Harriet was born in Sligo, Ireland in the early 1800s. Her mother died in 1816, leaving her an orphan. It is reported in one account that she was put out to service, in another, simply that being orphaned, she put on her brothers’ clothes and, dressed as a boy, changed her name to John Murphy (her mother’s maiden name) as she feared travelling alone as a female and set off to seek employment.
Her first job was as a cabin boy during which time she accidentally fell overboard, and fearful of being discovered she escaped to shore and ran away. She then took employment as a footboy to a Rev. Mr Duke where she remained for a year, during which time one of the maids, assuming Harriet was a boy, fell in love with her. The maid told her employer that she had discovered John was really a woman. Upon questioning, Harriet swore that the maid was mistaken and that he was a male but Harriet/John had no option but to move on.
She sailed on board a ship to Liverpool and assisted a Mr Lowther with driving his cattle to Leicester. Having travelled as far as Shardlow, Derbyshire she left Lowther and took up employment at the Navigation Inn, Shardlow, working for a Mr Clarke. After only a couple of months, still masquerading as a man, she was beaten up by one of the other servants for being Irish.
Harriet then moved on and worked as a groom to James Sutton Esq. at Shardlow Hall. This was a good position, and all went well until there was some sort of altercation and Harriet left under a cloud.
During her time in Shardlow, Harriet gained employment at the local salt works and lodged in the nearby village of Aston-on-Trent, with a Mrs Jane Lacey who had a daughter, Matilda (born 1808). Matilda found herself pregnant by the village butcher, a married man, but she was also in love in love with John aka Harriet.
Somehow, Mrs Lacey discovered that John was actually Harriet – blackmail began. Mrs Lacey told Harriet that if it was discovered that he was a she, she would be transported (i.e. sent to Australia on a convict ship). Mrs Lacey arranged for Matilda’s child to be raised as if the child were John’s and that John should marry Matilda.
In a state of distress at the prospect of marriage, Harriet sought employment just over the border in Nottinghamshire. At Chilwell, near Beeston, just 8 miles away, she worked for a bricklayer and first learnt to carry the hod, which she was very successful at since she had become accustomed to doing manual work. She was well-respected by her master and fellow workmen. This peace was shattered when Matilda’s mother wrote a letter to the master, saying that John had abandoned Matilda. The employer, a moral man dismissed John.
Worried about being discovered, Harriet agreed to Mrs Lacey’s demands and married Matilda at the parish church at Aston-on-Trent on 25th August 1823. John didn’t find it easy trying to maintain a wife, child and Matilda’s mother and began to seek work away from home and this often drew the attention of the parish officers towards him, until eventually, he left.
John went on to meet a woman who became his confidante, and upon telling her the story, she procured for him suitable female clothing and Harriet divorced herself from her matrimonial troubles. Harriet was described as short, stout, good-looking and stated to be in her twentieth year but was perhaps somewhat older.
It is interesting to note that another child, Mary was born in 1826, with no father’s name being given, the child being described as a bastard.
Then a son, George, who was baptised in the north of the county at Hayfield, 19th August 1827, this time both parents, John and Matilda Murphy were named. We’re not totally certain that this was their child though.
The 1827 baptism is doubly curious because, prior to that date, John had become Harriet again and married John Gardiner, a widowed silk weaver at Derby on 17th October 1825.
In April 1830, Matilda married again too, under her maiden name, but only a few months in February 1831, an entry appears in the burial register for Aston for a Matilda Browne, so it’s relatively safe to assume that she died. Interestingly, a couple of weeks later a baby, Jane Browne, aged just 6 months was also buried, so presumably, this was their daughter.
As to what became of Harriet and her husband we have no idea, they seem to have vanished into thin air. Perhaps after all the publicity, it’s hardly surprising?
Captain Rock in London, Or, The Chieftain’s Weekly Gazette, Volume 1
Perthshire Courier 14 July 1825
Bury and Norwich Post 02 November 1825
Parish registers Hayfield and Aston-on-Trent
Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald 15 March 1930
Courtesy of University College Dublin, Special Collections via Twitter
Known as the ‘rock houses’ they are a well-known feature of the town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands and only a few miles away from Newstead Abbey, home of Lord Byron.
Rumour has it that Robin Hood and his Merry Men had used the rock houses as hiding places – true or not we will never know (it’s a great legend though), but either way, they were extremely old, cut into the local sandstone and were used as homes until the beginning of the 1900s.
Robert Watson (1779-1839) and his wife Elizabeth née Moor, were one such couple who lived there in the early part of the 19th century. As Robert died prior to the first census taken in 1841, unfortunately, there is no information about his early life, occupation etc, we do however know that they had six children – William, Robert, Mary, John, Elizabeth and their youngest Sarah, who was born in 1810.
Their lives would not have been easy, all eight of them living in such a small dwelling, trying to make ends meet to avoid the poor house. It was often thought that these houses were the modern equivalent of squats, however, this was not the case as confirmed in a letter of 1843 from the Poor Law Commission Office, which stated
In an 1813 newspaper report, we learn that whilst those rock houses had probably been there for a long time they were by no means safe and the newspaper article reported that
a melancholy accident happened at one of the rock houses – as Robert Watson with his family were partaking of breakfast the roof suddenly fell in and completely buried one of his children, about three years of age, it was dug out of the ruins dreadfully bruised and dead – the rest of the family escaped unhurt.
That child was their youngest daughter, Sarah. By 1841, Elizabeth Watson was widowed but remained in the family dwelling, after all, where else could she have gone?
By this time the small community numbered just under 100 people, many were stone masons, framework knitters and chimney sweeps. One of the main occupations prior to 1841 was that of besom maker (a broom made from twigs, tied with a stick), but by 1841 only two remained – John Cheesman and Joseph Freeman.
One of the framework knitters (an occupation we have looked at previously) was George Gilbert (1779-1853), who lived there with his wife Sarah and their grandson a John Day, aged 12, according to the 1841 census, their son had died in childhood and their daughter Roseanna had married the son of the neighbouring family, Robert, son of Robert and Elizabeth Watson who we mentioned earlier.
Sarah’s marriage to Robert took place at St Peter and St Paul church, Mansfield on March 1st, 1826, so, a long and happy life ahead of them, or so you might think, but this marriage was to be very short-lived.
At the end of August 1826, Robert Watson appears to have moved from Mansfield to Uppingham, Rutland, (with or without his new bride is unclear) at which time he was arrested for robbery along with a companion Henry Jones. It was alleged that they broke into the slaughter-house of a Mr Fludyer and stole a butcher’s frock, an apron and a piece of venison which was discovered wrapped in the frock. Both Robert and Henry were committed to trial at Oakham at the following session. GUILTY AS CHARGED.
Robert, a stonemason, was sentenced to transportation, despite petitions from his parents Robert and Elizabeth, of Mansfield, who stressed that he was of good character, from a large family and that he had never been in trouble before and how distressed the family would be if he were to be imprisoned.
The court was having none of it and Robert was sent to The York, a hulk or prison ship to await transportation, where he remained until April 1827 when he boarded TheMarquis of Hastings and began the long voyage that was to take him to New South Wales where his sentence of seven years was to take place. The convict register of New South Wales described Robert as 5 feet 9 inches, brown hair, ruddy complexion, grey eyes, missing one of his upper front teeth.
Quite how good his conduct was we may never know, but it can’t have exactly been exemplary, as six years into his sentence in 1833, he was sent to Norfolk Island, for life. This was however rescinded at the beginning of 1841 and he was given a Certificate of Freedom.
So, what of his new bride? Did she await his return? Well, it appears that Roseanna continued to live in one of the rock houses but wasted little time finding a replacement for Robert, clearly, she felt he would never return.
A little over two years after Robert’s departure Roseanna presented her first child for baptism, at the same church in which they had married, so clearly the child was not Robert’s son and no father was named in the register, a performance which she repeated virtually every two years until 1844, on each occasion Roseanna gave her address as Rock House, so she had obviously remained there after husband had been transported. At some stage, she took up with a John Day, as to whether he was the unnamed father of her children, who knows, but her eldest son, named John, was with his grandparents on census day in 1841.
People continued living in the rock houses until the turn of the century, they are now sadly derelict and overgrown – such an interesting piece of local social history, all but disappeared.
Nottingham Gazette, 18 June 1813.
Draft letter from the Poor Law Commission to Richard Goulding. MH 12/9360/63
The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Friday, September 01, 1826
New South Wales, Australia, Certificates of Freedom, 1810-1814, 1827-1867
Rock Houses by A.S Buxton. With thanks to Mansfield Museum who hold the copyright.
It’s a well-known fact that we Brits are obsessed with the weather… and with talking about it. Being an island, the old saying of ‘four seasons in a day’ sometimes seems more than a little accurate, and the weather can – on occasion – change quite dramatically in the space of a few hours. However, despite this, more often than not, the climate is generally reasonably calm and mild. Still, we love nothing better than a grumble about the rain and it’s quite frequently either ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’ for us.
