Mary Willcocks & the Princess Caraboo Hoax
Mary Baker, as she called herself, was twenty six years old and had
born in 1791, into a very poor family where six of her brothers and sisters had died
young. From the age of eight she was wool spinning and weaving, and occasionally working
on local farms. Later she worked as a maid in a house in Exeter, but walked
out after eight weeks because the work was too hard. She went back home to
Witheridge, but found life there unbearable after her taste of the outside
world, and ran away after a week.
On the road to Taunton Mary said she
had attempted to hang herself from a tree by her apron-strings, but heard a voice in her head telling her it was a sin. She then met a
man on the road who felt sorry for her and gave her enough money for three
night's lodgings in Taunton. After Taunton she went to Bristol, begging along the way,
then decided to walk to London. She got within thirty miles of the city before
collapsing, to be given a lift by a waggoner with two other women as far as Hyde
Park Corner. Here, she again collapsed, and the two women, realising she was very
ill, took her to St. Giles' Workhouse Hospital, where she was admitted to the
At the hospital Mary was given boiling hot baths and had the back of her head
'cupped' in a painful operation without anesthetic, which involved cutting the
skin in several places and applying hot glasses to draw the blood out,
supposedly to alleviate the fever. She stayed several months before she was
taken into the care of a Presbyterian clergyman called Pattenden, who took
a liking to her though he found her 'odd and eccentric'. Mr. Pattenden found Mary a job with a Mr. and Mrs. Matthews,
looking after their children. Here she became good friends with the cook
of a Jewish family who lived next door, and developed an interest in their
prayers, diet, and the Hebrew alphabet, which would come in useful when she
assumed the role of Princess Caraboo four years later.
Mary also learned to read
and write while she was with the Matthews family, and wrote letters home to her family. She
made up imaginative stories and games for the children and all seemed to be
Then, in April 1812, she suddenly left. For some reason she spent four days
at St. Mary's workhouse, and then went back. The Matthews liked her, but
found her behaviour mysterious and eccentric; she sometimes told them she would
like to go and live wild in the woods.
In the Autumn of 1812 Mary left the Matthews house for good after
an argument. She wanted to go abroad and persuaded a friend, a Mrs. Baynes, to
write a letter to her parents saying that she'd 'left England with a travelling
family.' But in reality, in February 1813, she applied to the Magdalen Hospital
for reformed prostitutes under the name of Ann Burgess, Burgess being her
mother's maiden name. She told Gutch and others that she mistook the place for a
nunnery, but this was pure fantasy. At first she told the Magdalen Committee
that she'd been seduced by a gentleman staying at a house she'd worked at in
The gentleman had taken her to London, she said, but abandoned her after a month.
After this she 'went on the town' leading a loose life. She was accepted and
given work as a housemaid. But a few weeks later she admitted that she'd never
been a prostitute, her name was not Burgess, and she'd just needed somewhere to
stay. The officials asked her about living relations, her father was dead, she
told him, and if they asked her any more about her family she would hang
herself. The records of Magdalen Hospital show her to have been well
behaved during her stay, though 'very eccentric', and given to depression and
restlessness. This latter was particularly true, and she left the hospital in
According to Mary's story, the next thing she did was to set off
back home to Witheridge, disguised as a man because of the dangers of walking
across Hounslow Heath alone. She then crossed Salisbury Plain where, according
to her, she was kidnapped by highwaymen who took her back to their camp. When
they discovered she was a girl they were ready to shoot her as a police spy, but
she begged for her life and was released.
She eventually arrived home in Autumn 1813. Her mother found her
a job working for a leather-worker and tanner in Crediton, a few miles from her
village. She left after three months, objecting to having to carry the hides. After a couple of other jobs she again headed back to London, where she worked
for a fishmonger in Billingsgate. Mary claimed that while working here, in
Spring 1814, she had a love affair with a gentleman called Baker. After two
months they were married and lived together for a while in London and possibly
at Battle, near Hastings. Then her husband sent her back to London, while he sailed
to Calais, promising to bring her over to France. But that was the last she ever
heard from him. Whether any of this was true remains open to question, but when
Mary returned to London at the beginning of 1816, she was pregnant. She managed
to get a job working behind the bar in a pub run by a Mrs. Clark, where she
called herself Hannah and developed a reputation for telling strange
The baby was born on 11th February 1816; where, remains a
mystery. He was christened John Wilcox, but Mary called him John Edward Francis
Baker. As there was no father present for support and Mary had no money,
both were sent to St. Mary's Workhouse on 19th April, where they stayed until
the 17th June. Here she was persuaded to give the child to the Foundling
Hospital. But to do this she had to give references, personal details -
something she was never happy doing - and say why she could not support the
child herself. The few prosaic facts she subsequently provided are probably as
close to the truth as she ever came. She gave her name as Mary Willcocks, said she was unmarried, aged
25, and that the father of the child was John Baker, a bricklayer from Exeter.
In a more detailed statement given later at the hospital, she said they'd lived together
for nine months in Exeter before walking to London, where he deserted her.
