We are thrilled to welcome A J Mackenzie which is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife team of writers and historians. Between them they have written more than twenty non-fiction and academic titles, with specialisms including management, economic history and medieval warfare. You can find out more on their website by clicking here.
When it came to finding new ways of killing people, the Georgians were very inventive. Some of their weapons were lethal; some were also downright weird.
We’ve seen plenty of eighteenth-century weapons in films, of course, from the duelling pistols in Barry Lyndon to the Brown Bess muskets carried by the squaddies who go around terrorising the poor (alternatively, keeping order in lawless coastal communities) in Poldark.
In The Body on the Doorstep, the first of our Romney Marsh Mystery series, a rifle is a key weapon, but other firearms are also used bay a variety of characters. Most people of quality would have owned a firearm of some sort. The country squire would have a fowling piece (ancestor of the modern shotgun) for shooting birds and rabbits; the lady of the town would carry a muff pistol when going out to deter highwaymen and footpads. In the absence of an established police force, people reserved the right to defend themselves.
But with advancements in science, spurred on by the Enlightenment, came advances in weaponry. Early in the eighteenth century the mathematician Benjamin Robins (ironically, the son of a Quaker family) calculated that cutting a pattern of helical grooves into the bore of a musket would impart spin to the projectile. This in turn meant the bullet would fly in a straight line, meaning greater accuracy. Most smoothbore muskets were barely accurate beyond fifty yards; a good rifle could hit a target at three hundred yards or even more.
It took a while for rifles to catch on in Britain. They were more popular in Germany among the sporting set, German sportsmen preferring to shoot their prey from long range rather than chasing it across the country on horseback. The rifle also became popular in America where the colonists used them to shoot game for the pot. In 1775, when the colonists stopped shooting deer and started shooting redcoats instead, the British army took notice. A few experimental rifles were commissioned for the British light infantry, but it took another thirty years for the Baker rifle – Richard Sharpe’s weapon of choice – to come into service.
One of the things that determined the accuracy and power of any firearm was the quality of the gunpowder. Fighting the Russians at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, the Swedish army’s powder was so poor that the musket balls sometimes merely rolled down the barrel and dropped at the musketeer’s foot.
In the 1760s, a Tirolean watchmaker named Bartholomew Girandoni decided to do away with powder altogether, and built a gun powered by compressed air. His was not the first air gun, but his Windbüchse, or ‘wind gun’ was one of the best yet seen, much faster to load – it could fire around 20 rounds a minute, compared to the musket’s three or four – and quieter to shoot than an ordinary musket. The Austrian army was so impressed that it ordered several thousand for special light infantry units.
The strangest weapon of the eighteenth century may well be the Defence Gun, more usually known as the Puckle Gun, patented by James Puckle in 1718. This was a flintlock repeating weapon mounted on a tripod and fired by turning a crank handle. There were various versions of the Puckle gun, some of which could fire as many as eleven shots without reloading. How many Puckle guns were made is not known, but two are still in existence and there are rumours of a number of others. Puckle was not able to persuade the notoriously conservative Board of Ordinance to take up his gun, but later engineers refined the design and eventually produced more satisfactory weapons; the nineteenth-century Gatling Gun is a direct descendant of the Puckle Gun.
Strange and quirky, the weapons of the eighteenth century were the forerunners of the more deadly ones of the nineteenth; and the truly terrifying ones of our own time.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease, For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
For anyone unfamiliar with this extract, we have the words of the poet, John Keats, summing up the season in his beautiful poem ‘Ode to Autumn‘, composed on the 19th September 1819. The weather is now changing and we’re now into Autumn, so we thought we would take a look at some Georgian recipes from 1797 for using up that glut of fruit you may have acquired.
Scald eight or ten large codlings and skin them as soon as they are cold. Beat the pulp very fine with a spoon and then mix the yolks of six eggs and the whites of four. Beat all together as fine as possible, and put in grated nutmeg and sugar to taste. Melt some fresh butter and beat it till it is like a fine cream. Then make a fine puff paste, cover a patty pan with it, and pour in the ingredients, but do not cover it with the paste. Bake it a quarter of an hour, then flip it out of the patty pan onto a dish, and strew over it some sugar finely beaten and sifted.