One theory is that the British are known for polite detachment when dealing with others, and hate to show too much emotion. The weather is a safe and neutral topic of conversation… but we think it’s more than that. We are, as a nation, genuinely fascinated by the subject. And so, it came as quite a delight to find that the Reverend Samuel Oliver (c.1756-1847), the Eton and Cambridge educated curate of St Mary’s church at Whaplode in the remote Lincolnshire fenland, was obsessed to such a degree that he carefully recorded information about the climate in the spare pages of his parish burial registers.
Sunday, February 2nd, 1817
During the last ten days, the weather has been more serene; warm; & remarkably mild; than ever I knew it in the month of May, during the term of my residence here; which is nearly fifteen years.
Sunday, February 9th, 1817
Last night, for the first time (I think) these twenty years, the atmosphere was very strongly illuminated with Aurora Borealis. The moon entered her last quarter yesternight, a 46 min. past 7 o’clock. Today has been exceeding warm, & mild.
Monday, March 29th, 1819
This last has been the most mild, warm, & open winter ever known, in the memory of any man living. Polyanthuses & Anemonies have always been in flower.
Friday, June 29th, 1821
The season has been so excessively cold, that we were under the necessity of having large fires in the Keeping Room up to this day; when, suddenly, it became very hot!
Friday, July 6th, 1821
The cold weather has returned, so violently, as obliges us to rekindle our K. Room fire.
Thursday, July 25th, 1822
The former part of last winter was excessively wet, the new year brought fine weather, the spring was uncommonly dry & warm; & the season altogether the most forward & plentiful ever known.
Friday, November 7th, 1823
From the first week in July to the first week in September, we were scarcely 12 hours without rain; from thence to October 30 was remarkably fine; October 31 and November 1 were most excessively tempestuous.
Thursday, July 22nd, 1824
The last winter very much resembled that [of] 1821, 2; the spring was indescribably dry, cold, & unhealthy; the wind being nearly due east for the space of two months. Midsummer brought fine weather, & the prospective harvest is good as a human heart could wish.
Friday, December 31st, 1824
There have been more storms, tempests, inundations, & shipwrecks; & a greater quantity of rain has fallen this year, in various parts of Europe, than for a century back. Yet we had a fine spring seed time, hay time, & harvest. Not many apples.
Thursday, March 22nd, 1827
From the beginning of March 1826 to this day, has been the driest year ever known. Hay, oats, beans, & barley, were very deficient, so were potatoes, wheat good, both crop & quality.
Saturday, September 15th & Tuesday, September 18th, 1827
These two evenings the Aurora Borealis was remarkably brilliant; & merry dancers, very active.
This was an excessive wet, cold, & stormy summer. Wheat good, crops & quality. About November 18, the snow & frost commenced, & was not completely gone before March 1st, 1830.
Monday, August 27th, 1832
We have had four very cold, wet, & luxuriant summers, in succession; wheat is generally well got in. Last winter was very much like that of 1818, 19.
Thursday, July 22nd 1824, Dr Goddard the Archdeacon made his Parochial Visitation; & ordered repairs of the Vestry Room, a new fence to the Vicarage yard, & all necessary repairs to the House & Premises.
March 20th, 1835
The dykes, within the last three weeks, have become tolerably full of water, at least a foot deep; where, for the last three years, the water has never stood, 12 hours together, at the depth of six inches.
November 20th, 1839
These two last summers have been remarkably wet & cold.
And, from the back of the marriage register, we find this entry. Not about the weather but also clearly a subject of huge importance to the curate, judging by his increasing use of exclamation marks.
May 28th, 1821
On this, & the three subsequent days, the population of the parish was taken (by Act of Parliament). Mr Longstaff, the Overseer of the Poor, taking Mr Roberts, the Vestry Clerk, to assist him. I also went round the Parish, in my Ecclesiastical capacity, & found 154 Persons unXtned; & eight couples who notoriously cohabit, as Man & Wife, together! Four of these couples call themselves Methodists, & regularly attend the Meeting Houses! One couple holds a Meeting in their own House! Two couples are within the degrees of Affinity! And five couples have had children born!! I likewise found another couple, who will not acknowledge that they sleep together, tho’ they both sleep in one room!!!
Reverend Samuel Oliver, Curate
Rev Oliver was the curate at Whaplode for 42 years, preaching three times every Sunday, until, in 1842 the vicar of the parish died and the Rev Oliver was removed from his curacy. A few months later, and despite his advanced years (he was 84), Rev Oliver was appointed to the living of Lambley in Nottinghamshire, worth £1,000 per year. There he died on the 9th August 1847.
Elizabeth Morton was baptized May 4th May 1747 in the small, rural Nottinghamshire village of Misterton, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth. She had three siblings – Mary (25th September 1743), Thomas (25th Sept 1757) and Ann (1757).
When just 15 years old she had gained employment as a servant in the neighbouring village of Walkeringham, just over 2 miles from her home, for a farmer John Oliver and his wife Elizabeth née Clark. At that time the couple had three daughters:
Ann (baptized 12th October 1758);
Mary (baptized 7th June 1760);
Rebecca (baptized 20th May 1762)
Their son John (baptized 29th May 1763) was not born until after the incident in question.
On 10th August 1762, Elizabeth was committed to Nottingham county gaol, by Daniel Newton, one of the coroners. She was charged with the murder of an infant about two years of age, the daughter of John Oliver. The Leeds Intelligencer of 24th August 1762, reported that Elizabeth had strangled the child with her hands as it lay in the cradle. The newspaper also stated that:
there is too much reason to suspect, that this unhappy girl has murdered two other young children, in different places, where she was taken in to look after them. She is a stout made girl, has little to say for herself,can neither read nor write, and appears to be of a brutish disposition.
Some seven months later, on 10th March 1763 at the Nottingham Assizes, her trial for a capital offence began i.e. the murder of a two-year-old child and the attempted murder of another child, who survived and had recovered. Also for attempting the life of another of the children, whose neck she had almost twisted round, and hid it in some straw in the barn, where it was found by its mother struggling in the agonies of death. At her trial, Elizabeth claimed that she had been incited to commit the crime by a ‘gentleman in black’ who came to her during the night (alluding to it being the devil who made her commit the crime).
The Derby Mercury of 11th March 1763 described her as:
a most profligate harden’d young wretch, the reason she gives for such inhuman acts, is that the children were cross and troublesome. Execution was respited for the time being on account of her youth.
The Derby Mercury of 1st April 1763 noted her demise.
Yesterday Elizabeth Morton, a girl of only 16 years of age, was executed at Nottingham (being her Birth-Day) for the murder of her master’s daughter, a child of two years old, who liv’d at Walkeringham, near Gainsboro’. Her behaviour since she received a sentence of death has been decent. She never denied the fact but could give no satisfactory account of the motives that induc’d her to commit so shocking a crime. She was attended to the place of execution by a prodigious concourse of people where after the usual time spent in prayer with the minister, she was tuned off about one o’clock much frighted with the terrors of death.
After her death, her body was given to a surgeon of Calverton near Nottingham, to be dissected, then buried in a village near her home.
According to The annual register, or a view of the history, politicks, and literature, for the year 1763
‘… it is probable that she was an idiot …’
This would if proven, have been sufficient grounds for a pardon, the register gives no indication as to whether this was tested or not.
On a final note, having found the baptism records for John Oliver’s children there are also two corresponding burials at the time Elizabeth was charged with the murder of the two-year-old. Mary was buried on 5th August 1762, but there is also an entry for the burial of Rebecca who would have been a mere three months old on 3rd August 1762 – did she die from natural causes or was she also one of Elizabeth’s victims?
As you do, we have just stumbled upon a book titled ‘An Account of Prisons and Houses of Correction in the Midland Circuit’, which provides details of the conditions within the prisons following a review carried out by John Howard Esq., prison reformer, on behalf of the Duke of Montagu, so we thought we would share some bits with you.
Howard’s aim was to review the physical condition of the prisons, and the benefits or otherwise of the prisoners themselves.
The morals of prisoners were at this time as much neglected as their health. Idleness, drunkenness and all kinds of vice, were suffered to continue in such a manner as to confirm old offenders in their bad practices, and to render it almost certain, that the minds of those who were confined for their first faults, would be corrupted instead of being corrected, by their imprisonment.
Howard made a series of recommendations regarding prisons including these:
Every prison be white-washed at least once every year, and that this be done twice in prisons which are much crowded.
That a pump and plentiful supply of water be provided, and that every part of the prison be kept as clean as possible.
That every prison be supplied with a warm and cold bath, or commodious bathing tubs, and that the prisoners be indulged in the use of such baths, with a proper allowance of soap and the use of towels.
That attention be paid to the sewers in order to render them as little offensive as possible.
That great care be taken, that as perfect a separation as possible be made of the following classes of prisoners. That felons be kept entirely separate from debtors; men from women’ old offenders from young beginners; convicts from those who have not yet been tried.
That all prisoners, except debtors be clothed on their admission with a prison uniform and that their own clothes be returned to them when they are brought to trial or are dismissed.
