'Market Cross' and Conduit at St Alban's, I. Schneibbilie, 1787.

Mary Ramsay: female impostor

In our latest book, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century, we recount the adventures of Sarah Wilson, aka Lady Wilbrahammon… amongst other aliases! Sarah was a very convincing impostress and her life is one of those cases when fact proves to be far stranger than fiction. But, although rare, Sarah was certainly not unique. She was perhaps inspired to commit her grand fraud after reading of a girl named Mary Ramsay in the broadsheets. Mary’s story dated to April 1738, but it was widely reported in 1764 just before Sarah’s own antics.

*      *      *

In a ditch, between St Albans and Colney Heath in Hertfordshire, lay a poor starving girl, half-naked and too weak to move. Two bakers were travelling along the road, and they heard the girl’s groans and rescued her, taking her to an alehouse near the turnpike. The surgeon and apothecary, Mr Humphries, was sent for and under his care, the girl recovered.

St Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire by Abraham Pether
St Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire by Abraham Pether; Manchester Art Gallery

Then the girl told her story. She was Mary Ramsay, nineteen years of age and from Hull in East Yorkshire. Her father had been an eminent surgeon and man-midwife who, when he died, had left Mary, his younger daughter, a fortune of £7,000 and trusted her to the care of his brother (there was an elder daughter living in London who was married to a wealthy Suffolk gentleman named Mr Cooke). Mary’s uncle was kindness itself to his young charge and so Mary suspected nothing when he sent her to London to board with a gentlewoman who kept a school in order that she could learn the manners required for a young lady of fashion. Dressed in a new riding habit and jockey cap, Mary was placed in a stagecoach and given a letter of introduction addressed to the schoolmistress. At the coaching inn at Stamford in Lincolnshire, where Mary had stopped to dine, she accidentally dropped the letter; it was found by a fellow passenger, a sea captain whose name Mary had forgotten. Upon hearing Mary’s story, the sea captain persuaded her to open it. The note – signed by her uncle – was brief and to the point.

Sir,

The person who brings you this is the young woman I told you of. I acknowledge receipt of half the money agreed on, and expect the remainder as soon as convenient.

Lady in a riding habit (unknown artist)
Lady in a Riding Habit; Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery (unknown artist)

Mary had been effectively sold, to a man she did not know. With no-one looking she made her escape, slipped away and travelled on foot for a couple of days. In need of funds, she sold her jockey cap to an old woman and then exchanged her riding habit for a gown and some money, enough to get her to London to find her sister. It proved a fruitless search and so she set out once again, penniless now, resolving to return to Hull. Mary managed to trek as far as St Albans where – in her distressed state – she had been found.

She was the very picture of innocence and the good townsfolk of St Albans rallied around Mary, raising a subscription to clothe her and pay for her journey back to Hull. In the meantime, she lived in the mayor’s house with his family. All was going very well for young Mary until one voice of dissent was heard. A man recently returned from London cast doubt on her story, to the fury of the mayor and the inhabitants of St Albans. This man remembered that he had an acquaintance in Hull and so he wrote to him, to establish the truth of the matter. The reply was unfortunate for Mary. The acquaintance in Hull stated that:

… a surgeon of the name of Ramsay had formerly lived in the neighbourhood of Hull, who was very poor all his life-time, and who was confined for debt in the castle of Lincoln, and died there about ten years before; that he had two daughters, abandoned wretches and common prostitutes, who strolled about the country under various and fallacious pretences; that upon the strictest enquiry, he could not find that Ramsay had a brother; and that if the people of St Albans would pass her to Hull, [Mary] would there meet with her dessert.

Mary protested; the man who had written the letter was a particular friend of her uncle and had colluded in the deception practised upon her. The mayor – not knowing who to believe – directed two letters to gentlemen in Hull, asking for clarification. The answers came back, confirming that Mary was lying. The mayor wasted no time and Mary found herself in the Bridewell where she confessed all. She was a dupe, an impostor, and she was whipped at the cross as a vagrant on the next market day before being packed off back to Hull.

