The north prospect of London taken from the Bowling Green, Islington.

Who was she? A mysterious stranger in Regency Clerkenwell

A few days ago, I was browsing through an 1819 copy of the Morning Advertiser looking for something completely different when this story caught my eye.

Around early July 1819, a pretty young woman, reckoned to be in her early 20s, turned up at a lodging house in George Court off Aylesbury Street in Clerkenwell. She was, she told the owner, a complete stranger in London, having just arrived from the country, and asked if she could take a room for a few weeks while she attended to some proceedings in Chancery.

The woman’s appearance was decent and, as she was happy to pay the rent on her lodgings in advance, she was accommodated in the house with no further ado.

It didn’t take the other women who lived there long, however, to notice that the lady was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, however well she might have tried to hide it. A nearby apothecary was called in to attend to her and, in the first week of August, this unnamed woman gave birth to a fine and healthy child (if the evidence we have is correct, on 2nd August 1819).

Extract of an 1806 map of Clerkenwell
Extract of an 1806 map of Clerkenwell, showing Aylesbury Street at the bottom, centre left, and the head of the New River and Sadler’s Wells top right. Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The next day, against all advice to the contrary, the new mother got up and dressed herself.

She was remonstrated with on the danger to which she exposed herself, but she made light of it. This and other circumstances drew the attention of the people in the house more particularly towards her…

Four days after the birth of her child, and under close observation from the family and other lodgers, the young woman was seen to leave George Court, carrying a small box under her arm. Two women who were fellow lodgers followed her, one of whom was a Mrs Baker, a printer’s wife. The mysterious young woman and her two spies wended their way some distance across the fields of rural Clerkenwell towards the New River (really a form of canal dating from 1613, created to supply London with fresh drinking water from a series of Hertfordshire springs). When near Sadler’s Wells, where the New River terminated in a reservoir known as the New River Head, it looked as if she was going to throw the box she carried into the water, but then changed her mind and instead veered away over the adjoining fields.

Sadler's Wells from the bridge over the New River.
Sadler’s Wells from the bridge over the New River. © The Trustees of the British Museum

With Mrs Baker and her friend still in hot pursuit, our mystery lady headed across the fields towards Islington and made for a secluded area where she sat down, opened the box, took something out and tied it in her shawl. Then she closed the box, picked up both it and the bundle tied in her shawl, and walked on until she came to a gentleman’s house. There she put both the box and bundle down and was about to walk away when Mrs Baker and her accomplice caught up: they darted forward and grabbed hold of her. Once the box was opened, as they’d suspected, they found the baby, naked and gasping for breath. The infant’s clothes were wrapped in the shawl.

Mrs Baker called for a watchman and ‘the inhuman mother’ (as a newspaper report termed her) was apprehended and marched to the watch house.

View from the New River, Islington in 1816.
View from the New River, Islington in 1816. © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was now that a sensational twist to the tale was revealed, if we believe the reports which surfaced. During a search of the woman, ‘upwards of 1000l. in good Country and Bank of England notes were found in her possession’. To put that into perspective, it’s the equivalent of over £50,000 in today’s money, a small fortune then, as now. Certainly enough for her to have disappeared and set up in a house with her child, rather than abandon the babe at the doorway of a gentleman’s house.

Taken overnight to the workhouse, before she could be hauled before the Hatton Garden magistrates the woman fell into a fever. A reluctant inmate, she slowly recovered but stubbornly refused to answer any questions about her identity.

Clerkenwell workhouse
Clerkenwell workhouse (via Wikimedia)

This snippet of factual evidence sounds like a great start to a work of historical fiction. We already have many different theories buzzing around our heads as to how the young woman had found herself in this position.

We’ve searched for more information on her, hoping to find out her name. That still, unfortunately, eludes us, but we did find one more newspaper report. The lady’s husband turned up to claim her! We’ll relate the report from the newspapers but, attempting to read between the lines, we are still left wondering as to the truth of the matter. Incidentally, no further mention was made of the huge sum of money that she was supposedly carrying: was this myth or just a further strand of the whole mystery? She had, remember, paid for her rent at George Court in advance. Money worries don’t seem to have been an issue for her.

The north prospect of London taken from the Bowling Green, Islington.
The north prospect of London taken from the Bowling Green, Islington. The head of the New River can be seen centre left, with Sadler’s Wells next to it. Beyond lies Clerkenwell and the hubbub of the City of London. Folger Shakespeare Library

The couple were from Yorkshire, and the husband was of ‘respectable appearance’ and seemed dutifully affected by his wife’s distress. He claimed that she was suffering from the ‘consequence of a severe hurt she had formerly received in her head, was at times deranged, and he could no otherwise account for her leaving a comfortable home, and acting in the extraordinary manner she had done, than by supposing she was under the influence of the disorder to which she was subject’.