To make an Apple Pie
Having laid a good puff paste round the sides of the dish, pare and quarter your apples, and take out the cores. Lay a row of apples, thick, throw in half the sugar you intend to use, throw over it a little lemon peel minced fine, and squeeze over them a little lemon; sprinkle in a few cloves, and then put in the rest of your apples and your sugar. Sweeten to your palate, and squeeze a little more lemon. Boil the peeling of the apples and the cores in water, with a blade of mace, till it is very good. Strain it, and boil the syrup with a little sugar, till it is considerably reduced in quantity. Pour it into you pie, put on the upper crust and bake it. You may beat up the yolks of two eggs, and half a pint of cream, with a little nutmeg and sugar. Put it over a slow fire and keep stirring it till it is ready to boil. Then take off the lid and pour in the cream. Cut the crust into little three corner pieces, stock them about the pie and send it to the table cold.
To make a Codling Pie
Take some small codlings, put them into a pan with spring water, lay vine leaves on them, and cover them with a cloth, wrapped round the cover of the pan to keep in the steam. As soon as they grow soft, peel them, and put them in the same water as the vine leave. Hang them high over the fire to green, and, when you see them of a fine colour, take them out of the water, and put them into a deep dish, with as much powder or loaf sugar as will sweeten them. Make the lid of a rich puff paste and bake it. When it comes from the oven, take off the lid, and cut it into little pieces, like sippets, and stock them round the inside of the pie, with the point upwards. Then make a good custard, and pour it over your pie.
To make a Cherry Pie
Having made a good crust, lay a little of it round the sides of the dish, and throw sugar at the bottom. Then lay in your fruit, and some sugar at the top. You may, if you please, add some red currants, which will give an additional flavor to your pie. Then put on your lid, and bake it in a slack oven. You may make plum or gooseberry pieces in the same manner.
Put two quarts of gooseberries into a saucepan, just cover with water, scald them till they are tender, and then run them through a sieve with a spoon to a quart of pulp. Have ready six eggs well beaten, make you pulp hot and put in one ounce of fresh butter. Sweeten it to your taste, put it over a gentle fire till they are thick; but take care that they do not boil. Then stir in a gill of the juice of spinach and when it is almost cold, stir in a spoonful of orange-flower water or sack. Pour it into basins and serve it up cold.
Grace Dalrymple Elliott, the subject of our book An Infamous Mistress, was only around seven years of age at the time of the coronation of King George III on the 22nd September 1761 at Westminster Abbey.
Grace, living in Scotland with her maternal relatives after her father had abandoned his young family, might just have had a first-hand account of the ceremony from her aunt, Robinaiana, Countess of Peterborough, who attended the coronation.
As Peers of the Realm the Earl and Countess of Peterborough would have been expected to wear their robes of state and coronets. An Earl’s coronet was a:
. . . circle [of gold], richly chased, having eight pearls raised upon high points of gold, which spring out of the upper rim, with an equal number of strawberry leaves, formed of the same metal, standing upon lower points between them. It has also a doubling of Ermine, cap and tassel . . .
The Earl of Peterborough’s robes would have been of crimson velvet, lined with white sarcenet and with three guards of Ermine. Robinaiana’s state robe too would have consisted of crimson velvet and ermine, with her coronet having a cap also of crimson velvet turned up with Ermine and a button and tassel of gold on the top. The length of the train of the robe was regulated by the rank of the wearer; a Countess was allowed a train of up to a yard and a half in length.
Whilst we know of no picture representing the Earl and Countess of Peterborough dressed for the coronation, there is one hanging at Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire which shows the Earl and Countess of Mexborough dressed for the occasion.
Horace Walpole mentioned Robinaiana, Countess of Peterborough’s appearance at the coronation, and you can read more about that in our book An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, available now from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops.
A Faithful Account of the Processions and Ceremonies observed in the Coronation of the Kings and Queen of England: exemplified in that of their late most sacred Majesties King George the Third and Queen Charlotte with all the other interesting proceedings connected with that magnificent festival. Edited by Richard Thomson, 1820.
We are delighted to welcome Alice Marie Crossland to our blog to talk about the story behind her new book, Wellington’s Dearest Georgy, which highlights a little seen side to the famous duke (we’ll also be reviewing Alice’s book in a later blog post, suffice to say for now that it’s one we highly recommend). To find out more, please visit Alice’s fantastic website or find her on Twitter. So, without further ado, over to Alice.
