We’re celebrating the release of our third biography, A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs which is out now in the UK (and coming soon worldwide) and can be found at Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good bookshops.
It has been an immense pleasure to research Charlotte’s life even if, at times, she has frustrated us beyond measure. Her almost pathological desire to remain anonymous in her lifetime tested our abilities to the limit, but we rarely admit defeat and eventually we managed to piece together Charlotte’s story. And what a story it is!
If we had written her life as a novel, we’d probably have been accused of being too far-fetched but – amazingly – Charlotte’s story is all true, in parts tragically so but she triumphed over her adversities, continually adapted to her circumstances and succeeded in the most audacious ways possible.
We are also delighted to have finally given Charlotte ownership of her voice which, while it was heard during her lifetime across the country and in establishments ranging from the Houses of Parliament to royal palaces, was always heard anonymously, or at least so discreetly that the public at large were unaware of Charlotte’s identity. Because of this, she has been overlooked by history and her achievements remain largely unrecorded and, in some cases, wrongly ascribed to other women of her generation. Now we can finally put the record straight with the release of A Georgian Heroine.
Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs lived an incredible life, one which proved that fact is often much stranger than fiction. As a young woman she endured a tortured existence at the hands of a male tormentor, but emerged from that to reinvent herself as a playwright and author; a political pamphleteer and a spy, working for the British Government and later singlehandedly organising George III’s jubilee celebrations. Trapped in France during the revolutionary years of 1792-95, she published an anonymous account of her adventures. However, was everything as it seemed? The extraordinary Mrs Biggs lived life upon her own terms in an age when it was a man’s world, using politicians as her mouthpiece in the Houses of Parliament and corresponding with the greatest men of the day. Throughout it all though, she held on to the ideal of her one youthful true love, a man who abandoned her to her fate and spent his entire adult life in India. Who was this amazing lady?
In A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, we delve into her life to reveal her accomplishments and lay bare Mrs Biggs’ continued re-invention of herself. This is the bizarre but true story of an astounding woman persevering in a man’s world.
Featured image: Hotwells and Rownham Ferry by William Williams; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives. Charlotte lived in Bristol in later life.
Remember, Remember the 5th of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
So, how, in the Georgian Era did England celebrate this failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament? Well, it seems that things have changed little since then, bonfires, burning effigies and setting off fireworks were the order of the day, just as they are today. We thought we would take a look at a few reports from the newspapers. The first thing we should just point out is the spelling of his name has evolved from Guy Faux as he was known in the Georgian Era to the name by which we know him today – Guy Fawkes.
In the 1600’s Popish books and pictures were burnt and from the early 1700’s the event was celebrated with the ringing of church bells and bonfires. This is the earliest reference we have come across regarding the symbolic creation and burning of an effigy.
Even royal residences joined in, as demonstrated in an etching by Paul Sandby which depicts a view of the festivities in the lower court of Windsor Castle during Guy Faux Night, showing the gathering near the bonfire and fireworks in the sky.
According to the Derby Mercury, 15th November 1792:
On the 5th of November, a number of people, at least five hundred, assembled in St George’s Field’s, carrying at their head an exceedingly elegant dressed figure, with a crown upon its head, which as occasion required they denoted Guy Faux or the Duke of Brunswick; this was preceded by a man carrying a long pole, on the top of which was a board, with the inscription’ Universal Liberty and no Despots’. This figure, after they sufficiently paraded it about the streets, they carried to Kennington Common, when a large gallows was erected, upon which, after burning the crown, they hung it, and then burnt it, gallows and all, the mob dancing round signing.
A completely different approach to the day was taken in Hampshire in 1801, it was a far more sedate occasion, with the day being ushered in by the ringing of bells and at twelve o’clock the guns on the platform and at one o’clock the ships at Spithead fired a salute.
In 1801, The Stamford Mercury, however, carried the following news:
Among the different effigies of Guy Faux which were exited in this city [Lincoln] on the 5th November, we could not but notice one in the habit of an honest farmer, with the characteristic emblems of a sickle, smock frock etc which was hung up near the toll bar. While we can smile at such a piece of harmless wit, we are happy to congratulate the more peaceable inhabitants on a second year passing over without the horrid practice of bull baiting; the enormity and cruelty of which, we should hope, the populace themselves are at last fully sensible of, and will in future discontinue.
