Harriette Wilson v Julia Johnstone – The Truth v Lies

Today, in this very long piece, for which I apologise in advance, we are going to take a look at arguably to the two most famous Regency courtesans, Harriette Wilson and her friend Julia Johnstone, or to be more accurate I’m going to try to establish some of the fact from fiction about Julia’s life, part of which was told by Harriette and part by Julia, so buckle up we’re in for a bumpy ride!

Who were these two women?

Julia Johnstone was the pseudonym of Julia Elizabeth Storer, born to Thomas James Storer and the Honourable Elizabeth Proby, a Maid of Honour to Queen Charlotte. She was baptised on September 9, 1777, at Frensham, Surrey.

 Julia Johnstone (née Lady Julia Storer), in white dress with rouched sleeves, her brown hair curled by William wood, courtesy of Artnet
Julia Johnstone (née Lady Julia Storer), in white dress with rouched sleeves, her brown hair curled by William wood, courtesy of Artnet

Harriette Wilson was the pseudonym of Harriette Dubouchet, born 22 February 1786, St George’s, Hanover Square, the daughter of John and Amelia and about whom I have written previously, so rather than recap her life, there is a link to it here.

The courtesan, Harriette Wilson.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Despite everything I have read, I am convinced the pair met in the early 1810s when they became firm friends, visiting each other, mixing in the same social circles and sharing the gossip of the day, until that is, the friendship turned rather sour. Both were famous or infamous courtesans of the day; however, I am less convinced about Julia’s reputation.

Harriette’s Memoirs were first published in January 1825 and of which the Duke of Wellington, reputedly, if not accurately, said of her blackmail threats to include him in her book, ‘published and be damned’.

British Press 07 January 1825
British Press 07 January 1825

Julia’s Confessions, are a rebuttal of much of what Harriette had written about her, being published just two months later, with the subtitle of ‘In contradiction to the fables of Harriette Wilson’. Given the speed with which Julia wrote her book, she must have wasted absolutely no time whatsoever, after reading Harriette’s memoirs to write her own, a contradiction of the apparent lies that Harriette had written about her.

Morning Herald (London) 24 March 1825
Morning Herald (London) 24 March 1825

Julia would, no doubt, have been furious at Harriette’s portrayal of her and clearly wished to set the record straight, but this is where the problems begin, as some aspects of Julia’s account don’t stand up to close scrutiny, but then arguably, neither does Harriette’s.

I do have a major problem with Julia’s account, for a very specific reason which will become very clear at the end. Julia seems to have featured in several books, several of which have however, taken Julia’s account of her life at face value, but with a little more digging I have managed to rectify some of the reputed ‘facts’.

Who was Julia?

According to Julia, her mother, Elizabeth née Proby was a Maid of Honour to Queen Charlotte, however I am struggling to find confirmation of this widely acknowledged fact. This list notes all of Queen Charlotte’s maids and there is simply no sign of her either under her maiden or married name. I’m not saying she lied, but rather, I can’t find supporting evidence.

John Joshua Proby and sister Elizabeth by Joshua Reynolds 1765. The Tate
John Joshua Proby and sister Elizabeth by Joshua Reynolds. 1765. The Tate

Her father was Thomas James’s Storer whose family lived in Jamaica and made their wealth owning slave plantations in Jamaica.

Hilditch, George; View of the South Front of Hampton Court Palace from the Broad Walk; Hampton Court Palace

Apparently, Julia and her family lived at Hampton Court Palace, so the first thing to do was to check that out. However, this is where it begins to unravel, having checked the Grace and Favour handbook of people who lived in Hampton Court Palace it tells us that an Hon. Mrs Storer lived there from 1782 until 1808. Now this seems feasible as Elizabeth had married Thomas Storer in 1774 and she died in 1808, but the handbook itself suggests that the Hon. Mrs Storer was someone completely different. It is of course possible that Julia’s parents lived at another of the royal palaces. Sarah E Parker, author of Grace and Favour has picked up on the ODNB suggestion that a Rev. Francis Willis married a Mrs Storer who lived at Hampton Court Palace, however on closer examination that doesn’t quite add up either. Rev. Francis Willis, who treated King George III, married for the second time, in 1798, his wife was however, a Sarah Storr not Storer, a spinster of the parish of Greatford, Lincolnshire where both were living when they married, rather than at Hampton Court, although the possibly had rooms there too, it’s not clear.