Wellington’s Dearest Georgy recounts the life and adventures of Lady Georgiana Lennox, daughter of the 4th Duke of Richmond, and the friendship that she cherished with the 1st Duke of Wellington. Georgy first met Wellington when he was known as Sir Arthur Wellesley, in 1806 when he had returned from India and was made Chief Secretary in Ireland. He was living close to the Lennox family as he was working with Georgy’s father who was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Despite their twenty-six year age gap they became close friends and Georgy developed her first teenage crush on Sir Arthur.
Georgy was one of fourteen children, a large and extremely unruly family. They were also plagued by money troubles, often struggling to keep up appearances as one of the greatest aristocratic families of the time. In an attempt to save money, the Lennox family went to live in Brussels in 1814 as living was cheap and a strong ex pat community was flourishing there. Europe was at the time enjoying a short period of peace whilst Napoleon languished in exile on the Isle of Elba. Little did anyone know that the following year Brussels would play host to the most important and significant battles of the nineteenth century: the Battle of Waterloo. It was Georgy’s mother, the Duchess of Richmond, who threw the now legendary ball the night before the battle, where news that Napoleon had invaded was brought into the event by a messenger who had galloped through the night to reach Wellington. Georgy, one of the belles of the ball, had been privileged that evening to be given the seat of honour next to Wellington. As a sign of his affection for her, he now gave her a beautiful miniature of himself recently finished by the Belgian artist Simon-Jacques Rochard. It was a moment, and a gift, which Georgy would cherish for the rest of her life. As the news of war now spread throughout the partygoers, men dashed away in their dancing clothes, anxious to return to their regiments at the front. Many would never return over the course of the following days.
During the battle as the Allied forces clashed with the might of Napoleon’s army, Georgy and her sisters waited anxiously for news. They tended the wounded, bringing them cherry water to drink and making bandages for the many wounded men they saw returned to Brussels. After victory was declared on the third day, Georgy and her father the Duke of Richmond met with Wellington in the park near his house. Wellington was devastated at the number of lives it had taken to beat Napoleon, and he said to them ‘It is a dearly brought victory. We have lost so many fine fellows’. Despite his sadness, he had managed to secure a lasting peace for Europe, and France henceforth became Britain’s ally.
Wellington and Georgy remained friends for the rest of the Duke’s life, and afterwards she carried with her the happy memories of her youth and the special position she had enjoyed in Wellington’s inner circle. Through her relationship with Wellington new aspects to his character are revealed which have not been explored in any previous biography of this great hero of his generation. Through the Duke’s letters to Georgy we see a more playful, fun and flirtatious man revealed, quite at odds with his reputation as a rather humourless disciplinarian. The Duke always referred to Georgy as ‘My Dearest Georgy’ in all his letters to her. He never once called her by her formal title, as was customary in all his correspondence with others; even family. This simple gesture shows the intimacy of their friendship, which stretched over some forty-six years.
Throughout her adult life Georgy of course had to contend with rumours that her friendship with the Duke was more, and certainly if Wellington had not already been married things might have turned out differently. Yet Georgy did enjoy her own fair share of youthful love affairs, and her love of partying took her from Brussels to Paris, then Wellington’s headquarters in Cambrai, then London. She did not marry until she was twenty-nine, which was very late for the time, and when she did she married for love. Her chosen partner was William Fitzgerald de Ros, who later became Baron de Ros, the Premier Baron in England due to the fact that he held the oldest title in existence. Georgy and William had three children, and lived between London and the family estate in Ireland. Wellington’s Dearest Georgy tracks the de Ros family through highs and lows, always retaining their friendship with the Duke, now an old man. Wellington was godfather to Georgy’s youngest daughter Blanche, and enjoyed having the family to stay regularly at his Hampshire estate at Stratfield Saye, and his seaside retreat at Walmer Castle. It was at Walmer where the Duke finally died on 14th September 1852 at the age of eighty-three, leaving Georgy bereft of a man she had loved and venerated for almost fifty years.
Credit for images used: Alice Achache.
