Harriet was born in Sligo, Ireland in the early 1800s. Her mother died in 1816, leaving her an orphan. It is reported in one account that she was put out to service, in another, simply that being orphaned, she put on her brothers’ clothes and, dressed as a boy, changed her name to John Murphy (her mother’s maiden name) as she feared travelling alone as a female and set off to seek employment.
Her first job was as a cabin boy during which time she accidentally fell overboard, and fearful of being discovered she escaped to shore and ran away. She then took employment as a footboy to a Rev. Mr Duke where she remained for a year, during which time one of the maids, assuming Harriet was a boy, fell in love with her. The maid told her employer that she had discovered John was really a woman. Upon questioning, Harriet swore that the maid was mistaken and that he was a male but Harriet/John had no option but to move on.
She sailed on board a ship to Liverpool and assisted a Mr Lowther with driving his cattle to Leicester. Having travelled as far as Shardlow, Derbyshire she left Lowther and took up employment at the Navigation Inn, Shardlow, working for a Mr Clarke. After only a couple of months, still masquerading as a man, she was beaten up by one of the other servants for being Irish.
Harriet then moved on and worked as a groom to James Sutton Esq. at Shardlow Hall. This was a good position, and all went well until there was some sort of altercation and Harriet left under a cloud.
During her time in Shardlow, Harriet gained employment at the local salt works and lodged in the nearby village of Aston-on-Trent, with a Mrs Jane Lacey who had a daughter, Matilda (born 1808). Matilda found herself pregnant by the village butcher, a married man, but she was also in love in love with John aka Harriet.
Somehow, Mrs Lacey discovered that John was actually Harriet – blackmail began. Mrs Lacey told Harriet that if it was discovered that he was a she, she would be transported (i.e. sent to Australia on a convict ship). Mrs Lacey arranged for Matilda’s child to be raised as if the child were John’s and that John should marry Matilda.
In a state of distress at the prospect of marriage, Harriet sought employment just over the border in Nottinghamshire. At Chilwell, near Beeston, just 8 miles away, she worked for a bricklayer and first learnt to carry the hod, which she was very successful at since she had become accustomed to doing manual work. She was well-respected by her master and fellow workmen. This peace was shattered when Matilda’s mother wrote a letter to the master, saying that John had abandoned Matilda. The employer, a moral man dismissed John.
Worried about being discovered, Harriet agreed to Mrs Lacey’s demands and married Matilda at the parish church at Aston-on-Trent on 25th August 1823. John didn’t find it easy trying to maintain a wife, child and Matilda’s mother and began to seek work away from home and this often drew the attention of the parish officers towards him, until eventually, he left.
John went on to meet a woman who became his confidante, and upon telling her the story, she procured for him suitable female clothing and Harriet divorced herself from her matrimonial troubles. Harriet was described as short, stout, good-looking and stated to be in her twentieth year but was perhaps somewhat older.
It is interesting to note that another child, Mary was born in 1826, with no father’s name being given, the child being described as a bastard.
Then a son, George, who was baptised in the north of the county at Hayfield, 19th August 1827, this time both parents, John and Matilda Murphy were named. We’re not totally certain that this was their child though.
The 1827 baptism is doubly curious because, prior to that date, John had become Harriet again and married John Gardiner, a widowed silk weaver at Derby on 17th October 1825.
In April 1830, Matilda married again too, under her maiden name, but only a few months in February 1831, an entry appears in the burial register for Aston for a Matilda Browne, so it’s relatively safe to assume that she died. Interestingly, a couple of weeks later a baby, Jane Browne, aged just 6 months was also buried, so presumably, this was their daughter.
As to what became of Harriet and her husband we have no idea, they seem to have vanished into thin air. Perhaps after all the publicity, it’s hardly surprising?
Captain Rock in London, Or, The Chieftain’s Weekly Gazette, Volume 1
Perthshire Courier 14 July 1825
Bury and Norwich Post 02 November 1825
Parish registers Hayfield and Aston-on-Trent
Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald 15 March 1930
Courtesy of University College Dublin, Special Collections via Twitter