Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, 1815; John Crome; Norfolk Museums Service

Arabella Williams – Le Petit Matelot

In Elizabeth Sparrow’s book, The Alien Office, 1792-1806, she referred to a widowed lady named Madame Arabella Williams who was aged around fifty who was working for William Wickham ‘The Spymaster’.  Madame Williams was one of many who were living in France during and after the French Revolution but who were spying for England. There was a whole network of spies who were able to ‘blend in’ and not be questioned. The spymasters and organisation leaders were predominantly from the aristocracy and upper classes, but the spies themselves were from all walks of life. The heroine of one of our planned future books was another such spy, although we know that there is no record of her working for Wickham she was in close contact with other ministers instead.

When we first noticed Elizabeth’s account of Madame Williams were convinced that it was the heroine of one of our books, the right sort of age, living in Paris, a widow, so of course this needed to be checked out. We were wrong – they were two completely different people with the same surname… so what to do with the information we had found out about Le Petit Matelot?  Well, for such a courageous lady, risking her life, it seems wrong that there is virtually nothing about her in books or on the internet and we felt duty bound to correct this.

We begin in 1733 with the death of a gentleman by the name of Lewis Elstob former tenant of Wiganthorpe Hall, Old Terrington in North Yorkshire.

Wiganthorpe Hall; Looking across the ground towards Wiganthorpe Hall by Francis Nicholson, 1793.
Wiganthorpe Hall; Looking across the ground towards Wiganthorpe Hall by Francis Nicholson, 1793. Bonhams.

Upon his death he left two daughters, Jane and Lucy. At that time Lucy was only 17, therefore regarded as a minor so Lewis drew up a document making his elder daughter Jane, her legal guardian and responsible for all matters pertaining to her sister until she reached her majority i.e. 21.  Jane was to remain a spinster and died 25th July 1779 aged 69. She was buried at Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

 Lucy however, went on to marry the poet David Mallet on 2nd October 1742, a widower, at St Andrew’s, Holborn London. David’s first wife Susannah Berney whom he had married at St Gregory by St Paul in London in 1731 had by this time died, leaving him with two young children, a son Charles and a daughter Dorothea. Lucy was described as being the younger daughter of Lewis Elstob, a steward of the Earl of Carlisle, a lady of great merit and beauty lady. Lucy came to the marriage with a dowry of some £10,000 (just short of one million pounds in today’s money).

According to David his family could be traced back to the notorious Scottish Macgregor clan, of which Rob Roy became famous for robbery and violence.  Whether this was true or false, we’re really not sure and it would take far too much time to prove it conclusively. Allegedly David was the son of James Malloch an innkeeper from Crieff in Perthshire, however, correspondence appears to refute this. He was however, educated in Scotland and moved to Edinburgh where he became tutor to the family of Mr Home of Dreghorn. Upon moving to London David made a slight change to his surname from Malloch to a softer sounding Mallet. The move to London allowed David’s career as a poet to flourish.

Although not a well known fact, David was the co-writer with James Thomson of the much loved anthem ‘Rule Britannia’ in 1740. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that David had married into money and was a selfish person that you could not warm to and that he was not the most honourable of men.

After moving to London the couple produced two daughters, first Lucy who was born August 1743, and second Arabella and the heroine of our story on the 3rd of August 1745.  For some strange reason a baptism for Arabella appears in the parish register of St James Church, Westminster dated 12th April 1763, maybe they chose not to have her baptized until they knew there was the possibility of a marriage on the horizon – who knows!

Around this time David was showing a keenness to serve the government although, in spite of this, in December 1753 he rejected an invitation to write an opposition periodical for £400 a year. In September of 1755 whilst visiting Paris where he was busy ‘networking’ he came upon the idea of offering his services as a spy – this offer was not taken up needless to say.

A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1763, Getty Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)
A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1763, Getty Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)

When Arabella’s aunt Jane died, Arabella appeared to be the favoured one in her will and was left a large part of her aunt’s estate, making her a wealthy woman and by all accounts this was much to the annoyance of Arabella’s mother! Little is known of Arabella’s upbringing, but it could be assumed that she was affluent and well educated – a good catch for someone.

Her husband came in the shape of Edward Williams, a lieutenant in The Royal Regiment of Artillery. The couple married on the 30th October 1766 at Largo in Fife.

