In the eighteenth-century women were largely viewed as subservient, a commodity, a man’s possession, much like their house or dog. An object for men to do with as they saw fit, including – in extreme cases – beating or raping if they wished. In upper-class households, it was not uncommon for the man to take a mistress if he chose and his expectation of his wife was to produce children, to ‘look the part’, to be talented in the arts and to oversee household management. For working-class women, life would be incredibly tough as they helped to support the family financially, bore and raised numerous children and tried to keep the family from the workhouse door.
So how did our ‘Georgian Heroine’ fit into either scenario? Well, she simply didn’t. Mrs Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, known as Charlotte, fell between two worlds, neither upper nor working class, and almost obsessively private.
Charlotte first crossed our path whilst researching Peterborough House, Fulham and Grace Dalrymple Elliott. We came across a story by the author and poet, Marius Kociejowski who had researched part of Charlotte’s life and were hooked; we had to find out what became of this teenager. We began to retrace Kociejowski’s work and piece together her life from a document she had written (Kociejowski refers to it as Charlotte’s Testament, the original of which he still owns; he has also kindly written an introduction to our book).
As a teenager living in Lambeth, Charlotte lost her first love when he set sail for India, where he found great fame as a military man, never to return. She was then abducted and raped, held prisoner and even bearing a child to her captor until she found the courage to escape. Charlotte’s abduction and rape had parallels with a novel written some thirty years prior to her abduction; Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, bears many similarities to Charlotte’s story. Unlike Clarissa, Charlotte didn’t have a fortune, but her captor undoubtedly wished to possess her, both body and soul.
After this horrendous ordeal, Charlotte travelled to France, becoming trapped and imprisoned during the French Revolution. She showed amazing resilience and subsequently reinvented herself as a peculiar form of female spy, working for the British government while travelling backwards and forwards to France, reporting upon the state of the nation in the years following the revolution, even suggesting plans by which Napoléon Bonaparte might be thwarted. Charlotte spoke fluent French and could pass for a native of the country. Returning to England, she became an author, a minor playwright and had works published anonymously including, A Residence in France during the Years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, the manuscript of which she cleverly manipulated to suit both her own political views and appeal to the public at large.
Charlotte held strong opinions which she wanted to have voiced. Clearly, she couldn’t speak publicly, so had to find other ways of getting her opinions heard. She used the power of letter writing and we unearthed copious numbers of letters, mainly to politicians and peers of the realm. Charlotte was never afraid of offering her opinion as to what they should do about certain matters and seemingly they respected and took note of her, great men including Nicholas Vansittart, Chancellor of the Exchequer and William Wilberforce who acted as her mouthpiece on at least one occasion in the Houses of Parliament.
Although her identity was known to the men to whom she wrote, a combination of ‘female modesty’ and a fear of not being taken seriously should her sex be revealed induced Charlotte to an obsessive level of public anonymity. In her later years, she almost single-handedly orchestrated King George III’s golden jubilee celebrations – again with her identity protected – and was in contact with George III’s daughters for whom she acted as a courier.
Charlotte’s life took many twists and turns and piecing it together has been no mean feat. We are amazed at how this unfortunate young girl grew into such a determined and articulate woman in a world where this was not the norm for her gender.
There was a Mr Biggs, but it appears to be largely a union of convenience for both he and Charlotte. Unable to track down a marriage, we suspect that Charlotte used the appellation ‘Mrs’ for her own protection within society, giving her a veil of respectability which allowed her to move freely both in England and France without raising suspicion. The final clue as to Charlotte’s marital status appeared in her will, which suggested she was a spinster and not a wife.
Linda Colley, in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, referred to Charlotte as ‘a middle-class widow from the Welsh borders’. She was in part correct, but Charlotte was much more than that, she was an enigma who until now has remained off the radar of history, a woman in a man’s world. Had she been male we would certainly have heard more of her before today. Despite her many misfortunes, she continually reinvented herself, manipulating the world and men around her but never publicly having ownership of her voice or her words during her lifetime. We felt it was time to give her back ownership of that voice.
Old Westminster Bridge from Lambeth by R. Paul. City of Westminster Archives centre
We are delighted to welcome a new guest to our blog, the lovely Kimberley Reeman. Kimberley Jordan Reeman was born in Toronto, graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts (hons.) in English literature in 1976. She worked in Canadian radio and publishing before marrying the author Douglas Reeman in 1985, and until his death in 2017 was his editor, muse and literary partner, while pursuing her own career as a novelist.
She has always been a spinner of tales, telling stories before she could write, reading voraciously from childhood, and citing Shakespeare, Hardy, Winston Graham and the novels of Douglas Reeman and Alexander Kent as her most profound influences.
From Graham, who became a friend, she learned to write conversation, to eavesdrop as the characters spoke; from the seafaring novels of Reeman and Kent, which she read years before meeting the author, she came to understand the experience of men at war.
In this post Kimberley is going to write about ‘The Secret Woman’, so we’ll hand over to her:
He behaved like a brute… the most hardened creature I have ever met.
(Florence Nightingale to her sister Frances Parthenope Verney, 1855)
They met on a blazing October day at Scutari, now Üsküdar in Istanbul, at the height of the Crimean War: the ‘lady with the lamp’, grave, chaste, demure, and hailed as a pioneer of nursing and a heroine in Victorian England, and the short, slight, irascible, ageing lieutenant-colonel who had been appointed deputy inspector-general of hospitals for the British army in May of 1851, Dr. James Miranda Barry.
The antagonism was mutual. Florence has been described as intense and driven, and accused of racism for her icy attitude toward Mary Seacole, the mixed-race Jamaican ‘doctress’ who had applied to join Nightingale’s nurses and served, when rebuffed, as a sutler privately providing care, nourishment and accommodation to wounded soldiers on the supply road from Balaclava. But this was a clash of titans, neither of whom ever yielded to other authority, civil or military. Barry, so obsessed with hygiene that he would mutter, “Dirty beasts! Dirty beasts! Go and clean yourselves!” when inspecting the troops, was not impressed by Nightingale’s standards at Scutari and lectured her in the presence of her subordinates. Nightingale’s response was glacial, perhaps because she had been publicly castigated, and nobody who had ever been on the receiving end of one of Barry’s tirades ever forgot it; or perhaps it was a visceral reaction to what she saw or sensed, a sexual challenge that offended the devoutly Christian, Nightingale, who had no great affection for her own sex and preferred the company of powerful men.
This uniformed martinet in the scarlet coat with the heavy epaulettes and insignia of rank, and the sword and the spurs and the tightly trousered, booted legs, lecturing her from the saddle, was a woman.
She had been born Margaret Anne Bulkley in Cork, Ireland, about 1789, the daughter of Jeremiah Bulkley, grocer and inspector at the Weigh House, a position of responsibility not often granted to a Roman Catholic, and his wife Mary Anne, née Barry, sister of the renowned Irish painter James Barry, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
She was a pretty, spirited child with red-gold hair and blue-green eyes, and the characteristic Barry hooked nose and small, sweet mouth. Fastidious in everything from the choice of her clothing to the penning of letters on Mary Anne’s behalf to James Barry, asking for financial assistance as the family fortunes declined and Jeremiah was dismissed from the Weigh House in a British backlash against Irish Catholics after the French invasion of 1798, Margaret Anne Bulkley was indubitably female, as was confirmed after her death when those preparing her body for the undertakers found her to be “a most complete and perfect woman”.
There were also indications on that body that ‘James Barry’ had borne a child, and it is probable that Margaret was raped at about the age of thirteen, the most likely suspect being her dissolute uncle Redmond Barry, a sometime sailor who washed ashore occasionally, in and out of debt, debtors’ prisons, and the Royal Navy. What is known is that Mary Anne Bulkley and her daughter Margaret disappeared into the country for some time and returned with a baby girl, who was named Juliana for Mary Anne’s mother and who was, allegedly, Margaret’s sister. And while this child was never acknowledged, nor, eventually, was any other vestige of her former life, ‘James Barry’ remained notably fond of, and affectionate toward, children and small animals, and was instinctively trusted by them, to the extent that in the Cape Colony where Barry subsequently spent many years, local children would fearlessly call him the kapok nooientjie, the “little kapok maiden”, not only for his delicate physical appearance but for the stuffing with which he padded his trousers and coats to simulate anatomical correctness. Barry would later use custom-made prosthetics, presumably supplied by London theatrical costumiers, to achieve the same effect.
The anticipated financial aid never materialised from the painter James Barry, and mother and daughter made yet another pilgrimage from Cork to London to claim a share of his estate when Barry died intestate in February of 1806.
Little money was forthcoming, but Barry’s friends and patrons, among them doctors, lawyers, the Earl of Buchan and the Venezuelan patriot and diplomat Sebastian Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinosa, took a paternal interest in Margaret, mentored her, encouraged her passion for learning, and almost certainly suggested the risky charade that would determine the course of her life. It had been done before by Margaret, Countess of Mount Cashell, near Cork, a pupil of the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who had left her titled husband, taken a lover more kindly disposed toward the emancipation of women, and as a six-foot, muscular female in male clothing had attended medical lectures in the university town of Jena in Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. A Cork girl herself, and one who had once written to her brother, “Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier,” Margaret Bulkley must have been intrigued by the story.
General Miranda had a vision of a republican Venezuela where men and women would be equal. Margaret could accompany him there and practise medicine openly.
On Thursday, November 30th, 1809, Margaret Anne Bulkley disappeared, and a young ‘nephew’ and namesake of the painter James Barry took ship for Edinburgh, accompanied by his ‘aunt’ Mary Anne. He applied to and was accepted by the university, and joined hundreds of other male medical students. Three years later, after countless lectures and dissections and courses in anatomy, pathology, military surgery, medical botany and, particularly, midwifery, and oral and written examinations in Latin, ‘James Barry’ was awarded his degree.
For Margaret Anne Bulkley, now a qualified physician, the dream of re-assuming her female identity and joining General Miranda in Venezuela was abruptly and hideously shattered.
As described by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield in their compassionate and evocative biography, Dr. James Barry, A Woman Ahead of Her Time, Miranda
had returned with [Simon] Bolívar to Caracas, where he received a mixed reception… his idealism was at odds with Bolívar’s authoritarianism. Following a year of violent turmoil and political intrigue, he was betrayed by Bolívar. Accused of treason, Miranda was handed over to the Spanish royalists and taken back to Spain, where he was thrown into a dungeon in the Arsenal de la Carraca in Cadíz. He never saw freedom again.
