born on the 21st May 1885 at 219 Great Lister Street, Saltley, Birmingham in a bedroom above his father’s butchers shop. Modest and unremarkable beginnings indeed for a man who went on to live an openly gay and highly flamboyant life in an era when to do so was both uncommon and perilous.
Image Copyright Birmingham City Council
From an early age Fred tended towards play acting and dressing up, despite being quite ignorant of any notion of a ‘theatrical’ life until a theatre visit at the age of ten. Encouraged by his mother, he delighted in dressing up and posing before the mirror in a way that could not have been more distant from the slaughter and butchery taking place in the shop below.
Fred’s father had planned that his only son would partner and succeed him in the butchery business. But Fred’s talents lay elsewhere and a combination of determination and destiny ultimately carried Fred, against his father’s wishes, away from his birth right and onto the stage at the age of 21.
His career spanned the next 32 years until his untimely suspected suicide in October 1938 at the age of just 53. It was a journey that took him from rags to riches to rags once more in a story that is in turns more dramatic and improbable than any of the characters that he played.
Fred was undoubtedly a queer pioneer – a trailblazer in the gay desert of prudish Edwardian Britain.
Fred’s funderal took place at St.Saviours Chutch in Saltley Birmingham in 1938 (Image Courtesy of Carl Chinn, Birmingham Lives)