Edward was to progress through the military ranks, ultimately reaching the post of colonel, however, this appears to have been without his wife by his side. The marriage apparently lasted a mere two months and the couple went their separate ways, but presumably it was advantageous for Arabella (known by friends and family as Bell according to the private letters of Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire) to retain her marital status. Gibbon was an old family friend of the Mallets.

A History, Critical and Biographical, Of British Authors, From The Earliest: page 41

When Gibbon the historian was dismissed from his college at Oxford for embracing popery, he took refuge in Mallet’s house, and was rather scandalised, he says, than reclaimed, by the philosophy of his host. Wilkes mentions that the vain and fantastic wife of Mallet one day lamented to a lady that her husband suffered in reputation by his name being so often confounded with that of Smollett; the lady wittily answered, “Madam, there is a short remedy; let your husband keep his own name.”

Edward Gibbon, by Henry Walton, 1773. National Portrait Gallery.
Edward Gibbon, by Henry Walton, 1773. National Portrait Gallery.

Gibbons was quite the gossip and mentioned Arabella frequently in his letters and described her as being extremely wealthy, very attractive and having a lively personality. In a letter to his stepmother dated 29th October 1779 Edward Gibbon he described how he had dined at the home of Mrs Williams, alias Bell Mallet, Conduit Street, London and that Bell’s aunt had recently died and had left her the house, furniture, plate etc., plus a fortune of £14,000 (worth around one million in today’s money) out of which she simply had to pay an annuity of £100 per year (£6,000 in today’s money) to her sister.  He described her as being in high spirits and keen to return to France.  Her husband was apparently in New York and much esteemed in his profession, but he gave the impression that she really didn’t care much about him returning. A later letter sheds more light.

Letter from E Gibbon to his stepmother Dec 10 1779.

I have seen very little of Mrs Williams, and sorry, and indeed surprised to hear so bad an account of a little coquette to whom I only imputed the venial faults of vanity and affectation. I understand she is already on the wing.

David Mallet died in 1765, and after his death his widow Lucy moved to France.

David Hume letters from Paris, April and Sept 1764

I saw a few days ago Mrs. Mallet, who seems to be going upon a strange project, of living alone, in a hermitage, in the midst of the forest of Fontainbleau. …

Mrs Mallet has retired into the Forrest of Fontainebleau with a Macgregor. I fancy she is angry with me, and thought herself neglected by me while in Paris. I heard of her thrusting herself everywhere into Companies, who endeavoured to avoid her; and I was afraid she would have laid hold of me to enlarge her Acquaintance among the French.

Vue du Château de Fontainebleau. Pierre-Denis Martin, c.1718-1723.
Vue du Château de Fontainebleau. Pierre-Denis Martin, c.1718-1723.

Many years later, during the French Revolution, she was imprisoned with her daughter Lucy Macgregor during which time much of her wealth was confiscated. Lucy had married a Captain Macgregor of the French Service and died in Paris on 17th September 1795 at the age of seventy nine. Just before her death she was living at No. 9 Rue De Champs Elysee. Lucy left the bulk of her estate to Arabella, with other bequests to close friends and servants.  Lucy makes an interesting remark in her will about Arabella:

In case (which I hope she is wiser than to do) my daughter Arabella Williams should dispute anything in this my will or attempt to give trouble to my above named executors or to Elizabeth Stowers, I authorise the said Executors to file a bill in Chancery for the recovery of the other half of my land near Malton, left her very unjustly by my sister, who had no right to do so, as it devolved to me on the death of my sister as my mother inherited it at the death of her sister in quality of their being co heiresses , but as she left it to my daughter I would not dispute such a trifle at my age.

Arabella’s sister Lucy died of insanity just before her mother. The fate of Lucy senior’s  stepson still remains unknown and his sister Dorothea died in Italy where she had lived for a number of years, having married to escape the tyranny of her stepmother.  Dorothea’s husband was Pietro Paolo Celesia, the Genoese Ambassador to England. Arabella’s husband was to die a few years later according to The Sun newspaper dated Monday, January 29, 1798. Edward’s claim to fame was that he was involved in conducting the ‘Trigonometrical Survey of this Kingdom’. Although well known at this time he was not very highly regarded by his peers.