'Market Cross' and Conduit at St Alban's, I. Schneibbilie, 1787.
‘Market Cross’ and Conduit at St Alban’s, I. Schneibbilie, 1787. British Library

That Mary received her comeuppance didn’t deter Sarah Wilson who, just two years after this tale had been published, embarked on her own fantastical adventures. In fact, we suspect the tall-tale about Mary Ramsay to be a complete work of fiction as we can find no proof to substantiate any of it, but that probably doesn’t matter. It was reported as fact and the tale took on a life of its own in the imagination of Sarah Wilson, alias Lady Wilbrahammon, whose story is most definitely true, even though it is not quite as has been reported over the centuries. But, to discover the amazing adventures of ‘Lady Wilbrahammon’, you’ll have to read our book, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century.

Source:

The Beauties of all the Magazines, selected for the year 1764, vol. iii

We fly by night on ‘the wings of love’… to Hull

Around midnight, or just shortly thereafter, Miss Mary Burton crept out of her father’s house at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, into the waiting arms of her lover, William Fields, a draper from Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

William must have had a carriage waiting for his lady, but the Stamford Mercury newspaper described their escape much more poetically.

WE FLY BY NIGHT… on “the wings of love”

It is possibly a slight disappointment, after knowing that they flew through the midnight hours on the wings of love, to find that their destination was not more glamorous than William’s home town, Hull. Mary’s father, Mr Burton, a miller and baker (Mary was his only daughter), certainly knew where his errant daughter had gone to and, as soon as he discovered that she was missing, he set off for Hull in hot pursuit.

View of the South End, Hull (The Citadel, Hull) by William Barton, 1809; Ferens Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/view-of-the-south-end-hull-the-citadel-hull-78337
View of the South End, Hull (The Citadel, Hull) by William Barton, 1809; Ferens Art Gallery

But he was too late, the couple had already exchanged their vows to one another at the altar of Holy Trinity church and had married, by licence, on the same day that they had entered Hull, the 25th November 1812 in front of two witnesses, William Sotheran and Esther Fox.

Holy Trinity, Hull c.1735, History of Hull (Annales Regioduni Hullini) [1735] , 1869 reprint.
Holy Trinity, Hull c.1735, History of Hull (Annales Regioduni Hullini) [1735] , 1869 reprint. Via Wikimedia.
Mary, it would appear, was just over 21 years of age; there is a baptism at All Saints in Gainsborough for Mary, daughter of William and Ann Burton (William’s trade is given as a baker) on the 29th October 1791.

Bachelor's Fare, 1814. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
Bachelor’s Fare, 1814.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

William Fields was likely the same man who traded with a partner, George Benjamin Everington as Everington and Fields, linen drapers of Kingston-upon-Hull. Their partnership was dissolved shortly after William’s hasty marriage, on the 18th December 1812, with William alone carrying on the business and promising to pay all debts owing. He traded from no. 9, Whitefriargate. It is also likely that it was the same William Fields who, in February 1814, announced that he had taken the grocery shop formerly occupied by a Mr Smith at no. 3 North Bridge, Witham, where tea, coffee, spices and sugars could be purchased and if so, he was declared bankrupt before the end of 1815. Perhaps his irate father-in-law was right in his initial judgment of his son-in-law?

The well-known linen drapers Harding, Howell & Co. William Field's establishment would have been much smaller.
The well-known linen drapers Harding, Howell & Co. William Field’s establishment would have been much smaller.

William and Mary Fields baptised a son, named William Burton Fields, in Hull on the 11th January 1814. He was to die young, aged only 11 years, and was buried in the churchyard at All Saints in Gainsborough on the 29th December 1825. We have so far been unable to trace the Fields further but, as William Burton Fields was living back in Gainsborough with his grandfather, we suspect that Mary had either sadly died or that she had returned, with her son, to her father’s home.

At Gainsboro, on Tuesday the 27th ult, aged 11, Henry Burton Fields, grandson to Mr Burton, baker.

(Stamford Mercury, 6 January 1826)

 

Sources:

Stamford Mercury, 4th December 1812

Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 5th December 1812 and 2nd January 1813

Hull Packet, 17th August 1813, 1st February 1814 and 5th December 1815

The Staymaker c.1745; William Hogarth; The Tate

Frith Street, Soho: Mozart’s London Tour

One Wolfgang Mozart, a German Boy, of about eight Years old, is arrived here, who can play upon various sorts of Instruments of Music, in Concert, or Solo, and can compose Music surprisingly; so that he may be reckoned a Wonder at his Age.