That care be taken that the prisoners are properly supplied with food, and their allowance not deficient, either in weight or quality.
He also recommended that gaolers were to be paid a proper salary, that religious services take place and that no swearing was to be permitted. A surgeon or apothecary be appointed to tend to the sick. That attention be paid to the prisoners on their discharge and that, if possible some means be pointed out to them by which they may be enabled to gain a livelihood in an honest manner.
The book provides brief details of the finding at some of the prisons, so we thought we would share a few of these with:
County Bridewell – Warwick
A new prison is finished and occupied. There are separate apartments and courts with water, for men and women; and vagrants have a court and apartments separate from the other prisoners. Allowance, as in a gaol.
No coals: no employment at present; but a long room, ten feet and a half wide is provided, with looms, and other materials for work.
1788, Feb. 15 Prisoners – 10.
Birmingham Town Gaol
The court is now paved with broad stones, but dirty with fowls. There is only one dayroom for both sexes, over the door of which there is impudently painted ‘Universal Academy’. Neither the act for preserving the health of prisoners, nor clauses against spirituous liquors are hung up. The gaoler has no salary, but still a licence for beer.
1788, Feb. 14 Prisoners – 13.
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
Two rooms. No court: no water. Keeper’s salary only £4
1788 Aug. 7. No prisoners.
An old house lately purchased. Prisoner were formerly confined in a room in the inn keeper’s public house. No allowance, keeper’s salary £20
1788, Aug 3. No prisoners.
County Gaol at Nottingham
At the entrance is this inscription on a board ‘No ale, nor any sort of liquor sold within the prison’. Gaoler’s salary now £140. The prison too small. The debtors in three rooms, pay 2s a week each, though two in a bed. They who can pay only 6d are in two rooms below, confined with such felons as pay 2s a week. The other felons lie in two dark, offensive dungeons, own thirty-six steps called pits, which are never white-washed.
Another dungeon in 1787 was occupied by a man sentenced to two years solitary confinement. The town ‘transports’ and criminals are here confined with the county felons, which it may be hoped the magistrates will soon rectify. The room used for a chapel was too close, though when I was there, only one debtor attended the service. Allowance to felons now 1 and a half pence in bread and a half penny in money. Five of the felons were county, and give town convicts.
1787, Oct 23, Debtors 9
Felons etc. 21
1788, Aug 6, Debtors 12
Felons etc. 10
County Bridewell, Folkingham, Lincolnshire
No alteration in this offensive prison. Court not secure. Prisoners locked up. No water: no employment. Keeper’s salary £40 out of which he maintains (of starves) his prisoners.
1788, Jan. 17, Prisoners 3
Lincoln City and County Gaol
No alteration. Through the window of the two damp cells, both men and women freely converse with idle people in the street, who often supply them with spirituous liquors till they are intoxicated. No court: no sewers: no water accessible to the prisoners. Gaoler’s salary augments £20 in lieu of the tap.
1788, Jan 16 Debtors none. Felons etc. 5
County Gaol at Northampton
Gaoler’s salary £200, out of which he is to give every prisoner three pints of small beer a day.
In the walls of the felons court there are now apertures for air. The prison clean as usual. The new room for the sick is over the Bridewell, with iron bedsteads and proper bedding. The bread allowance to felons is a fourpenny loaf every other day (weight 3lb 2oz). County convicts 2s 6d a week.
1787, Oct 27 Debtors 9. Felons etc. 20.
The Humours of the Fleet. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Wollaton Hall, situated in parkland close to the city of Nottingham in the English midlands, dates from the Elizabethan period. It is now home to Nottingham’s natural history museum.
In the 1820s and into the 1830s William Burton, a wheelwright by trade, was working at the Hall while renovations were being carried out by the then owner Henry Willoughby, 6th Baron Middleton (1761-1835). William Burton left a letter for a future generation of craftsmen to find, hidden in the fabric of the Hall. His letter, which admittedly falls just outside our remit of writing about the Georgian Era, but only just as it was written less than three months into the reign of William IV, is given below.
September 8th 1830
William Burton Wheelwright, the Son of John & Hannah Burton of the Kings Head Public House Wollaton whose ancesters came from London when Wollaton House was first Built as Blacksmiths.
Born March 4th 1798 having now worked 8 years for Henry Lord Middleton as wheelwright he is now in his 70th year of age at Birdsall.
The Panneling of the top of the Great Hall now Put up & the Arches Repaired & Strengthened by Iron Rods &c the job was done in a Great Hurry upwards of 40 Hands Employed. We got Plenty of Beer & I hope your not short.
I found no Monney nor non I can Leave.
God bless you & I hope hee has got mee when you find this.
The Wollaton estate encompassed Birdsall House near Malton in East Yorkshire, originally a Tudor building which was remodelled in the Georgian Era, and Lord Middleton was obviously living there while his workmen renovated Wollaton Hall. William hid his letter under the beams of the ceiling of the three-story high Great Hall of Wollaton Hall, and God did indeed have him by the time the letter was found, for it remained in its hiding place until 1954 when further renovations to the building discovered it.
A note from the past
Workmen repairing the roof of the Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, have found a letter written to them 124 years ago by a workman employed on the roof the last time it was repaired.
In a large clear hand, William Burton, a wheelwright, address the letter to the workmen who next repaired the building. It was dated September 8. 1830, and he put it under the beams in the roof. In it, he mentioned having worked eight years for Henry, Lord Middleton (the sixth Lord) then living at the Hall… The letter has been framed and will hang in the museum.
William was baptised three days after his birth, on the 7th March 1798 at St Leonard’s in Wollaton, the son of John and Hannah Burton. The portraits of his parents, John and Hannah Burton, who ran the nearby Kings Head public-house, hang at Wollaton Hall. Hannah was the daughter of Micah Gelding, a Justice of the Peace.
John Burton is possibly the same man who is recorded as dying on the 20th November 1842 at Wollaton, aged 73 years and ‘universally respected’.
We’re ending with one little non-Georgian piece of trivia regarding Wollaton Hall, lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia and because we just couldn’t resist passing it on. In 2011 the Hall featured as Wayne Manor in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, and it is located five miles north of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, the Nottinghamshire village which gave its name to Gotham City.
Nottingham Hidden History Team, where you can see an image of the actual letter.
Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, 25th November 1842
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 3rd September 1954
South East view of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, the Seat of the Right honourable Lord Middleton by John Buckler FSA and John Chessell Buckler, 1812. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
When the sun of my life is in its zenith, and I should be expected to shine in meridian lustre, behold me, like a fair opening flower, blasted by a Southern wind. See me, in a shattered bark, ready to launch in a tempestuous Sea; no chart to guide, no compass for to steer my course by, but left to the rough waves and the howling winds, till that I sink beneath the dreadful storm. How shocking is the prospect! And was a dismal night-piece is here!
This anticipation of my miseries is still enhanced by the cruel wracking thoughts of never seeing you, nor my dear injured son; yet, perhaps, we may meet again, in realms of never ending bliss, no more to part. . . . Time seems to tread with hasty strides, and new-fledged wings, and hurry me to my approaching fate. O fatal doom!
(Extract from one of the last letters written by William Parsons to his wife)
William Parsons, Esquire, second son of Sir William Parsons of Short Hill and Stanton le Wold in Nottinghamshire, led a somewhat tumultuous if short life, ending it by swinging from the gallows at Tyburn.
His mother was Frances, niece to Mary, Duchess of Northumberland. Born in Red Lion Square in London, the son of William and Frances Parsons and baptized on the 1st January 1717/18 at St. Andrew’s in Holborn, young William was educated at Eton where he began his criminal career. Caught stealing from a local bookseller, he was publicly flogged for his misdemeanours.
Because of this he was taken out of Eton and placed as a midshipman on board a sloop bound for Jamaica. Instead he absconded and fell in love with a doctor’s daughter living at Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire, only to be foiled when his uncle found him and returned him to his ship.
Arriving in Jamaica, William immediately made for England and Waltham, to return to his love, and was again intercepted by his uncle and this time sent to Newfoundland. On his return from this venture, he found that, owing to his escapades, his expected inheritance from his great-aunt, the Duchess of Northumberland, had gone to his sister, Grace, instead, who was reported to have been bequeathed between £15,000 and £25,000 (he endeavoured, with the help of his sister’s footman, to have her abducted and, once married to the footman, intended to split her fortune between them but this plan was foiled). Following the death of his mother from an apoplectic fit at her lodgings in Piccadilly in 1735 his father remarried two years later to Isabella, the widow of Delaval Dutton.
Sir William, his father, now got him a place in the service of the Royal African Company of England and our hero travelled to James Fort on the River Gambia, but that did not suit him either and he was once more soon on his way back home to England, threatening to shoot anyone who stood in his way of doing so.
His uncle, Captain Mark Dutton, who lived at Epsom, took William into his house and treated him almost as his son: William repaid his generosity by getting one of the serving maids pregnant and he was soon shown the door (history has not recorded the fate of the serving maid, but possibly she received similar treatment from the master of the house).