In 1802 a great annoyance was occasioned to the public by a set of idle fellows going about previous to, and on, the fifth of November, with a figure dressed up as Guy Faux and, after assembling a mob, was the cause of many depredations and disorders. The magistrate determined to punish all such offenders in the future and, therefore, five men and a boy were apprehended in St. Martin’s Street, with a cart, in which was a rude figure as the effigy of Guy Faux. One of the party was dressed as a priest, habited in a white smock-frock, with a large wig, the boy riding on horseback as the sheriff conducting the offender to the place of execution. They were immediately taken before Mr Graham, at Bow Street; and it being proven on oath, that the prisoners were seen to beg and receive money, they were all, except the boy, committed to prison as idle and disorderly persons.
In 1814, a most melancholy accident happened in Northampton Street, Clerkenwell, where some boys had a bonfire to celebrate the annual burning of Guy Faux, and throwing squibs; a wagon and horses passing at the time, the horses took fright and ran off, when a young man ran in front to stop them, he was pushed down by the foremost horse and the wagon passed over his boy and killed him on the spot.
London celebrated relatively peacefully in 1821, as The Morning Post reported that:
The anniversary of the gunpowder plot, which has caused so many scenes of painful confusion here, passed off last night, with the hissing explosions of a few squibs and crackers, here and there a bonfire, with Guy Faux in flames and with but little inconvenience or damage to anyone. The constables were commendably on the alert.
In The Globe of 1812, we learnt that:
Ever since the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Faux meant to blow up the Parliament House, it has been the custom, on the first day of the session, for certain officers to examine the cellars under the House, and ascertain that all is right. Accordingly, at eleven o’clock, on Tuesday morning, Lord Gwydir, the officiating Great Chamberlain of England; Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, the Usher of the Black Rod; Mr Curtis, Exon of the Yeoman of the Yeoman of the Guard, attended at the House of Lords to examine the premises. For this purpose, the table in (the House of Peers was removed, the trap door under it was taken up, and the passages underneath were closely inspected. They also inspected the vaults under the House of Commons, which are filled with excellent wines, of which the inspectors tested, that they might be sure they were not gunpowder.
Just in case you weren’t aware, this tradition still takes place today.
The Fairs or Guy Fawkes a Print made by Rowney & Forster, active 1820–1822, after John Augustus Atkinson, 1775–1831. Courtesy of the Yale Centre for British Art
During our research for A Right Royal Scandal which features Flitwick and Ampthill, we came across this shocking murder which took place on Monday, 1st December, 1788, in Flitwick Wood, just two miles from Ampthill, Bedfordshire.
The victim was an Elizabeth White, of Ampthill, who according to her sisters, went out on the morning of the murder to meet a Joseph Cook(e), a baker of Steppingley, near Ampthill and told them she would be home by dinner time. There was speculation that Cook was a criminal and that she had gone to meet him for money (there were also rumours which were found to be untrue that she was pregnant). Elizabeth never returned.
Her body was discovered between eleven and twelve the following day by an old man and his two sons, as they were gathering sticks in the wood. Her throat had been cut, an incision of about four or five inches in length, and down to the neck bone. There were four or five wounds near her mouth, her jaw bone had been broken and three of her upper teeth were bent out of place, her cheek bone was fractured, there were also several wounds and bruises on her head, one wrist was badly bruised and one of her fingers had been cut off just above the nail in a slanting direction, and another finger had been cut down to the second joint. A white handled case knife with about an inch broken off from the point, and the blade of a new pen-knife (both very bloody) with the piece of her finger, were found on her cloak, close to where the body lay.
The Coroner’s Jury sat to discuss the death. Mr Boldington junior, surgeon, at the request of the jury, cut open her head and found upon the head and face ten wounds, but no other fractures other than on the cheek and jaw bones; it was his opinion that the bruises were given with the claws and face of a hammer.
Cook was arrested and with other corroborating circumstances was committed by the Coroner to Bedford gaol to await his trial. The newspaper reported that he was a married man and described his wife as a very neat, decent woman, saying the couple had three or four fine children.
At the assizes, the trial took upwards of nine hours and the jury went out for an hour and a quarter before pronouncing their verdict: death! At the time of his demise, Cook acknowledged his guilt to the clergyman who attended him and he was then taken to the place of execution in a post-chaise. After the hanging, his body was cut down and delivered to the surgeons for dissection.
Elizabeth was buried on 6th December, 1788 at St Andrew’s church, Ampthill.
Thomas Carr of Lincoln was a hawker of almanacks and fish… and yes, we think that’s an odd combination too! He was well-known around the county’s markets, famous enough for a print to be made of him.
Underneath the print is some very helpful genealogical information about Thomas.
Thomas Carr of Lincoln
The well-known dealer in Almanacks & Fish being born at Hexthorpe near Doncaster and was christenened the 19th of October 1718.