The Mozart family made a grand journey around Europe during the 1760s and early 1770s which became a concert tour in which Wolfgang and his elder sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) performed under the supervision of their father.

Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing in Paris with his father Léopold and his sister Maria Anna by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, 1763, Musée Condé.
Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing in Paris with his father Léopold and his sister Maria Anna by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, 1763, Musée Condé.

After visiting various German towns, Brussels and then Paris, the Mozarts arrived in London in April 1764. It was something of an impromptu addition to the schedule: the family had not planned on performing in the British capital but after calls to do so after their performances in Paris, they hastily crossed the Channel.

An advertisement for these concerts announced that “the girl, in her twelfth year, and the boy, in his seventh will not only play on the harpsichord or the fortepiano, the former playing the most difficult pieces by the greatest masters, but the boy will also play a concerto on the violin, accompany symphonies on the keyboard and play with the keyboard completely covered by a cloth as well as though he could see the keyboard; he will also name, most accurately, from a distance, any note that may be sounded for him, singly or in chords on the keyboard, or on any conceivable instrument, including bells, glasses or clocks. Finally, he will improvise out of his head, not only on the fortepiano but also on the organ (for as long as anyone wants to listen, and in all the keys, even the most difficult, that he may be asked).”

Leopold wrote that he was ‘in a city that no-one from our Salzburg court has yet dared visit and to which perhaps no-one ever will go in the future’. He had high hopes of making a fortune while in the city but it did not go as planned. The London season was all but over and the nobility were retreating from the capital to their country estates, but Wolfgang appeared before the king and queen and made his debut in the concert rooms at Spring Gardens. Wolfgang and Nannerl then played at Ranelagh and Vauxhall: Leopold was awestruck at the sheer size of London and the multitude of people living in the city. One thing that did not impress Wolfgang’s father was, however, the English weather: Leopold fell ill with a ‘kind of native complaint, which is called a cold’. By the beginning of August, the Mozart family were lodging at a house in Ebury Row, Chelsea so that Leopold could recover in the country.

Childhood of Mozart; Ebenezer Crawford; Jersey Heritage
Childhood of Mozart; Ebenezer Crawford; Jersey Heritage

The London season began again in November and so, in anticipation of that, the family relocated during September back to London and took rooms in the house of Thomas Williamson and his wife, Jane, in Frith Street, Soho.

Frith Street, at the time, was known as Thrift Street and bounded at one end by Monmouth House, beyond which lay Soho Square, or King Square as it was then known. The Williamsons house, no. 15, was a brick built dwelling, three or four storeys high and dating from the 1720s. (Following the demolition of Monmouth House in 1773, the houses on Frith Street were renumbered: no. 15 is no longer standing, but its site is now occupied by no. 20 which is the back of the Prince Edward Theatre and opposite Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club.)

King Square in Soho, looking towards Monmouth House beyond which, to the right of the building, is Frith Street. © The Trustees of the British Museum
King Square in Soho, looking towards Monmouth House beyond which, to the right of the building, is Frith Street.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Thomas Williamson followed the joint and somewhat incongruous professions of staymaker and wax and spermaceti candle chandler, trading as Williamson & Tonson in the latter capacity by 1777.

The Staymaker c.1745; William Hogarth; The Tate
The Staymaker c.1745; William Hogarth; The Tate

Spermaceti candles – made from a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales – were preferred by those who could afford them as they were odourless: Thomas had royal patronage as two of George III’s younger brothers purchased their candles from him, Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn. A Daniel Williamson in Hull, East Yorkshire appears to have manufactured the candles and sold them from his premises. Possibly he was Thomas’ brother, the two siblings running a joint operation.

Trade receipt of Williamson & Tonson, Wax Chandlers. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Trade receipt of Williamson & Tonson, Wax Chandlers.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The London season normally began when parliament reconvened but that winter, due to tensions between King George III and his government, the opening was delayed until 10th January, a further setback for the finances of the Mozarts, additionally so when their concerts during the rest of their stay were not as well attended as they had hoped they would be. They performed at private houses and their final public concert was on 13th May 1765: thereafter they continued performances for which the public was charged admission at their rooms in Frith Street until June.

Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart; Royal College of Music
Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart; Royal College of Music

The family left London at the end of July and sailed for France on 1st August 1765. Thomas Williamson continued his joint professions from Frith Street until his death in the summer of 1778. By his will, he left his businesses and stock in trade to his wife and to his son, John.

The blue plaque on the site of the house in Frith Street where Mozart lodged.
The blue plaque on the site of the house in Frith Street where Mozart lodged.

The subject of our latest biography, Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs owned two houses on Frith Street in the early 1800s, inherited from her father. They stood about where Ronnie Scott’s is, so opposite the house in which Mozart had lodged. A relation had lived on Frith Street in the 1780s, so it is entirely possible that our Mrs Biggs had heard tales of the child prodigy’s stay in Soho from someone who had personally known the Williamson family.

Sources:

Oxford Journal, 23rd February 1765

Newcastle Chronicle, 14th May 1768

Mozart, Stanley Sadie, Oxford University Press, 2006

National Archives, PROB 11/1041/84

A curious case of child stealing in nineteenth-century London

At the beginning of March 1821 a gentleman naming himself as Mr Probus, a minister of the Episcopal Church, took lodgings at the house of an undertaker, no. 12 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Mr Probus was around 35 years of age, slender with a sallow complexion marked by small-pox scars, dark haired and with, as was realised too late, an ‘insinuating’ manner of address. He applied for a smart and genteel looking boy to wait on and be a companion to a young gentleman at a fine boarding-school (nearly equal to a college, he claimed) in the city of Lincoln. The boy would be brought up in a most respectable manner and given a first-class education, in return for doing little more than fetching fruit and pastries for the young gentlemen from a nearby village. He was inundated with applications.

JMW Turner's birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. © The Trustees of the British Museum
JMW Turner’s birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Mrs Mary Ann Hurrell was the wife of a somewhat impoverished boot and shoemaker who lived at no. 27 Upper Ogle Street, Foley-lace, and at 36 Goodge Street, Marylebone. (Perhaps one address was her home and one her husband’s business premises?) She had two children from a previous marriage, a son named Benjamin Hawthorn aged 13 years and his sister, Georgiana, aged 11. Benjamin, a fine looking lad, had a good singing voice and Georgiana, every bit as charming as her brother, was articled to Mr Warburton, a professor of dancing in Burton Crescent. Mrs Hurrell saw Mr Probus’ advertisement and thought it would be an ideal opportunity for Benjamin. Accordingly, mother and son waited upon the minister on the 3rd March.

(c) National Trust, Wimpole Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
At the shoemakers shop, British School, c.1825. (c) National Trust, Wimpole Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mr Probus was especially taken with Benjamin and put his mother’s apprehensions at rest, saying that his own son was a pupil at the Lincoln academy. A Dr Nutall was to give young Benjamin a character reference but Mr Probus called on the Hurrell’s a few days later to say that he had met with a gentleman who knew Dr Nutall, who had given him every satisfaction concerning Benjamin, and there was no longer any need to call on him. The next day Mrs Hurrell took her son to Mr Probus’ lodgings where the young lad was fitted out with a new suit of clothes provided by Probus, who asked if Benjamin might stay with him that night (he had taken a bed for him at the next house). If any alarm bells were ringing for Mrs Hurrell, she ignored them.

The next day Benjamin told his mother that Mr Probus’ son was not at the Lincoln academy but had in fact died six months earlier, of water on the brain. Mr Probus now proposed to adopt Benjamin as a replacement for his own son and to bring him up as a gentleman, and also confessed that it was he who owned the boarding-school. He then asked if Mrs Hurrell would bring Georgiana to his house as he wished to ‘make her a present of a handsome dress’. The gullible woman duly did as she was bid, despite the ever-changing story, and left her two children alone with Probus. On her return, little Georgiana was so richly attired that her mother hardly recognised her.

Innocence: Head of a Young Girl by William Etty, c.1820; Paintings Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/innocence-head-of-a-young-girl-32746
Innocence: Head of a Young Girl by William Etty, c.1820; Victoria and Albert Museum

Probus now wanted to take both children with him to Lincoln, promising to care for them as if they were his own and to place Georgiana with a friend of his in Lincoln who kept a school. To this the Hurrell’s consented, believing that they were giving the two children a chance to be brought up in a genteel fashion, and the little party left London for Lincoln the next day with promises to write at every opportunity. The first letter Mrs Hurrell received was dated the 17th March but written from York, not Lincoln.