There would be no Venezuelan dawn for Margaret Bulkley.
For Dr. James Miranda Barry there were London dawns at St. Thomas’s hospital, following the great surgeons on their rounds, observing the distressing lack of hygiene on the wards, and learning, always learning. But money remained a problem, and in June of 1813 Barry presented herself to the army medical board and applied to be accepted as a surgeon, giving her age as eighteen (she was about twenty-four). Considered a prodigy but certainly not a woman, she passed the examinations required by the Royal College of Surgeons and was commissioned as assistant staff surgeon in the British army on December 7th, 1815. An attractive, androgynous and unusually youthful figure in plain single-breasted scarlet coatee without epaulettes, as befitted an assistant surgeon, she sailed for the Cape Colony in 1816; and, having obsessively guarded her privacy throughout the long sea passage from England, set her booted feet with their two-inch heels on the soil of Africa in October.
The years in Cape Town would be the most fulfilling and challenging of her life. With the widowed governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, a former army officer and younger brother of the sixth Duke of Beaufort, she began a passionate and enduring relationship, possibly platonic, very probably sexual, although it is not known, nor is it appropriate that we should know as we have no proprietary right to Barry and her private life, how that sexuality was expressed. Certainly it was thought to be true when a placard was posted in Cape Town on Tuesday the first of June, 1824, claiming that a witness had seen “Lord Charles buggering Dr. Barry.”
Barry, walking along Heerengracht that morning, heard the story and behaved like any sensitive human being whose life had been rocked to its foundations. She sought refuge in a nearby shop and broke down in tears: of rage that something so precious had been publicly and libellously defiled; of fear that she and Charles would be arrested on charges of sodomy, a crime in the armed forces that was punishable by death; of exoneration, if investigated, by the disclosure of her sex, by which she would lose everything of significance, including her identity, her commission and her vocation.
There was a court of inquiry, but no conclusive evidence was produced, and the case was closed. The libellers were never identified, although Somerset and Barry, as well as citizens of Cape Town, offered substantial rewards. But the shadow and the shame never entirely dissipated, and Lord Charles Somerset was summoned to England in February of 1826, with his second wife and his family, to respond to criticisms of his administration.
Barry remained at the Cape, more argumentative, more confrontational and more intolerant than ever, vulnerable without her champion, Somerset, who had wielded his considerable influence to extricate her from every crisis into which her ferocious temper propelled her: challenging authority and incompetence and imagining insults and conspiracies until the Office of Colonial Medical Inspector was abolished. Shattered, she resigned her appointments and practised medicine privately, caring with a brisk compassion for the Cape garrison of 2,400 officers and men and their wives and children.
On Tuesday, June 25th, 1826, Barry was summoned in the middle of the night to attend Wilhelmina Munnik, in protracted labour and dangerously exhausted: she was unable to give birth naturally, and the only alternative, to save the living foetus, was to perform caesarean surgery, which almost invariably resulted in the death of the mother and, all too frequently, the child. Only in three recorded cases of caesarean section had both survived.
Barry, with Wilhelmina’s consent, and meticulous attention to hygiene and technique, that night performed the first caesarean surgery in the Cape Colony. Wilhelmina and her son survived, and the baby was christened James Barry Munnik, a name that would be handed down through generations of the Munnik family, in tribute to the surgeon who had delivered him.
In August of 1829 Barry, now a full staff surgeon in Mauritius, received devastating news. Charles Somerset, some twenty-two years Barry’s senior and suffering from the complications of heart failure, was reported to be dying. Barry, characteristically, committed one of the flagrant breaches of discipline for which she had become notorious and abandoned her post without permission.
She reached England on Saturday, December 12. Somerset was still alive, although very frail, and Barry, who had saved his life years before, nursing him with tenderness and dedication through a near-fatal attack of typhus with dysentery, undertook his care. Somerset seemed to rally, and then died on Sunday, February 20, 1831, with his wife, Lady Mary, his daughter Georgiana, and his beloved Barry at his bedside.
For Barry without her patron, “my more than father⸺ my almost only friend”, the aftermath and the years that followed were a blurred succession of postings, to St. Helena, Jamaica, Trinidad where she fell ill with malaria and was discovered sweating and delirious in bed by two medical subordinates who examined her and saw indisputable evidence of her sex, and maintained their silence; to Malta and a cholera epidemic; to Corfu; to the hostile meeting with Florence Nightingale at Scutari; and eventually to Montreal, where one officer was overheard to remark, seeing her for the first time, “You’d have to be mad to take that for a man.”
As intransigent as ever and suffering frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, she reached the pinnacle of her career and fell abruptly and catastrophically from it while pursuing personal vendettas.
She had always been defensive and impulsive: at the Cape in her youth she had struck an officer across the face with her riding crop when he had said, “By the Powers! You look more like a woman than a man!” And she had fired a pistol with deadly intent in a duel when another officer had challenged her after some imagined slight and been shot herself, a wound she had dealt with in private. But this time Barry had gone too far, expressing her volatile opinions to the Dean of Montreal, the bishop and the archdeacon, as well as other members of the clergy, and “assailing them with violence and insulting conduct”.
Tolerance of her increasing eccentricity had reached its limit. She was recalled to London and faced a medical board comprised not of the director-general and senior officers to which her rank, the equivalent of a brigadier-general, entitled her, but three
junior surgeons who were perfect strangers to me and to my peculiar habits…. they not unnaturally and somewhat hastily jumped to the conclusion that I was in a bad state of health.
The board’s decision was also a foregone conclusion. James Miranda Barry, now officially sixty years of age and in reality several years older, was relieved of her North American command and reduced to half-pay.
There was no appeal.
She drifted, lost, no longer defined by the identity she had created and the persona she had inhabited for so many decades. She travelled to the Caribbean with her Jamaican servant John, a former soldier in the West Indian Regiment, chasing the ghosts of the past, considering adopting a child, visiting old friends, too many of whom were dying or infirm; becoming increasingly unwell herself; returning to London and more shadows and memories of the past.
In the early hours of Tuesday, July 25, 1865, in sweltering heat, Margaret Anne Bulkley, who for fifty-six years had lived as James Miranda Barry, died of cholera. Years before, in Trinidad, she had told a female friend⸺ and Barry had many female friends and was sparkling and gregarious in their company⸺ that in the event of her death her body was to be wrapped in the sheets in which she had died and buried unwashed and unexamined. That wish was either not known or ignored by those who came to lay out the corpse of Dr. James Barry before the arrival of the undertakers. The revelation of her sex to the press created an international sensation. Dickens gave the story a fictional spin in 1867. In 1919 the renowned actress Sybil Thorndike played Barry on the stage. There have been novels, biographies, broadcasts: a film is said to be in production.
Barry eludes definition, but nothing diminishes her uniqueness: as the first woman ever to hold the rank of general in the British army, as a pioneering surgeon, as a fearless human being sacrificing comfort, peace, stability, and emotional and physical intimacy in the pursuit of her destiny.
She had chosen her life. But the battered trunk which had accompanied her for so many years, when opened after her death by the solicitors in charge of settling her affairs, may speak of yearning and regret. When lifted, the lid’s leather lining was found to be covered with a collage of women’s fashion plates. Hats, gowns, hairstyles… a haunting affirmation of an irretrievable past, and an acknowledgement of the woman, long forgotten, who had once lived it.
Find out more below about Kimberley’s book Coronach, which is available to order from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA) and Amazon (Canada)
It is not necessary to look further than the history of Canada, and Toronto itself, for the genesis of Coronach: a vast country explored, settled, and governed by Scots, and a city, incorporated in 1834, whose first mayor was the gadfly journalist and political agitator William Lyon Mackenzie, a rebel in his own right, and the grandson of Highlanders who had fought in the `45. The Vietnam War, also, burned into the Canadian consciousness the issues of collateral damage and the morality of war; and from this emerged one character, a soldier with a conscience. In unravelling the complexity of his story, Coronach was born.
On the bitterly cold morning of Saturday 22nd March 1828, a twenty two year old woman sat in her prison cell at Lancaster Castle, awaiting the hangman’s noose, with just the long standing prison chaplain, Reverend Mr Joseph Rowley to comfort her before her final journey. Outside, waiting to witness this event was one of the largest crowds ever seen at the castle, with many travelling from far afield to witness this spectacle.
So how did this unfortunate young woman find herself in this most desperate of all situations? To find out we return to the beginning of this story, and to a John Scott, a Methodist preacher and shop keeper on Bridge Street, Preston and his wife Mary. The couple were well respected in their local community and further afield, as John Scott travelled to local fairs and markets selling his wares.
The couple had three daughters – Mary, Jane and Maria, who died in aged eight.
It was the very year Maria died that Jane, aged just 15, found herself unmarried and pregnant as the parish register of April 13th, 1821 confirms, Jane presented her first illegitimate child, a daughter, Anne, for baptism at the local parish church, not at the non-conformist church her parents attended.
Jane’s behaviour began to deteriorate, becoming rebellious, stealing from her parents and drinking. As to what became of Anne can only be speculated upon, but in all likelihood she died in infancy.
On 29th January 1824, aged 18, still unmarried and living with her parents, Jane presented a second child, for baptism, a son named John, but just three years later she would return to the church, this time to bury him.
Questions were raised at the time about the death of this child, but there was nothing tangible to suspect that anything untoward had happened to him. Perhaps her daughter Anne had in fact died, leading people to question Jane’s untoward lifestyle and her ability to care for children. She now frequented the local public house, ‘The Three Tars’ and continued stealing from her parents.
History has a habit of repeating itself, this time on 6th May 1825, Jane presented another illegitimate child, Harriet, for baptism. Then, only a few months later this child’s name too was to appear in the parish burial register.
Mortality rates in this parish were high and the parish registers showed many children dying young, well over fifty percent of the entries were for under-fives, so the deaths of Jane’s children, although tragic, might not have appeared that unusual.
June 1825, just one month later, there was another baptism, for a Robert Scott (illegitimate), this time the child belonged to Jane’s elder, unmarried sister, Mary.
Eighteen months later, on 13th January 1827, Mary married James Woods with her father, John, present as a witness, perhaps given the girls’ history he was glad to have one safely married off.
Flicking through the pages of the parish register two more Scott names jump out – burials which took place on the same day at Holy Trinity church, Preston on May 17th, 1827. The names were John and Mary Scott, the parents of these girls, so how did they die and why were they buried on the same day?
