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

Bude Haven by Joseph Stannard.

The Ringers of Launcells Tower

The Ringers of Launcells Tower; Frederick Smallfield. This painting was inspired by a poem called 'The Ringers of Launcells Tower' by Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow. The bell ringers who had rung the bells at the accession of George III in 1760, were still alive and able to ring the bells on his Golden Jubilee in 1810. The church of Launcells is midway between Stratton and Bude. As the painting was done 77 years after George III's Golden Jubilee, it is a reconstruction.
The Ringers of Launcells Tower; Frederick Smallfield; Royal Institution of Cornwall

We came across this piece of art whilst researching the heroine of our latest book, Mrs Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs. The painting was inspired by a poem called ‘The Ringers of Launcells Tower’ that was written, some decades after the event, by Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow and which we thought we would share with you.

Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow in 1864, who wrote a poem called ‘The Ringers of Launcells Tower’.

The Ringers of Launcells

They rang at the Accession of George the Third and lived to ring again at the fiftieth anniversary of his reign.

They meet once more! That ancient band –

With furrowed cheek and failing hand, –

One peal today they fain must ring

The Jubilee of England’s King!

*************

They meet once more – but changed are now

The sinewy arm and laughing brow:

The strength that hail’d in former times

King George the third with lusty chimes!

*************

Yet proudly gaze on that lone tower!

No goodlier sight hath hall or bower, –

Meekly they strive – and closing day

Gilds with soft light their locks of gray!

*************

Hark! Proudly hark! With that true tone

They welcomed Him to Land and Throne,

So ere they die they fain would ring

The Jubilee of England’s King!

*************

Hearts of old Cornwall! Fare ye well,

Fast fade such scenes from field and dell,

How wilt thou lack, my own dear land,

Those trusty arms, that faithful band!

*************

Launcells is a rural hamlet between Stratton and Bude in Cornwall where, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, there lived six bell ringers. The six men are identified as John Lyle (1736-1832), Richard Hayman (1739-1816), John Ham (1742-1825), Richard Venning (1744-?), Henry Cade and John Allen.

Stratton by Charles Henry Branscombe
Stratton by Charles Henry Branscombe; Bude-Stratton Town Council

John Lyle was the longest living member of the group and was born and bred in Launcells and remained there his entire life. He was reputed to have rung a merry peal for King George III’s coronation in 1760, then again for his golden Jubilee in 1810, then for the coronation of King George IV in 1821 and, as unlikely as it seems, also for the coronation of King William IV in 1831, just one year before he died at the ripe old age of 96. That was quite some achievement. Two others also lived long enough to join John Lyle in ringing the peals for George IV’s coronation, Richard Hayman and John Ham.

George III in his coronation robes, by Allan Ramsay.
George III in his coronation robes, by Allan Ramsay.

The only other member we managed to find out anything about was John Ham who began his working life as an apprentice cooper to the Lyle family in 1754 and who married Anna Maria Lisle in 1761 at the parish church in Launcells.

The painting was a reconstruction of the scene as Frederick Smallfield imagined it would have looked, depicting the six bell ringers ringing the bells as part of the celebrations for the golden jubilee of King George III. It was clearly important to Smallfield that he captured everything correctly so he studied bell ringers at his local church as well as visiting the church tower in Launcells.

Bude Haven by Joseph Stannard.
Bude Haven, Cornwall by Joseph Stannard; Newport Museum and Art Gallery

We know that great celebrations were held across the country to celebrate the jubilee of King George III in 1809 as it was our very own heroine who instigated them. References to this painting seem to confirm though that the bell ringing took place in 1810, i.e. at the end of King George III’s 50th year on the throne.

Three eldest princesses by Thomas Gainsborough. Royal Collection Trust

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs – cover reveal

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.

Lambeth Palace and St Mary's Church with St Paul's by William Marlow
Lambeth Palace and St Mary’s Church with St Paul’s by William Marlow; Government Art Collection

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.

Putney Bridge and Village from Fulham, London
Putney Bridge and Village from Fulham, London; Museum of London

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.

Briton Ferry, Glamorgan by Julius Caesar Ibbetson
Briton Ferry, Glamorgan by Julius Caesar Ibbetson; Tate

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.

An Account of the Celebration of George III's Jubilee in 1809

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).

Covent Garden Theatre from Microcosm of London, courtesy of British Library
Covent Garden Theatre from Microcosm of London, courtesy of British Library

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.

Hotwells and Rownham Ferry by William Williams; Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives
Hotwells and Rownham Ferry by William Williams; Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives

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.

House of Commons from Microcosm of London. Courtesy of the British Library
House of Commons from Microcosm of London. Courtesy of the British Library

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.

