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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Major

Mary Ramsay, a female imposter

Updated: 3 days ago

In All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century, I recounted the adventures of Sarah Wilson, aka Lady Wilbrahammon… amongst other aliases! Sarah was a convincing impostress and her life is one of those times when facts are 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 dates to April 1738, but was widely reported in 1764 just before Sarah’s antics.

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In a ditch, between St Albans and Colney Heath in Hertfordshire, lay a poor starving girl, half-naked. Two bakers travelling along the road discovered and rescued her. They took her to an alehouse near the turnpike where the local surgeon and apothecary, Mr Humphries, was sent for. Under his care, the girl recovered.

St Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire by Abraham Pether

Manchester Art Gallery

Once able to, the girl told her story. She was Mary Ramsay, nineteen years of age, from Hull in East Yorkshire and the younger of two daughters of an eminent surgeon and man-midwife. Mary’s father had died, leaving her a fortune of £7,000, and placing her in the guardianship of his brother. The elder daughter lived in London, wife to a wealthy Suffolk gentleman named Mr Cooke. For a start, Mary’s uncle was kind and so she suspected nothing when she was sent to London to board with a woman who kept a school. Mary was told by her uncle that it was so she could learn the manners required for a young lady of fashion. Dressed in a new riding habit and jockey cap, she was placed in a stagecoach and given a letter of introduction addressed to the schoolmistress. However, when the coach stopped at Stamford in Lincolnshire, Mary accidentally dropped the letter. It was found by a fellow passenger, a sea captain whose name Mary couldn’t recall. He 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.

Mary had been effectively sold to a stranger. She made her escape and travelled on foot for a couple of days. In need of money, Mary sold her jockey cap to an old woman and then exchanged her riding habit for a gown plus some coins. It was enough to get her to London to find her sister, except Mary didn’t have her sister’s address. After a fruitless search, she set out once again, penniless, to attempt a return to Hull. Mary managed to trek as far as St Albans where she had been found.

Lady in a Riding Habit (unknown artist)

Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery

She was the very picture of innocence and the people of St Albans rallied around her. They raised a subscription to clothe her and pay for her journey home. In the meantime, Mary lived in the mayor’s house with his family. All was going very well 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 had an acquaintance in Hull and so he wrote to him, to establish the truth of the matter. The reply was unfortunate for Mary. It stated that:

… a surgeon of the name of Ramsay had formerly lived in the neighbourhood of Hull, who was very poor all his lifetime, 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 reply was a particular friend of her uncle and had colluded in the deception. 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 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.

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 fantastical adventures. I suspect the tall tale about Mary Ramsay to be a complete work of fiction as I 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. Sarah’s story is most definitely true, even though not quite as has been reported over the centuries. The amazing adventures of ‘Lady Wilbrahammon,’ can be discovered in, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century.


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

(NB: This is a reworking of an article I originally published on a former website.)


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