The answer to that lurked in the numerous newspaper reports of the time, which provided somewhat grisly accounts of their deaths and the coroner’s inquest which led to the subsequent trial of their daughter, Jane ‘a short, thick set woman’, at the Lancashire Assizes on August 29th, 1827.
On the 13th May 1827 John Scott was alive and in good health but died just one day later. The first witness called was Mrs Hannah Cragg, who was well acquainted with the couple and confirmed that Jane still lived with her parents. Mrs Cragg said that she had taken tea with them on Sunday and that Mrs Scott took her home a little after eight. The couple were both well and appeared on good terms with their daughter.
She stated that on the following evening, just after nine, Jane had run to her home, asking her to ‘come to our house, my mother is dead’. She appeared to be very alarmed. She told Jane to go straight home and that she would follow her.
On arriving, she saw Mrs Scott in the kitchen.
‘I had a conversation with her, but Jane was not present. I saw John Scott afterwards in the yard, vomiting. He went into the kitchen with me; Mrs Scott was still there. Jane came in and was going about the kitchen but could hear what was said.’
Mrs Scott said, ‘I am poisoned by the porridge’. So did Mr Scott. Jane said she would get rid of the porridge and that nothing more should be said of it.
Mrs Cragg said she saw it whilst she was holding Mrs Scott’s head. Mrs Scott told Jane not to dispose of it, but, Jane, who was close enough to hear completely ignored her and disposed of it. Dr Brown, the surgeon, was immediately sent for and instructed Jane to put the tin pan used to make the porridge to one side, but not to wash it out.
Jane and a Mrs Bilsborough went to fetch Jane’s half-brother, David Graham, as she feared her parents were dying. On arriving at the house, David found the doctor busily using a stomach pump on his mother and immediately accused Jane of causing them to be unwell.
David also told the court that Jane had been prone to violent convulsions over the past 3 years, which left her feeling weak for the next few hours, but he didn’t think it had impaired her mind. Mrs Bilsborough also confirmed that they had become more frequent, occasionally they were so bad that Jane would fall over in the street.
Just before midnight, Mrs Cragg went home, leaving Mr and Mrs Scott in bed being cared for by David who continued his vigil until, about three when his mother died.
His stepfather was still alive, but extremely unwell. David said that his stepfather told him that he feared he didn’t have much longer to live, he believed Jane had put poison in the porridge. At half- past five in the morning John Scott also died.
At the trial, Thomas Emmett, the druggist confirmed that Jane had visited his shop to purchase quarter of a pound of arsenic to use at her parents house in Bridge Street, as they had rats in the shop that she needed to kill and that two weeks later she returned for a further supply as she hadn’t managed to kill all of them. She returned for a third time, just days before the Scott’s died, saying that on this occasion she needed some to kill bugs around the bedstead.
The next witness was George Richardson, who said he had known Jane for a couple of months and that he saw her on the Sunday night whilst on his way home for tea and that Jane called him to come in. Jane then asked him, ‘When do you intend to marry me?.’ George said that he had already told her that he had no intention of marrying her yet as he wasn’t ready for marriage, he had no money or possessions.
Jane then told him that her father had signed over all his goods to her, but George didn’t believe her, so she produced a paper to prove it. George though, was semi-literate, but recalled that there was both writing and printing on the paper with her name at the bottom of it. He returned it to Jane saying he didn’t understand it, but that he had seen the words ‘tobacco and snuff’ on it. Jane said that snuff was there, along with a list of other goods meant for her. It later transpired that this was merely a snuff licence.
Next, was James Shorrock, who confirmed that he knew Jane and George Richardson. He said that he had seen Jane on the Sunday evening and Jane told him that her mother was very ill. He said that he saw her again on the Monday night about eight o’clock near a factory on Bridge Street when she said to him:
‘Here, Jem, I want thee’, I have just been watching George go into the dandy shop, Betty Watsons. George thinks to make a fool of me. I’ll make a bigger fool of him. He’ll be here after a while. My father and mother are very badly. I’ll go in to my supper, stop here till I come back’.
Jane disappeared and returned after about twenty minutes and said, ‘Oh Jem my father and mother are sure to die’. He replied:
‘we are all sure to die,’ Jane’s response was ‘we’re all sure to die, but not so soon as them. Next week I’m going to Manchester. I owe you two shillings. Come tomorrow night and I’ll pay thee’.
She went on to say, that on her return she would be married, but didn’t say to whom. She told him that her parents had signed over everything to her, they had three houses and when she returned she would sell one, which would set them up in some kind of business, and then they would go to Liverpool to her sister, Mary.
The surgeon, Dr Robert Brown was next to be called to give his testimony. He confirmed that when he arrived at the house about half past nine on the Monday evening, Mrs Scott was sitting in a chair in the kitchen, supported by Mrs Cragg and was vomiting violently. Dr Brown concluded that she had been poisoned. He called for a quantity of warm water and applied the stomach pump to Mrs Scott. He stated that he took care of the contents of her stomach and that Mr Scott’s condition was very similar to that of his wife. He then used the stomach pump on Mr Scott and the couple were then put to bed.
Mr Scott was sick and complained of pains in the bowels. Mrs Scott was still being violently sick and complained of great cramp in her legs. Dr Brown confirmed that he had some conversations with Jane and asked to see the pan in which the porridge was made and confirmed that Jane had told him when she fetched him that her parents had eaten porridge and that caused them to become ill.
He asked for the bowl to be left for examination, he then gave it to his apprentice for safe keeping.
After he had finished administering the pump he asked Jane for the pan used to make the porridge. When Jane produced it, he noted that it had already been washed. He said he was somewhat surprised that she had not understood his earlier instructions to leave it, but her response was that she needed to use the pan to boil the water for the pump. He said that the pan in question had not been used, as he had watched her boil the water in a different pan. She made no reply.
The following day Dr Brown carried out a post mortem on John Scott’s body. He believed from the original symptoms which were borne out in the post mortem, showed that the death was caused by arsenic. Vomiting, purging and cramp in the legs were indicative of having ingested arsenic.
The judge was concerned that no tests had been carried out by Dr Brown as they might have yielded a different or conclusive outcome. He addressed the jury advising them that without conclusive proof of poisoning it was difficult for them to find Jane guilty. The case so far had only related to Jane’s father and the judge advised the jury that they should make their decision about this one count, as it was the fault of the prosecutor that necessary evidence was not available.
The judge confirmed that the case against her of murdering her mother would need to wait to allow the prosecutors the necessary time to supply further evidence and that a verdict on the case against Jane of murdering her father should be given.
Mary, now Mrs James Woods (Jane’s sister) was called to give her statement. She confirmed that the household regularly used arsenic and that they mixed it with oatmeal and sugar to kill rats and to eliminate bugs around the bedstead. Mary said that her father sold bread in his shop and that rats were abundant in the property, so she often made up a solution for use as an when required and that a solution was always kept at hand, so it was more than likely that there would have been some in the house on the day her parents died.
She said that she had seen some arsenic a few days before she went home to Liverpool, and that it was in the drawer of a wash-stand, wrapped up in blue paper, without any string and warned her mother about leaving it about the house.
Mary also confirmed that Jane on occasion, had as many as fifty fits in one day and could be ill for a week afterwards. Mary was sure that her mind had become afflicted as a result of them. She told the court that Jane was on good terms with her parents, in fact, that they thought more of Jane than they did of her.
Mrs Alice Berchell was called next. She described herself as being Mrs Scott’s neighbour for over seven years and that they were very close. She corroborated Mary’s evidence. She too confirmed that Jane suffered from fits and that on occasion she had held Jane whilst she had been fitting. She said that Jane had been in the Dispensary at Preston and in Manchester Infirmary and that Mr and Mrs Scott were always kind and affectionate toward Jane, but were extremely worried that Jane would never be well enough to work for her living due to these fits.
The judge summed up the case for the jury who retired and returned with their verdict of:
Not Guilty due to weak intellect
Jane was however, returned to the prison to await trial for the murder of her mother. During this time, she ate very little and became weaker by the day.
On 20th March 1828, Jane was brought before the court again, some ten months after the death of her mother, having already been acquitted of the murder of her father and feeling convinced she would receive the same outcome. This time the jury took a mere five minutes to reach their conclusion and found her:
Jane sat quietly and calmly throughout the trial until the verdict of hanging was delivered, she sobbed and pleaded for mercy, asking to be transported instead. This request was declined, she was returned to her cell where she became agitated and unable to support herself so much so, that she had to be put to bed by the castle matron.
Finally, when time was running out for Jane she confessed her crimes. She stated that she had been well brought up, but from the age of fourteen she had led a dissolute life and had been seduced by a local man when she was just fifteen. She said her mother and father had always been kind to her and tried to keep her on the straight and narrow, but it was too late, ‘the devil got possession of her’. She confessed to robbing her parents of their property and money before they died.
The day before her parents were poisoned she said that she had met up with George Richardson, who she wished to marry. The couple went to ‘TheThree Tars’ public house for a few drinks then went their separate ways, meeting up later when Richardson tried to persuade her to get money from her father. She refused. Richardson goaded her until eventually she went home and made up a porridge containing arsenic which she gave to her parents. Shortly after this she felt guilty and ran to fetch help from a Mrs Cragg. She said that she was convinced that she could get away with it.
Two days before her death her sister, Mary visited her, accompanied by the prison matron. When asked by her sister whether there was anything she wished to confess. Jane, presumably realising that she now had nothing to lose, confessed to having killed Mary’s child as an act of revenge following an argument that they had had. Jane said that she had taken the baby out for a walk, it was then that she gave it laudanum. Jane said that everyone believed the child died from a fit, but that was not true.
Jane also confessed to having killed her son, as she had hoped the child’s father would marry her, but he wouldn’t, so she bought an ounce of white powder from the local doctor and when the child was sitting at the table, she gave him a kiss, mixed the arsenic with treacle, spread it on some bread and gave it to him. As she watched, the child’s eyes glaze over and he died shortly after. Jane confirmed that there had been questions raised about the child’s death, but these weren’t pursued.
At 10 o’clock on Saturday 22nd March 1828, Jane was helped to the chapel where the sacrament was administered by Rev. Mr Rowley. She was so weak that it took two people to support her, having refused food since sentence was passed and only drank one cup of tea.
A few minutes after midday, the door from which culprits passed on to the scaffold was opened, a deathly silence instantly fell amongst the crowd. Jane was so weak so weak that she had to be wheeled to the gallows using this chair.