So, Thomas wasn’t really a Lincolnshire man, but had obviously lived in the city of Lincoln for long enough that he was described as being of his adopted town. His baptism can be found, exactly as described on the print, in the parish registers of Hexthorpe, a small village on the outskirts of Doncaster in south Yorkshire.
He died in 1807, described as being of an advanced age: he was 89 years old, maybe not to us such an old age these days, but for someone back then, who had gained his living as a hawker which would have been a tough occupation for someone of advancing years, he didn’t do badly at all.
Last week died, at an advanced age, Thomas Carr, well known here, and to those who frequent Lincoln markets, as a vender of almanacks.
Stamford Mercury, 7th August 1807
Thomas’ funeral was held at St Swithin’s Church in Lincoln on the 26th July, and he was described in the burial register as a widower. St Swithin’s has undergone several reconstructions during its life. Originally located near the Sheep market, it was ravaged by fire in 1644 during the English Civil War and stood in ruins for just over a century and a half. The ruins can be seen in the drawing below, next to the The Greyfriars, the remains of a Franciscan friary dating back to the 1200s.
In 1801 a new church was erected on Sheep Square; a pencil drawing of this church can be seen be clicking here. In the 1880s the present church was built. The old Greyfriars buildings still stand next to it.
During the autumn of 1806, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and his brother William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV), undertook a tour of several of the counties of England. We are going to look at just one of their destinations today, their visit to the city of Liverpool and their stay at Knowsley, where they arrived on 16th September.
The royal brothers were travelling with a large retinue, including Colonel Leigh and Major Benjamin Bloomfield, one of the prince’s Gentlemen in Waiting. From Prescot onwards, they were escorted by a detachment of the Liverpool Light Horse Volunteers to Knowsley Hall, the Merseyside estate of Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby and his wife, Elizabeth. (The Countess of Derby was the actress Elizabeth Farren who had been the earl’s long-term mistress during his first – somewhat disastrous – marriage to Lady Elizabeth Hamilton.) The prince, duke and their retinue spent a week at Knowsley, enjoying the hospitality of the earl and countess.
The prince was in a low mood. He had lost two of his close friends within the space of a week with the deaths of Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow and Charles James Fox; George had been told about the death of the latter as he left his previous host, George Granville Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford (later 1st Duke of Sutherland) at Trentham Hall in Staffordshire, and it fell to him to tell the Earl and Countess of Derby the sad news as he arrived at Knowsley. It was, therefore, a gloomy party who entered the gates of Knowsley. (The Countess of Derby, then Miss Farren of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, had enjoyed a short-lived affair with Fox who reputedly said dismissively of Elizabeth that she had ‘no bum nor breasts!’)
The party spent the next day quietly and privately: Henry Clay was the mayor, and he and the Corporation of Liverpool turned up at the mansion to present an address to the prince and confer the freedom of the borough on him, presented in a handsome gold box.
Despite the prince’s private grief, the show had to go on. On Thursday 18th September, the royal entourage set out from Knowsley in the Earl of Derby’s coach and six, with twenty carriages following on behind. The vast crowds of people lining the route had hoped to see the prince, but to their disappointment, he was in a close carriage, virtually hidden from sight. Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester (George III’s nephew and son-in-law) greeted the party on their entrance into the city, along with various militia.
The prince was taken to inspect the docks and the Institution for the Relief of the Blind where he asked to become their patron and immediately donated one hundred guineas. After a cold luncheon at the mayor’s house, more visits and inspections followed throughout the afternoon. In the evening, the mayor hosted a grand dinner at Lillyman’s Hotel and the town was lit up afterwards with a magnificent illumination. The prince was delighted. On his return to Knowsley, he commented to the Earl of Derby that it had been ‘the proudest day of his life’.
To the delight of the citizens, on the following day, the prince paraded through Liverpool in an open carriage, drawn by six horses and with three postilions, to cheers and huzzahs. After calling on the mayor to thank him and the Corporation, the prince proceeded to the recently established Botanic Garden in the Mount Pleasant area of Liverpool (now incorporated within the Wavertree Botanic Gardens).
The visit was a great success but had come at a huge price. It was estimated that the Corporation of Liverpool had spent some 10,000l on the entertainments. Major Bloomfield wrote a letter of thanks to the mayor at the direction of the prince, from Knowsley where the Prince of Wales and Duke of Clarence remained, enjoying the hospitality of their hosts and friends, the Earl and Countess of Derby.
