In our latest book, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century, we recount the adventures of Sarah Wilson, aka Lady Wilbrahammon… amongst other aliases! Sarah was a very convincing impostress and her life is one of those cases when fact proves to be far stranger than fiction. But, although rare, Sarah was certainly not unique. She was perhaps inspired to commit her grand fraud after reading of a girl named Mary Ramsay in the broadsheets. Mary’s story dated to April 1738, but it was widely reported in 1764 just before Sarah’s own antics.
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In a ditch, between St Albans and Colney Heath in Hertfordshire, lay a poor starving girl, half-naked and too weak to move. Two bakers were travelling along the road, and they heard the girl’s groans and rescued her, taking her to an alehouse near the turnpike. The surgeon and apothecary, Mr Humphries, was sent for and under his care, the girl recovered.
Then the girl told her story. She was Mary Ramsay, nineteen years of age and from Hull in East Yorkshire. Her father had been an eminent surgeon and man-midwife who, when he died, had left Mary, his younger daughter, a fortune of £7,000 and trusted her to the care of his brother (there was an elder daughter living in London who was married to a wealthy Suffolk gentleman named Mr Cooke). Mary’s uncle was kindness itself to his young charge and so Mary suspected nothing when he sent her to London to board with a gentlewoman who kept a school in order that she could learn the manners required for a young lady of fashion. Dressed in a new riding habit and jockey cap, Mary was placed in a stagecoach and given a letter of introduction addressed to the schoolmistress. At the coaching inn at Stamford in Lincolnshire, where Mary had stopped to dine, she accidentally dropped the letter; it was found by a fellow passenger, a sea captain whose name Mary had forgotten. Upon hearing Mary’s story, the sea captain persuaded her to open it. The note – signed by her uncle – was brief and to the point.
The person who brings you this is the young woman I told you of. I acknowledge receipt of half the money agreed on, and expect the remainder as soon as convenient.
Mary had been effectively sold, to a man she did not know. With no-one looking she made her escape, slipped away and travelled on foot for a couple of days. In need of funds, she sold her jockey cap to an old woman and then exchanged her riding habit for a gown and some money, enough to get her to London to find her sister. It proved a fruitless search and so she set out once again, penniless now, resolving to return to Hull. Mary managed to trek as far as St Albans where – in her distressed state – she had been found.
She was the very picture of innocence and the good townsfolk of St Albans rallied around Mary, raising a subscription to clothe her and pay for her journey back to Hull. In the meantime, she lived in the mayor’s house with his family. All was going very well for young Mary until one voice of dissent was heard. A man recently returned from London cast doubt on her story, to the fury of the mayor and the inhabitants of St Albans. This man remembered that he had an acquaintance in Hull and so he wrote to him, to establish the truth of the matter. The reply was unfortunate for Mary. The acquaintance in Hull stated that:
… a surgeon of the name of Ramsay had formerly lived in the neighbourhood of Hull, who was very poor all his life-time, and who was confined for debt in the castle of Lincoln, and died there about ten years before; that he had two daughters, abandoned wretches and common prostitutes, who strolled about the country under various and fallacious pretences; that upon the strictest enquiry, he could not find that Ramsay had a brother; and that if the people of St Albans would pass her to Hull, [Mary] would there meet with her dessert.
Mary protested; the man who had written the letter was a particular friend of her uncle and had colluded in the deception practised upon her. The mayor – not knowing who to believe – directed two letters to gentlemen in Hull, asking for clarification. The answers came back, confirming that Mary was lying. The mayor wasted no time and Mary found herself in the Bridewell where she confessed all. She was a dupe, an impostor, and she was whipped at the cross as a vagrant on the next market day before being packed off back to Hull.
That Mary received her comeuppance didn’t deter Sarah Wilson who, just two years after this tale had been published, embarked on her own fantastical adventures. In fact, we suspect the tall-tale about Mary Ramsay to be a complete work of fiction as we can find no proof to substantiate any of it, but that probably doesn’t matter. It was reported as fact and the tale took on a life of its own in the imagination of Sarah Wilson, alias Lady Wilbrahammon, whose story is most definitely true, even though it is not quite as has been reported over the centuries. But, to discover the amazing adventures of ‘Lady Wilbrahammon’, you’ll have to read our book, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century.
The Beauties of all the Magazines, selected for the year 1764, vol. iii