New book reveals the true scandals of the Regency period

The REAL Bridgerton: As show tones down the sexiness, new book reveals the true scandals of the Regency era – from the impostor Princess Caraboo to the woman who ‘rescued’ orphans to claim money and let them die

  • Secrets & Scandals in Regency Britain shares stories from the early 1800s
  • Uncovers what life was really like in the period when Bridgerton is set 
  • There is a story of an imposter princess and a real one with an illegitimate son 
  • Comes as Bridgerton prepares to return to screen for a less sexy third series 

Netflix smash hit Bridgerton returns to screens this week and is set to be far less raunchy than series one, but the real Regency period was filled with more than enough sex and salacious scandal, as a new book proves.  

Secrets & Scandals in Regency Britain, by Violet Fenn, sheds a light on some of the juiciest stories from the late 1700s and early 1800s, from a cobbler’s daughter who posed as a princess to a princess who gave birth to an illegitimate son. 

The Shrewsbury-based author, whose previous work includes Sex & Sexuality in Victorian Britain, doesn’t shy away from the less spicy material with some of the stories, like those about Bethlem Royal Hospital, commonly known as Bedlam, are harrowing and difficult to read. 

Among the most disturbing is the one of Mary Doyle, a woman who posed as a benevolent foster mother to adopt children from the Dublin Foundling Hospital in order to receive stipends, before letting the infants die. 

There is also the tale of an attacker dubbed ‘The Monster’ who slashed women on the street in a violent streak that terrorised London. 

Here Femail reveals the incredible tales that make the frothy glamour of Bridgerton seem a lot less dramatic. 


Faking it: Mary Baker, the daughter of a Devon cobbler, posed as an exotic Princess Caraboo, duping a well-heeled Gloucestershire couple who took her in to try and help her

On the evening of April 3, 1817,  Samuel and Elizabeth Worrall of Almondsbury, Gloucestershire, were introduced to a woman dressed in ‘shabby but unusually exotic clothing, who spoke only incomprehensible mumblings and had been found wandering in the street by a local cobbler’.

Bridgerton era: When WAS the Regency period?  

Author Victoria Fenn writes: In its most literal interpretation, the period known as the Regency lasted a mere nine years, from 1811, when George, Prince Regent, assumed power from his father to 1820, when King George III died and the Prince Regent himself became monarch.

In reality, the ‘Regency period’ had its beginnings in 1788, when King George first began to show signs of mental illness. 

Centre of the story: King George III

Samuel, a county magistrate, and his American-born wife, lived at Knole Park, a manor house that was one of the grandest in the region. 

They took pity on the woman and invited her to stay. Through a series of hand gestures and odd words, they learned the woman called herself Caraboo. 

Samuel was wary of the woman and wanted her to be transferred to the local workhouse but Elizabeth instead arranged for Caraboo to stay at an inn, along with a chaperone.  

‘When Caraboo and her chaperone arrived at The Bowl Inn, The young woman apparently recognised a botanical painting of pineapples on the wall, announcing ‘Nanas!’ as ‘nanas’ was known to mean ‘pineapple’ in many foreign languages, this – along with Caraboo’s interest in Chinese artwork in the Worrall’s home – was enough for a theory to begin circulating that she was, in fact, a lost foreigner from exotic climes,’ Fenn explains. 

The young woman was admitted to St Peter’s workhouse in nearby Bristol where she was befriended by a Portuguese sailor who claimed that he could speak her language and translate what she was saying. 

Through the sailor, the woman explained that she was actually Princess Caraboo of Javasu, an island in the Indian Ocean, who had been kidnapped from her father’s garden by pirates who held her captive on their ship bound for Britain. 

The fearless victim told how she leapt overboard once the vessel reached the Bristol Channel and swam ashore, making her way on foot to Almondsbury where she met the man who introduced her to the Worralls. 

On learning her story, the Worralls took her back into Knole Park and began to receive visitors who wanted to lay eyes on the foreign princess. 

‘Princess Caraboo lived up to the reputation her story had given her, dancing for the family’s friends, shooting a bow and arrow in the parkland, and praying to a god she called ‘Allah-Talla’,’ Fenn continues.

Seen on screen: The extraordinary story was told in 1994 film Princess Caraboo, pictured

‘She insisted on sleeping on the floor and on at least one occasion was known to have swum naked in the lake when left to her own devices.’

