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

St George's, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787

Reverend William Dodd – ‘The Macaroni Parson’

One of our books, ‘A Georgian Heroine‘ has taken us on many circuitous journeys and along the way we have come across some fascinating characters including a link to Freemasonry in the 1780s. One of our main characters, Richard Heaviside, was closely involved in Freemasonry in London and belonged to the same Lodges as this gentleman – The Reverend William Dodd (1729 – 1777).  Brother Dodd was initiated into the St Alban’s Lodge No. 29 in 1775.

Dodd led an extravagant life spending far more than he was earning and as such gained the nickname ‘The Macaroni Parson’ due to his extravagant taste in clothes. Born in Bourne, Lincolnshire he attended Cambridge, after which he moved to London and married the daughter of a domestic servant which left him in a precarious financial position.  He was a well-respected man and known for his charitable work,  Among other things he instituted an unmarried mothers home ( The Magdalen ) for ‘reclaiming young women who had swerved from the path of virtue’; The Humane Society ( for the recovery of persons apparently drowned )  and the Society for the Relief of Poor Debtors.

William Dodd by John Russell, 1769. © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Dodd by John Russell, 1769. © National Portrait Gallery, London

There was, however, another, more sinister side to his character and in 1774 he decided it was time to improve his financial situation and attempted to gain the lucrative position of rector of St Georges, Hanover Square. In order to attempt to secure this post, he tried to bribe the wife of the Lord Chancellor, Lady Apsley, by offering her £3,000. The letter offering this bribe was traced back to him and he was dismissed from his existing post. He then decided that life wasn’t so good in England so disappeared to Geneva and France until the dust settled. He finally decided it was safe to return two years later.

In February of 1777, Dodd forged a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, The Earl of Chesterfield to help clear his debts. The bond was accepted in good faith by the bankers who lent him money on the strength of it. It was only later that the banker realized it was a forgery. Dodd confessed immediately and pleaded for time to rectify this.  This was to no avail – off to prison he went. He was later tried and sentenced to death, despite Samuel Johnson writing papers defending him and a petition signed by 23,000 people.

He was publicly hanged at Tyburn on 27th June 1777. The story, however, didn’t end there.

Dr Dodd and Joseph Harris at the place of execution. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Dr Dodd and Joseph Harris at the place of execution. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

As was usual practice for the time, those who could afford it would pay for the executioner to steady the body from swaying while suspended from the gibbet – and to cut the body down pretty quickly.  Then the body would be placed in a coach and rushed to an undertaker nearby.  There a surgeon and a hot bath would be waiting in an attempt to revive the body.  It didn’t always work, but it was better than nothing.

The executioner kept his part of the bargain and Dodd hoped to be resurrected by Dr John Hunter.  Hunter knew that death by hanging prisoners died a slow death from asphyxiation rather than a broken neck and he believed that if the body arrived with him soon after the hanging that he could revive the prisoner. Ironically, Dodd’s was so popular, and the crowd so incensed at his death, that they mobbed the coach, with his body still in it and held it up for two hours, making any attempt at resuscitation impossible.

Dodd was apparently taken for burial at Cowley, Middlesex. Having checked the parish records there is no entry recording his burial.  Rumours continued for several years that Hunter had in fact succeeded in bringing him back to life. Claims were made by people that they had actually met Dodd well after his supposed death – in France and in Scotland. Did he come back from the dead? Who knows, we can but speculate.

Even more ironic, is the fact that Dodd had written a sermon a few years previously titled “The frequency of Capital Punishment inconsistent with Justice, sound policy and religion”, in which he attacked the haphazard application of the death penalty.

The writer Wendy Moore has written a book that tells the whole story, The Knife Man.