Who Was She? A Mysterious Stranger in Regency Clerkenwell
I was browsing through an 1819 copy of the Morning Advertiser looking for something completely different when this story caught my eye. It read like the beginning of a plot for a historical novel.
Around early July 1819, a pretty woman thought to be in her early 20s turned up at a lodging house in George Court off Aylesbury Street in Clerkenwell. She told the owner that she was a stranger in London, having just arrived from the country. While she attended to proceedings in Chancery, she needed a room for a few weeks.
The woman’s appearance was decent and, as she was happy to pay the rent on her lodgings in advance, the landlady welcomed her into the house.
It didn’t take the other women who lived there long, however, to notice that, despite trying to hide it, the lady was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. A nearby apothecary was called in to attend to her. In the first week of August, this unnamed woman gave birth to a healthy child. (If the evidence is correct, the babe was born on 2 August 1819.)
The next day, against all advice to the contrary, the new mother got out of bed and dressed.
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…
They kept a close eye on her. Four days after the birth of her child, the young woman was spotted leaving George Court, carrying a small box under her arm. Two of the female lodgers followed her, one of whom was a Mrs Baker, a printer’s wife. The mysterious lady and her two spies wended their way some distance across the fields of rural Clerkenwell towards the New River. (This was 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 like she was going to throw the box she carried into the water. However, she changed her mind and veered away over the fields. Mrs Baker and her friend were still in hot pursuit.
Sadler’s Wells from the bridge over the New River.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
The young woman 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 set everything 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 hack termed her) was apprehended and marched to the watch house.
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, it was enough for her to have disappeared and made a new life for herself and her child, rather than abandon the babe at the door 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 recovered but refused to answer any questions about her identity.
As I said at the beginning, this all sounds like a great start to a work of historical fiction. I have many different theories buzzing around my head as to how the young woman had found herself in this position. However, this was the woman’s real life, and something – or someone – had made her scared to reveal her identity.
I’ve searched for more information on her, hoping to find her name. That still, unfortunately, eludes me, but I did find one more newspaper report. The lady’s husband turned up to claim her! I’ll relate the report from the newspapers but, attempting to read between the lines, I’m still left wondering as to the truth of the matter. 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.
The couple hailed 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.’ Hmm, do we believe him?
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 he could ask to pay? Again, I note that money does not seem to be an issue. This then seems to be at odds with his plea to the magistrate about:
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 had to remain in custody.
And there, sadly, we must leave her until further information comes to light. In the meantime, I reckon there’s a novel in this story for anyone disposed to write it and rescue the mystery woman. Which way would you take it: was she fleeing from her husband or was his story 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