Seduced by a Miss E___s, who could not marry as she would forfeit her inheritance if she did so, our hero’s last chance of redemption came when, hearing that his father was in town, he went to his house and, kneeling before Sir William, threw himself on his mercy. A reconciliation between them took place and William, on the recommendation of his father, attempted to enlist as a private in the Life Guards. But they wanted him to pay seventy guineas to join and William was pecuniarily embarrassed while his father had already departed for Nottinghamshire, leaving behind just five shillings for his errant son.
And so William now embarked properly on his career as a fraudster and criminal. He passed himself off at Vauxhall and Ranelagh as an army officer but in reality hunting for a young girl in command of her own fortune to prey upon. Mary Tregonwell Frampton of Kensington, just eighteen and reportedly left an heiress by the recent death of her father (John Frampton of the Exchequer), fell for his machinations and, on the 9th February 1740/41, at the Chapel on King Street in Westminster, she became the wife of William Parsons and he became the master of her fortune. She had £12,000 and £4,000 was given over to Parsons on their marriage; the remaining £8,000 was used to buy Exchequer Annuities and Parsons received the annual interest on these.
A son, Mark, was born to the couple on the 19th November 1741 (baptized on the 10th December that year at St. James in Piccadilly), followed by William Dutton Parsons, born on the 21st March 1742/43 (and baptized in the same church as his elder brother on the 11th April 1743), but who died young.
William’s family was delighted with this turn of events, and the improvement in his condition and reputation. He was helped to an Ensigncy with Colonel Cholmondeley’s regiment of foot and William saw action in Flanders, being promoted to Lieutenant, while his wife and son remained in London living in Poland Street and Panton Square.
But William was living too fast, encouraged by a false friend named only as Doctor N___ (possibly Northgate) to squander his wife’s fortune at the gaming tables, and disaster soon overtook him. On his return to England he was chased by creditors and could not return to his young family at Panton Square; instead he took lodgings, calling himself Captain Brown to evade notice. But, true to form, he debauched his landlord’s daughter and fathered two children on her.
A baptism at the London Foundling Hospital on the 19th July 1747 for a Grace Parsons may be one of these two children, named for William’s sister who had married a wealthy Mr Lambert from Kent earlier that year (by the time of her marriage her fortune was being estimated at £30,000). Parsons’s philandering also reputedly took in Lady Frances Vane (formerly Hamilton, née Hawes), who is named as Lady Frail in his Memoirs.
At Deal, in 1745, as he was about to board a privateer, an attempt was made to apprehend him but Parsons shot and wounded one of the men in his desperation to make the ship, threatening to kill anyone who prevented him. He got as far as Ireland before being taken ill and put ashore. There, when he ran out of money, he drew bills on eminent London tradesmen enabling him to return to England where he lived in some style in Plymouth.
Passing as Richard rather than William Parsons his need for ready money induced him, with a female accomplice, to return to London and swindle a parson and a jeweller, and he even stooped so low as to steal from men who classed themselves his friend. Inevitably he was taken into custody. By the August of 1748, he was in the Wood Street Compter. Standing trial at Maidstone assizes, he was initially condemned to death, but this was commuted to fourteen years transportation and so Parsons was shipped to Maryland in Virginia: the voyage there was hard and cruel and, of the 173 convicts on board the transport, fifty of them died during the passage. William Parsons survived and in November 1749 he landed at Annapolis.
After a couple of months the Virginian landowner and English Peer Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, heard an account of Parsons and received him at his house, allowing him a horse to ride. Sir William Parsons had engineered things so his son would be enabled to live handsomely enough in Virginia. But this kindness by his father and Lord Fairfax was repaid by rank ingratitude: Parsons absconded with the horse and took to highway robbery before making for the Potomac River where he sold Lord Fairfax’s horse to buy passage on a ship. Three weeks and four days later he sighted England once more and landed at Whitehaven in Cumbria.
He immediately re-commenced his fraudulent swindles, persuading a Whitehaven merchant to give him £75 by pretending his father was dead and he was home to take possession of a large estate. This money got him back to the gaming tables and bawdy houses of London where he quickly disposed of all his ready cash and had to resort to criminal activities to raise more. And so, at eleven o’clock on an August evening, William Parsons held up a post-chaise on Hounslow Heath.
More highway robberies followed, and the gentleman highwayman gained a certain notoriety. At Turnham Green he returned a wife’s wedding ring to a gentleman he had just taken it from but who begged for its return, handing back five shillings of the thirty he had also purloined from this man on hearing he had no more money: the two men reputedly shook hands before parting at the end of this encounter.
Eventually, breaking his golden rule of carrying out his nefarious activities under the cover of darkness, he set out one fine Sunday morning towards Windsor, having heard that a carriage with a footman and a quantity of money would be passing that way. But also travelling on that road were two men who had prosecuted him at his earlier trial, and so surprised were they to recognize a man who had been transported to Maryland, and who should have still been there, that they insisted upon Parsons surrendering to them at the Rose and Crown Inn at Hounslow. Parsons, realizing resistance was futile, surrendered his pistols to the two gentlemen but then the landlord of the inn casually remarked that Parsons answered the description of the highwayman wanted for the recent spate of robberies on the roads in the area, and a constable was sent for.
And so William Parsons found himself in Newgate, awaiting his execution. He sent several penitent letters to his family, and several more to people of influence, hoping for a reprieve. None was forthcoming, even though his father and his wife petitioned the King for this. Mary Tregonwell Parsons, for all she tried to save her reprobate husband, appears to be a woman full of the common sense she lacked at her hasty wedding a decade earlier. She wrote a very business-like letter to William, setting out her plans to meet with his father and discuss the petition to go before the king, but telling her husband at the same time to prepare to die and chiding him for his first letter to her from Newgate which, in Mary’s opinion, was much too romantic for one in his circumstance. Reading between the lines of her letter, she also seems to suspect that William’s protestations of repentance are more for effect than truly heartfelt. In the end, Mary’s aunt delivered the petition, in the names of Mary and her father-in-law, but it was disregarded. The petition sounds a bit half-hearted, and indeed it probably was, for his family had employed a similar action to reduce his sentence of execution for one of transportation only two or three years earlier and it is doubtful they would have had many expectations of Parsons living up to any promises they could make on his behalf on this occasion.
The Petition of William Parsons, and Mary Tregonwell Parsons, Father and Wife to the unhappy William Parsons, now under Sentence of death in Newgate, for returning from Transportation,
Most humbly Sheweth,
THAT your petitioners humbly implore your Majesty’s most gracious pardon for the said William Parsons, and faithfully promise, that if your Majesty be pleased to grant the same, they will take care for the time to come, that it shall not be in his power to abuse your Majesty’s clemency, or injure any of your Majesty’s subjects:
And your petitioners (as in duty bound) shall ever pray, &c.
Mary Tregonwell Parsons
On the 11th February 1751, William Parsons swung at Tyburn for his crimes.
LONDON, February 12.
Yesterday the Ten Malefactors under Sentence of Death, were carried from Newgate to Tyburn, in four Carts; they all behaved in a decent Manner, becoming Persons under their unhappy Circumstances, but particularly Parsons, who, tho’ he had been so long in Prison, still retained the Appearance of a Gentleman, and seemed to be duly affected with the near Prospect of a future State. [William] Vincent, [Thomas] Clements, and [Anthony] Westley, three Boys, went in the first Cart; [Edward] Smith and [Daniel] Davis, in the second; [Thomas] Applegarth and [Michael] Sauce, in the third; and [James] Field [a stage boxer], [Jeremiah] Sullivan, and Parsons, in the last.
Field’s Legs were chained together, for Fear of a Rescue.
A Hearse attended the Place of Execution for the Body of Parsons, which conveyed him to an Undertaker’s on Snow-hill, in order to be interred.
Mr. Parsons, a little before his Death, ordered a Diamond Mourning Ring, of ten Guineas Value, to be made, with the following Inscription, William Parsons, Ob.11th Feb. 1750-51,Ætat. 33. The Motto was, When this you see, remember me; which Ring he presented to a certain young Lady, as the last Token of his Affection for her.
Was the diamond ring for his long-suffering wife, or for the landlord’s daughter with whom he had two children? His Memoirs published directly after his death suggest his mistress had remained by his side, both in the Wood Street Compter and during his spell in Newgate. Whoever it went to, it’s probably a safe bet the jeweller wasn’t promptly paid for his work.
The Baronetage of England; or, the History of the English Baronets, and such Baronets of Scotland, as are of EnglFamilieslies; with genealogical tables, by The Rev. William Betham, London, 1802
The Eton College Register, 1698-1752
St James’s Evening Post, 16th May 1747
General Evening Post, 29th May 1735
Stamford Mercury, 30th June 1737
London Evening Post, 2nd September 1738
Read’s Weekly Journal, 23rd June 1750 and 8th September 1750
Derby Mercury, 8th February 1750/51
The Universal Magazine, February 1751
The Tyburn Chronicle: or, Villainy Display’d, volume iii
Remarkable Rogues: the careers of some notable criminals of Europe and America by Charles Kingston, 2nd ed., 1922
Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of William Parsons, by himself, 1751
Many people in Nottinghamshire will have travelled past the stone marking Elizabeth Sheppard’s death in 1817 and not even noticed it as it is now hidden in the undergrowth. As a teenager I passed the stone every day on my way to school but never really knew anything about who she was or why there was a stone there, but I had heard about her ghost that was said to haunt the A60 where she died with reports of motorists stopping to offer a girl a lift, when she simply disappeared.