However, in reality, this was nothing more than an act. Caraboo was in fact the daughter of a Devon cobbler who had adopted the persona of the kidnapped princess.

She was found out when a housekeeper named Mrs Neale visited Knole Park and called her out.  

The ‘princess’ immediately confessed, switching to English to admit she was Mary Baker. The lies were also uncovered by a linguistics expert who analysed her handwriting. 


Secret lover: Princess Sophia Matilda was the second youngest of King George III’s surviving 13 children and the fifth of his six daughters. She had an illegitimate son and never married

Scandal also engulfed real Regency royalty. 

Princess Sophia Matilda was the second youngest of King George III’s surviving 13 children and the fifth of his six daughters.

George III doted on his daughters but was also incredibly controlling. 

Twisting line of succession: How George III’s granddaughter ascended the throne just 17 years after his death 

George III had 13 children who survived into adulthood, including seven sons. 

He was succeeded by his son George VI, who served as Prince Regent for nine years during his father’s battle with mental illness before ascending the throne in 1820.

Following the death of George VI in 1830, it was William IV, the third son of George III who ascended the throne. 

George VI’s daughter had died as had the next brother in line, Prince Frederick. 

William IV had no legitimate issue. 

As such, when he died in 1937, it was his niece, Victoria, the 18-year-old daughter of George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward, who took the throne.

They were expected to become unofficial companions to their stern mother Queen Charlotte and as such spent many years isolated and unable to form relationships with anyone outside their immediate family and attendants, leading the sisters to describe the household as ‘the nunnery’. 

George’s surviving sons were able to escape from their domineering parents as they reached adulthood by joining the armed forces. For the princesses, the only way out was marriage.  

In 1802, the then 25-year-old Princess Sophia was unmarried and living at home when she fell ill on the family’s annual journey from Windsor Castle to Weymouth. 

By the time they arrived at Weymouth, Sophia was so exhausted that she had to be carried upstairs to her room by an attendant.   

It later emerged that the reason for Sophia’s illness was that she was heavily pregnant with an illegitimate son. The baby was given to a tailor and his wife in Weymouth who had welcomed a son of their own on the same day. 

The tailor and his wife were paid for the upkeep of their royal charge but were not satisfied. 

The tailor took to telling ‘anyone who would listen’ about the responsibility with which he had been entrusted and eventually took it upon himself to visit General Thomas Garth, who had been present when Princess Sophia gave birth and was responsible for organising the payments. 

‘This move on the part of the tailor was deemed unbecoming – the child was removed from the family’s care and was instead fostered by the wife of a sergeant in the Royal Scots Greys, who lived with the boy in the general’s own household,’ Fenn continues.

‘The boy’s name was changed to Tommy Garth and the general would tell him that he himself was the boy’s ‘papa’. 

‘When little Tommy questioned who then was his mother, the general would allegedly bring out a miniature from inside his jacket pocket and suggest that Tommy kiss the image of his ‘mama’.’

Tommy eventually learned his true parentage when the General told him all while on his deathbed.

Stern parenting: George III’s daughters were expected to become unofficial companions to their stern mother Queen Charlotte (pictured) and as such spent many years isolated and unable to form relationships with anyone outside their immediate family and attendants, leading the sisters to describe the household as ‘the nunnery’

Realising he was in the perfect position to blackmail the Royal Family, he approached them with evidence he was Princess Sophia’s son.   

After being duped by the royals, who refused to pay, Tommy took his story to the newspapers. 

Various stories have been put forward regarding the identity of Tommy’s father – including one that claims it was Sophia’s brother Ernest, the Duke of Cumberland – but the most likely option is that it was Garth. 

Garth was more than three decades older than the princess and reportedly an unsavoury character, yet with so few men in her immediate circle, it is possible Sophia still found herself drawn to him. 

The princess never married. After her mothers death, she moved into Kensington Palace with her widowed sister-in-law Princess Victoria, Duchess of Kent, who had married George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn. 

Their daughter, Princess Alexandrina Victoria, would grow up to become Queen Victoria. 

Sophia’s house was run by comptroller Sir John Conroy, who ‘sucked Sophia into his unhealthy web’ and encouraged her to spy on her family. He also spent much of the royal’s money and she died in 1848 without a penny to her name. 


Severe punishment: In 1788, Catherine Murphy and her husband Hugh were brought to the Old Bailey where they were found guilty of ‘coining’, or making counterfeit gold or silver coins. She was burned at the stake for her crime, which was considered an act of high treason

At around the same time George III was first starting to show signs of mental illness, England burned a woman at the stake for the final time. 