‘Wellington’s Dearest Georgy: The Life & Loves of Lady Georgiana Lennox’
By Alice Marie Crossland
Published by: Unicorn Press
Released: 16th September 2016
Author Alice Marie Crossland specialised in 19th Century British Art at University College London. She worked with the Wellington family on the catalogue of portraits Wellington Portrayed, published in 2014. She has since worked at the National Gallery London and Royal Academy of Arts whilst pursuing her own research projects.
Today we welcome the lovely historian, writer and blogger, Anna Thane to our blog. Anna is the host of the blog ‘Regency Explorer‘ so if you haven’t taken a look at it, then we would highly recommend you take a peek at it, she has some fascinating information on there.
Imagine yourself a time traveller. It’s 10 February in 1756 in London. You are invited to a major event: The opening of Norfolk House, the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk. Your hosts, Edward and Mary Howard, have just finished redecorating their house and are eager to present it to high society.
Here are 6 tips to make your evening a success.
Dress to impress the “In” Crowd
A party at Norfolk House is a splendid affair. Mary and Edward entertain only the crème de la crème of high society.
“One might sooner be a knight of Malta than qualified for them,”
wryly notes author Horace Walpole (1717 –1797).
Dress in your most fashionable attire. Male time travellers should choose a richly decorated coat and matching waistcoat, breeches and silk stockings. Female time travellers will be envied by all other ladies when wearing a dress with a wide panier.
Ignore the sticklers
Upon approaching Norfolk House, 31 St. James’s Square, you find the street a bustle of carriages, servants and guests. Countless torches lighten the way to the location. They also illuminate the new facade of the house. It looks austere. ‘Not fit for a Duke’, you hear some of the arriving guests mumble.
Don’t listen to them. These people obviously have no idea of architectural trends. The façade of Norfolk House was built in the style of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio: Tasteful, and the height of fashion!
Don’t be afraid of ‘Mylord Duchess’
You enter the hall of Norfolk House and continue upstairs to the principal storey. Here, your hostess will greet you. Mary is said to be intelligent and forceful. Horace Walpole even calls her ‘My Lord Duchess’ – safely behind her back.
Mary’s reputation as ‘Power Woman’ is based on two aspects: She is more active in society than the Duke, and she has a keen interest in politics. As a matter of fact, Mary is the mastermind behind the political success of the family. In the early 18th century, the Dukes of Norfolk had Jacobite sympathies and played an active part in the affairs of the House of Stuart. Mary, however, realised that the Duke of Norfolk’s future is with the Hanoverians. Under her influence, her husband has been a loyal supporter of George II. for the past two decades.
When you meet the formidable Duchess, prove yourself worthy of her invitation by showing countenance and composure. If you want to ingratiate yourself with her, you can pay her a clever compliment. For example, congratulate her on the embroidered chair covers in the rooms. This will be received well, as Mary, an accomplished needlewoman, did many of the chair covers at Norfolk House herself.
Mind your step
Mary, the driving force behind rebuilding Norfolk House, has spared no costs to decorate the interior in the latest fashion, Rococo splendour. Everything is magnificent and tasteful.
You can join in the “Oh” and “Ah”, but don’t get carried away and forget your manners. It’s vulgar to gawp, and you wouldn’t want to find yourself the object of Horace Walpole’s caustic comment on society: “You would have thought there had been a comet, everybody was gaping in the air and treading on one another’s toes”, he wrote about the opening party on 10 February in a letter.
Boast with insider knowledge
A party is only fun when you know at least some of the guests. Being a time traveller, you are at a disadvantage: You don’t know anybody. How to make contact?
Apply a trick: Join a group of guests and remark that Norfolk House reminds you of famous Holkham Hall in Norfolk.
You can’t go wrong with this: Norfolk House and Holkham Hall were built by the same architect: Matthew Brettingham. – Okay, William Kent was in charge of building Holkham Hall, but Brettingham was his assistant. His architectural taste was formed there, and he derived most of the Palladian detail of Norfolk House from Holkham Hall (add this as additional information).
As you obviously are in possession of insider knowledge about the high society, people will consider you as a part of the ruling elite and thus worth being talked to.
Be cosmopolitan and liberal
Mary and Edward are Roman Catholics, and they head one the most high profile recusant families of England. Being Catholic means that Edward can’t take his seat in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, Mary and Edward use their position as high-ranking peers to promote religious tolerance.