So, Arabella was now alone and somehow this led her into the secret world of espionage. Her ‘handler’ was William Wickham and she became known as ‘le petit matelot’ – the little sailor – as she had acted as a courier passing papers between France and England for a number of years disguised as a sailor, without being caught. One of her contacts in France was a royalist by the name of Louis Bayard, whose mistress ran a restaurant in Paris which served as a safe meeting place and shelter for the agents; another was Abbé Ratel. Arabella had her own property in France which she also used as a ‘safe house’ for other agents as and when required. Reports confirm that her house was never subjected to searches.  The group she belonged was immensely successful and despite the gendarmeries surveillance they managed to escape detection until sometime after 1804.

However, a Secret Police Bulletin dated 3rd January 1806 shows that they still had an interest in Arabella. The police questioned a man by the man of Monsieur Troche who described Arabella as being a lady from Liverpool that he had known for 5 to 6 years. The description of her was that she was about 42 years old, very petite and extremely pretty, that she had in fact had a son when she was only 14 years old and there was some mention of a colonel.

It would appear most likely that this was in fact her cover story to be used if she were arrested. She was a middle aged woman from Liverpool, the wife of a merchant, with a son born when she was a mere child herself.  She was described as being lively and immensely busy. She was said to have travelled to Dieppe, Treport, Cayeaux, and Boulogne, and once landed at Honfleur.  A Dieppe sailor, who was in Rouen where she usually stayed, confirmed that she was known as ‘The Fat Neighbour’ there. The police appeared extremely keen to track her down for interrogation.


‘in 1807… Arabella Williams, daughter of David Mallet, author of Northern Antiquities, had had more recent troubles. She had spent most of her life in Paris, but visits to London to obtain her share of her mother, Lucy Estob’s, property brought on her the suspicion of the police and she was arrested. The banker Perregaux and others had to exonerate her from the charge of espionage.’

Nothing else appears to be known of Arabella after this last sighting, until her death. She died in Paris at 11.00pm on the 5th April 1816 according to her death certificate. At the time she was living at No. 8 Rue de Luxembourg, Paris. Her death certificate confirms that she was aged 71 and from London, the widow of Edward Williams. Arabella’s will was proven on 3rd august 1816 in which she left most of her clothing including her riding habit to Madame Béens; a ring with rose coloured agate to The Marquis of Gabriac who was the husband of Mary Celesia, the daughter of her step sister Dorothea Mallet. His son was page to Bonaparte so perhaps proving Arabella’s close links with Napoleon. She left the majority of her estate to a Matthias Augusté D’Alençon.

We would like to thank Mick Curry for his help in providing extra information about Arabella and her family.

Header image: Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, 1815; John Crome; Norfolk Museums Service


Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838)

Whilst searching for clues provided for us in old documents by the heroine of  one of our books, we inadvertently stumbled across the artist Rolinda Sharples (1793– 1838). Our heroine says that she had a self portrait painted by ‘the best female artist in Bristol’, around 1815. This led us to the conclusion that there could only be two possible candidates for that position – either Rolinda or her mother. So this of course led us to research Rolinda’s life a little more, to see if we could make any connection. Unfortunately for us there doesn’t appear to be any  record of her commissions, which leaves us unable to prove conclusively that we have found the correct artist. However, the Sharples family life was so interesting that we decided to carry out some further research, hence their place on our blog.

Rolinda was part of an amazing family of artists headed by her father James, who established themselves in England, travelled to America set up an incredibly successful practice there and then returned to England.

Portrait of the Artist by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Portrait of the Artist by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

We begin Rolinda’s story with the birth of her father, James. James Sharples was born  into a minor landed gentry family from Lancashire. He was the son of George Sharples and was  baptized on 27th May 1748 at St Anne’s Church, Woodplumpton, Lancashire. The Sharples family were deeply divided between Catholicism and Puritanism, James’s side of the family being Catholic. His father was George Sharples and his mother was Ann Harrison, a widow when she married George. Her previous husband had been Richard Talbot of Lancashire, and from this marriage James had a half-sister named Elizabeth (1738-1803) who became a nun in the order of the Holy Sepulchre in Liege. With a fortune of £285 which she donated to the order in return for 17 florins a year for life she took the name of Sister Mary Hellen Aloysia.  She returned with the order as sub-prioress in the 1790’s when it returned to England and became the order of the Holy Cross. Besides his half-sister James had two full siblings, an older brother Henry (1740-1804 who became a successful timber merchant in Liverpool, and a sister Margaret who joined her half-sisters order. Margaret, who was admitted with no fortune at the age of 16 years and 8 months took the name of Sister Mary Felix Joseph and died in 1783.

