An Amazing Woman of the Georgian Era: Mrs Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs

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).

Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa by Francis Hayman, Southampton City Art Gallery. Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa by Francis Hayman, Southampton City Art Gallery.

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.

Owen, William; Nicholas Vansittart (1766-1851), Baron Bexley; Christ Church, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/nicholas-vansittart-17661851-baron-bexley-229020 Owen, William; Nicholas Vansittart (1766-1851), Baron Bexley; Christ Church, University of Oxford

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.

Princess Charlotte, later Queen of Württemberg, after Edward Miles. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Princess Charlotte, later Queen of Württemberg, after Edward Miles. Courtesy of the Royal Collection

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.

Featured Image

Old Westminster Bridge from Lambeth by R. Paul. City of Westminster Archives centre

Map of Parson's Green, showing Peterborough House and its surrounding gardens.

Parson’s Green, Fulham: seclusion, secrets and novels

Parson’s Green in Fulham still has two green, open spaces in the heart of its residential area. Back in the eighteenth-century, Fulham was a pleasant rural village outside the bustle of London complete with farms and market gardens that supplied the capital with fruit and vegetables, and Parson’s Green was a hamlet within the manor of Fulham where several fine villas were located.

Parson's Green, Fulham by William Pengree Sherlock, early 19th century.
Parson’s Green, Fulham by William Pengree Sherlock, early 19th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Named after the village green and the parsonage where the rectors of St Anne’s, the Fulham parish church lived, it is perhaps best remembered today as the home of the novelist, Samuel Richardson.

Samuel Richardson's House at Parson's Green.
Samuel Richardson’s House at Parson’s Green. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nearby was Peterborough House, a grand mansion set within large – and once immaculately designed – gardens. The house (originally called Brightwells, or Rightwells) was a large square building with a gallery around the rooftop, many large rooms and furnished with taste; rich frescos decorated the walls and a collection of fine paintings also hung there. Originally a fourteenth-century building, it had been remodelled and rebuilt in the early Stuart style.

Passing through several owners, eventually, it was inherited by Margaret (née Smith), wife of Thomas Carey, second son of Robert, Earl of Monmouth who refurbished the building and renamed it, Villa Carey. By descent, it passed to Charles, the celebrated 3rd Earl of Peterborough and Monmouth, and it was under his watch that the house enjoyed its heyday. Alexander Pope was a frequent visitor and a musical academy was instituted by the earl’s second – but secret – wife, the singer, Anastasia Robinson. Although Anastasia and her mother discreetly lived nearby rather than under the earl’s roof, she presided at his side as mistress of the house during entertainments.

Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough (1658-1735) by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739). Burghley House Collections.
Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough (1658-1735) by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739). Burghley House Collections.

Peterborough House passed to the 4th Earl of Peterborough and after his death, his widow Robinaiana (Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s maternal aunt) leased it to Richard Heaviside, a rich Lambeth timber merchant who was climbing the social ladder.

Map of Parson's Green, showing Peterborough House and its surrounding gardens.
Map of Parson’s Green, showing Peterborough House and its surrounding gardens.

Although now fading into disrepair, the real beauty of Peterborough House, the impressive pleasure grounds which surrounded it, were still largely intact. By the 1780s, some of the land had been leased to market gardeners but there remained much of the former glory of this garden, a pleasant wilderness with shady cypress trees, inset with statues and fountains. Beyond the high brick walls on three sides of the mansion, market gardens dominated down to the riverbank while the front of the mansion faced the green with its picturesque pond. It was perfectly secluded and that was perfect for Heaviside’s nefarious activities. As we relate in our latest book, A Georgian Heroine, he abducted – for the second time! – a young girl who was a neighbour of his in Lambeth, Charlotte Williams and had her brought by boat to Peterborough House. You can discover more about Charlotte’s ordeal by clicking here.

Suffice to say, it was akin to the plot of Clarissa, one of Samuel Richardson’s novels, the irony in the situation was that Richardson had lived, and written many of his works, in a villa which stood close by Peterborough House in Parson’s Green.