In 1788, Catherine Murphy and her husband Hugh were brought to the Old Bailey where they were found guilty of ‘coining’, or making counterfeit gold or silver coins. 

As counterfeiting was considered an act of high treason, the punishment was severe.

Hugh and Catherine were both sentenced to death. Hugh was hanged alongside other male convicts but the punishment was more severe for Catherine because she was a woman.    

Fenn writes: ‘After the men had been put the death, Catherine was forced to walk past the hanging bodies – including that of her own husband – and made to stand on a small, low platform in front of a tall stake fitted with an iron ring through which ropes could be threaded. 

‘The executioner tied Catherine to the stake, making sure to run the rope around her neck. 

‘Bundles of straw were then packed around the base; before the fire was lit, the platform was kicked out from under Catherine’s feet. She was left to strangle for thirty minutes before the fire took hold.’

The idea behind this method was that the woman would definitely be dead by the time she was set alight, although this did not always happen. 

Catherine Murphy became the last woman in England to be burned at the stake. It was abolished as a method of punishment in 1790.  


Slashed on the street: In 1788, one hundred years before Jack the Ripper’s notorious reign of terror, the women of London were being terrorised by an unidentified assailant dubbed ‘The Monster’ who stabbed and slashed women with a blade

In 1788, one hundred years before Jack the Ripper’s notorious reign of terror, the women of London were being terrorised by an unidentified assailant dubbed ‘The Monster’ who stabbed and slashed women with a blade.

The first attack occurred in May 1788 when Maria Smith was struck as she tried to enter her home off Fleet Street, London. 

Secrets & Scandals in Regency Britain by Violet Fenn, published by Pen & Sword Books is available now RRP £20

Before striking her in the chest, the ‘thin and vulgar’ stranger had spoken to her in an offensive manner, Mrs Smyth recalled, and she was said to have been lucky not to have suffered a more serious injury.

The assailant next struck more than a year later, in September 1789. His next victim was Mary Forster, who was the victim of an almost identical attack. 

Four months later, on January 18, 1790, sisters Sarah and Anne Porter were returning home from Queen Charlotte’s birthday ball when they were both targeted by a man who ‘appeared as if out of nowhere’. 

Sarah was hit over the head and knocked unconscious while Anne was sliced with a blade. 

The girls’ father reported the incident to police who reportedly told him there had been several victims that day alone. 

In the spring of that year, the reports started coming thick and fast, and it appeared the attacker had changed his method slightly. 

Finn writes: ‘Women began reporting incidents in which a man – invariably a complete stranger – would approach them with a request that they smell a bunch of flowers that he was carrying. 

‘When they bent to do so, he would then cut their faces with a blade hidden within the flowers. It is uncertain just how many genuine victims there were – some accounts make it more than fifty – but certainly there were several documented attacks, some of them quite severe.’

Although several men of accused of being ‘the Monster’ – a name given to the attacker by the press – there is no firm evidence as to who he was, or if he even existed. 


Heartless cruelty: Mary Doyle, a woman of ‘infamous character’ and no fixed abode, was ‘fostering’ orphan infants from Dublin Foundling Hospital, pictured, taking a stipend, then leaving the children to die

Across the sea in Ireland, there was a very different kind of monster in operation. 

Mary Doyle, a woman of ‘infamous character’ and no fixed abode, was ‘fostering’ orphan infants from Dublin Foundling Hospital, taking a stipend, then leaving the children to die.

The case came before a court in County Carlow in 1801, after at least four children had met their end at Mary’s hands. 

Her prowling ground was the Dublin Foundling Hospital, which had been established in 1704 for babies born to parents who couldn’t care for their children. 

The man chained for 12 years in Bedlam 

Kept in chains: A Bedlam patient, James Norris, who had an iron ring around his neck that was bolted to the wall

Founded in 1247, Bethlem Royal Hospital was originally near Bishopsgate just outside the walls of the City of London. It moved a short distance to Moorfields in 1676, and then to St George’s Fields in Southwark in 1815, before moving to its current location in Monks Orchard in 1930. 

During the Regency period, Bedlam, as it has been colloquially known since the 1600s, was on the Moorfields site.

The conditions were appalling.

Campaigner Edward Wakefield argued for a reform in the treatment of mental health and made several inspection visits to Bethlem in 1814, when it was still at the Moorfields site.  

