The Fair Swindler of Blackheath
This is a fascinating story that proves fact is stranger than fiction. Grab a drink, sit back and enjoy!
Elizabeth (Eliza) Frances Robertson was born c.1773 on the outskirts of Huntingdon where her father worked as a porter to an oilman and her mother as a laundress. She received an education somewhere as she gained employment as a teacher in a boarding school. She did so well there, that a lady from Cheshire recommended her to the attention of Miss Charlotte Sharpe who ran a boarding school for young ladies at Croom’s Hill in Greenwich. From 1795, Eliza and Charlotte ran the school together.
Croom’s Hill overlooking Hyde Vale, Blackheath by Thomas Christopher Hofland
English Heritage, Ranger’s House
Short, plain in appearance and badly marked by smallpox, Eliza soon endeared herself to the staff and pupils. She told a melancholy (but fictitious) tale of her childhood. Her father, she said, was dead. He’d upset her grandfather when he married against his wishes and was driven from his home and country, forced to wander as an exile. Mr Robertson ended up in the United States and – claimed Eliza – was given shelter at Mount Vernon by General Washington. There, Eliza’s mother joined him and several children were born. An older brother, Eliza told her rapt audience, had been killed in battle but not before he had married a woman of great fortune and even greater beauty. A sister, Eliza claimed, married a Captain Pigot who, shortly afterwards, died fighting a duel. This misfortune was overcome when the sister attracted the attention, and hand in marriage, of Lord Paget, heir apparent of the Earl of Uxbridge. Eliza was amiable and sensible, very religious, although later described as insinuating in her manner. She spoke in an elevated tone of voice.
As everyone swallowed these lies without murmur, Eliza carried on. She claimed to be an heiress. After the death of an uncle, Alexander Stuart Robertson, she should have inherited Fascally, an estate in Scotland. (It doesn’t exist but she said it was near Perth.) Lord Kenyon, Eliza asserted, said she was entitled to this estate. Then, in 1799, Eliza received news of her mother’s death. She was distraught, bought mourning rings for all her friends (on credit!) and announced that she had come into some money, around £700 a year. When her grandfather died, she told her friends, she would receive more, around £20,000. Determined to enjoy her supposed newfound wealth, Eliza got Charlotte Sharpe to help her contact Mr Creasy of Greenwich, a man of business. He was engaged to help her gain control of her Scottish estate... and possibly also taken into her confidence. Creasy claimed to have commissioned a surveyor's report on Fascally, giving details of the rents and values of the timber. The report also added a gruesome piece of information to the tale. It mentioned a wax model of a dead child… Eliza, weeping at the news, claimed it was the likeness of her sister's child, and a macabre present from Lord Paget. Miss Robertson didn’t do things by halves! I almost suspect she began to believe her lies.
London from Blackheath by Francis Nicholson
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Eliza wanted a fine house and fixed on one in the Paragon, an elegant crescent at Blackheath, which was half-built. In early 1800, she bought it on credit… Mr Creasy had advanced her £2,000 of his own money. This Blackheath villa (it was no. 3 on the crescent) was to be finished in expensive style. Creasy hired bricklayers, carpenters and painters. The drawing-rooms were painted in watercolours by one of the best artists money could buy, the walls in landscape and the ceiling composed of clouds. Floor to ceiling mirrors in richly carved, burnished gold frames hung on the walls; six mirrors came to £1,100. Mr Driver, a nurseryman, planted the shrubberies and landscaped the garden. Meanwhile, Eliza set up three carriages, a coach, a sociable, and a post-chariot, and had a card printed which read, ‘Miss Robertson, of Fascally and Blackheath’ which she distributed around all the best houses in the neighbourhood. Why go small when you can go large?
The Paragon in Blackheath
London Illustrated News, 19 April 1947
Creasy also went to Thomas Haycraft’s ironmongery in Deptford; Mr Haycraft had gone to Bath, leaving his two sons in charge. After being reassured by Mr Creasy, they extended credit to Eliza and supplied items for her new house. In the end, across all the tradesmen, dressmakers and milliners who were approached by Eliza and Mr Creasy, she received credit amounting to an eye-watering £15,000 against her future expectations.
During the building work, Eliza and Charlotte stayed at Croom’s Hill. (Charlotte Sharpe was later described, unkindly, as having large black eyes, with a rather ferocious expression, pallid skin and sharp features.) Towards the end of June, they set off for Brighton, where they ‘figured away with four horses and outriders.’ In August they returned, and Eliza went to Hatchett’s the coachmaker and desired him to make her an elegant chariot, with silver mouldings and raised coronets of silver. A trip to Margate also took place, with Mr Creasy accompanying the ladies. Eliza realised that he might talk to people in Margate and unravel her tales so, near to Shooter’s Hill, she stopped the carriage and told her coachman not to announce Mr Creasy.
On Shooter’s Hill by George Scharf
Next, furniture was supplied by Mr Oakley, an upholsterer who had a warehouse on Bond Street. Eliza told Oakley she had great expectations from rich relations in India and was continually receiving presents of great value. One, she told him, was a chimneypiece then lying at India House, and she added that she was going to build a ballroom in her home. Oakley’s order amounted to almost £4,000, again, all on credit. With the house partly furnished, servants were hired and Eliza and her ever-trusting companion, Miss Sharpe, moved in. They were, perhaps, lovers.