Some sources say that James was sent to a Jesuit College in France to train for the priesthood, but quickly ‘opted out’ in favour of returning to England to become an artist where he became a pupil of George Romney. He was at the Jesuit College in Bruges in 1770 when his uncle William Harrison wrote to him.  James wanted money to return home, but was criticized by his uncle instead for being of a ‘fickle and unsettled disposition’.  James’ benefactor at the time was Lord Stourton, a Catholic relation of the Duke of Norfolk whose son was also at the Jesuit College at Bruges.  The Sharples family back in Woodplumpton had fallen on hard times; George had died in 1761 and his widow Ann who had carried on in business trading in cloth had been declared bankrupt once.  By 1774 he was exhibiting his work with the Liverpool Society of Artists.

By 1779 he had moved to Cambridge, then, in 1781 he moved again, this time to Bristol where he taught drawing – clearly his wanderlust was beginning to appear! We know that he was in Bristol at this time as a notice was placed in the Bristol Journal, ‘Mr Sharples from Bath, Portrait Painter in oils and crayons, begs leave to inform the nobility that he has removed from Hartwells to Mrs Jeffery’s , milliner, 28 Clare Street , where upwards of one hundred specimens of known characters may be seen.’ In 1783 he gave his address as 45 Gerrard Street in London.

James was to marry twice before meeting his final wife and co-artist Ellen. His first two wives who both died young may have shared his recusant faith, and so records on them are not forthcoming. With his first wife he produced a son George, then, with his second wife, he fathered another son, Felix Thomas. Both of these sons became artists and possibly one of his former wives was a celebrated needlewoman. In 1783 a ‘Mrs Sharpless … Needle Worker exhibited a piece at the Society of Artists, giving her address as 45 Gerrard Street and being described as ‘Embroideress to Her Majesty’.  After the death of his second wife James went to live with his older brother Henry in Liverpool, renting a house on Everton Hill.

Whilst living in Bristol a ‘pupil and young lady of fashion’ caught his eye and became his third wife, she being Ellen Wallas (often shown as Wallace). Some reports say that Ellen was a Quaker, however, if she were a Quaker and James a Catholic it seems curious that they should have chosen to marry at St Mary’s Church, Lancaster on 5th January 1787. The proof of their marriage lies in the marriage register itself with Ellen’s signature – Ellen in fact, signed her name Wallas and not Wallace. The other curious piece of information is that there is a record in the baptism register of St Peter’s Church, Bolton Le Moors, for a child – James Sharples son of James and Ellen dated 22nd May 1785, i.e. prior to their marriage, so we can only draw the conclusion that James was born out of wedlock, although most sources give his birth date as c.1788.

Mrs Ellen Sharples (1769–1849) by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Mrs Ellen Sharples (1769–1849) by Rolinda Sharples, 1814; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The parish register for the 1st October 1793 at Bath Easton, near Bath shows the baptism of Rolinda Sharples, daughter of James and Helen (known as Ellen) Sharples, (some websites inaccurately say that she was born in America). The reality is however, that shortly after the birth, at the instigation of Robert Cary, a London merchant the family packed their bags and set off for America.

Their passage to America was somewhat arduous and early on their ship was captured by a French privateer and the family was interned at Brest for seven months. Later, in 1803 when James (junior) reported news of war with France, Ellen briefly recalls the terrible ordeal in her diary:

War! how dreadful the sound, whichever way contemplated misery precedes,
accompanies, and follows in its train. Our family have experienced; severely
experienced much of its misery, and much did we witness during our seven months
captivity in France, too heart rending to red [sic].

After their release, they continued their journey across the ocean and arrived in America to begin a new life. Records of arrivals in America show that James arrived in New York early 1796, his name being recorded as James Sharpless which, he decided was easier for Americans to understand.

James set about gaining commissions, with his most famous commission being that of a portrait of George Washington, the original being drawn in 1796. Sharples was literally a pastel portrait painter, almost the only serious artist using this medium in the USA at the time. His colours were kept in small glass vessels and applied with a brush; he made a collection of portraits for himself merely requesting a sitting for a portrait to add to his pictures. This was probably an ingenious plan to obtain patronage, for duplicates were generally ordered. He finished a portrait in about two hours and charged fifteen dollars for the profile and twenty for the full face.