The executioner then turned her to face toward the prison, put a cap over her head, hooked the halter around her neck and to the chain that was suspended to the fatal beam and retired. Many places report the hangman as Ned (Edward) Barlow, but this was not true as he died in 1812. The most likely candidate was Samuel Haywood, from Leicestershire, who was hired by several assizes as he was highly regarded for his skills.
The two women supported her for a moment, one quickly left in a state of distress, the other gave Jane a kiss, pulled the cap over Jane’s eyes and left. The rope swung round leaving Jane facing the crowd and she was immediately launched into eternity in less than two minutes. An hour later her body was removed to be dissected and anatomized.
The final twist to this tale was, that Jane’s body was sold for dissection and was purchased by a respected local doctor, Dr Thomas Monk, who ultimately found himself jailed for ten years hard labour. Sometime during this time Jane’s skeleton was sold by public auction. The purchaser in the 1870’s, was reputed to run an herbal shop on Walker Street, Preston, who decided to put Jane’s skeleton to profitable use, by displaying it to the public, charging one half penny to view it. So, there really was no rest for the wicked, but hopefully now the victims have been named and can rest in peace.
Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser 2 June 1823
The Examiner, Sunday, May 27, 1827
Evening Mail 10 September 1827
Evening Mail 24 March 1828
The Times 25th March 1828
Chester Courant 1 April 1828
Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser 1 April 1828
Lancaster Gazette 21 August 1875
Fleury. C. Time-honoured Lancaster
Hurren. Elizabeth T. Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England
For anyone not familiar with Harriette Dubochet who used the assumed surname of Wilson whilst alive, (although when buried her baptismal name was given) I would definitely recommend both volumes of her memoirs published in 1825, as they make fascinating reading and are online via Internet Archive.
Harriette lived life to the full and was virtually penniless at the end. Her death certificate gives cause of death as ‘old age’, although in all likelihood a cause of alcohol related disease might have been more accurate. As well as finding religion toward the end of her life, she also found the bottle. She was apparently extremely fond of brandy, to the point of dependency and was reported to have been having a tipple or several just 24 hours prior to her death.
I came across this extract from Frances Wilson’s book, The Courtesan’s Revenge and wanted to check out what became of Harriette’s siblings and possibly find Harriette’s burial.
Harriette’s place of burial has always been something of a mystery, but I can now reveal that she was buried at Brompton Cemetery and the location of her grave is still visible.
The newspapers were not at all kind to her in life as can be observed in this article about her in 1826.
The present appearance of this unfortunate woman makes it difficult to conceive that she could ever have been attractive, either as to person or manner: her features are now ugly and coarse, her person bad and her manners vulgar, with a harsh discordant voice.
A correspondent informs us that the notorious ‘Harriette Wilson’ resides at Chelsea and has become a convert to Popery, and is a very active promoter of the objects of the virtuous priesthood! What next? Is she a candidate for the office of a Lady Abbess, or Principal of a Nunnery?
And even more derogatory about her death:
We have now done with this woman, and we hope no stone will be erected to commemorate her memory and disgrace the place of her burial.
Just for the record, Harriette was born 22nd February 1786 and baptised on 19 March the same year at St George’s, Hanover Square, the same place her other siblings were baptised.
Back to her memoirs, she thought nothing of naming and shaming the gentlemen in whose company she and three of her sisters, Amy, Frances, better known as Fanny and Sophia spent much of their youth.
When Harriette wrote to the Duke of Wellington advising him she was about to publish her memoirs and that to keep his name out she wanted money from him, his famous response was reputed to have been ‘publish and be damned‘, so with that she went ahead and published (the famous phrase is probably not strictly accurate).
I’m not planning to revisit the memoirs in this article as there’s already more information about Harriette and her memoirs online than you can shake a stick at. I will, however, say that in a letter I came across, Harriette was described as being ‘the worst and wickedest bitch in the world’.
Harriette was one of 15 children (11 girls and 4 boys, not all of whom survived childhood), born to Amelia Gadsden, not Cook as previously named elsewhere, Amelia was raised by John Cook and his wife, which is probably where the assumption of her surname has come from, and John James Dubochet, a Swiss coal merchant.
I have noticed that John seems to have had several occupations including that of a stocking cleaner, a mathematician and watch maker, but there’s no evidence to support this,. On the children’s baptism and in his will, proven in 1826, he continued to give coal merchant as his occupation.
Little is known of several of Harriette’s siblings in particular that of the boys. The family seems to have been of mixed repute.
Rose (1799 – ?)
After her baptism there appears to be no proof that she survived into adulthood.
Known in Harriette’s memoirs as Diana, remained single and taught the piano from her home 34 Chapel Street, in the St Marylebone area of London.
Mary (1784 – ?)
Mary was referred to as Paragon, in Harriette’s memoirs. She married an Irish gentleman, Richard Borough(s), in 1812 in Dublin, and the couple went on to have four children, Mary, John, Henry and Augusta Sophia. At least one child was baptised in France so it looks likely that they remained there at least until Richard died at Calais in 1847.
Charlotte (1801 – 1873)
Charlotte, born 1801, married a surgeon and apothecary, William Jones Percival in 1825. The couple moved about with William’s business, from Poplar to Soham, Suffolk and finally to Birmingham to raise their family, where William ultimately took on the post of surgeon at the Kings Norton and Union Workhouse. After his death Charlotte moved to Aberystwyth to live with one of her three daughters, Mary Sophia and her husband the renowned Dr Charles Rice Williams and it was there that she died in 1873.
Julia Elizabeth (1814-1883)
Like her sister Jane, Julia also remained single and spent her later life living with her, by then, widowed sister and former courtesan, Sophia, Lady Berwick (1794-1875), at 7 Clarendon Crescent, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. After the death of her sister, Julia moved to The Mansion, Richmond (now home to Richmond Golf Club).
Frances (Fanny) (1782-1815)
Also a courtesan who, according to Harriette, produced three children with her lover, then upon his death, moved on to have a relationship with a Colonel Parker, who in all likelihood was John Boteler Parker, the son of Sir Hyde Parker. She took his name as if they were married although they were not. Frances was buried in 1815, at Kensington as Frances Parker, her assumed surname.
Amelia, aka Amy (1781-1838)
In 1794, at the age of 13, Amelia became apprentice to a Mary Barker, mantua maker. However, like her sisters, she became a courtesan and had a relationship with George Campbell, 6th Duke of Argyll, with whom, according to Harriette she had a son around 1810, although there’s appear no proof of this and no baptism that we have found so far.
She did however marry the musician Nicholas Robert Charles Bochsa, in 1818 despite him still being married to the Marquis Ducrest’s daughter who was, apparently still alive. Bochsa was both famous and infamous throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras!
He was believed to have been born around 1789 in France, where he studied music at the Paris Conservatoire. Regarded as a child protégé he could play both the flute and piano competently, by the age of just seven. In 1813, he apparently became harpist to the Imperial Court, however, by 1817 he allegedly became involved in counterfeiting, fraud and forgery and fled to London to avoid being prosecuted. In his absence he was sentenced to twelve years hard labour and a fine of 4,000 Francs, so clearly, he was unlikely ever to return to his place of birth.
By 1821, the couple were the height of respectability, with Bochsa, in 1822, becoming one of the founders of the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, London together with John Fane, 11th Earl of Westmorland.
He was however, required to sever his ties with the Academy when news of his previous misdemeanours were discovered and two years later he was bankrupt, but became the musical director of the King’s Theatre, London. Newspapers began reporting that he not only committed the crimes of forgery and fraud, but also that he was a bigamist. We can find no proof of the final accusation, but there was probably some truth in his dubious reputation, as he found himself with a five-pound fine, this time for assault.
On 27th December 1837 Amelia died at her home, 2 Orchard Street, St Marylebone from an inflammation of the intestines and was subsequently buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.
Bochsa eloped with Mrs Anna Bishop, the wife of Sir Henry Rowley Bishop. Frances Wilson, in her book, queried whether Bochsa had eloped with Anna Bishop prior to Amy’s death; the jury’s out on that one, but clearly he wasn’t with her on the day she died as her death was not witnessed by him, but by a John Knight, a collector, who lived there with his wife, Sarah, eight children and their servants.
Bochsa and Bishop left England and reappeared eventually on the other side of the world, having spent the subsequent years touring Europe, America, Mexico and then Australia, where Anna appeared on stage as his protégé. They continued to perform on the stage until his death in 1856, in Sydney.
Harriette’s male siblings were Charles Frederick (1791 -?), Henry Cook , John Emmanuel and George Edward. Very little is known about the first three boys and in all likelihood Charles died during childhood, although there is no evidence of a burial for him.
John Emmanuel (1790-1821)
Apart from his birth and death, the only snippet of information about John comes from the marriage entry for his sister, Sophia, where he was present as a witness.
Henry Cook (1804-1855-9)
After his baptism, there is little known of Henry, apart from one mention of a brother to Lady Berwick in Naples, Italy in 1848. I eventually discovered his death dated simply as being sometime between 1855 and 1859, in Naples (British Armed Forces and Overseas deaths and burials records).
George married Christiana Hadden in 1816 and the couple had 4 children. At the baptism of their youngest child, George was a piano maker, then, by the time his youngest daughter married he had died, but had been ‘of the Treasury‘.
We also wrote a guest post a while ago about Harriette. In case you missed it why not hop over to Mike Rendell’s blog to find out more.
The London Gazette 1839
Berkshire Chronicle, 14 March 1829
John Bull 10 May 1840
Bell’s New Weekly Messenger 06 April 1845
Croome Collection at Worcestershire Archives.
The National Archives; Kew, England; Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 1708
(Henry Fielding, The Covent Garden Tragedy, 1732).
There are many tall tales told about Mary (Moll) King, a shrewd businesswoman and proprietress of King’s Coffee House in London’s Covent Garden. Several sources say she was a pickpocket, stealing watches from ladies’ pockets and held in Newgate before being transported on more than one occasion. She was, it was alleged, the notorious Jonathan Wild’s accomplice, one of his gang of thieves, and while in Newgate met Daniel Defoe who used her as the inspiration for Moll Flanders. Later she settled down with her husband to run their very successful coffee shop, from where she operated as a form of bawd and was prosecuted for keeping a disorderly house.
It all seems a little far-fetched and, if we’re completely honest, we don’t believe the half of it. A certain Moll King appeared before the judges for thieving in 1693, and our Moll wasn’t born until 1696 (as claimed in a pamphlet, The Life and Character of Moll King, late mistress of King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden published anonymously in 1747 shortly after her death).
