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?


Morning Advertiser, 12 August 1819

The Morning Chronicle, 18 August 1819

The Workhouse of St Giles’s Cripplegate


Following on from our articles about the work of a servant, should you not have secured paid employment or found yourself in dire straits then in all likelihood you could have found yourself in the workhouse. The article gives a taste of what it would have been like to find yourself in the workhouse either as an inmate or running it and is taken from ‘An Account of Several Workhouses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor and the Rules by which they are Governed’.

The drunkard's progress
From the pawnbroker’s to the gin-shop from thence to the workhouse to the Gaol & ultimately to the scaffold (Lewis Walpole Library)

This house is a commodious new brick building, on a piece of ground in Bunhill Field, leased of the City for 6l a year, at the rate is 20 shillings per annum ground rent: The charge of the building, was raised by subscription; and the house was opened at the close of the year 1724 with about 30 men, women and children who are employed in picking of oakum.

The government of it is in the hands of two churchwardens, four overseers of the poor, twelves Trustees and these gentlemen have appointed a Master and Mistress to live in the house and take care of managing the stock of provisions and materials laid in for feeding and employing the poor in the most frugal manner according to the following rules:

That the Master keep a just account of all provisions received into the house, and what is each day expended, and how many persons provided for.

That he keep an account of all work received, what is delivered to each person each day and what is received back in order to know their earnings and to give an account to the trustees for the time being, or to whom they hall appoint to inspect the accounts, that they know the disbursements of the house, and also the earnings.

That the Master and Mistress take care that the poor be kept at work from Lady-Day to Michaelmas, from 6 in the morning to 7 in the evening; and from Michaelmas to Lady-Day from 7 to 5; and that they rise by 5 and go to bed by 9, the Summer half year, and the Winter half year by 6 and go to bed by 8.

That they take care that the provisions be cleanly and well done, and that all persons have their allowance at these hours, viz, breakfast at 9 and half an hour’s time to eat the same; Dinner at 1 and an hour’s time allowed them; their supper in the summer half year at 7 and in the Winter at 6; and the persons that have not done their day’s work by supper, that they work after to finish the same.

That the Master sees all the men and boys candles are out each night and the Mistress the same for women and girls.

That the Mistress takes care of washing an keeping clean the boys and girls, and that their heads be combed every day and that they teach them or cause them to be taught to read and that every child has an hour’s time allowed to learn to spin or knit or do some other business to keep them from idleness.

That I any poor person refuses to work, being able, or misbehave themselves by fighting or making a disturbance that he or she be kept at half allowance, or upon bread and water; and at the expiration of two or three days that he or she be complained of to some magistrate in order to be sent to the house of correction.

That neither the Master nor Mistress buy, sell or suffer any distilled liquors to come into the house nor any of the poor to smoke tobacco n their lodgings or the work house. And when any of them are sick or lame, that the Master and Mistress give notice to the present officer that they may have care taken of them.

That on Wednesdays and Fridays after breakfast, the master cause the proper psalms for the day, a chapter in the Old and New Testament to be read: And that every Sunday at 9 in the forenoon, the same be read; and such as are able to go to church or other place of worship, that they go, so they return in time: And in case any of them go to any house or are found loitering their time away in the fields, or begging, that the officer have the offender sent to Bridewell.

That the Master and Mistress be under all such restrictions as shall be thought necessary to be made by the Trustees, or the major part of them for the time being, relating to the poor and workhouse. And the Master and Mistress be subject, if required by the said officers, to make an affidavit before a Justice of the Peace, that there hath been no waste or embezzlement made by them, nor by any person or persons with their knowledge or consent, of any of the stores or provisions committed to their charge. And in case the Master or Mistress shall not be thought capable of the trust, that then it shall be in the power of the said officers and Trustees, or the major part of them, upon notice given to each officer and Trustee to meet at a time appointed, signifying to each person the occasion of meeting to remove the said Master and Mistress, either by giving a month’s warning to go out, or otherwise to discharge them immediately and give them a month’s salary.

Typical Meals for the week

Breakfast                             Dinner                                  Supper

Sunday                         Bread & beer                     Beef & broth                      Bread & butter or cheese

Monday                       Beef broth                          Pease pudding                  Ditto

Tuesday                       Bread & butter                  Rice milk                            Ditto

Wednesday               Ditto                                      Plumb dumplings           Ditto

Thursday                    Ditto                                      Beef & broth                      Ditto

Friday                            Beef broth                          Barley broth                       Ditto

Saturday                      Bread & butter                  Milk porridge                     Ditto

In summer peas, beans, greens and roots are allowed as the season affords them

Here are a couple of examples as to why someone would have found themselves placed in a workhouse, neither make pleasant reading, sadly.

On Tuesday night a woman was apprehended in Lawrence-lane, Tottenham-court road, for the murder of her bastard child: she was delivered early in the morning in her own apartment, and, it is said, dashed out the infant’s brains against the chimney-piece. She is secured in St Giles’s workhouse, till she can be safely committed to prison.

London Chronicle, 2-4 May 1758


Last Week, as the Watch was going off, they found a Woman asleep in Moorfields, known by the name of Black Hannah; she was stark naked, except a pair of mens shoes and stockings, and a rag like the neck of a shift, which reach’d no further than her armpits; in this pretty pickle she was carry’d by four Watchmen to Woodstreet Compter, where putting her in posteriours foremost, they were like to have frighted the Turnkey into fits. She remain’d there till about one a-Clock in the afternoon of the same day, when assisted by the Constable and his Guard, she made her publick progress thro’ part of the city to a Magistrate in the same Accoutrements, that she came into the Compter, and by his order was conducted to the Workhouse. N.B. She had left her cloaths behind her at the command of my Lady Gin, so that she verify’d the common proverb, that Gin is Strip and go Naked.

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 4 December 1725

Featured Image

Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Chauncey Brewster Tinker