George Washington by James Sharples. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
George Washington by James Sharples.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The whole family engaged in artistic work and became copyists to James. Ellen appears to have been an amazingly independent woman and was one of the first professional female artists in America. With this in mind Ellen paid particular attention to her daughter’s education and development as an artist in her own right. Ellen held very progressive views on the education and independence of women. By 1803 Ellen had begun to encourage Rolinda to take an interest in art and taught her drawing and encouraged her by paying her small amounts for her work. By the time she was 13 Rolinda was a fully fledged member of the family business. She painted small scale pastel portrait of famous people and then copied them and sold them for a profit. Full accounts of the family life still remain in the form of Ellen’s diary, family papers, accounts, details of them building up a family business.

One story about the family tells how they travelled in a stagecoach near Middletown, Connecticut. The horses took fright and dashed off with Rolinda as the only occupant. Although she escaped injury James decided that it wasn’t a safe way to travel so built a large caravan drawn by one horse which they travelled about in from then on – quite the gypsy traveller!

In 1801 the family returned home, living in Bath, Bristol and London for some years.  A planned return to America in 1806 was hampered by fears of war with France, and only James Jr and Felix took passage.  James senior, his wife Ellen and daughter Rolinda finally sailed for America in 1809.

The Hot Wells, Bristol; British School, 1800; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Hot Wells, Bristol; British School, 1800; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Tragically, on February 6th 1811 whilst in New York, James died, aged 59, according to the New York Evening Post, leaving an estate worth some thirty-five thousand dollars. After burying James at the catholic cemetery Ellen returned to Bristol taking Rolinda with her; the two boys James and Felix remained in America. George, James’s son from his first marriage did not appear to be with the family, but was mentioned in his father’s will.

Felix Thomas worked mainly in Suffolk County, as a pastellist. He was described as being extremely fond of his food and drink. Rumour has it that whilst working in Yardley at the home of the Winder family, Felix made a hasty departure in 1812, never to be heard of again. Various rumours suggested that he fell victim to small-pox, that he drowned in a shipwreck and that he committed suicide. However, the reality was that he joined the army. American records show him as having joined Gayle’s 61st Regiment, Virginia Militia, in 1812 reaching the rank of Corporal. He died in the 1830’s of natural causes and was buried at Yeatman Plantation Cemetery, Matthews County.

Felix Thomas Sharples

Rolinda, by this time was moving on from painting small portraits and earned her living painting portraits in oil and more ambitious genre and contemporary history paintings that depicted groups. In 1814, Rolinda painted a self-portrait, and in 1815 she completed a double portrait entitled ‘The Artist and Her Mother’.

The Artist and Her Mother by Rolinda Sharples, 1816; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Artist and Her Mother by Rolinda Sharples, 1816; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Rolinda was elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists in 1827 and was one of the first female artists to paint multi-figure compositions.  Her major works include ‘The Cloak Room, Clifton, Assembly Rooms’, ‘Racing on the Downs’ and ‘The Trial of Colonel Brereton’. Her works were exhibited at Bristol, Leeds, Carlisle and Birmingham.

The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms by Rolinda Sharples, 1818; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms by Rolinda Sharples, 1818; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

One of her most famous paintings was that of ‘The Trial of Colonel Brereton‘ painted after The Bristol Reform Riots of 1831. The riots were a protest at the House of Lords preventing the Reform Bill from passing through Parliament. Lieutenant Colonel Brereton was court-martialled in January 1832 for sending his squadron away on the Saturday night in the midst of the chaos. Some people thought that Brereton could have done more to save the city from destruction if he had acted earlier and more decisively. For others, however, Brereton had been trying to hold his troops back from violence against the rioters. Many people thought that he was being made a scapegoat for the failure of the city magistrates to support him and give him orders to cope with the rioting. Tragically, Brereton shot himself four days after the trial began. Rolinda not only sketched during the trial, but also as some of those attending to sit for her. A slight element of artistic licence here – the lady seated at the bottom centre of the painting was none other than her mother, positioned in such a way as to appear to be overseeing the proceedings – very clever!

The Trial of Colonel Brereton by Rolinda Sharples, 1834; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
The Trial of Colonel Brereton by Rolinda Sharples, 1834; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

For the last few years of her life she lived with her mother in the Hotwells district of Bristol and died of breast cancer in 1838. There remains a plaque at Rolinda’s old house on Canynge Road in Clifton which reads “Ellen Sharples (1769-1849) and Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838) mother and daughter artists lived here 1821-1832”.