John Cator, Esq., a wealthy Quaker timber merchant and MP who owned the land the villa stood on, had been a mortgagee on the house and became the landlord. Eliza told him she wanted £850 to pay the workmen, and that she did not mean to have a lease, but to purchase the house. He loaned her the money.
Oakley was the first to grow suspicious and when half the order had been completed, asked for £1,000. Eliza was hurt by his lack of trust. She snapped that, if he doubted her, he could write to her sister, Lady Paget, or her cousin, the Bishop of London. If that didn’t satisfy him, he could apply to Sir Richard Hill who had known her from infancy or to the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Law, who could vouch for her. Her boldness won the day, and Oakley proceeded without contacting anyone. But, as suspicions had been raised, Eliza decided to announce the death of her grandfather. She put her entire household into mourning while her creditors looked on with interest.
From the manner in which she was going on, he [Oakley] took it for granted that she was a woman that had so much money that she did not know what to do with it, or that she had none at all.
Finally, just before everything was finished, Mr Oakley did what he should have done weeks earlier, and called on the Bishop of London and Sir Richard Hill. He was horrified to learn that both gentlemen only knew Eliza through her card, which she had left at their door. The game was finally up!
Print via the British Museum: Madora, c.1800.
Oakley took out a writ and waited for Eliza and Charlotte to return home (they were dining out), but the crafty Eliza realised what was happening. She sent her carriage home empty and vanished into the night. Oakley broke in and by 6 o’clock the next morning had cleared the house of its furniture. Three hours later, it was ordered that the remaining property was to be sold by auction on the premises.
Mr Creasey, at the last minute, had gained a warrant of attorney from Eliza and took two very heavy hampers from the Blackheath villa, part of the plunder. He also reportedly took the lease of the house, so that while the others were ruined, he was safe. Had he been in on the game, or truly a dupe? Eliza was spotted by a St Paul’s Churchyard haberdasher, who chanced on her in Bishopsgate Street, dressed in men’s clothes and boots, with Charlotte leaning on her arm. After that, the two women, both in their normal dress but heavily veiled, took the Devon mail-coach out of London. They ended up in Penzance in Cornwall where they took rooms in a hotel. Miss Sharp told the landlady her surname was Sydenham, and named Eliza as her distant relative and protégé Madame Douglas, a lady of large fortune from the north of England, travelling for the benefit of her health. Being reclusive, it was explained, Mme Douglas didn’t travel with a retinue as the anxiety produced by one would counterbalance any comfort.
You bet it would!
The two women only ventured out at night with veils over their faces; during their week’s stay they saw no one and the staff grew suspicious. A chambermaid overheard a conversation in which the names of Oakley and Creasy were frequently mentioned, and she’d been reading the newspapers that were reporting the Blackheath swindle. A letter was written to Blackheath but the two ladies got wind of it and left the next day. At length, in early April 1801, Eliza and Charlotte were traced to Huntingdon where they were lodging under the name of Cunningham. Eliza, who had signed for everything, was arrested and thrown into the town jail. There, the jailer made a tidy sum by charging people to see his notorious prisoner while Eliza maintained her pretence to the end, insisting she had property sufficient to meet all her debts. She managed to publish ‘an apology,’ to raise money for the support of her friend, Charlotte.
Eliza was transferred to Bow Street in London to be examined. She ended up in the Fleet Prison from where, with no prospect of repaying her debts, she knew she had little chance of escaping. Thomas Haycroft took out an action against Mr Creasy in the Court of the King’s Bench in the Guildhall. Haycroft was asking for – and won – damages of £4,85l 9s. 4d., claiming that Creasy had been the one who vouched for Eliza and said she was good for credit. In an ironic twist, given that Eliza claimed he had been the man who said she was entitled to her Scottish estate, Lord Kenyon presided at the hearing.
View of the inner court of the Fleet Prison, 1807
© The Trustees of the British Museum
During August 1802, Eliza was represented by the famed Mr Garrow in a case she brought to Maidstone assizes trying to recover the goods and furniture Mr Oakley had ‘unlawfully possessed himself of.’ Some of the furniture, Eliza claimed, was Charlotte’s property, brought from Croom’s Hill, and she suggested Oakley and his men had helped themselves to more than they were entitled to. Charlotte took to the witness stand, well-dressed and demure, wearing a fashionable ‘gipsy hat.’ She swore she had believed all Eliza’s tall tales and was as hurt and surprised as anyone else to find them false. It didn’t help; Garrow lost this case.
Eliza remained in the Fleet and continued to publish several works until, in June 1805, aged 32-years, she died of a decline. Her burial on 11 June took place in the churchyard of St Bride’s, the only mourners her father, mother and one of the turnkeys of the Fleet.
Chester Courant, 24 March 1801
Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 6 April 1801
Morning Chronicle, 15 July 1801 and 9 August 1802
Stamford Mercury, 17 July 1801
Caledonian Mercury, 9 April 1801, 14 September 1801 and 14 August 1802
Oxford Journal, 20 March 1802
Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 August 1802
The New Annual Register, Or General Repository of History, Politics, Arts, Sciences and Literature: For the Year 1805
The Paragon, Blackheath (published 16 September 2016 on The Regency Redingote website)