Mary King is not an uncommon name and we’re sure more than one Mary or Moll King would have been in trouble with the authorities in London in the first half of the eighteenth-century. It seems that the history of the pick-pocketing Moll King, who had a criminal career lasting between at least 1693 and 1728 and who Defoe based Moll Flanders upon, has become entwined in popular imagination with that of Moll King, mistress of King’s Coffee House. The pick-pocketing rumours abounded even during Moll’s own lifetime, as they are specifically discredited in The Life and Character.
Moll was born in 1696 in a garret in Vine Street (now Grape Street) in the heart of St Giles in the Fields, the daughter of a shoemaker and a fruit, fish and greens seller. As a child, she helped her mother in the market and had a brief spell as a servant but hated being indoors all day and went back to selling fruit from a barrow. According to The Life and Character, in 1717 at the Fleet, she married one Thomas King.
Tom King too has a somewhat fanciful story. The son of an obviously well-to-do family, he was born around 1694 in West Ashton in Wiltshire. E.J. Burford, in Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century says he was the son of Thomas King, a squire of Thurlow in Suffolk and Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Cordell, Baronet, who had married in 1691 at St Paul’s in Covent Garden. In 1708, at the age of 14 years, he went to Eton and then, in 1713, to King’s College, Cambridge. Three years later he left Cambridge under a cloud, either expelled or in apprehension that his fellowship would be denied to him, depending upon which account you read. Whatever the cause, he ended up working in Covent Garden market where he was known as Smooth’d-Fac’d-Tom, and there he met Moll.
Around the time she met Tom, it is alleged that Moll also had an affair with a gentleman named John Stanley who, in 1723, met his end at the gallows on Tyburn; he had stabbed his mistress. A pamphlet published the same year gave his history, including details of his brief dalliance with Moll five years earlier.
Is it true? Almost certainly not; it’s another of the many myths which surround Moll’s life, and probably relates to Moll the pick-pocket. The Life and Character admits only an affair with a man named Murray who was in high public office, whilst noting that the handsome Moll was never short of male admirers. One son was born to Tom and Moll, named Charles (Moll names him in her will as her only child and subsequent claims that she educated him at Eton appear to be a falsehood stemming from Tom King’s education there).
The next sighting of either Tom or Moll upon which we can rely comes in 1730 when ‘Thomas King, the Market’ appeared amongst the list of victuallers in St Paul’s, Covent Garden in the licensing register.
The Kings, or rather Moll, had made a tidy profit selling nuts from a stall in the Covent Garden market, and with the money rented a shabby little house (in fact nothing more than a wooden shack) in the Piazza at Covent Garden market and began selling coffee, tea and chocolate to the market sellers, naming their business King’s Coffee House. It was soon known informally as King’s College. As they opened in the very early hours of the morning, when the market traders began work and started to sell strong liquors as well as coffee, they began attracting the custom of those who had ventured to Covent Garden after dark, seeking pleasure, everyone from prostitutes to fashionable young beaux. Soon they were open all through the night. It is said that the clientele included Hogarth, Henry Fielding (who mentioned the coffee house in two of his works), Alexander Pope and John Gay. By 1732 business was booming and the Kings bought the two adjoining properties to expand their business. The new Covent Garden Theatre opened next door to their coffee house.
The business thrived. It is said that Moll acted as a procuress and bawd, but had no beds in the coffee house (except hers and Tom’s in an upstairs room, accessed via a ladder which they pulled up behind them) so she could not be prosecuted for running a brothel. Instead, the assignation would be made at her coffee house and she would then send a servant to light their way to a nearby bagnio. It is also suggested that she operated as a money lender. To deter outsiders from knowing what was going on within their doors, Tom and Moll, and their customers, started ‘Talking Flash’, their own secret language.
Their good fortune enabled Tom to build two or three ‘substantial houses’ and a villa on Haverstock Hill on the road to Hampstead, and he and Moll moved into one of them. The dancer and actress Nancy Dawson (famous for her hornpipe between acts in The Beggar’s Opera) later lived in the villa. Tom King died in the October of 1737 at his Hampstead home after a lingering illness exacerbated by his drinking and was buried at St Paul’s in Covent Garden on the 11th of that month. Moll was granted administration of his estate (goods in Hart Street, Covent Garden and the Coffee House in Covent Garden were mentioned) and took over the running of their coffee house, together with her nephew, William King.
Moll now took to drink – she was previously known for remaining sober – and the coffee house gained a worse reputation than that which it had previously enjoyed under Tom’s management and she began to appear before the courts charged with keeping a disorderly house. It was around this time that Hogarth depicted King’s College in his painting Morning, one of ‘The Four Times of the Day’ series. The scene shows two rakes and their prostitutes who have just staggered out of King’s into the early morning sunshine of a wintry day; icicles can be seen hanging from the timber roof of the coffee shop. Inside, a fight can be seen taking place.
Moll stayed a widow for a twelvemonth, and when her year of mourning was over she married again, on the 11th October 1738 at St Dunstan in the West, to John Hoff, a carpenter and builder who lived on Compton Street in Soho. It was thought that John Hoff married Moll for her money, and indeed she did continue to use her former married name, at least in connection with her coffee house, but none of the evidence suggests that Mr Hoff was after Moll’s fortune. He died just less than four months into their marriage and his will, written on the 6th February 1739, appoints Moll as his executrix and everything is left to her. Moll proved the will on the 9th February before her husband was even in his grave. (John Hoff was buried at St Paul’s in Covent Garden on the 14th February 1739.)
It was in 1739, shortly after Mr Hoff’s death, that a disturbance at King’s Coffee House made the newspapers. A young gentleman claimed that Moll had beaten him in her house and the case ended up in the Court of the King’s Bench. Moll was found guilty. She was told that she was to be fined the considerable sum of £200, had to find sureties for her future good behaviour and that she would be held in prison until the fine was paid. Moll stubbornly went to prison refusing to pay the fine for, as she said, “if she was to pay two hundred pounds to all the insolent boys she had thrash’d for their impudence, the Bank of England would be unable to furnish her with the cash”. In her absence, the coffee house was run by her nephew and Moll languished in prison. It was said that she eventually came to an arrangement to pay less than half the fine in return for her release.
Moll retained her Hampstead villa (which was known locally as Moll King’s Folly), but when she came to write her will on the 6th June 1747 she was ‘Mary Hoff of the parish of St Paul Covent Garden, widow’. She left a few small bequests to her sister-in-law and friends, but the bulk of her reputedly considerable fortune she left to her only child, Charles King, in trust for him until he reached 30 years of age. If he died before that, she willed that her estate was to be used by the parish of St Giles in the Fields to benefit poor children. Moll obviously hadn’t forgotten her roots. She died later that year, on the 17th September 1747 and was buried ten days later in the same churchyard as her two husbands, St Paul’s Covent Garden.
It was after Moll’s death that The Life and Character of Moll King appeared on the streets, which gave details of her criminal career. But how much truth is there in it? To be honest, we’re still not completely sure. Our opinion, and it is no more than that, is that the legend of the pick-pocketing Moll King has become entwined with that of Moll King, mistress of King’s Coffee House. You could accuse the latter Moll of being a bawd, a drunk and the keeper of a disorderly house, but we’re not sure that you could accuse her of much else. Unfortunately, it’s probably one of those cases which will never truly be proved one way or the other.
 E. J. Burford says Thurlow in Essex, but the marriage register at Covent Garden gives Thurlow in Suffolk. Thomas was the son of Robert King of Great Thurlow in Suffolk; Robert’s will c.1709 mentions his ‘unfortunate son’ Thomas and a grandson named John King, but not a grandson named Thomas.
Covent Garden Market by Balthasar Nebot, 1737 (The Tate)
The Records of Old Westminsters, Up to 1927
The Life and Character of Moll King, late mistress of King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, 1747
Women in Business, 1700-1850 by Nicola Jane Phillips, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2006
London – The Wicked City: A Thousand Years of Prostitution and Vice by Fergus Linnane, Robson, 2007
Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century by E. J. Burford, Robert Hale Ltd, 1986
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: Volume 11: Sixth Series, The Royal Historical Society, Cambridge University Press, 2003
We loved this portrait of ‘Old Judy’, keeper of the Newcastle upon Tyne town hutch, and thought we’d take a closer look at both the hutch and Old Judy for our latest blog.
The ‘town hutch’ was a strongbox, a sturdy wooden chest located in the Guildhall (also known as The Exchange) in which the Corporation officials kept the money the town paid in their dues (the Newcastle upon Tyne one has a hole in the lid to admit the money – a similar idea to the money boxes and piggy banks we all owned as children).
The Newcastle hutch had eight locks – the Mayor had the key to one and seven chamberlains the others, and the hutch could only be opened in the presence of all the key-holders (or with their explicit consent if they couldn’t be there). But when these illustrious officials were absent, the hutch was guarded by the formidable Old Judy.
In the early nineteenth-century Judith Dowlings (also Downey or Downing) was the keeper or guardian of the town hutch and wielded a stout stick, which she was not afraid to use in its defence to keep away anyone she thought should not be near, including unwary boys loitering nearby. A newspaper report written in 1863 quoted the Handbook to Newcastle-on-Tyne by the historian Dr John Collingwood Bruce, which wryly noted that ‘some shoulders still ache at the thought of her’. Presumably that is the same stick which Old Judy has hold of in her portrait.
In 1816 the artist Henry Perlee Parker settled in Newcastle upon Tyne (he stayed there until 1841 when he moved to Sheffield) and painted some of the local characters, including Old Judy, people that history would probably otherwise have forgotten all about. Her portrait was executed at some point in the first four years of his residence in Newcastle. We’ll take a look at some of his other paintings in due course – including one in which Old Judy makes another appearance. Both the town hutch and Henry Perlee Parker’s portrait of Old Judy, a half-length in oils on canvas, were moved to the new offices of the Newcastle City Treasurer when the hutch ceased to be used – fittingly Old Judy could gaze down from the wall and keep a watchful eye on the hutch she had so formidably guarded for so many years. Her portrait is now held by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.
As Judy Downey her death is immortalised in a verse of The Newcassel Props by William Oliver. The earliest date we’ve found for this ballad in 1827, which puts Old Judy’s demise prior to that date.
But when maw lugs was lectrified
Wiv Judy Downey’s deeth,
Alang wi’ Heufy Scott aw cried,
Till byeth was out o’ breeth;
For greet and sma, fishwives an’ a’,
Luik’d up tiv her wi’ veneration –
If Judy’s in the Courts above,
Then for au’d Nick there’ll be ne casion.