Setting that aside, the author, Frances Wilson, in The Courtesan’s Revenge states that Julia had three siblings, but there is no sign of any other children, and certainly only three were named in her fathers will. Julia had just two younger siblings, a sister, Frances (1780-1821), who married a Richard Hutchins Whitelock and a brother, Anthony Gilbert (1782-1818), who inherited estates in Jamaica from his paternal uncle when just 17 years of age.  He married in 1806 at Westmoreland, Jamaica and he and his family remained there until his death, aged 36.

According to Julia her father ‘died abroad in embarrassed circumstances’ – this does not appear to be quite truthful, although just maybe that’s what she was led to believe, only being 15 at the time.

Her father wrote his will on 29 September 1792, and stated that whilst he had been in Lille, he had, by this time, returned to the parish of St Margaret’s, London, now whether his wife, Elizabeth was living with him, who knows, but he does not appear to have been in embarrassed circumstances and left both his wife and children provided for. Frances Wilson also states that Thomas died at ‘his family’s Belle Isle home’ i.e., in Jamaica, clearly that was not the case as we can see from the Public Advertiser, 14 November 1792:

Thomas James Storer was buried on 18 November 1792 at St James, Piccadilly.

Thomas’s father had returned from Jamaica and died the following year, having made his will on 22 June 1792, so just before his son, in which he left the majority of his estate in Jamaica, to his eldest son, Anthony Morris Storer, which in turn, he left in trust to Julia’s brother, Anthony Gilbert.

Anthony Morris Storer by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Anthony Morris Storer by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Julia never married but adopted the surname, Johnstone, we may never know why, but as suggested by Frances Wilson, the Johnstone surname was probably adopted by Julia in honour of her late aunt, Elizabeth Anna Maria Storer, who married a Thomas Gregory Johnstone and who died in 1791, although no definitive reason for this name change has ever come to light.

Julia’s formative years

Julia says that she was sent to a convent in the south of France to be educated and that:

At the age of thirteen I was sent for home and arrived at the Royal Palace (where my mother had apartments) to finish my education under an old ignorant Swiss governante, amidst the gloomy walls, and long avenues of trees.

Julia refers to the apartment as being at the Royal Palace, so they could have been living at Kensington perhaps, or maybe St James’s, which might explain why there’s no sign of them at Hampton Court Palace.

Julia also says that says that once her education was complete, she wanted her freedom and independence:

My governess complained, my mother scolded, I pouted, a carriage was drawn up to the palace gates, I entered it by word of command, put my head out of the window, ‘Good bye, mother’, ‘Adieu, daughter’ and went the horses full speed, and from that moment we never met again.’

She specifically said of this event:

We stopped at Hampton Court Palace. Another palace, thought I, pray heaven it proves less gloomy than the one I have turned my back upon.

This implies that this was Julia’s first visit to Hampton Court Palace, but offers no explanation as to why she would go there, who she was going to, it was all rather a strange and vague parting. Surely Julia didn’t simply have an argument with her mother, pack her bags and head off to Hampton Court Palace without any money or any idea why she was heading there – it doesn’t add up.

She says that on her arrival she moved in with a Josiah and Lavinia Cottin who, according to Harriette’s account, eventually had 9 children. It would appear that  Julia was to be a companion to Lavinia, although how this arrangement came about, we have no idea. Julia also said that she had met Josiah previously, in France when he had delivered letters to her from her mother, whether true or not, who knows, perhaps the families knew each other, and this is how it was arranged, rather than her simply packing up and leaving home for who knows where. According to Harriette’s account:

Poor Julia, all this time, did not receive the slightest compliment or attention from anybody. At last, she kissed her hand to someone in a neighbouring box.