A year and a half after Rolinda’s demise James junior was also to die of pneumonia leaving just Ellen who spent her remaining years accompanied by her servant Maria Johnson at St Vincent’s Parade, Clifton, until her her death aged,80. She was to die leaving no heirs leaving no heirs so she decided to donate over 90 pictures to The Museum at Bristol, as well as her own and Rolinda’s and James Junior’s.

Jane Austen has been described as a ‘provincial novelist’ and Rolinda as a ‘provincial artist’. There appears to be a wide gap of public awareness between the two women, what’s your view of this?

Further information about  about Ellen Sharples and here 

Game Duty Lists, Gentlemen’s and Gamekeepers’ Certificates

1784 and 1785 saw the introduction of the Game Acts which made it compulsory for individuals who wished to kill game to purchase a certificate at a cost of 2 guineas per year. Anyone caught killing game without a licence or even simply refusing to show their certificate could be fined £50. The Act officially came into place from the end of July 1785 so after that date anyone caught killing game without a certificate had to pay a fine of £20.

Gamekeepers also often kept a register for a certificate, through the deputation of the Lord or Lady of the Manor. A gamekeeper’s certificate was 10s 6d, but they were also liable to a £20 fine if they were caught killing game outside the Manor where they were employed. If a new gamekeeper was appointed, the original certificate was void. Anyone returning from abroad after 1 July 1784 was charged double the amount.

In 1796 the shooting season was shortened from 1st September to the 1st March because sportsmen were trampling the corn. The new season was to be 14th September to 14th February the following year.

 Header image: Tillemans, Peter; A View of Uppark; National Trust, Uppark

Currency Converter – Old Money to New

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

When reading wills and other historic documents it is difficult to work out when sums of money are mentioned how much it is worth in today’s currency.

The National Archives have kindly provided a currency converter to help with this. You simply enter the amount of money mentioned, select the year and the website does the rest – nice and easy!

So, for example, £100 in 1780 would have the same spending power as just over £6,000 in today’s currency. The website, however, only converts at 2005’s value so it’s slightly out, but it gives quite a reasonable estimate.

National Archives Currency Converter

Helen Maria Williams


There are series of coincidences between the heroine of one of our future books and Helen Maria Williams, but nothing to conclusively prove that they knew each other – they both lived on the same street in Paris at the same time; they both wrote about life in Revolutionary France and travelled around Europe at about the same time; both imprisoned during the French Revolution; they were about the same age and died within months of each other in France; both women were named Williams. We have tried to make a familial connection but so far there appears nothing to connect the women except quite a few coincidences. With this in mind we thought it might be of interest to provide a ‘potted’ history of Helen’s life and also set some of the records straight:–

The London Marriage Bonds and Allegations for St Mary Le Strand dated 30th May 1758 record Charles Williams (a widower) and Helen Hay (a spinster, aged 24) preparing to solemnize their marriage.

Just over a year later, on 17th June 1759, Helen gave birth to a daughter, Helen Maria Williams. She was one of two girls born to Charles Williams and his wife Helen Hay, although Charles had another daughter, Persis by his first wife. Helen Maria was baptized at St James Church, Westminster on 5th July 1759. The couple returned to the same church a little over a year later to baptize their second daughter, Cecilia.

Many websites have speculated upon Helen’s date of birth, so we have given the date quite clearly to end this misinformation, both Helen and Cecilia are quite clearly shown in the parish record books slightly earlier than many people appear to think.



When Helen was only three years old her father was buried at St John the Evangelist Church in Westminster on 23rd December 1762. Charles’s will specifically named his first daughter, Persis and his wife Helen, but there is no specific reference to the other two girls.

After her father’s death, Helen decided to move the girls up to Berwick upon Tweed where Helen described her education as ‘confined’. Clearly, this confined education did not hinder her in any way, but in 1781 she was to return to London where she met Andrew Kippis (28 March 1725 – 8 October 1795), a non-conformist clergyman and prolific writer who had a profound effect on her life and her future writings.

Helen was an independent woman who travelled widely around Europe and wrote of her travels. Part of this time was spent in France during the French Revolution where she favoured the revolutionaries.  Amongst many of Helen’s writings, she has, in places been accredited with writing ‘A Residence in France During the Years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795’. This is once again an error as publicly it was attributed to ‘An English Lady’. It was in fact written by the heroine of ones of our books who confirmed this is a letter to a senior British politician.

It became too unsafe for Helen to remain in France, so she went into exile in Switzerland for six months and travelled with John Hurford Stone, with whom it was alleged she had a relationship, however, there is no proof to substantiate this. Helen was adamant that she had behaved correctly. In 1798 Helen’s sister Cecille, married by then died and Helen became the adoptive mother of her two nephews Athanase (1795–1868) and Charles (1797–1851) Coquerel. In later years Helen went to live in Amsterdam with her eldest nephew but returned once more to Paris just prior to her death at the end of 1827.

Hair Powder Tax

One of the more obscure sources of information for family historians that are looking specifically at the 18th century is hair powder certificates. William Pitt the Younger was responsible for a whole series of taxes at the end of the 18th century, including the first income tax, either directly or indirectly to help fund the expensive war with Napoleonic France. The introduction of a tax on hair powder was one such measure.

Leaving off powder, or, a frugal family saving the guinea. A satire on the hair powder tax.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library – Leaving off Powder


Individuals who used hair powder were required to purchase a certificate from their local Justice of the Peace for which they were charged one guinea.  The list of those that had paid was lodged at the local Quarter Session court and a copy of the list affixed to the door of the parish church by the parish constable. It was common practice also, to fine those who did not pay this tax.

The information included in the list will provide a date, a parish, a list of names and a description being usually the relationship to the head of the household or another role such as servant. So, like a census return, it is possible to piece together some familial relationships.

The town before you, or, Welch wigs, or, Whimsicallities, or, How to save the tax on hair powder. (Lewis Walpole Library)
The town before you, or, Welch wigs, or, Whimsicallities, or, How to save the tax on hair powder. (Lewis Walpole Library)


The lists however will of course be much less complete than a census because most people were not of a status to wear wigs or hair powder and there were also many exemptions such as clergymen with an income of under £100 a year, non-commissioned officers, militia, mariners, officers in the navy below commander and many others. One payment was acceptable for a group of servants in one household.

Marie Antoinette wearing the distinctive pouf style coiffure: her own natural hair is extended on the top with an artificial hairpiece.
Marie Antoinette wearing the distinctive pouf style coiffure: her own natural hair is extended on the top with an artificial hairpiece.

Contrary to popular belief women did not wear wigs, but simply had the equivalent of today’s hair extensions added to their existing hair. Women mainly powdered their hair grey or blueish grey and from the 1770’s it was never bright white like men. Wig powder itself was made from finely ground starch to which was added lavender, jasmine, roses and scented with orange flower and was occasionally coloured violet, blue, pink or yellow, but was most often used as off-white.

Wigs all the rage, or a debate on the baldness of the times.
Courtesy of the British Museum

In 1869 the Act was repealed as less than 1,000 people were by that time wearing wigs – maybe it was the cost of paying such a large amount of duty that led people to change their appearance. Certainly, a more natural hairstyle was adopted by fashionable young gentlemen in Regency England.

It is still possible today to find records around the country of hair powder certificates if you contact the relevant archives.

An example of a hair powder duty certificate from 1795
An example of a certificate
Samuel Richardson, the Novelist (1684-1761), Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family by Francis Hayman, 1740-41; Tate

‘Clarissa’ and ‘ Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson wrote two best-selling novels – Clarissa and Pamela in the 1740′s, published whilst he was living at Parson’s Green in Fulham, a close neighbour of the Earl of Peterborough and his mansion, Peterborough House. Clarissa tells the story of Clarissa Harlowe, a young girl whose family are newly come into a fortune.

The Harlowe Family, from Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa" by Joseph Highmore (Yale Centre for British Art)
The Harlowe Family, from Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” by Joseph Highmore (Yale Centre for British Art)

First betrothed to Richard Lovelace in anticipation of the Earldom he will inherit, she is then forced by her family to marry a man she loathes, Roger Solmes.  Lovelace, intent on marrying her to avenge himself on her family as well as wanting to possess her, tricks Clarissa into running away with him before she can marry Solmes; she is subsequently held prisoner by his before being drugged and raped. Pamela was published slightly earlier tells the story of a maidservant Pamela Andrews whose master Mr B made unwanted advances toward her.

Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate
Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate

Mr B was infatuated with her looks and her innocence and intelligence, but his position in society prevented him from marrying her, so instead, he abducted her and locked him up in one of his houses, during which time he attempted to seduce and rape her. She, of course, resisted, but over time fell in love with him. He intercepted letters she wrote to her parents, eventually, she tried to escape. Her virtue was finally rewarded when he proposed marriage to her. In the second part of the novel, Pamela attempts to build a successful relationship with him and to acclimate to upper-class society.

Pamela is Married by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate
Pamela is Married by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate

The reason for mentioning this is that there are many similarities between Richardson’s stories and one of our future books. It does raise the question was our heroine telling the truth or had she actually read his fictional stories and decided that her life story would be more interesting if there had been more drama in it? You’d have to read our book for the answer to that question.

Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlow by Francis Hayman, 1753
Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlow by Francis Hayman, 1753


Header image:

Samuel Richardson, the Novelist (1684-1761), Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family by Francis Hayman, 1740-41; Tate

St George's, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787

Reverend William Dodd

One of our books has taken us on many circuitous journeys and along the way we have come across some fascinating characters including a link to Freemasonry in the 1780s. One of our main characters was closely involved in Freemasonry in London and belonged to the same Lodges as this gentleman – The Reverend William Dodd (1729 – 1777).  Brother Dodd was initiated into the St Alban’s Lodge No. 29 in 1775.

Dodd led an extravagant life spending far more than he was earning and as such gained the nickname ‘The Macaroni Parson’ due to his extravagant taste in clothes. Born in Bourne, Lincolnshire he attended Cambridge, after which he moved to London and married the daughter of a domestic servant which left him in a precarious financial position.  He was a well-respected man and known for his charitable work,  Among other things he instituted an unmarried mothers home ( The Magdalen ) for ‘reclaiming young women who had swerved from the path of virtue’; The Humane Society ( for the recovery of persons apparently drowned )  and the Society for the Relief of Poor Debtors.

William Dodd by John Russell, 1769. © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Dodd by John Russell, 1769. © National Portrait Gallery, London

There was, however, another, more sinister side to his character and in 1774 he decided it was time to improve his financial situation and attempted to gain the lucrative position of rector of St Georges, Hanover Square. In order to attempt to secure this post, he tried to bribe the wife of the Lord Chancellor, Lady Apsley, by offering her £3,000. The letter offering this bribe was traced back to him and he was dismissed from his existing post. He then decided that life wasn’t so good in England so disappeared to Geneva and France until the dust settled. He finally decided it was safe to return two years later.

In February of 1777, Dodd forged a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, The Earl of Chesterfield to help clear his debts. The bond was accepted in good faith by the bankers who lent him money on the strength of it. It was only later that the banker realized it was a forgery. Dodd confessed immediately and pleaded for time to rectify this.  This was to no avail – off to prison he went. He was later tried and sentenced to death despite Samuel Johnson writing papers defending him and a petition signed by 23,000 people.

He was publicly hanged at Tyburn on 27th June 1777. The story, however, didn’t end there.

Dr Dodd and Joseph Harris at the place of execution. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Dr Dodd and Joseph Harris at the place of execution. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

As was usual practice for the time, those who could afford it would pay for the executioner to steady the body from swaying while suspended from the gibbet – and to cut the body down pretty quickly.  Then the body would be placed in a coach and rushed to an undertaker nearby.  There a surgeon and a hot bath would be waiting in an attempt to revive the body.  It didn’t always work, but it was better than nothing.

The executioner kept his part of the bargain and Dodd hoped to be resurrected by Dr John Hunter.  Hunter knew that death by hanging prisoners died a slow death from asphyxiation rather than a broken neck and he believed that if the body arrived with him soon after the hanging that he could revive the prisoner. Ironically, Dodd’s was so popular, and the crowd so incensed at his death, that they mobbed the coach, with his body still in it and held it up for two hours, making any attempt at resuscitation impossible.

Dodd was apparently taken for burial at Cowley, Middlesex. Having checked the parish records there is no entry recording his burial.  Rumours continued for several years that Hunter had in fact succeeded in bringing him back to life. Claims were made by people that they had actually met Dodd well after his supposed death – in France and in Scotland. Did he come back from the dead? Who knows, we can but speculate.

Even more ironic, is the fact that Dodd had written a sermon a few years previously titled “The frequency of Capital Punishment inconsistent with Justice, sound policy and religion”, in which he attacked the haphazard application of the death penalty.

The writer Wendy Moore has written a book that tells the whole story ‘The Knife Man’.


Following his death, all his property was sold at auction.