View of Parson's Green, Fulham, 1795. The walls are those surrounding Peterborough House, around the time that Meyrick pulled down the original mansion.
View of Parson’s Green, Fulham, 1795. The walls are those surrounding Peterborough House, around the time that Meyrick pulled down the original mansion. © The British Library

In time, and with the house and estate in ruins (part of the house had been torn down) Heaviside sold Peterborough House to John Meyrick who razed what was still standing to the ground and had a new mansion constructed in its stead.

Peterborough House, Parson's Green, Fulham, after 1797.
Peterborough House, Parson’s Green, Fulham, after 1797.

The parsonage from which the hamlet took its name stood on the west side of the green until it was demolished around 1740 and replaced with two new houses. Writing of it in 1705, Bowack said, “the house in which the rectors of Fulham used to reside, is now very old, and much decayed. There is, adjoining to it, an old stonebuilding, which seems to be of about three hundred or four hundred years standing, and designed for religious use; in all probability, a chapel for the rectors and their domestics. Before the said house is a large common, which, within the memory of several ancient inhabitants now living, was used for a bowling-green”.

Cricket matches were also held on the green; two notable matches between teams from Fulham and Chelsea were contested there in 1731 and 1733.

A game of cricket, unknown artist after Francis Hayman, 18th century.
A game of cricket, unknown artist after Francis Hayman, 18th century. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In later years, Maria Fitzherbert, George IV’s ‘clandestine’ wife lived in East End House on the east side of Parson’s Green

Fair at Parson's Green by Thomas Rowlandson.
Fair at Parson’s Green by Thomas Rowlandson. Sotheby’s

Sources:

Fulham, pp.344-424, The Environs of London: Volume 2, County of Middlesex. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1795

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, Pen and Sword, 2015

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, Pen and Sword, 2017

Samuel Richardson, the Novelist (1684-1761), Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family by Francis Hayman, 1740-41; Tate

‘Clarissa’ and ‘ Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson wrote two best-selling novels – Clarissa and Pamela in the 1740′s, published whilst he was living at Parson’s Green in Fulham, a close neighbour of the Earl of Peterborough and his mansion, Peterborough House. Clarissa tells the story of Clarissa Harlowe, a young girl whose family are newly come into a fortune.

The Harlowe Family, from Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa" by Joseph Highmore (Yale Centre for British Art)
The Harlowe Family, from Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” by Joseph Highmore (Yale Centre for British Art)

First betrothed to Richard Lovelace in anticipation of the Earldom he will inherit, she is then forced by her family to marry a man she loathes, Roger Solmes.  Lovelace, intent on marrying her to avenge himself on her family as well as wanting to possess her, tricks Clarissa into running away with him before she can marry Solmes; she is subsequently held prisoner by his before being drugged and raped. Pamela was published slightly earlier tells the story of a maidservant Pamela Andrews whose master Mr B made unwanted advances toward her.

Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate
Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate

Mr B was infatuated with her looks and her innocence and intelligence, but his position in society prevented him from marrying her, so instead, he abducted her and locked him up in one of his houses, during which time he attempted to seduce and rape her. She, of course, resisted, but over time fell in love with him. He intercepted letters she wrote to her parents, eventually, she tried to escape. Her virtue was finally rewarded when he proposed marriage to her. In the second part of the novel, Pamela attempts to build a successful relationship with him and to acclimate to upper-class society.

Pamela is Married by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate
Pamela is Married by Joseph Highmore, 1743-4, The Tate

The reason for mentioning this is that there are many similarities between Richardson’s stories and one of our future books. It does raise the question was our heroine telling the truth or had she actually read his fictional stories and decided that her life story would be more interesting if there had been more drama in it? You’d have to read our book for the answer to that question.

Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlow by Francis Hayman, 1753
Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlow by Francis Hayman, 1753

Header image:

Samuel Richardson, the Novelist (1684-1761), Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family by Francis Hayman, 1740-41; Tate