Knowsley, September 20th 1806
I am commanded by the Prince of Wales to express to you and the corporation of Liverpool, the strong sense his Royal Highness entertains of the very splendid and magnificent reception he has met with in your opulent and populous town. I have to lament the inadequacy of my powers to convey to you in the forcible language it requires, the feelings of his Royal Highness upon this occasion. The heartfelt satisfaction which seemed to pervade all ranks of people, could not fail to excite in his Royal Highness’s breast, the most sensible emotions of affection and regard, the impression of which, will ever remain indelible. His Royal Highness’s repeated exclamation, that “This is the proudest day of my life,” will, I trust, be sufficiently conclusive to you of the grateful sensations of his Royal Highness.
I am further commanded to request, that you will have the goodness to undertake the trouble of offering the subsequent bounties of his Royal Highness, to the following charities of Liverpool, viz.
One hundred guineas to the Infirmary
One hundred guineas to the Institution for the Blind
Fifty guineas to the Welch Charity
Fifty guineas to the poor debtors.
The Prince of Wales begs that you will personally accept the consideration of his high esteem and regard; and,
I have the honor to remain, &c.
H. Clay, Esq. &c, Liverpool.
The royal brothers, meanwhile, continued their tour into Cheshire and onwards through south Yorkshire and then on to Chatsworth in Derbyshire.
The History of Liverpool: from the earliest authenticated period down to the present times, 1810
Chester Courant, 23rd September 1806
Hampshire Chronicle, 29th September 1806
Leeds Intelligencer, 29th September 1806
Manchester Mercury, 30th September 1806
View of Liverpool Harbour by Robert Salmon, 1806. The Anathaeum.
Between the 6th and 8th of September 1769, the town of Stratford-upon-Avon held the first jubilee celebration commemorating the life of the great playwright, William Shakespeare. The event was organised by David Garrick, who was both an actor and the manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, Covent Garden. Garrick had portrayed many of Shakespeare’s best-known characters on the stages of London and of Dublin and so was invited to dedicate a statue of the bard at the new town hall: Garrick had other ideas however and turned the event into a three-day spectacular.
The 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, also known as Garrick’s Jubilee, was ostensibly to celebrate Shakespeare’s birth but was held five years too late (Shakespeare was baptised in April 1564). Regardless of the discrepancy in dates, it was hugely popular and helped to fix Shakespeare as England’s national poet.
Stratford-upon-Avon was flooded – a somewhat unfortunate metaphor, as will be seen – with visitors for the duration of the Jubilee. The town’s only inn was fully booked and townspeople made a small fortune in renting out rooms (albeit while grumbling about the inconvenience to their daily lives) but even so, many visitors were forced to sleep in their carriages overnight. A masquerade warehouse had opened in the town, in anticipation of the extravaganza and, a new sight to the townsfolk, sedan chairs had been brought from London and Bath.
The celebrations opened on Wednesday 6th September to cannon fire and a breakfast at the town hall. A portrait of Shakespeare by Garrick’s friend Benjamin Wilson hung at one end of the dining room and one of Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough at the other (both portraits were sadly lost in a fire in 1946). At 11 o’clock Dr Thomas Arne’s Oratorio of Judith was performed in the church, featuring, amongst others, the celebrated Mrs Sophia Baddeley.
After that, attention turned to a specially built wooden structure on the banks of the River Avon, the Jubilee Pavilion or rotunda, where a dinner was held with almost a thousand ladies and gentlemen crammed in at the tables, many more than anticipated. The food was accompanied by the sound of workmen hammering in nails: the rotunda had not been completed in time and work was still ongoing to make it sound. Garrick, ever the showman, carried on regardless and proclaimed the toast while holding a goblet made of mulberry wood ‘cut out of the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare’. Following the dinner was a ball which was opened by John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset and the Duke of Ancaster’s sister, Lady Mary Greathead.
The Jubilee, despite Garrick’s best-laid plans, now began to descend into a comedic farce and the typically British weather was to blame. It didn’t just rain, it poured and the pageant and attendant processions through the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, with participants dressed as characters from Shakespeare’s plays, had to be abandoned. Instead, after a public breakfast, Garrick delivered an ode in honour of the bard, wearing a medallion of Shakespeare on his breast and brandishing a wand both made, like his goblet, from mulberry wood. In the window frames, were large transparent portraits representing the most popular Shakespearian characters.
The evening entertainment was a masquerade ball, held in the rotunda, and a planned firework display. Unfortunately, the masquerade guests had to be carried in, or risk their footwear as they waded ankle-deep through the river water which was rapidly rising, and the roof was discovered to leak in places. Despite this, a good time was had by all, with the guests attired in a myriad of fantastical costumes. James Boswell, newly returned from Corsica, and having just published a memoir of his travels, appeared finely dressed as a Corsican. He subsequently had his picture engraved and published in the London Magazine with a puff-piece of an article written by himself.