“Whom are you bowing to?” I inquired.

“An old flame of mine, who was violently in love with me when I was a girl at Hampton Court,” whispered Julia. “I have never seen him since I knew Cotton.”

“What is his name?” I asked.

“George Brummell,” answered Julia

So perhaps Julia lived at Hampton for a few years earlier in her life, it feels almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction here.

 Who was Josiah Cottin/Cotton?

Josiah Cottin by Andrew Plimmer. Sothebys
Josiah Cottin by Andrew Plimmer. Sothebys

Josiah Cottin was born in 1767 to Alexander Cottin of Cheverills, Hertfordshire, and his wife, Anne née Chapman, so some ten years Julia’s senior. He served in the 10th Light Dragoons, and in March 1792 he married Lavinia Chambers, the daughter of the famous architect, Sir William Chambers.

Sir William Chambers by Sir Joshua Reynolds Royal Academy
Reynolds, Joshua; Portrait of Sir William Chambers, R.A. (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

Their first child, Anna, was born one year later, 1793. Anna was swiftly followed by Georgiana in 1794, John, 1795, Lavinia, 1796 and some five years later in 1800, Adolphus, therefore making just five in total, not the nine as has been claimed they had, unless they had other children who died in infancy, but certainly there is no evidence of the other four, but if they existed, they must have been born in the gap between 1796 and 1800.

Now, according to Julia, when she went to live with the Cottin’s at Hampton Court Palace, they did have children, daughters, but she didn’t specify how many. What Julia told readers was that she was only 16 at the time. However, if this were true it must have taken place in 1793, at which time the Cottin’s possibly had one baby, Anna, but certainly no more than that. The records for Hampton Court show Josiah and Lavinia not moving in to the palace until the end of 1797, this would have made Julia at least 21.

It seems far more plausible that Julia went there at that age, rather than aged 16 as she had said. By that time Lavinia would have 3 toddlers and a baby, which makes more sense of Julia’s statement when she described the children as being ‘too young for me to associate with’.

Julia described Josiah’s marriage to Lavinia as being ‘on the worst possible terms’. If that were the case, they still managed to resolve issues long enough to produce another child, perhaps that one was achieved more by accident than design.

Julia then asks her readers, not to judge her, when, ‘at the early age of sixteen I fell a victim to my own inexperience, and the passioned solicitations of a man’ – that man was Josiah Cottin and so their relationship began.

According to Ian Kelly’s book Beau Brummel, he states that:

Julia started her seventeenth year as a well-connected debutante, but ended it a “fallen woman, pregnant and disgraced”.

If Julia became pregnant in 1794, then there is absolutely no sign of a birth for this child, so whilst I’m not saying it was a lie, I’m suggesting that it seems highly unlikely.

It wasn’t until in June 1800, that we first have any tangible proof that Julia became pregnant, giving birth to a son, Josiah, naturally as their first born, it seems logical that the baby would be named after its father. This seems to have taken quite a long time for her to conceive assuming her relationship with Josiah began when implied. Julia would have been 22 when Josiah was born. Coincidently, Josiah’s wife also gave birth to their final child in September of the same year – awkward!

It would be a further five years before Julia and Josiah had more children, however they then went on to have Charles in 1805, with the couple’s address being given as Warwick Court at that time. George who was born in 1806, Julia Emma in 1807, but not baptised until August 1814, at St George’s Hanover Square, with Josiah stating his rank to be that of Captain. The couple, or at least Julia, were living at Chapel Street, Grosvenor Place.

Then in 1809, Lavinia, who was also baptised with her sister, Julia Emma. Coincidently, on the same day, the line below in the parish register there is an entry for the baptism of Harriette’s parents youngest child Julia Elizabeth Dubouchet, which perhaps shows the closeness of Julia and Harriette. It strikes me that it was rather cheeky of Julia and Josiah to have been having an affair yet feeling it appropriate to name one of their offspring after Josiah’s wife, Lavinia.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The following year, 1810, Josiah’s eldest daughter by this wife, Georgiana Maria, aged 16, married Sir John Fleming, 1st Baron De Tabley, with her father’s permission and at the family home, Hampton Court Palace. Josiah was named on her marriage entry as a ‘lieutenant colonel in his majesty’s army’.