Newcastle Courant, 20th November 1863.
Header image: Street Scene, Newcastle upon Tyne; British School; National Trust, Cragside
On a surprisingly mild day in the October of 1821, in the second year of the reign of King George IV, a heavily pregnant woman sat herself down on the doorstep of a gentleman’s house in Gloucester Street, Queen Square in London’s fashionable Bloomsbury district; she felt suddenly faint and needed to rest. A crowd gathered around her and some people, assuming she was a poor beggar, threw halfpence into her lap. At this point, two officers from the Mendicity Society arrived and took her to their rooms and then conveyed her to the sitting Magistrates at Hatton Garden and attempted to have her charged her under the Vagrant Act.[i] It was discovered that she had been relieved three times before, and on each occasion had been passed back to Birmingham in the West Midlands, her home parish.
The lady then began her defence and told the officers an extraordinary and hard to believe account of her life up to that point.
She gave her name as Mary, otherwise Tom Jones. She had been born a soldier’s daughter and after her father was killed when she was still a child she had dressed herself in boy’s clothes and enlisted in the 47th (Lancashire) Regiment of Foot, serving seven years in their ranks as a drummer boy. It was certainly unusual but not unknown for women to enlist and live as a man; Hannah Snell famously did so in the eighteenth century. Maybe Mary’s father had served with the 47th and the soldiers had taken in the young orphan (if so she was) letting her live amongst them and looking after her? But eventually, it was discovered that she was a girl and discharged. We are given no clue about the years in which Mary saw service in the 47th, but it must have been at some period in the first fifteen years of the 1800s. During those years the 1st Battalion of the 47th saw action in South America and India and the 2nd Battalion were stationed in Ireland for five years before, in 1809, being sent to garrison Gibraltar and they then saw action from 1811 in the Peninsular War. It, therefore, seems possible that Mary spent her years as a drummer boy with the 2nd Battalion during their seven years of garrison duty in Ireland and Gibraltar, and possibly deliberately allowed her sex to be discovered rather than risk her young life on the battlefield.
Shortly afterwards, at the age of nineteen years, she married a soldier in the otherwise known as the 7th Hussars or the ‘Saucy Seventh’, a regiment which was ‘the embodiment of dash and panache for which every cavalry regiment strives’.[ii]
Mary followed her husband’s regiment and was present at the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815 where their regimental Colonel, Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge, was commander of the entire British Cavalry force (Paget famously lost his leg towards the end of the Battle and was subsequently created the Marquess of Anglesey). In the mayhem of the day she claimed that she once again dressed herself in male clothing and fought, as a volunteer, by the side of her husband. The 7th Hussars were in the thick of the battle from 5pm (they were not used before that) and were charged more than a dozen times. Mary told the officers that she was wounded three times on that day, slashed across her nose by a sabre, stabbed by an enemy bayonet in her left leg and received a musket ball in her right. Her unnamed husband sadly lost his life on the battlefield.
Staggering from the field, Mary came across a Captain belonging to her husband’s regiment who was dreadfully wounded in his head. She had him removed to a surgeon and safety and he recovered. Mary told the officers of the Mendicity Society that the grateful Captain now lived in Sloane Street and allowed her a shilling a day in return for saving his life. For some time after that fateful day in 1815 she had also received ninepence a day from King George IV, but that allowance had been taken from her on account of her drunkenness.[iii]
But Mary had turned her life around once more and married for a second time, to a soldier in the Guards by whom she was now with child. She asserted that she had not been begging, that she had merely sat down as she was feeling faint and had not solicited the ha’pennies which had been thrown into her lap. The officers could not prove the charge against her and so Mary was discharged.
We thought it was a fascinating tale and tried to prove or disprove the facts within it. Sadly the newspaper report on this ‘Female Soldier’ had not given us much to go on and we were left not even knowing if her alias of ‘Tom Jones’ related to her maiden surname, the surname of one of her two husbands or a name she had chosen at random. She did not give her father’s rank in the 47th regiment of foot, nor that of either of her two husbands. We thought that probably the only person we could track down was the injured Captain of the 7th Hussars who allowed poor Mary a shilling a day.
Turning to the 1815 Army List we found the names of twelve men who were Captains in the regiment at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. We then checked the newspaper reports which appeared in the wake of the battle listing the men who were killed, wounded or missing. From those we found that three Captains in the 7th Hussars were wounded in the battle, Captains Thomas William Robbins, William Verner and Peter Augustus Heyliger. If Mary’s story was correct then her Captain had to be one of those three men. We dug a little deeper.
Captain Peter Augustus Heyliger had been particularly noted for his bravery on the day by the Duke of Wellington, but his injury consisted of being shot through the arm. The wounds suffered by Captain Thomas William Robbins did not seem to be specifically mentioned. We then turned our attention to Captain William Verner who was raised in rank to a Major after the battle.[iv]
Verner, a native of Armagh in Northern Ireland, had left behind some memoirs and had described his experiences on the day. He had indeed received a severe head wound, caused by a musket ball, and had been taken to the surgeon. Later moved to Brussels he developed a fever and his life was feared of. Reputedly the Duke of Wellington visited the badly wounded Captain and brusquely told him that “You are not nearly so bad as you think”. With that Verner was up and about within a month but instead of attributing his recovery to either Mary or to the Duke of Wellington, he instead said it was down to the recuperative powers of Guinness porter. Verner married in London on the 19th October 1819 (his wife was Harriet, daughter of Colonel Wingfield and granddaughter of the 3rd Viscount Powerscourt) and subsequently is mentioned as living at 86 Eaton Square, but if Mary’s story was correct he must be the man whose life she helped to preserve and who allowed her a shilling a day. William Verner eventually retired from the army as a Lieutenant-Colonel and subsequently became Sir William Verner. We have yet to find that he mentioned any part played in the battle by a young female soldier who was widowed on the field.
There was at least one wife of a soldier with the 7th Hussars on the battlefield that day: could she possibly be Mary? If so she seems a little less forward than her tale to the Mendicity officers would have us believe but perhaps, even if she did not fight, she did indeed assist the badly injured Captain William Verner from the field in his hour of need, earning his lasting gratitude and assistance if not his public thanks. From William Verner’s Memoirs:
About this time we heard a person in a rough voice cry out, “What is the matter with you, are you afraid?” Upon turning to see we found that this was addressed by Sergt. Major Edwards of Captain Fraser’s Troop, to his wife, who had accompanied him ever since our arrival in the country upon a small pony. As soon as she was discovered by Captain Fraser, he asked her husband if he intended his wife to go into action with us, and ordered her immediately to the Rear.
Caledonian Mercury, 6th July 1815
Stamford Mercury, 26th October 1821
Heroic Option: The Irish in the British Army by Desmond Bowen and Jean Bowen, 2005
Reminiscences of William Verner (1782-1871) 7th Hussars, 1965
The Waterloo Archive: Volume III: British Sources edited by Gareth Glover
Waterloo Letters by Major General H.T. Siborne, 1993
Wellington’s Doctors: The British Army Medical Services in the Napoleonic Wars by Martin Howard, 2002
WO 65. War Office: printed annual army lists, National Archives
UCL Bloomsbury Project – Bloomsbury Institutions – Society for the Suppression of Mendicity
The Queen’s Own Hussars Museum
Churchill – Home of the Verners (Craigavon Historical Society Vol. 6 No. 3)
[i] The Society for the Suppression of Mendicity (also known as the Mendicity Society) was founded in 1818 to attempt to prevent people begging on the London streets by offering them charity if they left the area immediately.
[ii] The newspaper report on Mary’s arrest said her husband was in the 7th Dragoon Guards: the 7th (the Princess Royal’s) Dragoon Guards did not, however, see action at Waterloo (see National Army Museum) but the 7th (the Queen’s Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Hussars) did. We have therefore assumed the latter regiment was the one to which her husband belonged.
[iii] In an age when a soldier’s pay was nominally one shilling a day the allowance provided by the Captain seems generous. It is of course possible that the newspaper had got its facts a little wrong and Mary received a her allowances weekly rather than daily.
[iv] Vice Major Edward Hodge who was killed at Waterloo.
Header image: The Passage of the Bidassoa, 7th Queen’s Own Hussars 1813
On Friday 4th January 1771 a press gang was busily impressing men at Newington Butts (now a borough in Southwark).
The men who had been impressed had no recourse, and one woman was distraught to see her husband being taken away from her and their children. She followed the sailors with loud lamentations and protestations which roused many other women to sally forth from their houses to add their voices to that of the wife’s. One of these women was the famous Hannah Snell who was at that time the landlady of the Three Tuns public house.
Years earlier Hannah had disguised herself as a man, taken the name of her brother-in-law James Gray, and joined the British army in search of her errant husband, a Dutchman named James Summs whom she said she had married in 1744 in the Fleet (he had left her with a young daughter who had died as an infant).[i] Successfully hiding the fact that she was a woman, even though she was reputedly twice given the lash and suffered many wounds, she served both on land with the army and at sea with the marines until she returned to London and came clean. She petitioned the Duke of Cumberland for a stipend, and then trod the boards on the London stage for a time.
By the time she chased the press gang, Hannah had found out her first husband had died (she was told a fanciful tale that he had been executed for murder in Genoa by being put into a barrel and thrown into the sea) and had remarried (and probably again been widowed) to a Berkshire carpenter named Richard Eyles with whom she had two children.[ii]
The newspapers reported that Hannah accosted the Lieutenant in charge of the sailors, and demanded the captive be released; he refused and ‘bad words’ ensuing, she grabbed hold of him and shook him. Two sailors stepped forward to rescue the officer, but Hannah quickly saw them off, and then challenged the rest of the gang to a fight with fists, sticks or quarter-staffs. Her only proviso was that she be permitted to pull off her stays, gown and petticoats and to put on a pair of breeches. Loudly she declared that she had sailed more Leagues than any of them, and if they were Seamen, they ought to be on board, and not sneaking about as Kidnappers, saying:
. . . but if you are afraid of the Sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march through Germany as I have done: Ye Dogs, I have more Wounds about me than you have Fingers. This is no false Attack; I will have my Man.
And with that the sailors backed down and allowed her to take the poor man from their ranks: Hannah restored him to his hearth and home, and his grateful wife.
Shortly after her successful sally on the press gang she married for a third time, to a man named Richard Habgood.
