Courtesy of National Library of Scotland from the Balcarres Heritage Trust
Behold that shivering female there,
Who plies her woeful trade!
‘Tis ten to one you’ll find that GIN,
That hopeless wretch has made.
(The Gin-Shop; Or, a Peep into a Prison, Hannah More)
Our blog today concerns Lady Barrymore aka ‘The Boxing Baroness’ aka Mary Ann Pearce (sometimes Pierce).
In her youth ‘Lady Barrymore’ had been a beauty and the mistress of Richard Barry, the 7th Earl of Barrymore (1769 – 1793), a notorious rake known as Hellgate (his brothers were Newgate (after the prison) and Cripplegate (due to a deformity) and his sister Billingsgate because she swore like a fishwife).
For an all too brief time, Mary Ann Pearce enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle with a splendid house together with her own carriage provided for her. Their relationship had presumably come to an end by the time Barrymore eloped with Charlotte Goulding, the daughter of a London sedan chairman and niece to Lady Letitia (Letty) Lade who had made a scandalous marriage with Sir John Lade, one of the inner circle of the Prince of Wales. Before her marriage, Letty had been the mistress of both the Duke of York and John Rann, the highwayman.
Barrymore died the following year aged only 23. He was a Captain in the Royal Berkshire Militia and had been driving a gig which was taking French prisoners of war to Dover when his musket accidentally discharged.
Subsequently, Mary Ann was known as ‘Lady Barrymore’ because of her previous connection but she had no entitlement to that name. Her fondness for gin was her downfall and her undoing and led to numerous appearances before the Justices of the Peace and many spells in Tothill Fields Bridewell, often on the treadmill.
Let’s just set the record straight about ‘Lady Barrymore’ as there is plenty of conflicting information out there: the ‘boxing baroness’ and the woman who made regular appearances in the London courts, usually for being drunk and disorderly, was Mary Ann Pearce, not Charlotte Goulding who Richard married in June 1792. Poor Charlotte would be spinning in her grave at the thought of such an error!
Pearce was reputedly Mary Ann’s married name, one source having Lord Barrymore marry her off to a servant when he’d tired of her but another says her husband is mentioned as being an officer on the half pay. Caroline Norton (née Sheridan, granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan) who became notorious when her husband, the Honourable George Norton, brought a criminal conversation case against her said she was the sister of Edward Wentworth Pearce.
Now Edward (or Edmund) Wentworth Pearce’s family are fascinating in their own right and, on face value, look an ideal match for the hapless Mary Ann. Far from being servants, they are reasonably well-born and have two brothers who were on half-pay, one from the navy and one from the army, and their story is littered with family feuds, whoring, drunkenness (like Mary Ann a fondness for gin) and claims of insanity. There was a Mary and a Maria Pearce in this family but the Pearce’s are worthy of a blog in their own right, which you can find here.
Whoever Mr Pearce was, the marriage was an unhappy one and he seems to have abandoned Mary Ann by the beginning of the 1820s when her descent into the gutter led to her notoriety. She was often found insensible around the Drury Lane area of London, sometimes almost naked, and, if she wasn’t insensible, all too prone to using her fists, especially on the watchmen trying to arrest her, hence her sobriquet of ‘The Boxing Baroness’.
A picture of her, fists raised, appeared in the March 1819 edition of the Bon Ton Magazine in which she was linked to Viscount Ranelagh who had stood accused of an assault on some men who had trespassed on his property in the December of 1818.
Mary Ann’s is a tragic story: although she cuffed Beadles and police officers and swore at the magistrates, once she was in prison and away from the gin-shops she behaved with so much decency and propriety that Mr Nodder, the governor of Tothill Fields Bridewell, appointed her as a matron to look after the female prisoners whilst she was detained. He often declared that he could not have selected a more fit person to act in that capacity and always regretted her release from prison as she invariably made straight for the nearest gin-shop and ‘in half an hour after she might be seen staggering through the streets, followed by a crowd of idlers, plaguing and annoying the wretched woman’.
To avoid this crowd she would hide in a public-house and, if refused more drink, took to destroying everything around her and smashing the windows. Rather than a cossetted courtesan she now had to resort to the lowest form of prostitution to raise money for her next tot of gin.
At last her lifestyle caught up with her. On Mary Ann’s last appearance at Bow Street her appearance led the official to believe her ‘in a consumption’ and she told Mr Minshull that “it was her last appearance on that stage”.
Just before her death she was taken to the station house in Covent Garden twice, both times being wearily discharged. The last time Mary Ann, knowing her end was near, told the superintendent Mr Thomas, as she left, that “I have given you a great deal of trouble, Sir, but I shall not give you much more. It is almost over with me.”
The superintendent told her to go home and go to bed as she was clearly ill and although she promised to do so she instead went to a gin-shop. Finally arriving back at her lodging, a miserable attic at No. 8 Charles Street (now called Macklin Street), Drury Lane, it was clear that she would not survive the night and around midnight the lodging house keeper came to the station to see Mr Thomas. This kindly man went straight to the house as he thought she must have met with ill-treatment but found that she had died ten minutes before he got there. She died in the early hours of the 9th October, 1832 and her cause of death was suffocation, occasioned by the excessive use of spirituous liquors.
Mary Ann was buried on the 23rd October 1832 at St Giles in the Field
AH! who is she whose haggard eye
Shrinks from the morning ray?
Who, trembling would, but cannot fly,
From the busy day!
Mark her pale lip, and cheek all o’er,
How deathly it appears!
See! how her blood-shot eye-balls pour
Torrents of briny tears.
Behold! alas, misfortune’s child,
For whom no kindred grieves ;
Now driven to distraction wild,
Her tortur’d bosom heaves!
Despis’d, yet dreaded, ruin’d, lost
Health, peace, and virtue fled ;
On misery’s stormy ocean tost,
Now stretch’d on dying bed.
Once were her prospects bright & gay,
Hope, smiling, blest her hours;
A vile seducer cross’d her way,
And cropt the blooming flower.
Dazzled by shining grandeur, she
Quits parents, friends, and home :
But soon reduc’d to misery,
An outcast vile to roam.
She, for relief, to liquor flies,
Which soon full havoc made;
Vanish’d the lustre of her eyes,
Her beauty soon decay’d.
Oft did she brave the winter’s wind,
The driving sleet and rain;
And oft in prison drear confin’d
For months she would remain.
At length by drink and fell disease
Worn down to skin and bone,
Upon a wretched pallet laid,
No kindred nigh – not one.
She yields to death, – no pitying friend,
Her hapless fate deplores
Ye fair, take warning by the end
of Lady Barrymore.
Printed by J. Catnach, 2 Monmouth-court, 7 Dials.
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton, Diane Atkinson, 2012
The Examiner, 14th October, 1832
The Extraordinary Life and Death of Mary Anne Pierce, alias Lady Barrymore, National Library of Scotland