Mary, charming hostess and a born diplomat, is totally at her ease at entertaining both catholic and protestant nobility. Her formula for success: cosmopolitanism. Nothing about her is ‘Popish’. Her talk is clever, and her political ideas are well balanced. Under her influence, the protestant ruling élite loses their suspicion of Roman Catholics.
Be smart, follow her lead, and help laying the fundament of religious tolerance. Besides, you will find many budding political talents among her guests, and most of them will be very influential in the decades to come. Wisely network: Your cosmopolitan attitude can securemore invitations to glorious 18th-century parties.
Alice Drayton Greenwood: Horace Walpole’s world – A sketch of Whig society under George III.; G. Bell and Sons: 1913
Clare Haynes: Of Her Making: The Cultural Practice of Mary, 9th Duchess of Norfolk; in: Tulsa Studies in Women’s’ Literature 31(1):77-98, March 2012
Matthew Kilburn: Howard [née Blount], Mary, duchess of Norfolk (1701/2–1773), noblewomen in: Oxford dictionary of National Biography: 2004.
Robert L. Mack: The Genius of Parody: Imitation and Originality in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century English Literature; Palgrave Macmillan: 2007.
Horace Walpole, John Wright, George Agar-Ellis Dover: The letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford: including numerous letters now first published from the original manuscripts; in six volumes; volume 3 (1753-1759); London: 1840.
We are delighted to be featured on the fabulous Amazing Women in History website, with an article about Grace Dalrymple Elliott. We think that Grace certainly qualifies as an ‘amazing woman’ and we very much hope that you do too.
Grace was a born survivor; when she was cast out after her divorce, her reputation in tatters and her options limited, she dusted herself down and determinedly set out on a career as a high-class courtesan. But there was much more to Grace than just her infamy and frequent appearances in the gossip columns.
She showed incredible bravery when she remained in Paris during the French Revolution, hiding a royalist sympathizer at great personal risk to herself and undoubtedly saving his life, intriguing for the ill-fated French queen, Marie Antoinette, and dabbling in espionage. She was the author of one of only a few first-hand accounts of those years written by a woman.
So, without further ado, we invite you to check out our article by clicking here to read more on Grace. Do have a look at the bio’s of the other amazing women too while you’re there as they make for fascinating reading.
Header image: Marie Antoinette with her children and Madame Élisabeth, facing the mob that had broken into the Tuileries Palace on 20 June 1792 (via Wikimedia).
We are delighted to be featured on The History Vault, an online history magazine, with a post relating to Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s elder brother, Henry Hew Dalrymple and the ‘Bulam Expedition’.
Henry Hew was a slavery abolitionist and one of two men who were the driving force behind a project to colonize an uninhabited African island, with the ultimate intention of freed slaves being able to settle there. Many ‘ordinary’ people were caught up in this scheme, and both their and Henry Hew’s stories have been largely lost to history. We cover this in our biography on Grace and her family, An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, but we did not have the space to go into greater detail within its pages about the people who travelled with the expedition to settle the island and who suffered tragedy and heartache. It was important for us to record some of their names however, and you can find out more about them and the expedition by checking out our post on the History Vault (click here).
Do take time to check out the other fascinating articles on the History Vault too, while you are there.
His life and his works appear to be have been very well documented but, in brief, Zoffany was born in Germany, moved to London and married twice. His first wife, Anthonie Theophista Juliane Eiselein, whom he married in the late 1750s, left him at some stage to return to Germany and died shortly after, after which he married for a second time and the couple had 4 daughters. He died 11th November 1810.
So that’s the basic facts of his life in a nutshell … but needless to say we have come across a few anomalies for which we have no answers, perhaps our readers can offer some help.
Everywhere we’ve looked states that he was born on 13 March 1733 near Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and baptized on 15 March at St Bartholomew’s Cathedral (including the ODNB). If you ‘do the maths’ on this, he would have been aged 77 when he died.
So who got it wrong? The entry in the burial register, although a faint copy, quite clearly records his age at the end of the line as 87, a full 10 years older than stated everywhere, added to this, his gravestone also gives his age as 87.
We are unsure why no-one has ever questioned this. We know it is quite common for entries to be a year or so out, but it’s very unusual for them to be a whole 10 years out – so someone got it wrong, was it his wife who arranged for the tomb to be erected, did she simply get it wrong or was it historians, who over the years just assumed that what they had read about his date of birth was correct without checking any further?
