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

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