Colonel Sir John Fleming Leicester (1762–1827), Bt Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) (after) and James Northcote (1746–1831) (after) Tabley House & Georgiana Maria Leicester (1793–1859), Lady de Tabley, as 'Hope' Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) Tabley House
Colonel Sir John Fleming Leicester (1762–1827), Bt Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) (after) and James Northcote (1746–1831) (after) Tabley House & Georgiana Maria Leicester (1793–1859), Lady de Tabley, as ‘Hope’ Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) Tabley House

Julia and Josiah’s final child was Sophia, who was born in 1811, so a total of 6 children altogether, as confirmed by Harriette in her memoirs:

“Certainly,” said I; “I do think it wicked to put ourselves in the way of increasing a large family of children, only to starve them. You are the mother of six already, which is five more than your slender fortune can support

By Harriette acknowledging that Julia had six children would place this part of her memoirs as being post 1811. According to Harriette it was around this time that Julia claimed to be pregnant by Sir Henry Mildmay, although in reality there is no evidence of there ever being a child as a result of the reputed relationship.

Julia said that Josiah had set up her and the children in Primrose Cottage at Primrose Hill and visited them as often as possible, which seems to confirm that he was still living with his wife and keeping Julia as his mistress. Julia did have some money of her own from an inheritance, from a family member, but she didn’t elaborate as to which member, but it has to be assumed that Josiah was helping to fund their family unit, as well as his main family, so he would have been supporting 11 children on an army salary – quite an achievement in my opinion.

According to Harriette, Lavinia was extremely angry when she found out about Josiah and Julia’s relationship and threw her out. Julia on the other hand said that Lavinia knew nothing about it, until months after she had moved out of their home, and that Lavinia and Josiah had separated. As to which version was true, who knows, but Julia’s account seems more plausible.

When Julia announced her first pregnancy, according to Harriette:

Julia could not attempt to describe the rage and fury either of her mother or brother. It was harsh, it was shocking, even as applied to the most hardened sinner, in such a state of mental and bodily suffering. Julia was, with her infant, by her noble relatives hurried into the country, almost at the risk of her life, and Colonel Cotton was called out by young Storer, Julia’s brother, and, I believe, wounded.

Julia completely dismissed this as rubbish, saying that her mother treated this information with complete apathy, rather she said that Julia was now completely on her own to fend for herself. The idea that Julia’s brother had a duel with Josiah she said was complete fiction, as her brother was out of the country. This could well be true, as we know that he had inherited estates in Jamaica, so it’s feasible that he had left for Jamaica by this time.

When did Harriette and Julia first meet?

According to Harriette’s memoirs:

Just as we were sitting down to dinner Mr. Johnstone arrived and was introduced to me. He was a particularly elegant, handsome man, about forty years of age.

If we assume that Harriette was correct about his age being about 40, then this must meeting must have taken place around 1810, ‘Mr Johnstone’ (Josiah Cottin) was born in 1767, so would have been 43, so not a bad guess on Harriette’s part.

At the time of their meeting, Julia would have been about 34 and Harriette 25. Frances Wilson stated that Julia and Harriette met as early as 1803, but that doesn’t really fit with Julia’s children’s ages, as, in 1803 Julia had just the one child, not the five Harriette said.

Circa 1810 would also  be a better match given Harriette’s remark if the couple had been together since about 1800:

I never saw such romantic people, after nine years and five children!

Harriette did say that at some stage during Julia’s relationship with Josiah that he waswas dismissed from his regiment by his royal commander’. I can find no evidence of this at all, and this remark angered Julia –

There never was a more cruelly false insinuation. I believe military law takes no cognizance of errors of the heart in any of its officers.

Josiah was a major in 1798, promoted to lieutenant colonel by 1804, then by 1814 he was a captain, or at least that is what was recorded on the baptism entries for Julia and Lavinia in 1814.

According to Julia, Josiah paid for the boys to attend a respectable public school. As for the girls, Julia said ‘he left me to dispose of, and assigned a very small annuity to each of them. As for me I was left to shift as I though proper’.

Having provided for them via his solicitor, Josiah left England with his regiment. This is likely to have been mid 1813 when the 10th Regiment were sent to Spain, at which time Julia described herself as a single woman again and decided at that time to move in with Harriette.

What became of Julia’s six children?

Josiah (junior) became a teacher in Twickenham, and died at just 27 years of age, leaving a widow, Eliza née Sandby and 3 children – Albany, Eliza and Ellen.

Josiah’s son, Albany would, as a young man of 22, appear in court for ‘begging letter imposition’. During the hearing Albany told the court of his family background which proved to be completely truthful and was verified in court, by the production of supporting documentation His mother, Eliza, his two sisters, Eliza and Ellen and wife, Mary Ann, were also present at the proceedings.  Albany told the court that he had trained as a dentist but found himself and his family in dire straits, so appealed to people living at Hampton Court Palace for financial help. The case against him was dismissed.

Eliza, Josiah junior’s eldest daughter,  married a widower, twice her age and they lived in Stepney, by 1861 she was living with her 3 children and her mother.

Ellen, Josiah junior’s youngest child, married in 1856, her husband, George Hyde Hambly, a law stationer, of Whitechapel.

Charles also became a school master and married in 1841. The couple lived in Chelsea before moving to Beaconsfield where they had at least two children. Charles died in in 1860.

George, little is known of him, he married a Mary Thorn May in 1829 and died in Hounslow in 1843, aged 36.

Julia Emma died aged 20 and Lavinia Mary died aged 32, both unmarried.

 What became of Julia and when did she die?

Julia seems to have disappeared from the radar after her book was published, according to her book she was living quietly in Hampstead, but that in itself raises questions.

Did she really write the book? My conclusion is that she didn’t, but rather, it was written by someone with a good knowledge of her life, family and her friendship with Harriette and that much of Julia’s story could well have been written constructing it from information taken from Harriette’s book.

The author, Angela Thirkell also felt that Julia was dead before her memoirs were written and questioned whether they could, according to John Stockdale, have been ghost written by Jack Mitford, to me, this does seem feasible.

My reasoning:

In June 1815, Harriette’s sister, Fanny, died (buried as Frances Parker, having taken her lover Colonel John Boetler Parker‘s surname) and Harriette confirmed that three months later (on 13 September 1815), her mother also died. She was buried at St George’s Hanover Square  – this was also true and is supported by evidence for both burials.

Harriette  said that following these deaths, she too became ill and was confined to her bed for two months which takes us to around November/December 1815.

Harriette then described visiting her friend Julia who was close to death.

When my spirits and health were at their very worst, I was informed that poor Julia was dying and wanted to see me. I could not refuse her request. Her features bore the fixed rigidity of death when I entered her room. Her complaint, like her late poor friend’s, was a disease of the heart, and there was no remedy.

Sir Charles James Napier
Sir Charles James Napier

Harriette’s story of Julia’s demise continues with a conversation with Napier* who said:

N: I had her laid out in state, and wax candles were kept burning round her coffin for a fortnight: and I paid half of all her debts!

H: Suppose you had paid the whole?

N: Nonsense! They were very thankful for half.

H: And what is to become of her poor children?

N:A noble relative has taken one, and Lord Folkestone another, and Mrs. Armstrong is consulting me about the rest.

The main reason I don’t believe Julia’s memoirs were written by her, is that according to the parish register of St George’s Hanover Square, Julia was buried on 28 January 1816 using the name with which she was baptised, Julia Elizabeth Storer, and coincidently, at the same church that several of her children were baptised. This also fits perfectly with the timescale Harriette gave.

I also noted that when Harriette was buried, she too was buried with her given name of Harriette Dubouchet rather than Harriette Wilson, so it would follow that Julia was also buried using her real name.