The story was well documented at the time and has continued to fascinate ever since. Stories normally only make it onto our blog if they contain at least one new fact, however, we have made an exception in this case as it’s such a tragic story that we think will be of interest and also quite simply because we can!
Newspapers of the day described the girl in this story as Elizabeth Shepherd, not Sheppard which seems strange that they should have got her name wrong in such an important trial. There was a baptism in 1799 for an Elizabeth Shepherd which I think was in all likelihood her, daughter of Richard and Molly. Her burial in the parish records at Papplewick also recorded her as Shepherd.
On Monday the 7th July 1817 Elizabeth left her home in the village of Papplewick, Nottinghamshire, to walk to the town of Mansfield some 7 miles away, to seek employment as a servant. She was successful in her mission and began the long walk home – but she never made it back. About 4 miles from home Elizabeth, known as Bessie, was attacked by a Charles Rotherham.
Charles Rotherham, aged about 33, was a former soldier from Sheffield, who having fought in the Napoleonic Wars had taken up the occupation of a scissor grinder, so was presumably earning a living by travelling around the country sharpening knives. There was no reason offered in the newspaper reports as to why he was in that area so we can only presume his trade had led him there.
According to the newspaper reports Rotherham, without a word and with no apparent motive, attacked Bessie with a hedge-stake. He beat her until she died. The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser described Bessie as being ‘an interesting girl of 17’ and Rotherham as ‘a monstrous assassin’.
Having found no money upon her person, he stole her new shoes, ones she was wearing for her interview, and her umbrella and threw her body into a ditch. Apparently, shortly after having committed such an appalling crime he continued his journey toward Nottingham, stopping at The Hutt, an Inn, (opposite the entrance to Newstead Abbey, which was until 1816, owned by Lord Byron), for a drink, having passed Bessie’s mother who had set off in search of her daughter who was later than expected. According to the newspapers Bessie’s mother had seen a man with an umbrella on his arm.
When her body was found the following day in a ditch, it was described as being in a dreadful state with her brain protruding from her skull, one eye knocked out of the socket. Rotherham was quickly pursued and arrested, by Constable Benjamin Barnes, at which time Rotherham allegedly said ‘I am guilty of the crime and must suffer the course of the law’. He was taken to the scene of the crime and showed the officer the stake he had used, but could offer no explanation as to why he had done it, but his clothes showed signs of blood stains. He had money, 6 shillings in fact, in his pocket, so possibly money was not the motive, but he had successfully sold both her shoes and her umbrella.
At his trial he entered a plea of guilty, but for some reason the judge persuaded him to change his plea to not guilty. The case was heard, with ‘a considerable number of people called’ including Bessie’s mother; the newspapers reported him as being ‘resigned to his fate’. Right up to the time of his death Rotherham said he had no idea what made him commit such a heinous crime. He was visited by the Rev. Dr. Wood prior to the hanging and seemed to show remorse for what had happened. His fate, however, was sealed and he was hanged on the 28th July 1817 in Nottingham. Some 20,000 people attended the execution, after which his body was given over to a surgeon for dissection and was then interred at St Mary’s churchyard, Nottingham.
Rotherham left a wife, but no children, plus a brother and two sisters. According to the newspapers he had served as a solider for 12 years in the Artillery Corps and had been present in battles in Egypt, Portugal, Spain and France. Apparently on the day of the murder he had drunk 7 pints of ale in Mansfield before walking to the spot where the crime was committed.
Elizabeth was buried on the 10th July 1817 at St James’ parish church, Papplewick. The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser of 13th March 1819, a little under two years later, reported that the local community was so shocked by this murder that money was raised to purchase a stone so that her memory would live on.
On Tuesday night a neat monument was erected on Sherwood Forest, on the spot where this unfortunate female was murdered and on which was engraved the following inscription ‘this monument was erected in memory of Elizabeth Sheppard, of Papplewick, who was murdered on this spot by Charles Rotherham on the 7th July 1817 in the 17th year of her age.
The Bessie Sheppard Stone
Was he guilty? My view is that despite the evidence he was not guilty, surely if he had just beaten someone to death he would not have simply carried on walking to an inn, with blood stained clothes surely he would have wanted to avoid being seen. Wouldn’t Bessie’s mother have recognized the umbrella? Some reports state that Bessie was travelling from Mansfield towards Nottingham and that Rotherham was travelling towards Mansfield when the incident happened i.e. in the opposite direction, if that were the case, did he change his mind and head back toward Nottingham, if not then he could not have passed Bessie’s mother. It also raises the question as to why people felt compelled to mark her death with the stone, not many murders are marked in such a way.
The story of Bessie’s murder lingers on and there are still reported sightings of her ghost and as I grew up I was always aware of the legend that if the stone were ever moved from that spot that she would appear – to answer your question, no, I never saw her ghost.
Header image: Papplewick Dam, Nottinghamshire; John Rawson Walker; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries
We know from our research into the life of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, one of the fashion icons of her day, that she spent a considerable amount of money on clothes, hats and finery. Looking at some of her receipts we noticed that stockings featured on them, so with that in mind we simply had to do some more investigating into stockings of the day. Clearly not a subject not to be discussed in polite society, but how else should a Georgian lady keep her legs warm? A glimpse of the calf was regarded as shocking and tantalizing.
Following a recent visit to the Wallace Museum, this image was far too good not to include – wonder what the gentleman on the ground was admiring?
Here on the left of the painting, we have one of the prostitutes in Hogarth’s The Rake at Rose Tavern, Scene III of The Rake’s Progress, 1733, displaying her stockings whilst she adjusts her shoes, not a practice that would have been acceptable for a lady!
Many women today wear tights, although stockings are still extremely popular, especially the ‘hold up’ variety which sit toward the top of the thigh, although for some the suspender belt remains an important feature of the underwear as a means of holding the stocking in place. There was no such item in the 18th Century, so how were stockings worn and supported? For those who are not aware, neither did pantaloons, drawers, knickers, pants etc. Pantaloons first put in an appearance in 1806.
The Georgian era saw both men and women wearing stockings, usually brightly coloured, especially for the men as generally, theirs were on show whereas respectable women kept theirs covered. It wasn’t until 1758 that we saw the invention of the Derby Rib machine by a Jedediah Strutt of Derbyshire, that allowed elastic to be added to stockings, but these were expensive so only the more affluent could afford them.
How were they worn?
Well, unless you were wealthy enough to afford stockings with elastic then you had to fasten them with a buckled garter or ribbon. The general consensus seems to be that they were tied just above the knee, although as we’re sure you’re can imagine that would probably have been quite uncomfortable, so it seems most likely that there was no right or wrong way to wear them and that women aimed for comfort, so either just above or just below the knee, in the way that we would for instance wear ‘knee highs’ today. The garter or ribbon would have to have fastened fairly tightly to stop the stocking from sliding down the leg as she walked.
This portrait by Francois Boucher seems to demonstrate that the stocking was worn just over the knee. However, this one indicates that one was above the knee, whilst the other was possibly on or slightly below the knee. It isn’t possible to be sure as to whether the artist was trying to simply paint a risqué picture or whether the positioning of the stocking was factually accurate. Given that the use of elastic was not that common the stocking would have moved around quite freely on its own, so a degree of ‘slippage’ would occur.
The description is taken directly from the V&A website –
Pair of knitted pink silk stockings with dark green clock and gusset. The welt is finished with four thin bands of green and there are three gauge holes. One stocking has the welt finished in white, and the other in yellow and green.
They are shaped but not fashioned, and have a green gore let in at the ankle. Around this they are embroidered with an undulating floral trail with a triangular spot design surmounted by a formal flower above which is a crown.
Many stockings at that time would have been manufactured in Nottinghamshire, home of the lace industry in England. The stockings were made using a framework knitting machine and by the early 1780s, the East Midlands over 90% of these frames were in Nottingham. To find out more about framework knitting we recommend these two websites The Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway and The Framework Knitters Museum.
One of the major supplies of stocking in London was Collyers, of No 41, The Poultry, who, according to The True Briton, 1799, produced ladies china white stockings with cotton feet at only 7s 6d, which is about £12 in today’s money, so not particularly affordable for many. We did try to find a trade card for them but so far no luck! We could not, however, resist including one or two that we thought you might enjoy.
Did you know that according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, what we would refer to today as a ladder or run in a stocking was known as a ‘louse ladder’ – delightful, hmm, wonder if there will ever be a revival of that term – perhaps not!