The Conciergerie, Paris, by Henry Edridge,. Courtesy of The Yale Center for British Art
The Conciergerie, Paris, by Henry Edridge,. Courtesy of The Yale Center for British Art

What we discovered about her was far from anything we could ever have imagined. After a horrendous ordeal, she completely reinvented herself.

The York to London Coach at Bedale, c.1840; The British Postal Museum
The York to London Coach at Bedale by Anson Ambrose Martin; The British Postal Museum & Archive; c1840 (not quite Georgian)

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.

Louis XVI of France bids his farewell to the people of Paris, 1793. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Louis XVI of France bids his farewell to the people of Paris, 1793. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

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:

Reverend William Dodd

‘Clarissa’ and ‘ Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson

Countess Leonor D’Oeynhausen (1750-1839)

Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838)

Helen Maria Williams

Arabella Williams – Le Petit Matelot

Robert Carpenter, Drury Lane actor

Rehab for 18th-century prostitutes – The Magdalen Hospital

The Dunston Pillar: celebrating the 50 year reign of King George III

Finally, to whet your appetite we’ll leave you with the back of the jacket.

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden

Header image: The three eldest princesses by Thomas Gainsborough. Royal Collection Trust.

A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1763, Getty Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Women’s Journals During the French Revolution

When you think of prisoners during the Revolution you are inclined to think of possibly the two most famous women who were arrested and sentenced to death – Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Marat, but there were many other women who wrote journals about their lives during the French Revolution, some written from prison, others were purely about how their lives changed during this period.

In 1803 Napoleon sent out an edict to detain every British citizen living in France at that time; all British persons were to be arrested, imprisoned and interrogated, with some also being sentenced to death.

We know, however, that many lesser-known women were also detained, and from her letters and journal, we have found out that our own ‘A Georgian Heroine‘, Rachel Charlotte William Biggs, spent from the early 1790s to the mid-1820s travelling between England and France, with part of her life being spent in a variety of French prisons.

Her story, true but amazing, is one that has to be read to be believed; it includes her formative years during which time she was abducted and rape – not once but twice; her life as some sort of British spy and a complete reinvention of herself into an unknown political advisor for the British government, advising them on important matters of the day. Arguably, one of her most important and possibly her proudest achievement being that, in her later years, she almost single-handedly organised the golden jubilee celebrations for King George III.

We also know that Helen Maria Williams, whom we have written about before, spent time in The Luxembourg prison, Paris, from where she continued to work on translations.

Apart from Le Bastille, the main prison used to house British detainees was La Conciergerie, a former royal palace in Paris; between 2nd April 1793 and 31st May 1795 over 2,500 prisoners were sent to the guillotine from La Conciergerie.

Marie Antoinette's cell in the Conciergerie.
Marie Antoinette’s cell in the Conciergerie.

During this period in history many women, whether in prison or just trying to continue with their day-to-day lives, wrote letters and journals which have survived, giving us an insight into their lives at this time.

For those interested in reading about life during the Revolution there are quite a few online journals that make fascinating reading, such as the one by the Duchesse De Duras.

A well-known Scottish courtesan Grace Elliott nee Dalrymple was also purported to have been held as a prisoner during the Revolution, however, the jury has always remained out as to whether or not this was, in fact, true, and just how much truth is in her Journal of my Life during the French Revolution? We reveal the true facts about Grace, her life, loves and arguably, more importantly, her family, who shaped her life, in our book about Grace, ‘An Infamous Mistress’

Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Another interesting journal was written by Henriette-Lucie Dillon born 25th February 1770 at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. She was the daughter of General Arthur Dillon, who married his second cousin Therese-Lucy de Rothe – Journal of a Woman of Fifty Years. We stumbled across this journal we researching our ‘Georgian Heroine’, who was a friend of one of Arthur Dillon’s relatives.

The Great French Revolution is narrated in the letters of Madame J which were edited by her grandson Edouard Lockroy. Madame J had never anticipated her letter being published as they were not written for the public to read, but none the less they give a fascinating account of her life.

All of these journals give the reader a real insight into life in France before, during and after the French Revolution and we feel they are definitely worth a read!

Armed with snippets of information from these journals we set about trying to research French records in the hope of finding the people we were interested in listed in at least one of the prisons we had read about where many of the English women were held during the revolution.

During our research, we have come across a wonderfully helpful website set up by Anne Morddel which gives links to the various French Departments.

Anne very kindly sent us a list of women that were listed as foreign British prisoners in Napoleonic France. Sadly, our lady was not on the list, but many others were. If you think that one of your relatives might have been on the list it is worth emailing Anne to obtain a copy.