On the 12th November 1772 the couple applied for marriage bond in the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Salisbury, covering Wiltshire and Berkshire. The bond gave the information that Richard Habgood was of Welford and Hannah Eyles was of Speen, both in Berkshire. The bondsman was James Owen of Welford. They then married on the 16th November 1772 at St Gregory’s, the parish church covering the villages of Welford and Wickham, by banns.
The celebrated Hannah Snell died in Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital in 1792.
Hannah’s life as a ‘female soldier’ was told in print in 1750, ‘The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell’.
[i] They had a daughter, Susannah, baptised on the 3rd October 1746 at St George in the East and Hannah’s address in the baptism register was given as Silver Street.
[ii] Her son George Spence Eyles was baptised on the 17th January 1765 at St Luke’s in Chelsea.
(The Gin-Shop; Or, a Peep into a Prison, Hannah More)
Our blog today concerns Lady Barrymore aka ‘The Boxing Baroness’ aka Mary Ann Pearce (sometimes Pierce).
In her youth ‘Lady Barrymore’ had been a beauty and the mistress of Richard Barry, the 7th Earl of Barrymore (1769 – 1793), a notorious rake known as Hellgate (his brothers were Newgate (after the prison) and Cripplegate (due to a deformity) and his sister Billingsgate because she swore like a fishwife).
For an all too brief time, Mary Ann Pearce enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle with a splendid house together with her own carriage provided for her. Their relationship had presumably come to an end by the time Barrymore eloped with Charlotte Goulding, the daughter of a London sedan chairman and niece to Lady Letitia (Letty) Lade who had made a scandalous marriage with Sir John Lade, one of the inner circle of the Prince of Wales. Before her marriage, Letty had been the mistress of both the Duke of York and John Rann, the highwayman.
Barrymore died the following year aged only 23. He was a Captain in the Royal Berkshire Militia and had been driving a gig which was taking French prisoners of war to Dover when his musket accidentally discharged.
Subsequently, Mary Ann was known as ‘Lady Barrymore’ because of her previous connection but she had no entitlement to that name. Her fondness for gin was her downfall and her undoing and led to numerous appearances before the Justices of the Peace and many spells in Tothill Fields Bridewell, often on the treadmill.
Let’s just set the record straight about ‘Lady Barrymore’ as there is plenty of conflicting information out there: the ‘boxing baroness’ and the woman who made regular appearances in the London courts, usually for being drunk and disorderly, was Mary Ann Pearce, not Charlotte Goulding who Richard married in June 1792. Poor Charlotte would be spinning in her grave at the thought of such an error!
Pearce was reputedly Mary Ann’s married name, one source having Lord Barrymore marry her off to a servant when he’d tired of her but another says her husband is mentioned as being an officer on the half pay. Caroline Norton (née Sheridan, granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan) who became notorious when her husband, the Honourable George Norton, brought a criminal conversation case against her said she was the sister of Edward Wentworth Pearce.
Now Edward (or Edmund) Wentworth Pearce’s family are fascinating in their own right and, on face value, look an ideal match for the hapless Mary Ann. Far from being servants, they are reasonably well-born and have two brothers who were on half-pay, one from the navy and one from the army, and their story is littered with family feuds, whoring, drunkenness (like Mary Ann a fondness for gin) and claims of insanity. There was a Mary and a Maria Pearce in this family but the Pearce’s are worthy of a blog in their own right, which you can find here.
Whoever Mr Pearce was, the marriage was an unhappy one and he seems to have abandoned Mary Ann by the beginning of the 1820s when her descent into the gutter led to her notoriety. She was often found insensible around the Drury Lane area of London, sometimes almost naked, and, if she wasn’t insensible, all too prone to using her fists, especially on the watchmen trying to arrest her, hence her sobriquet of ‘The Boxing Baroness’.
A picture of her, fists raised, appeared in the March 1819 edition of the Bon Ton Magazine in which she was linked to Viscount Ranelagh who had stood accused of an assault on some men who had trespassed on his property in the December of 1818.
Mary Ann’s is a tragic story: although she cuffed Beadles and police officers and swore at the magistrates, once she was in prison and away from the gin-shops she behaved with so much decency and propriety that Mr Nodder, the governor of Tothill Fields Bridewell, appointed her as a matron to look after the female prisoners whilst she was detained. He often declared that he could not have selected a more fit person to act in that capacity and always regretted her release from prison as she invariably made straight for the nearest gin-shop and ‘in half an hour after she might be seen staggering through the streets, followed by a crowd of idlers, plaguing and annoying the wretched woman’.
To avoid this crowd she would hide in a public-house and, if refused more drink, took to destroying everything around her and smashing the windows. Rather than a cossetted courtesan she now had to resort to the lowest form of prostitution to raise money for her next tot of gin.
At last her lifestyle caught up with her. On Mary Ann’s last appearance at Bow Street her appearance led the official to believe her ‘in a consumption’ and she told Mr Minshull that “it was her last appearance on that stage”.
Just before her death she was taken to the station house in Covent Garden twice, both times being wearily discharged. The last time Mary Ann, knowing her end was near, told the superintendent Mr Thomas, as she left, that “I have given you a great deal of trouble, Sir, but I shall not give you much more. It is almost over with me.”
The superintendent told her to go home and go to bed as she was clearly ill and although she promised to do so she instead went to a gin-shop. Finally arriving back at her lodging, a miserable attic at No. 8 Charles Street (now called Macklin Street), Drury Lane, it was clear that she would not survive the night and around midnight the lodging house keeper came to the station to see Mr Thomas. This kindly man went straight to the house as he thought she must have met with ill-treatment but found that she had died ten minutes before he got there. She died in the early hours of the 9th October, 1832 and her cause of death was suffocation, occasioned by the excessive use of spirituous liquors.
Mary Ann was buried on the 23rd October 1832 at St Giles in the Field
AH! who is she whose haggard eye
Shrinks from the morning ray?
Who, trembling would, but cannot fly,
From the busy day!
Mark her pale lip, and cheek all o’er,
How deathly it appears!
See! how her blood-shot eye-balls pour
Torrents of briny tears.
Behold! alas, misfortune’s child,
For whom no kindred grieves ;
Now driven to distraction wild,
Her tortur’d bosom heaves!
Despis’d, yet dreaded, ruin’d, lost
Health, peace, and virtue fled ;
On misery’s stormy ocean tost,
Now stretch’d on dying bed.
Once were her prospects bright & gay,
Hope, smiling, blest her hours;
A vile seducer cross’d her way,
And cropt the blooming flower.
Dazzled by shining grandeur, she
Quits parents, friends, and home :
But soon reduc’d to misery,
An outcast vile to roam.
She, for relief, to liquor flies,
Which soon full havoc made;
Vanish’d the lustre of her eyes,
Her beauty soon decay’d.
Oft did she brave the winter’s wind,
The driving sleet and rain;
And oft in prison drear confin’d
For months she would remain.
At length by drink and fell disease
Worn down to skin and bone,
Upon a wretched pallet laid,
No kindred nigh – not one.
She yields to death, – no pitying friend,
Her hapless fate deplores
Ye fair, take warning by the end
of Lady Barrymore.
Printed by J. Catnach, 2 Monmouth-court, 7 Dials.
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton, Diane Atkinson, 2012
The Examiner, 14th October, 1832
The Extraordinary Life and Death of Mary Anne Pierce, alias Lady Barrymore, National Library of Scotland
As we all know the ‘well to do’ women of the Georgian era were regarded as objects of beauty that simply swooned and fainted at the sight of a gallant gentleman. They wore stunningly beautiful clothes and shoes and spent hours on their hair and beauty regime. They paraded around Georgian London, Bath, Brighton etc. in their finery and partied into the early hours, but on the whole, they were regarded as fairly vacuous creatures.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
OK, so we’ve done the whole film thing, now let’s move on and dispense with that image. If we’re being totally honest that is, to a certain extent, the stereotypical image held of women from that period as, let’s face it, they had very few, if any ‘rights’ during that time. Only those in what was regarded as the lower class, worked, the remainder were kept in comfort by their spouses or parents if not married, they had no voting rights, rarely any disposable income of their own unless they had inherited money that was solely for their use and their husband could divorce them with minimal discomfort on their part.
Whilst women were maybe not able to publicly ‘have a voice’ in the world around them and how it worked it, appears from reading the newspapers of the day that actually they took more than a passing interest in the arts, science and politics. Many of the names we have become familiar with over the years did, in fact, take a more active role in politics than we had at first assumed with many of them engaged in gathering support for their chosen politician during elections using whatever methods were at their disposal.
One of the most famous election campaigns that took place was that of the 1784 Westminster election. If you thought politics and political campaigning today was vicious then take a look back to the Georgian era when things were far worse! We came across a book written October 1784 that provides a detailed account of all the events during the campaign – History of the Westminster Election from 1st April to the 17th May.
The Westminster election was of paramount importance as this was one of the key boroughs for two reasons – firstly every male homeowner could vote and secondly due to the number of voters it was equally important to both the Whig and Tory parties. There were two seats to be had and three candidates, so the battle was between Cecil Wray and Lord Hood, both Tory’s, and Charles Fox, Whig, therefore the candidates needed to use every weapon in their armoury to achieve success; none more so than Charles Fox. The battle then commenced.
The Duchess of Devonshire led the female canvassers accompanied by her sister Lady Harriet Duncannon, as she was titled at that point, later to become Lady Bessborough. The list of women involved in the election included Albinia, The Countess of Buckinghamshire, the Duchess of Portland, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s wife, Elizabeth née Linley, Lady Jersey, the Honourable Mrs Bouverie and the Scandalous Lady Worsley.
Others including Perdita aka Mrs Robinson, The White Crow, aka Maria Corbyn, The Bird of Paradise aka Gertrude Mahon, Lady Archer, Lady Carlisle, Mrs Crewe, Mrs Damer and the Miss Waldengraves, Lady Grosvenor and Mrs Armistead, the future Mrs Fox, so quite a little collection.
The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser of 6th April 1784 confirmed that the
‘Duchess of Devonshire along with Lord Derby & Lord Keppel are the firm of Mr Fox’s responsible committee.
This seems to imply that her role was a little more than just to ‘look pretty’; presumably, she was there to help to obtain votes however she could. It is reported that she canvassed every day and that she arranged for a thousand coalition medals to be struck, one of which she gave to every voter who agreed to support Fox.