If that wasn’t her, then there was someone else with exactly the same name, Julia Elizabeth Storer, living in the same location. I have to say that I do find it too much of a coincidence and have found no other person buried at that time that it could have been.

The burial register for Julia Elizabeth Storer also provided the name of the street she was living on – Grosvenor Place, London. On checking the rates returns for around 1816, I had hoped to find her listed or a clue – sure enough, whilst there was no sign of her, her maternal uncle, Lord John Josiah Proby, 1st Earl of Carysfort had his London house there, and it was also the road noted on the baptismal entry in 1814 for two of her daughters.

For me at least, this would confirm that Julia died there in 1816 which is why she had disappeared from the radar. Whoever actually raised her children though, I have no idea as yet apart from the comment above, made in Harriette’s book.

In Frances Wilson’s book, The Courtesan’s Revenge, she states that in 1824, Julia was charged with being drunk and disorderly, however, the person named was a Julia Johnson, without the ‘t’ and ‘e’, she was a different person altogether, who appeared in court quite regularly. This and other newspaper reports were also cited in Julia’s book too, and disputed by its author. Whoever wrote Julia’s book had also read the newspapers and knew they were two different women.

Frances Wilson also concludes from a baptism of 1823, that Julia and Josiah were still together at that time, some 10 years after the birth of their last child. She names the child as being Julia Storer Johnstone. This infant was however, one of Julia’s grandchildren, born to her eldest son Josiah and his wife Eliza nee Sandby. Baby Julia was their second of 5 children and not in fact ‘our’ Julia, but named in honour of her grandmother, Josiah knowing full well that his mother was dead by this time.

Josiah Cottin remained resident at Hampton Court until his death in 1843, living there with his wife and after her death in 1830, with their eldest daughter, Anna. Josiah’s will made provision for one person only – his eldest daughter, Anna who presumably was caring for him in old age, as he died aged 76. There was no reference made to his other living daughter, Georgiana, although as she was married, he must have sure she was already being very well provided for. There was absolutely no mention of Julia or his children with her at all.

To finish, there was an interesting piece in the Morning Herald, 21 October 1826

Some curiosity was excited, on a woman called Harriette Wilson, being placed at the bar, on a charge of felony, brought be a certain Julia Johnson, in the vague hope that the prisoner and prosecutrix might prove to be the ladies whose annals have made so much noise and scandal in the world. The parties, however turned out to be common-place people, one of whom stole a milk jug from the other, and was therefore found guilty, and sent to the mill for a week.

Again, this confirms that Julia Johnson was not ‘our’ Julia.

*Napier was Charles James Napier (1782-1853). Julia’s memoirs described Napier as being ‘Inspector General, Ionian Islands’.

A bronze statue of Charles James Napier stands in Trafalgar Square in London and occupies one of the four plinths in Trafalgar Square, the one to the southwest of Nelson's Column.Courtesy of Wikimedia
A bronze statue of Charles James Napier stands in Trafalgar Square in London and occupies one of the four plinths in Trafalgar Square, the one to the southwest of Nelson’s Column. Courtesy of Wikimedia

According to Harriette Napier was with Julia when she died, so we’re looking at about December 1815, I am struggling to place him in England at that time, although it’s not impossible. He was certainly in Paris during the earlier pat of 1815 according to his memoirs, so was this another piece of fiction? I suspect it was.

This of course, still leaves many unanswered questions, but, I hope gives a little more clarity about the life of Julia Elizabeth Storer (Johnstone).

6 thoughts on “Harriette Wilson v Julia Johnstone – The Truth v Lies

  1. sylvia wright

    What a lot of work you’ve done! Congratulations.

    I just thought you might be interested in the fact that Charles James Napier is my 1st cousin 6x removed. He had an interesting life too!

    Many thanks


    1. Sarah Murden

      Thanks Sylvia, it’s been one of the more challenging pieces of research and raises more questions than it answers, I suspect. Charles James Napier – oh wow, I suspect you know more about him than I do 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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