The magistrate agreed to bail the woman as long as her husband entered into a recognizance for £50 and found two other householders who would each join him in promising £25 each, to secure her future appearance at the court. The Yorkshire husband pleaded against this: could he not provide the full £100 himself, for he didn’t know anybody in London who would be prepared to stand as the additional surety? He went further, urging as a reason:

the deplorable state of his family, one child having died since his wife left her home, and two lying at present in a state of imminent danger.

The magistrate commiserated with the man, but rules were rules. If he couldn’t meet the required bail conditions, then his wife must remain in custody.

And there, sadly, we must also leave her until such time as further information comes to light. In the meantime, we reckon there’s a novel in this story for anyone disposed to write it and rescue our mystery woman. Which way would you take it: was she fleeing from her husband or was his story of woe true? How did she come by the injury to her head in that case? Why did she want to give up her child? And, all that money! Where did that come from?

Sources:

Morning Advertiser, 12 August 1819

The Morning Chronicle, 18 August 1819

Richard Wroughton (1749-1822): Actor

In a previous blog post ‘Miss Jenny Davis as a bride’ we briefly mentioned Richard Wroughton, so thought we would take a closer look at him to see if we could find out anything more about his life.

Richard Wroughton as Barnwell. courtesy of V&A Museum
Richard Wroughton as Barnwell. courtesy of V&A Museum

Little is known of Richard’s early life. He was born in Bath, Somerset the son of Charles Rotton, or Rotten as recorded in the baptism register of St James’s church, Bath, 22nd October 1749. A small entry for a man who was to become one of the leading players of the London theatre circuit.  Quite why he changed his name we can only speculate, perhaps Wroughton appeared more suitable for the theatre than Rotten!

It is reputed that whilst Richard was ill he fell in love with his nurse, Joanna Townley, and later married her. We know he was under 21 as the parish registers of 1769 tell us that his father needed to give his consent. There was no such entry for his bride to be, however, implying that she was older than him.

Richard Wroughton as Essex in "The Earl of Essex". Courtesy of University of Illinois
Richard Wroughton as Essex in “The Earl of Essex”. Courtesy of University of Illinois

Richard and Joanna left the confines of Bath so that Richard could pursue his passion for the theatre, and so they set off for the glamorous life in London. Reading about him, Richard was clearly never short of work taking on a wide variety of predominantly Shakespearian roles at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane from the late 1760s until his retirement from the stage in 1798. He also performed in Liverpool and was the manager of Sadler’s Wells.

Ipswich Journal 22 July 1786
Ipswich Journal 22 July 1786

However, his ‘exit stage left’ was a little premature as he returned to acting a year or so later and remained an actor until 1815 when he finally retired, exhausted.

We tracked down his will, in which he left everything to his ‘beloved wife Elizabeth’ – who? He had remarried, so we began to search for the death of his nurse, later to be his wife, Joanna and found a curious burial entry in the parish register of Speenhamland, Berkshire for the 14th November 1810, the burial of a Joanna Wroughton, her residence given as Bath, Somerset. Her age at the time of her death was given as 71, making her birth 1739. Was this Richard’s wife? It would certainly appear to have been, so she was a good ten years his senior.

A theatrical candidate for manager of Drury Lane including Wroughton
A theatrical candidate for manager of Drury Lane including Wroughton

This entry makes sense when you check the newspapers for February 1811. A mere three months later Richard married for a second time, his new bride being Miss Elizabeth Thomas, daughter of Reverend Dr Thomas. He didn’t exactly waste any time finding a replacement which when you read Michael Kelly’s description of him, doesn’t exactly make him a great ‘catch’ –

a sterling person, sound and sensible. His person was bad, he was knock-kneed, his face was round and inexpressive, and his voice was not good. He had, however, an easy and embarrassed carriage and deportment, was never offensive’.

Richard was clearly a popular man as he was named as a beneficiary in several wills we have come across, most notable being that of the renowned actor Robert Baddeley.

Richard was buried 22nd February 1822 at St George, Bloomsbury, Camden.

Featured Image

Richard Wroughton, by Robert Laurie, published by William Richardson, after Robert Dighton mezzotint, published 10 July 1779. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery