Hoax Princess. Princess Caraboo

Mary Willcocks & the Princess Caraboo Hoax

Part 1 | Part 2

Mary's History

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 fever ward.

Princess Caraboo of Javasu'. From a painting by Edward BirdAt 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 going well. 

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 Devon.

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 July. 

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 stories.

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. 

Princess Caraboo, 1817. Fom an engraving by Edward BirdThey 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 refused. 

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 Caraboo.

How did she do it?

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 Knole park.

And 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.

Sources and Further Reading

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 Legacies website.

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.

 

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