We couldn’t resist finishing our blog in our usual fashion, with the caricature ‘A Leg of Lamb’ courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.
In an earlier article, we looked at John Coan, the Norfolk Dwarf. As a companion piece to that article, we now turn our attention to Frances Flower, the Nottinghamshire Giantess.
Frances was baptized at Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire on the 25th October 1800, the daughter of John and Catherine Flower. Her father John was a gardener and perhaps he tended to his family as well as he did to his plants for his daughter Frances grew unusually tall. By the time she was in her late teens she was around seven feet in height and being exhibited by Mr Samuel Gear, incongruously a fishmonger from Nottingham, who had spotted an opportunity for making a little extra money. Billed as the ‘Nottinghamshire Giantess,‘ Frances appeared at fairs around the country.
On the 15th October 1820 at Hull in Yorkshire, Frances married a man named Sampson Bark, late the landlord of the Case-is-Altered and the Lion and Lamb public houses in Nottingham, possibly he also seeing chance to exploit Frances’ height to his own advantage for she continued to travel the country to exhibit herself to a curious public.
Shortly after her marriage, she was exhibited at Hull as ‘the greatest Natural Curiosity ever Exhibited in EUROPE,’ her age erroneously given as ‘not yet seventeen’ years when she was actually twenty.
The Morning Post newspaper ran a few lines on her on the 21st September 1821, mentioning the ‘universal admiration’ she excited and referring to her as Mrs Bark, the Nottinghamshire Giantess.
To her the meed of admiration,
What mortal can deny!
For ‘mongst all classes of the nation,
She must stand very high.
Sampson Bark died in Edinburgh in December 1825. The Stamford Mercury reported his death in their 2nd December edition.
At Edinburgh, on Sunday se-nnight, Mr. Sampson Bark, well known as having formerly kept the Lion and Lamb in Nottingham; but after his marriage with Miss Flower, “the Nottinghamshire Giantess,” he travelled from fair to fair with a caravan.
In 1827 Frances, having reverted back to her maiden name, appeared at Humberstone Gate in Leicester with the Albion Company as the Yorkshire Giantess, alongside such attractions as a Ladies Fortune-telling Pig (which we would dearly love to know more about!), a New Zealand Cannibal and a woman who was only 30 inches tall.
Unless Nottinghamshire had gained another Giantess, Frances was still exhibiting herself in 1837 at a Michaelmas Fair in Kent where she was the chief source of attraction and described as an Amazon. Her trumpeter proclaimed her the ‘finest, tallest, stoutest, and the most proportionable woman of the age,’ and she shared a snug booth at the fair with two other women whose appearance, unfortunately, marked them as in some way different.
We lose track of Frances after this but hope she did eventually manage a life away from the fairs where she was paraded as an object of curiosity.
Elizabeth Sarah Villa-Real, born between 6 and 7 o’clock in the morning on Monday the 27 June 1757 at her father’s house in Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire had a varied and illustrious heritage. Her father, William Villa-Real, Esquire, a handsome man in his late twenties, was the grandson of Joseph da Costa (1683-1753), a wealthy Portuguese Jewish merchant and the son of Catherine Rachel (Kitty) da Costa.
Kitty had been brought up in luxury, first at the Budge Row house of her paternal grandfather and then at her father’s mansion house, Copped Hall, Totteridge, Hertfordshire.
In 1724 when only 14 years of age Kitty had agreed to marry her cousin Jacob (or Philip) Mendes Da Costa but he was a rake and her parents did not approve. Instead, in 1727 when she was seventeen she married Joseph Isaac Villa-Real. Her husband was a Portuguese Jew who was much older than she being 54 years of age when he married and who had fled from his homeland and the Inquisition to England the previous year.
Two children were born, Sarah in 1728 and Abraham in 1729 before Joseph Villa-Real died on the 27 Dec 1730. Kitty, only twenty and now a very rich widow renewed the acquaintance with her cousin and plans were secretly put in place between the couple for them to marry once she had completed a year of mourning. Again, her family were against the union and Kitty finally listened to sense, sending Jacob away. His fury at being denied both her and her fortune was great and he sued her for breach of promise in 1732 but it was decided that Kitty’s promise had depended upon her father’s consent and not on her own word. Jacob tried once more to bring a civil suit for damages in 1734 which again he lost. Kitty’s fortune was reportedly £35,500 which today would be worth almost £5 million . . . no wonder that Jacob was so eager to marry her!
Although Kitty had respected the wishes of her family in respect to not marrying her cousin she was not prepared to play the dutiful daughter any longer and she left Copped Hall, leaving her two children behind, and married again, clandestinely in ‘Madam Mellish’s own house‘ at Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, on the 25 February 1735, this time outside of her faith, to William Mellish Esquire of Blyth in Nottinghamshire, taking the religion of her second husband at a baptism a month after the wedding.
Her father was furious and initially refused to return her children to her (she had previously signed a deed allowing him to be their guardian) but after various legal wrangles she obtained custody of them and on the 11 April 1738 at St. Anne’s in Soho the young Sarah and Abraham de Costa Villa-Real were baptized in the Protestant faith and given the names of Elizabeth and William. William Mellish was the same age as Kitty and their marriage was a happy union, producing a son born in 1737 named Charles who would go on to become only the second man who bore Jewish blood to enter the British Parliament. A second son, Joseph, died in infancy. Kitty died in 1747 and was buried in Blyth. Her younger brother Benjamin also converted to Christianity.
The two Villa-Real children no longer used their Jewish forenames. Elizabeth had married William, 2nd Viscount Galway of Ireland in 1747 (she was the first person of Jewish blood to marry into the peerage) and William himself married, in 1755, Elizabeth Hallifax of Mansfield whose brother Samuel would become bishop of Gloucester and of St. Asaph, a second brother, Robert, was to be physician to the Price of Wales, later King George IV.
William Villa-Real was aged 26 years at the time of their marriage and the bride only 17 years of age (her father Robert Hallifax of Mansfield, gentleman and apothecary, gave his consent to the nuptials). Elizabeth Sarah was their only child; William, although still young, had a reputation for hard living, a fact which shortened his life. He was reportedly a man of coarse manners, an uncontrollable temper and insatiable appetites, he gambled all night and spent his days recovering from the effects of the immoderate luxury of those evenings and his short marriage was an unhappy one (although in fairness to him we must point out that Elizabeth, in her Memoirs, held the opposite view). He died on the 27 November 1759, aged just 30 years.
One fact which only comes to light in Elizabeth’s Memoirs is that she had a half-sister, one born illegitimately and fathered by William Villa-Real some years before Elizabeth herself had been born. This girl, whose name so far remains undiscovered, was brought up in the Villa-Real household after her own mother had died shortly after her birth, although Elizabeth’s mother had presented her as an orphan adopted by her husband rather than his by-blow. Although very much loved by William Villa-Real this daughter had been excluded from his will; Elizabeth hints at dark family secrets and suspicions but points no finger of blame.
William’s young widow Elizabeth moved to Pontefract in Yorkshire after her husband’s death, apprenticing Elizabeth’s unfortunate half-sister out to a mantua maker in Mansfield and leaving her to fend for herself, and it was at Pontefract that Elizabeth Villa-Real met a Captain in the Durham Militia.
She married this Captain, William Hutchinson Esquire of Egleston, County Durham in October 1763 and moved to his family home. Three or four years later when she was around 10 years of age Elizabeth was sent to a boarding school in Little Chelsea run by a Mrs Martha Latouche and it was whilst at school she received news that her stepfather William Hutchinson had died from a ‘raging fever’. William Hutchinson had been a good man and had made his wife and step-daughter very happy, they were both bereft by his death which also left his stepdaughter, sole heir to her father’s fortune, easy prey to fortune hunters. She was alienated from her father’s relations as her mother disliked them all so strongly that she had severed all contact with them.
The widowed Mrs Hutchinson and her daughter eventually took a house in Bishopton near Ripon in North Yorkshire, Elizabeth leaving her boarding school. They were soon an accepted part of the local society who included a young Scottish doctor, Thomas Crawford who, during 1774, paid his addresses to the young heiress, ultimately asking her to meet him in the middle of the night; Elizabeth was certain he meant to elope with her.
After much deliberation, she refused to meet with Dr Thomas Crawford for fear of deceiving her mother who would not approve of the match. To escape Dr Crawford, Elizabeth and her mother left to visit friends, by the April of 1775 finding themselves in Bath where she then fell under the spell of William Gooch Esquire. Gooch, the second son of Sir Thomas Gooch of Benacre Park in Suffolk, was insistent in his suit of Elizabeth; reports of her fortune having been much exaggerated in Bath and he had long tried to hook himself an heiress. Her mother left for London, in need of advice and driven to consult her first husband’s relatives, Lady Galway and Charles Mellish as her instinct was to oppose the marriage.
Gooch followed the pair to London and both he and his father persuaded Elizabeth’s mother and her relatives to agree to the match. The marriage duly took place at St. George’s in Hanover Square on the 13th May 1775, Elizabeth aged just seventeen years like her mother and paternal grandmother before her at their first marriages, the marriage taking place with her mother’s consent; the couple had known each other for just over four weeks.