He had 4 daughters, all four of whom he mentions in his will – Maria Theresa Louisa who was born 4th April 1777, but who was not baptized until 1801.
Cecilia Clementina Elizabeth (baptized 10th December 1780).
Claudina Sophia Ann, (no sign of her baptism, but census returns confirm that she was born c1793) and finally Laura Helen Constantia who was reputed to have been born 1795 (RIP July 11 1876), making Johan quite elderly when she was born (62 or 72).
The strangest thing of all though is, despite his 4 daughters, his marriage to Mary Thomas, didn’t take place until 20th April 1805 making him either 72 or 82 at the time. He was reputed to have married Mary in Florence c1771/72 and it is said that they had a son whilst living there. However, Mary married as a spinster in 1805 so either the Italian wedding was not legal in England, or no marriage had previously taken place.
It begs the question as to why he left it so late. It can’t have been an attempt to legitimize his daughters before they were of an age to marry, as the two eldest, Maria and Cecilia, were married 1801 and 1799 respectively. Perhaps it was to give his wife security for when he died given that she was some considerable years younger than her husband? Mary died 1832, aged 77.
We end this post with more questions than answers, perhaps someone in the future will be able to solve this mystery, so in the meantime we will continue to enjoy his works.
Featured image – The Tribuna of the Uffizi 1772-77 Courtesy of the Royal Collection
During our August break we decided that as well as posting our own blogs, we would add a monthly roundup of blogs written by other bloggers that we’ve enjoyed reading, a sort of eclectic ‘in case you missed it‘ review.
Our original idea was merely to include Georgian posts given our blog title, but as our new book ventures through the Regency and into the Victorian Era this seems an ideal place for us to include some additional posts that are out of our usual time frame, so we’ve taken a somewhat bolder step of including blog posts from any period that grab our attention and that we think you might enjoy.
We plan to run this post monthly, on the first Sunday of each month. So why not make yourself a drink, put your feet up, relax and have a read. We hope you enjoy our choices, do let us know as we’d love to hear from you.
Today we return from our summer break and are delighted to welcome back to ‘All Things Georgian’ one of our previous guest authors, Naomi Clifford, author of the true life Regency mystery, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn.
Naomi is presently researching women who went to the gallows in the late Georgian period for her next book. During her research she came across the story of Rebecca Hodges, so we will have you over to Naomi to tell more.
The Georgian justice system, inconsistent, brutal and stacked against the defendant as it was, still had room to accommodate those whose actions were beyond their own control. During my research into the women who were hanged in England and Wales in the late Georgian era, I came across a case which would now probably be prosecuted as stalking.
In 1818 Rebecca Hodges was indicted for setting fire to hayricks at Ward End near Aston and appeared before Judge Garrow at the Warwick Shire Hall. It was a notable case, not because rural arson was especially unusual but because of the long and disturbing history between the accused, Rebecca Hodges, a servant, and Samuel Birch, her former employer.
One Saturday in 1802, Rebecca left Birch’s farmhouse to fetch water. On her return on Monday, Birch dismissed her for being absent without permission. She decided that she would exact revenge. Over the next seven years, unrecognised because she dressed in men’s clothes, she followed him. On 27 February 1809, having bought a horse pistol and moulded her own bullets (she pressed lead with her fingers), again dressed as a man, she travelled to Ward End, on the way encountering a young lad at the turnpike house of whom she asked several questions about Birch, including whether he had gone to market and what horse he rode. Then she stalked Birch around his farm, hiding in an outbuilding until the moment was right. At around ten o’clock in the evening, she, peered through the kitchen window to check that Birch’s housekeeper and niece Sarah Bradbury had gone up to bed, lifted the latch of his farmhouse, crept up behind him as he slept in a chair and shot him twice, one of the bullets lodging in his head.
Birch did not at first realise that he had been wounded, but his niece and housekeeper Sarah Bradbury, alerted by the gunshot, came downstairs and saw that his head was ‘all over blood’. Mr Vickers, a surgeon in Birmingham, was fetched. He trepanned Birch’s skull and retrieved the bullet. The patient survived but suffered lifelong effects.
