Who was she? A mysterious stranger in Regency Clerkenwell

A few days ago, I was browsing through an 1819 copy of the Morning Advertiser looking for something completely different when this story caught my eye.

Around early July 1819, a pretty young woman, reckoned to be in her early 20s, turned up at a lodging house in George Court off Aylesbury Street in Clerkenwell. She was, she told the owner, a complete stranger in London, having just arrived from the country, and asked if she could take a room for a few weeks while she attended to some proceedings in Chancery.

The woman’s appearance was decent and, as she was happy to pay the rent on her lodgings in advance, she was accommodated in the house with no further ado.

It didn’t take the other women who lived there long, however, to notice that the lady was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, however well she might have tried to hide it. A nearby apothecary was called in to attend to her and, in the first week of August, this unnamed woman gave birth to a fine and healthy child (if the evidence we have is correct, on 2nd August 1819).

Extract of an 1806 map of Clerkenwell
Extract of an 1806 map of Clerkenwell, showing Aylesbury Street at the bottom, centre left, and the head of the New River and Sadler’s Wells top right. Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The next day, against all advice to the contrary, the new mother got up and dressed herself.

She was remonstrated with on the danger to which she exposed herself, but she made light of it. This and other circumstances drew the attention of the people in the house more particularly towards her…

Four days after the birth of her child, and under close observation from the family and other lodgers, the young woman was seen to leave George Court, carrying a small box under her arm. Two women who were fellow lodgers followed her, one of whom was a Mrs Baker, a printer’s wife. The mysterious young woman and her two spies wended their way some distance across the fields of rural Clerkenwell towards the New River (really a form of canal dating from 1613, created to supply London with fresh drinking water from a series of Hertfordshire springs). When near Sadler’s Wells, where the New River terminated in a reservoir known as the New River Head, it looked as if she was going to throw the box she carried into the water, but then changed her mind and instead veered away over the adjoining fields.

Sadler's Wells from the bridge over the New River.
Sadler’s Wells from the bridge over the New River. © The Trustees of the British Museum

With Mrs Baker and her friend still in hot pursuit, our mystery lady headed across the fields towards Islington and made for a secluded area where she sat down, opened the box, took something out and tied it in her shawl. Then she closed the box, picked up both it and the bundle tied in her shawl, and walked on until she came to a gentleman’s house. There she put both the box and bundle down and was about to walk away when Mrs Baker and her accomplice caught up: they darted forward and grabbed hold of her. Once the box was opened, as they’d suspected, they found the baby, naked and gasping for breath. The infant’s clothes were wrapped in the shawl.

Mrs Baker called for a watchman and ‘the inhuman mother’ (as a newspaper report termed her) was apprehended and marched to the watch house.

View from the New River, Islington in 1816.
View from the New River, Islington in 1816. © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was now that a sensational twist to the tale was revealed, if we believe the reports which surfaced. During a search of the woman, ‘upwards of 1000l. in good Country and Bank of England notes were found in her possession’. To put that into perspective, it’s the equivalent of over £50,000 in today’s money, a small fortune then, as now. Certainly enough for her to have disappeared and set up in a house with her child, rather than abandon the babe at the doorway of a gentleman’s house.

Taken overnight to the workhouse, before she could be hauled before the Hatton Garden magistrates the woman fell into a fever. A reluctant inmate, she slowly recovered but stubbornly refused to answer any questions about her identity.

Clerkenwell workhouse
Clerkenwell workhouse (via Wikimedia)

This snippet of factual evidence sounds like a great start to a work of historical fiction. We already have many different theories buzzing around our heads as to how the young woman had found herself in this position.

We’ve searched for more information on her, hoping to find out her name. That still, unfortunately, eludes us, but we did find one more newspaper report. The lady’s husband turned up to claim her! We’ll relate the report from the newspapers but, attempting to read between the lines, we are still left wondering as to the truth of the matter. Incidentally, no further mention was made of the huge sum of money that she was supposedly carrying: was this myth or just a further strand of the whole mystery? She had, remember, paid for her rent at George Court in advance. Money worries don’t seem to have been an issue for her.

The north prospect of London taken from the Bowling Green, Islington.
The north prospect of London taken from the Bowling Green, Islington. The head of the New River can be seen centre left, with Sadler’s Wells next to it. Beyond lies Clerkenwell and the hubbub of the City of London. Folger Shakespeare Library

The couple were from Yorkshire, and the husband was of ‘respectable appearance’ and seemed dutifully affected by his wife’s distress. He claimed that she was suffering from the ‘consequence of a severe hurt she had formerly received in her head, was at times deranged, and he could no otherwise account for her leaving a comfortable home, and acting in the extraordinary manner she had done, than by supposing she was under the influence of the disorder to which she was subject’.

The magistrate agreed to bail the woman as long as her husband entered into a recognizance for £50 and found two other householders who would each join him in promising £25 each, to secure her future appearance at the court. The Yorkshire husband pleaded against this: could he not provide the full £100 himself, for he didn’t know anybody in London who would be prepared to stand as the additional surety? He went further, urging as a reason:

the deplorable state of his family, one child having died since his wife left her home, and two lying at present in a state of imminent danger.

The magistrate commiserated with the man, but rules were rules. If he couldn’t meet the required bail conditions, then his wife must remain in custody.

And there, sadly, we must also leave her until such time as further information comes to light. In the meantime, we reckon there’s a novel in this story for anyone disposed to write it and rescue our mystery woman. Which way would you take it: was she fleeing from her husband or was his story of woe true? How did she come by the injury to her head in that case? Why did she want to give up her child? And, all that money! Where did that come from?

Sources:

Morning Advertiser, 12 August 1819

The Morning Chronicle, 18 August 1819

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8 thoughts on “Who was she? A mysterious stranger in Regency Clerkenwell

  1. Rachel Kennedy

    Extraordinary tale, made even more interesting with your lovely illustrations. I knew the area well when I lived in London but hadn’t appreciated the views. I cannot decide but if she had received a blow to the head, why so calm otherwise in her actions?

    Like

  2. Fascinating story – but so sad too. I’m leaning towards that doorstep being significant and the headwound a fabrication. An ex-lover who she still loved but who abandoned her when she got pregnant? An impotent husband who couldn’t possibly father a baby? I can’t help but think there would be no happy ending for the poor soul, but I do hope there was for the baby. So many ways to interpret this. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Joanne Major

      You’re the second person to comment that there may be some significance to her trying to leave the baby outside that particular house. It’s certainly food for thought. If so, perhaps Clerkenwell was deliberately chosen as her place of temporary refuge? Hidden away but not too far distant?

      Like

  3. Pingback: The Pemberley Post, No. 5 (Jan 28-Feb 3, 2019) ~ Jane Austen and More! – Jane Austen in Vermont

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