One might have thought Elizabeth destined for high places, after all she was niece to a Viscountess, a bishop and the Prince of Wales physician, now wife to the son of a baronet and an heiress (even if her fortune was possibly not quite so large as her husband was expecting it to be) and well connected in society. For all her benefits however she had too much of the headstrong attitude of her grandmother Kitty, too much of the impulsiveness of her father, and she lived to rue her decision to make a hasty marriage for just three years after her wedding her life had fallen apart and she found herself abandoned and facing life in a convent in Lille.
The marriage quickly fell apart. The Gooch household was ruled by his attractive, unmarried sister and his stepmother, the new Lady Gooch who had formerly been a governess in the household, both of whom took a dislike to Elizabeth. For all this, she soon found herself pregnant and persuaded her husband to take a house in the north of England where they could be away from his family. A house in York duly being taken, it soon became a haunt of officers from the resident Inniskilling Regiment who were stationed there. Although she was big with child, William Gooch suspected his wife of encouraging the attentions of one Lord Banff, a junior officer in the regiment, whilst she, in turn, suspected him of a dalliance with a handsome widowed lady by the name of Mrs Hudson, claiming she once found Mrs Hudson sitting on Gooch’s lap in the dining room of their house.
Their son, William Thomas, was born in York on the 20th February 1776 and baptized at St. Michael-le-Belfry the next day. The family next moved to a house at Nun-Appleton, once the home of Sir William Milner, and it was there that their second son was born, Robert Henry who was baptized at Bolton Percy on the 6th April 1777. Very soon afterwards William Gooch was anxious to rejoin his family in Bath and insisted on Elizabeth accompanying him, leaving behind the children to the care of servants. Once in Bath, they first lodged with his family before taking a house of their own, but at both Elizabeth was receiving lessons from one Venanzio Rauzzini, an Italian castrato, pianist and singing teacher who, together with his friend the violinist La Motte, was taking Bath by storm. Towards the end of 1777, Elizabeth was accused of an ‘improper familiarity’ with Rauzzini by her husband who seemed intent on spreading the word of his discovery to incriminate his wife. On Christmas Eve, with snow lying on the ground, William Gooch escorted his wife to a carriage and conveyed her across the Channel to France. In her memoir, Elizabeth states that this was the 24th December 1778, but she had misremembered the year as, by the January of 1778, the gossip was already starting to spread itself far and wide.
John Dixon at Worsbrough near Barnsley wrote to a Nottinghamshire correspondent on the 30th January 1778 that:
Mrs Gooch… has had an intrigue at Bath with La Motte the Fidler, Rawzzini (a castrati) is likewise said to have been concerned…
On the 4th January 1778, Elizabeth Harris had written from Salisbury to her son James at St. Petersburg with the news that there had been a ‘Sad doing at Bath since we left it. Louisa no doubt will write all the history of Lamotte and Rauzzini with Mrs Gooch. If what we have heard is true, the two musical hero’s will gain credit. I know but little of the lady and by the little I have heard of her conversation I thought her very silly’.
Gooch took Elizabeth first to St. Omer where he decided the convents were too full of English residents and then on to Lille. She viewed the convent he chose there with horror, it seemed little more than a prison to her and at last, he relented and took a private house for her in the town. Elizabeth entreated him to stay with her and he promised to do so but said he had to sort out his affairs at home first. He left, promising to return and to bring their two sons with him and said that, once the storm had died down, they could retire to her estate at Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire which she would take possession of on her twenty-first birthday later that year. Did he lie to her? A letter from Edward Thoroton Gould at Woodhouse Nottinghamshire to the 3rd Duke of Portland, received on the 26th January 1778, mentions that he has made enquiries about Edwinstowe and discovered that William Gooch intended to reside there himself, mentions the Bath affair and the fact of Gooch taking his wife to France with the intention of depositing her in a convent there. Gould had, however, managed to secure refusal of Edwinstowe for the Duke of Portland.
Elizabeth next received a letter from her husband in which he stated that his family had decided they should no longer live together, or at least not for another two or three years, these years she was expected to spend abroad in a state of contrition and to return repentant to her husband at the end of them. Her immediate family had either abandoned her, or cautioned her to remove herself into a convent or, at the very least, to get out of Lille and away from all the army officers stationed there. Elizabeth, totally alone, decided to accept none of the above. With a little encouragement from a friend she had made in Lille she asked her husband to instigate a divorce, which would leave them both free to marry again. He agreed and servants were sent over to her with the specific intent of being discovering her inflagrante with one of these officers.
The Morning Chronicle newspaper reported on the 22nd June 1778, from an extract of a letter from Calais dated the 17th June that:
‘You may perhaps remember the singular affair at Bath a short while since, between Mrs G__h and Rauzzini the singer; the husband of the lady immediately hurried her away to Lisle, where she soon commenced an amour with a French officer. Matters are amicably settled between Mr and Mrs G__h for a divorce, and yesterday two persons (a man and woman) went through this place for Lisle, in order to be eye-witnesses of her adultery, proofs of which she has agreed to give them, for the completing the business in Doctors Commons. ‘Tis said the French officer intends to marry her as soon as she is free from her husband.’
The petition for divorce did not, however, go as planned, a divorce from bed and board being granted at the end of 1780 but not a full divorce which would allow the couple to remarry. They needed more proof of Elizabeth’s infidelity and she returned to London to consult with her husband, taking back with her another servant when she returned to the continent. Once back in France the servant was duly summoned one evening to her mistresses bedchamber, only to find her in a compromising situation with one Monsieur Dumenil. The judges of the case felt there had latterly been a degree of collusion by William Gooch in asking his wife to allow herself to be discovered, they felt they were being duped and that it would present a dangerous precedent to allow a full divorce in this case. So, Elizabeth had to make do with just the £200 per year she had been granted and no chance of another husband whilst her present one lived; her husband had taken control of her estates for the term of his life and she was dependent on him paying the ‘pin money’ for her subsistence. The sum was further reduced in 1790 when Gooch decided to send their two sons to Eton where he himself had received his education, telling his wife he was deducting £50 a year from her allowance to cover the extra expenses involved in the school fees.
The men who had attended her in the hope of winning her hand once she was free to marry, including the Baron d’Arthaud a Cuirassier officer, and many other French officers, now deserted her. And so began Elizabeth’s life of dissipations and her struggle for survival.
She recounts the advances of one James George Semple Lisle in her memoir, an English officer in Lille. Semple Lisle, actually a Scot, was an eighteenth-century adventurer whose father claimed the right to the title of Viscount Lisle, then extinct. In his own memoir, he remembers the facts somewhat differently, placing their first meeting at Bath in 1777. He was eighteen years of age, just back from America where he had served in the British army and had been taken prisoner and wounded. Because of this wound, he wasn’t dancing at Bath but instead formed one of a party playing at picquet which included the young Mrs Gooch who he followed to Lille (she claims in her memoir that he appeared as a stranger to her there). He gently makes fun of her boast in her memoir of their amour when she claims that ‘then, and not till then, I fell,’ by pointing out that, at that time, their joint ages did not amount to forty.
Elizabeth’s friends recommended to her that she should try the stage as a means of supporting herself (she notes in her Memoirs that the Duc de Bouillon was particularly anxious for this), with the added benefit that her family and husband would most likely try to keep her from it by making her a proper allowance. She had been visited by the actor Charles Macklin whilst she was living in Cork Street and began to take lessons from him. Indeed, the Rambler’s Magazine, in June 1784, reported that:
M___ the actor is taken into keeping by Mrs. G__ch, and they are now on a tour to Paris!
Even with help from Macklin, she was unable to try the London playhouses due to the amount of debt she was in and was forced to try one of the strolling companies instead. Mr Thornton who was the manager of the Portsmouth company agreed to let her take to the stage with his troop who was then at Farnham in Surrey. Assuming the name of Mrs Jackson she played first Miss Rusport in The West Indian and then Belvidere in Venice Preserv’d. The actor who played the part of Jaffier opposite her Belvidere was, Elizabeth records, ‘a handsome man and a good actor, but nothing to commend his off the stage’, this not preventing her to be persuaded to run away with him on the day they were due to take to the stage in Percy: A Tragedy.
The couple joined Austin and Whitlock’s Chester company, then performing in Warrington, Lancashire, where Elizabeth took the name of Mrs Freeman (possibly her Jaffier was Mr Freeman). Her stint with this company was short-lived; she fell foul of the leading actor of the company, who was also a shareholder in it, Joseph Shepherd Munden, who favoured another of the female performers of the troop over Elizabeth, and she returned, in disgust, to London where she learnt that she had been duped by her Jaffier who had concocted a scheme with his wife, also an actress, to dupe Elizabeth for financial gain.