Wakefield’s account focused on one patient in particular, James Norris, also reported in records as John, ‘an American soldier who had been kept in restraints – including an iron ring around his neck which was bolted into the wall – for at least twelve years’.

‘Wakefield’s reports, alongside earlier ones describing similar conditions at York Asylum, led to the establishment of the 1815 House of Commons Select Committee on Madhouses,’ Fenn writes. 

‘Although the committee’s inspection focused largely on the new and as yet uninhabited Bethlem site at St George’s Fields rather than the dilapidated Moorfields buildings, they still found much of concern.’

The steam heating did not function properly, the basement galleries were damp and the windows of the upper storeys were unglazed ‘so that the sleeping cells were either exposed to the full blast of cold air or were completely darkened’.

However it was a very long time before patients saw any real change. 

The central block of the St George’s Fields iteration of Bethlem has been the home of the Imperial War Museum since 1936.

As Fenn explains, there ‘were many, for not only had poverty and famine ripped through Ireland, society and cultural standards of the time were strict by any standards and tied to the country’s Catholic religion…

‘For the reluctant mother who had no way of keeping her child, this would have seemed a preferable option to the more usual method of simply abandoning the child in the open to take their (very small) chance with nature.’

Soon a black market operation sprung up. Mothers who found themselves with an unwanted baby could pay a middleman or woman to transport their baby to the Foundling Hospital on their behalf.

This would spare them the shame and stigma of arriving at the hospital themselves, babe in arms. 

However the reality was that many of these carriers did not care about their precious cargo. Instead of seeing the infants as what they were – vulnerable children in need of a safe home – they were treated as products to be transported. 

‘They would be bundled together in a large basket and bounced along the road to Dublin either on horseback or by cart, and many tales were told of babies arriving at the hospital either with broken bones or already dead,’ Fenn writes. 

Once they arrived at the hospital they were at risk of a different kind of nefarious character.  

While the hospital might have been founded with good intentions, it was besieged with problems from the start. 

Conditions were dire, with sickly children left to die and those who survived often treated very harshly.

The mortality rate was always shockingly high. Of 691 children admitted in 1751, 365 were dead by the end of the year. 

There were also few checks into the background of the people putting themselves forward to take care of the children, as the case of Mary Doyle shows. 

In 1799, Mary arrived at the hospital using the fake name of Margaret Collins. She was accepted as a ‘nurse’, more similar to today’s foster carers, for a boy named Michael Slain, who was just a few months old. 

Under the recommendation of a local priest, ‘Margaret’ was to take Michael as her own. She was given clothes for the baby as well as five shillings towards her expenses. 

Mary took the baby back to the home of Ann Vignes, where she was a lodger, telling the landlady that the baby was her own. They left a few days later. 

But after a month Mary returned, this time with another baby, who she called John Ball. 

This time she told Ann that she had taken the baby from the Foundling Hospital, and admitted to selling the clothes she had been given for the baby. 

The landlady was immediately struck by the baby’s appearance, noting he was ‘naked and nearly dead from starvation and cold’, and began to keep back some of her own food in the hope of keeping John alive. 

Mary stooped to even more horrifying lows when she took John out on the street with her to beg, then tried to sell him for the equivalent of a day’s wage. 

Once again, the landlady did what she could to help and paid Mary for the baby. Despite her efforts, the baby eventually weakened and died.  

It is unclear why, but during this time Mary confessed to Ann that Michael had frozen to death while in her care. She buried him in a nearby graveyard but not before removing his clothes to sell. 

Mary also spoke of two more babies who had died, including one of her own. She was not producing enough milk to support the infants and so they starved to death.

Despite the evidence Ann was able to bring before the court – including an identity badge that it was confirmed Mary had used to take Michael – there was no proof that Mary had intended the children to die.  

Fenn continues: ‘Frustration with the case is evident in records of comments made by the judge, Lord Norbury, who described Doyle as a “wretch who was clearly guilty of the most barbarous and inhuman conduct”, and proclaimed his sorrow that her offence could only be tried as a misdemeanour. 

‘Norbury did what he could within the restrictions of the law – Mary was sentenced to “stand three times in the pillory”, followed by a year’s imprisonment, after which she was to be deemed a vagabond and transported for life.’  

Secrets & Scandals in Regency Britain by Violet Fenn, published by Pen & Sword Books is available now RRP £20 

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