Just over a week later The Bath Chronicle reported that
‘ It was observed of the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Duncannon, while they were soliciting votes in favour of Mr Fox, on Saturday last, they were the most lovely portraits that ever appeared upon a canvas’.
Like most people we had heard the story that the Duchess secured votes for Charles Fox by offering kisses in exchange for their vote, but until now we had assumed this was simply a myth that has evolved over time due to the astounding number of caricatures of such a scene, but it does seem from this letter written by a certain Duchess to Fox that there was some truth in it*.
Yesterday I sent you three votes but went through much fatigue to procure them. It cost me ten kisses for every plumper. I’m afraid we are done up – I will see you at the porter shop and we will discuss ways and means’.
NB Clare Market is a filthy place – keep up your spirits. I have a borough – you know where.’
The was much printed in the newspapers about her ‘method’ and many derogatory comments made about morals. The reality, however, was that amongst the public she was a very popular figure, not only because of her looks but also because she did actually engage with the public and by all accounts was able to discuss eloquently and put forward information about what Fox stood for.
As a campaigner for Wray we have the much quieter and more demure Duchess of Rutland, needless to say, we don’t have a plethora of caricatures for her!
‘we can assure the public, that the beautiful and accomplished Duchess of Rutland does not drive about the streets and alleys, or otherwise act in a manner unbecoming of a lady of rank and delicacy’.
Despite the mocking and caricatures of these women, predominantly of the Duchess of Devonshire, and the vile abuse they apparently received from Wray’s supporters and the press, the only person who apparently clearly objected to her participation in the election was her mother who felt that she was being used by Fox, no-one else appeared to have any objection which is quite telling; it appears that even the Queen was a supporter of the Duchess of Devonshire:
‘Her majesty has all the morning prints at breakfast every day and the Princesses are permitted to read them. Her eye caught the indecency of that one which attacked the Duchess of Devonshire. She gave it to an attendant and said let that paper never more enter the palace doors. The story got round and the same orders were given everywhere else.’
There were even comments made that women’s participation in politics could result in them wanting to vote – shock horror, how times have changed!
The Duchess of Devonshire suffered greatly at the hands of the press, but she clearly had a passion for politics and felt that the country would benefit from Fox’s appointment. We are aware from The Cavendish Family by Francis Bickley, that she wrote to her mother advising her of how miserable she was, but that she had begun her involvement and that she would see it through to the end. Given that the odds were stacked against Fox winning the election from the beginning, it could be argued that a win from Fox was highly unlikely that without the help of these women!
15th May of 1784 The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser printed the following letter purporting to be from Lady Worsley to the Duchess of Devonshire, whether it was genuine or not we have no idea, but it is nevertheless interesting
Before the General Election in the year 1780, the name of Lady W____y stood fair and respectable; the gay world derives no entertainment from her follies. The forms of decency and decorum had not been neglected, and, therefore men of gallantry felt but little encouragement to make approaches. Sir Richard found not Cassio’s kisses on my lips, for neither Cassio nor Roderigo revelled there. But, Madam in the general Election of that day I acted like yourself – like a woman of life – a woman of spirit, but how unlike a politician! As you set your face against Sir Cecil Wray, I opposed my influence to that of Jervoise Clerk Jervoise. I coaxed, I canvassed; I made myself, in the language of Shakespear ‘base, common and popular’. I was charmed with the public attention I received from the men; they talked to me of irresistible graces; the pressed my fingers; they squeezed my hand and my pulse beat quicker; they touched my lips, and my blood ran riot; they pressed me in their arms and turned my brain. O, the joy! The rapture, the enchanting, thrilling, aching sensations, which beset my soul! They banished in an instant, all ideas of a cold, a formal education; they drove from my mind all decent forms which time and observation had copied there. Your Grace is apprized of the sequel. Before the canvas – Was your Grace strict? So was I. Was your Grace modest? So was I. And if after the canvas, your Grace should find a violent metamorphosis in your feelings; I am ready to confess – so did I.
I am, Madam
If you found this article interesting then you might also enjoy our book, A Georgian Heroine, about an 18th century woman who lived life on her own terms and who took far more than a passing interest in the politics of the day!
On the 2nd August 1786, a woman named Margaret Nicholson was arrested for making an attempt on the life of King George III. Judged to be insane, and committed to Bedlam for the remainder of her life, it turned her into an instant celebrity. No fewer than five hastily printed books and pamphlets proclaiming to be accounts of her life were printed and rushed out for sale, one of these being written by her landlord, Jonathan Fiske, who was conveniently a bookseller and stationer. These books, even Fiske’s, were largely copied from the newspaper reports which appeared after the assassination attempt and salacious gossip and incorrect facts were copied time and again, and still persist today.
Margaret Nicholson was not born in 1750, the daughter of George Nicholson a barber from Stockton-on-Tees, as stated in most sources including the much respected Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Nor was she born in Stokeswell in Yorkshire, as stated by Fiske. She was, in fact, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Nicholson of Stokesley in North Yorkshire, born in 1745 and baptised there on the 9th December 1745, the fourth child of the couple. Thomas Nicholson was, however, a barber, that bit of information was correct.
Her brother, named in the newspaper report below and who gave evidence at his sisters trial, was George Nicholson, landlord of the Three Horseshoes public house in Milford Lane on the Strand, a lane leading down from St Clement’s Church to the River Thames.
Margaret had left Stokesley for London when she was just twelve years of age, finding employment in several respectable houses before achieving her notoriety at the age of forty years. She died at Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in St. George’s Fields, being buried there on the 21st May 1828, her age erroneously given as 90 years.
The following newspaper article details her attempt on the King’s life and, written just hours after the event and in an attempt to quash the rumours which were already starting to flow through the streets of London, can be taken as an authentic account.
THE SCOTS MAGAZINE, August, 1786.
Particulars of MARGARET NICHOLSON’S Attempt to assassinate his MAJESTY.
LONDON GAZETTE EXTRAORDINARY.
St. James’s, Wednesday, Aug. 2.
This morning, as his Majesty was alighting from his carriage at the gate of the palace, a woman, who was waiting there under pretence of presenting a petition, struck at his Majesty with a knife; but providentially his Majesty received no injury. The woman was immediately taken into custody; and upon examination appears to be insane.
An extraordinary Gazette gives importance to a subject; but this gazette is so very short, that some further particulars of this very interesting fact appear to be necessary.
It was at the garden-door opposite the Duke of Marlborough’s wall, that the woman, who appeared decently dressed, presented to his Majesty a paper folded up in the form of a petition. His Majesty, in stooping to receive it, felt a thrust made at his belly, which passed between his coat and his waistcoat. The King drew back, and said, “What does this woman mean!” At that instant one of the yeomen (Lodge) laying hold of her arm, observed something drop out of her hand, which another person taking up, said, “It is a knife!” The King said, “I am not hurt – take care of the woman – she is mad – do not hurt her *.”
His Majesty then went forward into the palace; and, when he had recovered his surprise, appeared to be greatly affected, expressing in a kind of faultering voice, that, “surely! he had not deserved such treatment from any of his subjects.” On opening the paper, when he entered the royal apartments, there were found written “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” the usual head to petitions, but nothing more.
The woman was immediately taken into custody, and carried to the inner guard-chamber. Being questioned how she could make such a wicked and daring an attempt, her answer was, that “when she was brought before proper persons, she would give her reasons.”
She was then taken to the Queen’s antichamber, where she remained from twelve till near five, during all which time, though spoken to by several of the nobility, she did not condescend once to open her lips, but appeared totally unmoved by any representations of the atrocity of her crime.
At five o’clock she was taken to the board of green cloth for examination, where were present the Attorney and Solicitor Generals and Master of the Rolls, Mr Pitt, the Earl of Salisbury, Marquis of Caermarthen, Lord Sydney, Sir Francis Drake, and several magistrates.
Being interrogated, she said, her name was Margaret Nicholson, daughter of George Nicholson of Stockton-upon-Tees in Durham; that she had a brother who kept a public house in Milford-lane; that she came to London at twelve years of age, and had lived in several creditable services. Being asked, where she had lived since she left her last place? to this she answered frantically, “she had been all abroad since that matter of the Crown broke out.” – Being asked what matter; she went on rambling, that the Crown was her’s – she wanted nothing but her right – that she had great property – that if she had not her right, England would be drowned in blood for a thousand generations. Being further asked where she now lived; she answered rationally “at Mr Fisk’s, stationer, the corner of Marybone, Wigmore-street.” On being questioned, as to her right; she would answer none but a judge, her rights were a mystery. Being asked, if she had ever petitioned; said she had, ten days ago. On looking back among the papers, such petition was found, full of princely nonsense about tyrants, usurpers, and pretenders to the throne, &c. &c.
Mr Fisk, being sent for and interrogated, said, she had lodged with him about three years; that he had not observed any striking marks of insanity about her – she was certainly very odd at times – frequently talking to herself – that she lived by taking in plain work, &c. Others who knew her said, she was very industrious, and they never suspected her of insanity.
Dr Monro being sent for, said, it was impossible to discover with certainty immediately whether she was insane or not. It was proposed to commit her for three or four days to Tothil-fields Bridewell. This was objected to, because it was said, she was a state prisoner. At length it was agreed to commit her to the custody of a messenger.
Her lodgings being examined, there were found three letters written about her pretended right to the crown, one to Lord Mansfield, one to Lord Loughborough, and one to Gen. Bramham.
His Majesty’s presence of mind, and great humanity, were very conspicuous in his behaviour upon this shocking and terrifying attempt to take away his life. And if he had not instantly retreated, or if the wretch had made use of her right hand instead of her left, the consequences might have been of a most fatal nature.
It has been said, that the knife was concealed in the paper; but the fact was it was under her cloak; and when she presented the paper with her right hand, she took it and made a thrust with her left.
The instrument she used was an old ivory handled desert knife, worn very thin towards the point; so thin, that a person pressing the point against his hand, it bent almost double without penetrating the skin.
This attempt circulated through the city with amazing rapidity, and, gathering as it flew, a thousand fictions were added. The instant publication of the GAZETTE EXTRAORDINARY stopt at once their mischievous effect.
* The Earl of Salisbury ordered a gratuity to the yeoman of the guard, and the King’s footman, who first secured Mrs Nicholson after her attempt on the King; the rewards were 100 l. to the first, and 50 l. to the other.
In writing this article we have to acknowledge our debt to the following source:
Narrating Margaret Nicholson: A Character Study in Fact and Fiction by Joanne Holland, Department of English, McGill University, Montreal, August 2008