Still dressed in male attire and carrying the loaded pistol, Rebecca was arrested in Birmingham, probably for showing some sort of erratic behaviour, and taken to Birmingham Gaol: William Payn, the gaoler, said later that he thought she had ‘broken out of a place of confinement’. He offered to send for her relatives in order to get her properly cared for, but she said it would be no use as she would just be arrested again.
‘For what?’ asked Payn.
‘For shooting a man,’ she replied.
In the courtyard she walked obsessively in a figure of eight and hung her head.
Later, once the connection between her confession and Mr Birch was known, she was brought to the Birmingham police office where she encountered Mr Vickers, the surgeon who had treated Birch. She said, ‘He [Samuel Birch] is not dead, I hope?,’ and when asked whether Birch had ever ill-treated her, replied, ‘No, never.’ She claimed that they had had a romantic relationship and, although she liked Birch very much.
Rebecca was tried in front of Judge Bayley. It was clear that she had committed the deed and that there had been a large degree of planning, but the question was whether she was in her right mind. Francis Woodcock, a magistrate living in Worcestershire, told the court that she had lived in his household for three years and had shown symptoms of insanity, talking to herself, going missing, dancing alone in barns and fields and picking up sticks in one place and laying them down in another. He said she was ‘virtuous but harmless’. Her sister also gave evidence, describing her walking without shoes or wearing only one of them, going out with few clothes on and on one occasion trying to hang herself. Justice Bayley thought that she was not in her right mind and told the jury that if they had any doubt they should acquit her, which they did. She was ordered to be incarcerated in Warwick Gaol as a criminal lunatic. In 1816 she was transferred to Bethlehem Hospital in London, where after fourteen months she was discharged, the doctors there declaring her perfectly healthy.
After Rebecca returned to Birmingham in early 1818 she lived a hand-to-mouth existence of casual employment, possibly combined with part-time prostitution. She often got drunk and was locked out of her lodgings. One constant was her resentment of Birch and after writing letters to him, pleading and threatening by turn, she once more travelled to the farm at Ward End intent on revenge. This time she fire to his haystacks, another capital offence.
She was soon arrested and the circumstantial evidence against her was overwhelming. Witnesses spoke of a woman wearing a long dark cloak and bonnet; similar clothes were found in her lodgings. A linen draper, called as an expert witness, confirmed that a section of purple spotted scarf found near the fire matched one in her possession. A tinder box that had been discarded on the road contained small pieces of cotton resembling the material of one of her gowns.
During the trial Rebecca loudly and repeatedly berated and insulted the witnesses, each time Garrow patiently exhorting her to wait until it was her turn to question them. But despite his instruction to the jury to ‘keep in mind… the dreadful punishment that must necessarily follow a conviction’ they did not even pretend to discuss her possible innocence and within three minutes delivered a guilty verdict. While Rebecca screamed for mercy (‘My Lord, have mercy upon me! … Oh spare my life! Only spare my life, my Lord! I’m innocent! I’m innocent!’) the judge sentenced her to death and warned her not to entertain hopes of a respite.
In law there were four kinds of insanity: perpetual infirmity of mind from birth; the result of sickness, grief or other accident; intermittent (classed as insanity when it manifested and at times of lucidity not so); and a state arising from ‘vicious acts’ such as drunkenness. Rebecca Hodges’ gun attack on Mr Birch may have had been planned well in advance but her erratic behaviour before this showed that she was not in her right mind and was enough to persuade the judge.
Rebecca did not go to the gallows. She was respited and her sentence commuted. In 1819 she was transported for life on board the Lord Wellington in the company of two other Warwickshire women, Elizabeth and Rebecca Bamford, who had themselves narrowly avoided execution. They had been deeply involved in the family business of forgery and uttering and their sixty-year-old mother, Ann Bamford, had been hanged the previous year.
In Australia, Rebecca continued to cause concern. She was first placed in the factory at Parmatta, later sent out to work as a domestic servant. Her propensity to go missing landed her in trouble in 1824 and she was punished with another spell at Parmatta. She was described in 1827 as ‘incompetent to any kind of work’. In 1838 she was granted a conditional pardon. Her date of death is unknown.
Bury and Norfolk Post, 8 March 180; Northampton Mercury, 25 April 1818.
Willis, W., An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence (1838). London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans.
On Insanity: Mr Amos’s Lecture on Medical Jurisprudence. London Medical Gazette, 2 July 1831.