After she left the hospital Mary found employment again, and visited the child at the
Foundling Hospital every Monday, until, on the 27th of October 1816, he died.
At this time she was working for a family called Starling, and Mrs.
Starling remembered her telling them that the child had died at her mother's
house. She also said that Mary was an excellent servant but 'out of her mind'.
She described her behaviour as eccentric and unusual, always telling the children
frightening stories about gypsies, and that she'd been born in the East
Indies and the baby was born in Philadelphia. She was eventually sacked in
November for setting fire to the beds.
She may have spent Christmas 1816 in France, but she returned to
Devon in February 1817 by coach. Coach travel was expensive, so she must have
had money from somewhere. She told her parents that the baby had died and
she was coming to say goodbye before she sailed for the Indies. After ten days
at home she sent her trunk on ahead, and set out for Bristol to leave for the Indies.
But rather than going north to Bristol, she ended up begging on the road to Plymouth, and according to her account,
staying with gypsies. She left them and headed back through Exeter to Bristol,
where she arrived on 10th March.
She was now looking for a ship to take her to Philadelphia, and
found she could travel steerage on one leaving in fifteen days, for five guineas,
which she would have to try and raise. She found lodgings sharing a room with a
young Jewish girl called Eleanor, in a respectable house belonging to a Mrs.
Neale. The two girls went out begging in the streets together during the day.
Apparently, after noticing the attention that French lace-makers from Normandy
received wearing high lace headdresses, Eleanor persuaded Mary to use her black
shawl as a turban to make her look more interesting.
They tried this for a while, but Mary was restless again and left
Bristol, still pretending to be French and using her own made up language,
begging at various places along the road to Gloucester. This disguise proved
successful until she met someone who could speak French, but she quickly
improvised and claimed to be Spanish. It was now that she met the wheelwright's son
who helped to expose her later. She spoke to him and various
other people they met on the road in her strange language, and they were all
eager to help her. When she arrived at a pub speaking her lingo, the landlady
asked her in for a drink and soon the whole pub was offering her food and drink, but she
She got away and headed back on road towards Clifton, still accompanied
by the wheelwright's son. Soon after, they met two men, one of whom said he spoke perfect
Spanish, so Mary was forced to speak to him in her language, which, amazingly he
claimed to understand as Spanish, 'translating' what she said and saying that her mother and
father were following her along the road. For Mary this was an important lesson
in how to use other people's 'expertise'.
By now Mary was tired of the wheelwright's son, and after
letting him buy her a steak and a cup of tea at a pub on the way into Bristol,
managed to lose him on the quay. She stayed the night in lodgings and the
next morning started out on the road to Gloucester, once again assuming her
character as she headed towards the village of Almondsbury, and fame as Princess
How did she do
Mary Willcocks was not the first imposter to fool
high society, but she was one of the most successful. How had she managed to maintain
the hoax? The crucial factor seems to have been people's belief that she could not
understand or read English. Once they convinced themselves of this, they had no scruples about what they said in front
of her, providing much of the information she needed for her role with their
conversations and the books they showed her describing exotic places and
languages. As many who knew her noted, she had a remarkable memory.
So, as Mary gathered more
detailed information from the various learned visitors to Knole, particularly
those who wanted to show off their knowledge, her role became more
substantial and her behaviour more convincingly princess-like. She was also
surrounded by people, Mrs. Worrall in particular, who desperately wanted to
believe she was a foreign princess, much like Fox Mulder's 'I want to believe'
in extraterrestrials in the X-Files. She was fulfilling a need for
the romance of unseen lands in people's lives. Maybe she had been to France
and picked up some French and Spanish, it certainly seems that she spent some
time with the gypsies, as she used some gypsy words as part of her lingo. But
these were just the trimmings, the main part of her character was developed at
what of the mysterious Portuguese traveller Manuel Eynesso? How had he
understood and 'translated' her language if she'd made it up? Was he an
accomplice? A lover? The father of her child? He was certainly used by Mary to
cement her identity. We'll probably never know the truth, perhaps he
was just another hoaxer trying his luck at breaking into high society, as Mary
Willcocks had done so successfully.
On Monday 26 March, 2006, a blue plaque commemorating the life
of Princess Caraboo was unveiled at Number 11, Princess Street, Bristol, where
Mary lived the last 11 years of her life. In attendance at the ceremony were
children from St. Mary Redcliffe Junior School, wearing period costume, and Mary
Willcocks's great great niece Christine Medley, who travelled up from Mary's
home county of Devon to be at the unveiling.
Gutch, J.M. Caraboo:
A Narrative of a Singular Imposition. London, 1817.
Online version of this rare book at Mr Xs Fortean site.
Haughton, Brian. Bristol's
Princess Caraboo. Online article at B.B.C.s
Raison, J. and Goldie, M. Caraboo The Servant
Girl Princess: The Real Story of the Grand Hoax. Moreton-in-Marsh, The Windrush Press,1994.
Wells, J. Princess Caraboo: Her True Story.
London, Pan Books,1994.
© Copyright 2002
by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.