Old Ouse Bridge, York by G. Wilson, c.1820; Fairfax House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-ouse-bridge-york-9734
Old Ouse Bridge, York by G. Wilson, c.1820; Fairfax House

Mr Probus had swiftly abandoned any attempt at maintaining his deception. Signing himself as F[rederick] Williams, he told the wretched mother that her daughter, now renamed Caroline, was dancing on the York stage and that he ‘could sooner part with my life than with [the children]’. Georgiana added a few lines to the letter from her new ‘dear papa’ and said that they were happy. She signed herself Caroline.

Mr Hurrell replied to the letter and asked for the two children to be returned to their home but the only answer was another letter dated the 10th April, briefly saying they were too busy to write more than once a month, were all well but leaving York and asking the Hurrell’s to address any future letters to the Rev. F. Williams at Mr Smith’s, shoemaker, Stonegate, York. On the 3rd May the Hurrell’s received another letter, in the handwriting of Mr Probus aka Williams but signed by ‘Benjamin and Georgiana Frederick Jameson’ (the trio’s new surname) and written from Hull where they were performing and making a great deal of money. Their ‘father’ performed slight-of-hand tricks, Georgiana danced and Benjamin sang, to the admiration of all. They enclosed a paragraph from a Hull newspaper.

There is now performing at the Music Hall, Albion-street, in this town, a Miss Jameson, only nine years of age, a most beautiful and interesting child, In dancing she is, for her age, unrivalled, and her singing is admirable; Mr. Jameson’s slight-of-hand performance gives the greatest satisfaction; and Master Jameson, as a singer, though only 13 years old, is a second Braham. Mr. J. and his interesting young family will perform in Leeds this present Saturday evening, and on Monday and Tuesday next, when they will quit Leeds for Wakefield.

Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 11th May 1821.
Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 11th May 1821.

The Hurrell’s received no further communication and, worried that their children might be carried out of the country, scraped together enough money to allow Mr Hurrell to travel north in search of his stepchildren. He set off on the 1st July, heading first to York where he found that the ‘Reverend Williams’ had made a large sum of money from their exploits upon the stage before absconding the city, leaving behind a quantity of unpaid debts with the local tradesmen. Mr Hurrell tracked them to Leeds, Wakefield, Hull, Lincoln, Boston and Stamford where the ‘Reverend Williams’ had become Munro Ridgway, then to Coventry, Leicester, Doncaster and Birmingham. The imposter frequently changed his name and his supposed character, defrauding shopkeepers as he went. The trail went cold and a heartbroken Mr Hurrell returned to London and his wife. They applied to the Magistrates, who asked that the case might receive some publicity in the hope that the children could be traced, but could offer little else in the way of assistance. Mrs Hurrell, it was recorded, left the office in tears.

Stamford Mercury, 15th June 1821.
Stamford Mercury, 15th June 1821.

But the publicity had the desired effect!  On the 12th August the little troop were recognised in Billesdon, Leicestershire and the imposter was soon safely in custody in Leicester gaol. Mr Hurrell hurried there to a tearful but joyful reunion with his two step-children. Money was found for Georgiana to return to London by coach but Benjamin and his step-father had to walk the distance. But eventually they were all home and reunited. Mr Probus, alias Williams had been convicted under the Vagrant Act and, unless anyone he had defrauded acted to prosecute him, he stood to get clean away with his crime as the Hurrell’s were too poor to afford to prosecute him, much as they wished to do so. With no further mention of the fraudster in the newspapers, it would appear that is exactly what happened.

N.B. Joseph Hurrell married the widowed (and pregnant) Mary Ann Hawthorne on 18th February 1817 at St James’s in Westminster. At least three children were born to the couple, William Flower Hurrell on the 5th June 1817 and Oscar and Maria who both seemed to have died as infants. Benjamin may be the Benjamin Workman Hawthorn who was born c.1809. He grew up to be a piano forte tuner and maker and also a professor of music, relocating to Doncaster where he died in 1869.

Sources:

Stamford Mercury, 17th August 1821

Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, 27th August 1821

 

Header image: ‘The Wellington Coach’ (The Newcastle-York-London Mail) by John Cordrey, c.1818. Ferens Art Gallery.