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In search of Sarah Wilson

impostress_the_dishonest_adventures_of_sarah_wilson_by_r_j_clarke

I first met Sarah about 20 years ago in the issue of the St. James's Chronicle for January 10, 1765.

The paper had a story that “a genteel Woman” turned up at the home of a farmer on the Hampshire/Surrey border. She told the farmer her name was Sarah Willsbrowson and that she was the daughter of a nobleman. She said she had been forced from her father's house by his ill treatment and was looking for a place to stay. The farmer agreed to offer her shelter. Later, in the course of conversation, she let slip that she was soon due to inherit a fortune of £90,000.

The farmer had a son - a lad of about 18. It seems that he was growing increasingly fond of Sarah. Whether his fondness was further aroused by the information about her fortune is unclear. However, one day Sarah told the old man that she wanted to marry his son.

The poor old Man was overjoyed at the proposal, and in a short time Sarah and the lad were married. Not long after the wedding Sarah told her father-in-law that she had great Interest at Court; and if he could raise money “to equip them in a genteel Manner”, she should procure a colonel's commission for her husband. The farmer mortgaged his little estate for £100 and “every Thing necessary being bought for the new-married Couple”. They took the rest of the money and set out for London.

They got to the Bear Inn in the Borough on Christmas Eve 1764; where they lived for about ten days “in an expensive Manner”. Every morning Sarah went off in a coach to the St. James's end of the town, to arrange for her husband's commission and obtain her inheritance.

However one day she went off in her coach, and never returned. The lad discovered that his new bride was an impostor. He had to sell his horse to pay the innkeeper’s bill and walk home.

The story concluded,

“By the Description given, she is supposed to be the same Woman who has for near two Years past obtained Money, by imposing on the Compassion and Credulity of different Persons in Town and Country.”

Not long after, I found a report about Sarah’s adventures in the West Country in Say’s Weekly Journal for October 24, 1767. It said her maiden name was Wilson, and that she was married to Farmer Boxall, of Frensham. The report added,

“It seems this woman has for some time past been travelling through almost all parts of the kingdom, assuming various roles and characters. At different times and places she has pretended herself to be of high birth and distinction […] always varying the account of herself, as she chanced to pick up intelligence of the characters and connections of those she intended to impose upon.”

This led me to the Frensham parish records, which confirmed that Sarah Willsbrowson and Thomas Boxall were married at St Mary’s Frensham on 17 December 1764.

Those two newspaper reports gave me a glimpse of a totally independent woman, making the best progress she could by living dangerously on her wits. Many years later, when it became possible to read old newspapers online I decided to start searching for Sarah.

Searching for Sarah was not easy - I discovered that she used at least 15 false names during the course of her career. However, I managed to find a number of newspaper reports of her adventures, as well as a pamphlet written by a Coventry J.P. who interviewed her in 1766 and described her as “the greatest impostress of the present age”. The descriptions of her seem consistent that she was aged about 20 in the mid-1760s. She had dark hair, was short and slim, had a pale complexion, and had a speck or kell over one eye.

The reports show that she wandered all over the country, including Cheshire, Lancashire, Westmoreland, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, heading back to London from time to time where she appeared to have had a base.

When one of her earlier crimes caught up with her, Sir John Fielding sent her to prison to await trial. In 1768 she was found guilty and sentenced to be transported to America. I found her committal and trial records in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). In the LMA and in other places I found details of some of the prostitutes, pickpockets and highwaymen she lived with in prison and on board the convict ship.

By subscribing to an American newspaper archive I found reports of Sarah’s adventures and as she travelled across America. They show that she escaped from her master and visited most of the thirteen colonies. In Virginia and the Carolinas she was passed from one plantation house to another as an honoured guest in the guise of Queen Charlotte’s sister. Sarah later moved north while still acting the part of a princess and was acquainted with some of those who played a part in the American revolution. She was in Boston when the Tea Party took place.

Just when I thought my search was over, I discovered some letters Sarah wrote from Boston in 1777 that had lain in an American archive since 1814...

By R. J. Clarke

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