I believe Sara Wilson was one of the most amazing people of the 18th century. And if you've never heard of this clever woman born with jet black hair around 1754 in the west midlands of England, don't be concerned; few people have. She was the daughter of a bailiff (or superintendent) of an estate, and at 16 was recommended for employment as a maidservant to Caroline Vernon, the second Lady Grosvenor, who was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, wife to King George III. The Lady Grosvenor was herself “…a spinster” of just 17 years of age.
Overnight this girl from the countryside, Sara Wilson, found herself living in the Queen’s house (now Buckingham Palace) in the center of the largest city in the western world. There Sara Wilson saw royalty up close and she advanced from “…opinionated child to a stoic onlooker…” - in other words a servant. Sara had to care for Lady Grosvenor’s clothing, help dress and undress her, serve her meals and see to her chamber pot at night. And then, in 1771, Sara was accused of stealing jewelry from the queen.
There is a problem with this story, and his name was Henry, Duke of Cumberland, the younger brother to the King. In 1766 Henry had secretly married a commoner (above, center) , Maria Wapole, the Lady Grosvenor. Marriage without royal permission made him a scandal. But keeping a secret was difficult as well since Henry was also “…fierce of temper, frivolous of character, and foppish in his dress…In the year 1770, the attentions of the duke to Lady Grosvenor were so marked, and so ridiculous, that everybody talked about them."
"He followed her about in disguises, often betraying himself by his fopperies and imbecility…” (pp65-66, Lives of the Queens of England; Dr. John Doran, 1855). Perhaps the Duke was suffering from the same infirmaries which would shortly produce the “Madness of King George III”, his older brother (above). If he had been the one caught stealing jewelry from Lady Grosvenor’s chambers, it would have been symptomatic of his behavior, but would also have been a new scandal requiring Lady Grosvenor to leave court. In 1771 the Duke was finally ordered from court himself. And while there is no evidence that he was responsible for what happened to the maidservant of Lady Grosvenor, Sara Wilson, his guilt would explain certain odd events which which followed the servant' girl's arrest.
Sara was charged with sneaking into the Queen’s private quarters, breaking into a locked cabinet and stealing a ring, a dress and a miniature portrait of Queen Charlotte. What a 17 year old servent girl, less than a year out of the countryside, with no room of her own, would have done with such items, begs reason. But guilty or not, Sara was completely at the mercy of “her betters”. And where scandal might have attached if the same items had been stolen from 18 year Lady Grosvenor, none could dare be implied of the Queen - or the King's brother. Sara was given the option of either hanging or transportation. So, in July of 1771 she boarded a prison ship bound for the port of Baltimore in the colony of Maryland. And somehow she took with her most of the damming evidence against her; the ring, the dress and the miniature portrait of the Queen (below).
The 4-7 week trip probably came close to killing her: “…during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting…fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy… The misery reaches the climax when a gale rages for 2 or 3 nights and days…Children from 1 to 7 years rarely survive the voyage…warm food is served only three times a week, the rations being very poor and very little..."
...The water which is served out of the ships is often very black, thick and full of worms, so that one cannot drink it without loathing, even with the greatest thirst." (pp 25-31 Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750” Gottlieb Mittelberger) And those were conditions for persons who paid for the privilege. Felons were not so well accommodated.
Sara then had to survive her arrival. “Every day Englishmen…go on board the newly arrived ships…and select among the healthy persons such as they deem suitable for their business, and bargain with them how long they will serve for their passage money “(ibid).
But Sara had an advantage which none of the other transported felons possessed. In the cash poor American colonies the dress alone was worth a small fortune if sold. How did such valuable property miss the sharp eyes of her betrayed mistress back in London, and the servants of the Queen, and the jailers and the crew of the ship? And how did it escape the purview of Mr. William Devall, her new master?
We do not know what Mr. Devall’s occupation was, only that he owned property along Bush Creek, which arises south west of New Market, and flows into the Monocracy River southeast of Frederick, Maryland. If Sara had harbored any hopes of a better life in America, she must have been sadly disappointed. The life of a servant girl was not much different in either country, except in America it was harder.
Gail Collins noted in her book “America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines”, that ““A study of one Maryland County showed that 20% of the women who arrived as servants…wound up in court for bearing illegitimate children. Some of them must have been raped or seduced by the master of their house, but they were still punished as if they had freely chosen….. In one remarkable case, a seven year old girl was reprimanded when she was molested by an adult male. The man that assaulted her was convicted. But the girl's mother was also ordered to punish the young victim in order to increase the child's "grief for her offense." (pp9-10).
It should have been no surprise then, that within day’s of Sara’s arrival, in October of 1771, her new master was advertising; "Run away from the subscriber, a servant maid named Sarah Wilson…she has a blemish in her right eye, black rolled hair, stoops in her shoulders, makes a common practice of writing and marking her clothes with a Crown and a B. Whoever secures the said servant woman, or takes her home, shall receive five pistols, besides all cost and charges. William Devall."
Sara had only to follow the Monocracy River south a few miles to reach the Potomac River. On that stream’s southern shore was the “Tidewater Aristocracy” of Virginia, desperately anxious to prove to all its sophistication. Englishman Edward Kimber had noted that in Virginia in 1745, “Wherever you travel . . . your ears are constantly astonished at the number of colonels, majors, and captains that you hear mentioned: In short, the whole country seems at first to you a retreat of heroes.”
Almost immediately Sara assumed her new persona; Lady Susanna Carolina Matilda: estranged by a family feud from her sister, Charlotte, Queen of England. Sara dazzled her victims with court gossip – real and invented - and in exchange for lodging and meals, the use of a carriage, monetary gifts and letters of introduction to the next plantation house, the Lady Matilda granted political positions, military appointments and even economic beneficences, none of which were worth the paper they were written on. And few seemed to notice that the lady spoke not a word of German, even though, presumably, that was her native tongue.
Over the next two years Lady Matilda traveled down the coast of Virginia and passed on to the backwaters of the Carolinas. On 13 May, 1773, there appeared the following item in the bemused “London Magazine”: “Some time ago one Sarah Wilson…assumed the title of the Princess Susanna Carolina Matilda, pronouncing herself to be an own sister to our sovereign lady the queen…she acted her part so plausibly as to persuade the generality that she was no impostor….At length, however, an advertisement appeared, and a messenger arrived from her master, who raised a loud hue and cry for her serene highness".
Sara was returned under guard to Bush Creek. For her escape, her term of service was extended by two years. But history was on Sara’s side. In the spring of 1775 the colonists began shooting at British soldiers, and Sara's master,, William Devall, joined the American forces. In his absence, Sara Wilson slipped away again, this time making her way to British occupied New York City. There she married William Talbot, an officer in the Royal Light Dragoons. When the war ended, the Talbot’s chose not to return to England, where Sara would have been subject to arrest. They settled instead in the bowery of Manhattan, and quickly faded into history.
But what an amazing woman Sara was. She became a criminal to survive in normal times, and found normality in a revolution. To call her a commoner misses the point entirely.
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