One of the most remarkable masks upon this occasion was James Boswell Esq.
The fireworks ended up being little more than damp squibs in the deluge. At the close of the festivities, various masked guests including drunken witches, harlequins, sultans and one Corsican had to wade knee-deep across the meadow on which the rotunda was sited to reach their carriages and beds.
It rained until midday on Friday 8th September. The River Avon had overflowed to such an extent that the rotunda was flooded. All that could be salvaged of the last day’s planned entertainment was an extremely waterlogged horse race on Shottery Meadow but by this time it was too late and many guests had abandoned the Jubilee altogether and were heading as fast as they could on jam-packed roads away from the town. As Boswell noted:
After the joy of the jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and knew not how to get away.
Bizarrely, there had been no performance of a Shakespeare play planned for the event, not even one scene, a fact which garnered much criticism. Referring to the event afterwards as ‘my folly’, Garrick was forced to admit that, although this was an intended omission with the idea that people would discover the bard ‘all around them’ instead of through his plays, this was a glaring error and – coupled with the complete washout of the event – it marked a low point in his career. He also lost a large sum of his own money in staging the event. However, as we shall see in a later blog, all was not yet lost. The redoubtable Garrick had one more trick up his sleeve with which he hoped to salvage both his reputation and the Jubilee celebrations.
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 14th September 1769
Boswell’s Jubilee: against the backdrop of the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, James Boswell’s willpower is tested. Andrew McConnell Stott, 2016 (Lapham’s Quarterly)
‘The borough of Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespearean festivals and theatres’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, ed. Philip Styles (London, 1945), pp. 244-247. British History Online
The actor and theatre manager David Garrick as Shakespeare’s Richard III by William Hogarth, c.1745. Walker Art Gallery.
We’re massively excited to reveal the cover for our next book A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs which is due to be published later this year, again by Pen & Sword Books. It is now available to pre-order via Pen & Swords Books or Amazon and all other bookshops.
Rachel or Charlotte as she preferred to be known, really has tested our detective skills as she spent her life ‘under the radar’ despite everything she actually achieved in life and remained something of an enigma.
This book really has been a long time in the writing, as every time we thought we had found out all there was to know about her, Charlotte threw us another snippet, as if from nowhere, and off we disappeared again down yet another rabbit hole.
We thought we would share with you a little about how we came across Charlotte and what a complete nightmare and joy she has proved to be. We have gone through so many emotions we can’t begin to describe whilst piecing together her life.
Whilst researching Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s life (for our first book, An Infamous Mistress) we came across Charlotte’s name in connection with the home of one of Grace’s relatives. Our first thought was that it was a vaguely interesting snippet of information and perhaps worth, at the very most, a paragraph in Grace’s book, but absolutely nothing more than that.
We then came across Charlotte’s ‘Testament’, her version of events that took place during her teenage years. At this point we knew her full life story needed to be told – she would either be immensely proud or absolutely furious that we haven’t left her to rest in peace (probably the former, if we’re honest).
At first, we couldn’t decide whether her Testament was a work of fiction or a factual account of shocking events that took place during her teenage years. We debated for months about her, swaying from completely believing her account, to thinking it was mere fiction as it read so much like a tragic Samuel Richardson novel.
I (Sarah) was less convinced than Jo that she was telling the truth, but the more we uncovered the more persuaded I became that the majority of it was true, too many of the facts checked out for it to be fiction.
So, with that one part of her life pieced together, in our usual detective fashion we simply had to find out more, where did she come from and what happened to her after this shocking ordeal? So off we went, desperate to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw.
What we discovered about her was far from anything we could ever have imagined. After a horrendous ordeal, she completely reinvented herself.
We came across Professor Linda Colley’s book ‘Britons: Forging The Nation 1707-1837’ in which our heroine gets a mention. Colley describes her as:
‘an obscure, middle-class widow from the Welsh border’
From the Welsh borders – almost true. Obscure – well perhaps, she shunned the limelight, not that limelight was easy to achieve at that time for a woman. Middle class – probably. A widow – well, that’s another mystery which we’ll reveal in our book!
Rather than tell you more about the story itself we have included rather a lot of what appear to be random images, for which we offer no explanation, apart from to say that if you read the book they will make sense to you.
Charlotte was in fact, the instigator of our ‘All Things Georgian‘ blog as we needed to find somewhere to store pieces of information we had found about her, so we have been writing about events in Charlotte’s life in a variety of blogs for quite some time now as we’ve pieced together her life, these include: