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.

Helen Maria Williams. © British Museum
Helen Maria Williams. © British Museum

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 Maria Williams. © British Museum
Helen Maria Williams. © British Museum

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.

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