Disillusioned, in the summer of 1785, she sailed for France, making a perilous landing at Dunkirk which nearly resulted in a shipwreck. She quickly fell in with a handsome French naval officer, Monsieur de Guichen who was the son of a Count and Lieutenant of the Ceres. The Ceres was to be stationed at Dunkirk for six months, patrolling the coastline for smugglers and Elizabeth changed her plans to remain with him. Tragedy quickly struck however, de Guichen had to sail on a patrol and promised Elizabeth he would be back within only a few days. On the 24th August 1785, in the midst of a storm, the Ceres came into view and despite the bad weather a boat put to shore with de Guichen on board, his commander the Viscount de Roquefeuil and three sailors. As Elizabeth’s landing only two weeks earlier had been perilous, so was this and, with the people watching from the shore unable to help, the boat came to grief and de Guichen and his commander perished.
Elizabeth saw the bodies brought ashore but was not allowed near them. She subsequently left for Lille but her unhappiness, destitution and recent shock combined to make her ill. She took a house and tried to retreat from the world but her debts continued to mount and she found herself taken to a prison, ensconced in a miserable room with no fireplace and no bed. A tavern owner took advantage of the situation, saying that Elizabeth owed much more than she actually did; Elizabeth received a letter from a man related to her family by marriage who informed her that her family were ‘violently offended’ with her and had instructed a banker to give her no more than two guineas a week on which to live.
With no help from her family, it was a stranger who bailed her out, a Monsieur Grandel, on the promise that she would return to England with his nephew, Monsieur Parquet, who was also imprisoned for debt. Monsieur Grandel told Elizabeth she could either repay him what he had spent to clear her bills or help his nephew who was penniless to get a start in London.
The nephew was feckless and, once back in London, caused Elizabeth much worry. She eventually got rid of him, having laid out a considerable sum for clothes and linen for him, housed and fed him for two months and given him five guineas to see him on his way; she considered the debt to his uncle fully paid.
With gentlemen callers including the Duc de Lauzun and Old Q, The Marquis of Queensbury, Elizabeth lived in some style before being arrested once more on the orders of a Frenchwoman by the name of Saville, a ‘notorious character’ with whom Monsieur Parquet had gone to live. Through this woman, Monsieur Grandel had instituted a claim for the debt Elizabeth owed him, and not having kept any of the receipts or having any proof of the money she had indeed repaid in kind to his nephew, she realized she had been duped once again. She was held first in the Marshalsea and then in the Fleet and, once word got out, a hoard of her creditors began to press their demands.
Elizabeth was touched by the people who did try to help her out; Old Q and Lord Galway both sent sums of money, as did an anonymous gentleman of fortune from Nottingham. Another unnamed person sent five guineas together with a hamper of wine. Although generous these donations did not clear her debt and, in January 1788 from the Fleet, she wrote and published ‘An appeal to the Public’, recounting her situation and asking for help. The World newspaper, on the 12th January, wrote the following:
To those who remember who Mrs Gooch once was – her present state in the Fleet Prison, must afford a strong lesson, of the superior guidance of Virtue through life.
The above Lady, when Miss Villa-Real in Yorkshire, on her marriage with the son of Sir THOMAS GOOCH, brought to him a fortune of thirty thousand pounds. But so early was the romantic spirit implanted in her bosom – that previous to that time, she was on the brink of running off with five or six different Gentlemen – and who may truly be said to have – narrowly escaped the noose!
Should the above moral instance fail of its effect – let the public cast an eye on the fallen state of LADY PERCY! Who from her hereditary brilliant situation – is now reduced to absolute beggary – and to be the vile companion of the loose hours of a prisoner in the King’s Bench.
This ‘Appeal’ had the effect of stirring her family into action, keen to stop the scandal in its tracks; possibly that was the intention Elizabeth had in mind all along by writing it. Settling with her creditor who had pressed their suit whilst she was in the Fleet, they ignored those to whom Elizabeth owed money but who had been kind enough not to imprison her for it. Her uncle, the Bishop of Gloucester, arranged a better room for her in the Fleet until she could be released when her family took lodgings for her in Featherstone Buildings where she was close to her mother who was visiting in Bedford Row.
Elizabeth hadn’t seen her mother for years and was denied access to her still, her mother pleading illness, but the two did correspond. A deal was proposed by her mother and the Bishop; Elizabeth should retire to the country under an assumed name, be guided by the Bishop and renounce every former acquaintance and correspondence whilst making over £40 of her yearly allowance to the repayment of her debts until they were paid off. If Elizabeth would agree to this her mother would visit her the next day.
Whilst desperate to see her mother once again, Elizabeth was not prepared to submit to being little more than a prisoner held in retirement in the country. Whilst she had lodged in Featherstone Buildings she had been constantly watched and not even allowed to walk outside to take the air. She packed what belongings she had and left, all hopes of a reconciliation with her mother ended.
It can be no surprise to learn that in just a short time Elizabeth was once more a prisoner in the Fleet.
Her release came thanks to the benevolent act of a jeweller living on Frith Street in Soho, a Jean Louis Knobel or Kennebel. Towards the end of 1788, Elizabeth now found a little happiness. She met a recruiting officer, one Captain Lindsay of the 59th Regiment of Foot, who had been born on the island of Antigua where his family owned a plantation and estate. Taking his name she accompanied him to Nottinghamshire where he was to stay for a few months before rejoining his regiment in Glasgow.
Elizabeth was able to revisit the places she remembered from her childhood and to spend a few days with her half-sister who was now the wife of a Mr Thomas Dutton, Mayor of Chesterfield in Derbyshire and mother of a brood of charming children.
On the 23rd January 1789 Captain Lindsay and Elizabeth, as Mrs Lindsay, reached Glasgow. Major Fisher was in charge of the barracks and Elizabeth was fully accepted by him and the other officers and wives. Come the springtime Captain Lindsay was desirous to travel to Bristol where a ship was due to dock from the West Indies which carried a cargo of sugars that he had a considerable sum of money invested in. The couple left Glasgow on the 12th May 1789, travelling first to Chesterfield where they stayed with her half-sister for a few days and, on the 10th June, witnessed the baptism of Elizabeth’s niece, Mary Dutton (Elizabeth herself choosing the name Mary after visiting sites in Scotland associated with the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots), before arriving in Bristol and lodging in the Hot Wells. There they stayed for two months and when Lindsay had to return to Scotland, she persuaded him to take a house for her there and to leave her behind.
She had cause to regret that decision, much as she liked the Hot Wells. Lindsay followed his regiment to Ireland before travelling to the West Indies to visit his family, surviving a shipwreck off the coast of South America along the way. Elizabeth remained at Bristol for almost twelve months before passing into Wales. The winter of 1791 found her at Scarborough according to her Memoirs, but the Morning Post reported another alliance for her and placed her in Ireland.
The once celebrated Mrs Gooch has again found a fashionable protector in the person of Lord Cr__ght__n, son to the Earl of E___, with whom she has taken wing for Ireland
Morning Post, 4th November 1791
The Earl’s son referred to was Abraham Creighton, son of Earl Erne of Crom Castle in Fermanagh; seven years later he was declared insane and held in Brooke House in London for the ensuing forty years, his family claiming that his insanity stemmed from ‘immersion in a bath of mercury’. If true he may have possibly tried this as a cure for the pox.
With Captain Lindsay now nowhere to be seen, Elizabeth once more had no-one but herself on whom to rely. In the January of 1792, she enlarged on her ‘Appeal’, turning it into a three volume Memoir of her life. Other publications, novels and collections of poems, followed, receiving a favourable response from the public. The stage once more beckoned, a license to act at the Haymarket Theatre in London being granted and, as Mrs Gooch, she appeared on that stage in February 1796 as Almeria in The Mourning Bride and Lady Minikin in Bon Ton.
In 1802 Elizabeth was living at 20 St. Michael’s Place in Brompton, still beset by debts and appealing for assistance.
A CARD – To the Public.
The greatest part of my furniture was appraised, yesterday, by a broker, and sold to him to raise the money for the Income Tax, which is by that means paid. All hope and expectation has failed, and in this deplorable situation I am induced to supplicate some assistance from my Friends and the Public. I beg leave to offer my thanks to a Lady unknown to me, who called in her carriage, and left me a pound note. Likewise to a Noble Earl, for his assistance, who, with the Lady, are the only persons who have answered my advertisement at this house. ELIZ. SARAH VILLA-REAL GOOCH, Michael’s place, Brompton, Oct 20.
The Morning Post, 25th October 1802
Elizabeth’s mother had married for a third time, to Major Henry Rooke Esquire of St. George Hanover Square, on the 19th June 1789. She died in April 1797 at Bath without being reconciled to her only child. Her eldest son William died in Dijon in France in 1806, aged only 30, leaving behind a wife whom he had married, possibly clandestinely, in the Isle of Man.
Elizabeth herself died a year later, in June 1807, at Plymouth in Devon. It is not known why she was lodging there. As Elizabeth Sarah Villa-Real Gooch she was buried in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s there on the 14th June 1807.
Henry Robert Gooch, Elizabeth’s youngest son, died in 1829 aged 50 and William Gooch outlived them all, dying in Edinburgh in 1833.