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The mysterious Princess Caraboo


On the evening of Maundy Thursday in 1817, a young woman wearing colourful Eastern dress was seen wandering through the sleepy village of Almondsbury, Gloucestershire 8 miles north of Bristol. She was wearing a black stuff gown with a muslin frill at the neck, a red and black shawl around her shoulders, and a black cotton shawl on her head. She carried a small bundle on her arm containing a few necessities, including soap and a few halfpennies and a ‘bad’ sixpence.

Villagers watched as the woman, in her mid-twenties, knocked at the door of a cottage, the home of the village cobbler, and uttered strange words to the owners. She talked in a language that no one could understand, but by her signs the cobbler realised that she was asking for food and shelter. Given some bread and milk, she also mimed that she wanted to sleep, however the cobbler’s wife was not happy about admitting this stranger to her house and so she was taken to the Overseer of the Poor, Mr Hill, whose job it was to bring anyone suspected of vagrancy before the Justice of the Peace. He took her to Knole Park House, the home of Samuel Worrall, the Town Clerk of Bristol and a magistrate. Being kindly people, he and his wife, Elizabeth, gave the woman hospitality and tried to discover more about her background, but to no avail. 

At first, it was obvious that the woman could not remain at Knole. She was a homeless girl with a counterfeit coin in her pocket and it was out of the question for someone in Worrall’s position to harbour someone who could be a criminal. However she had made quite an impression on Elizabeth and she arranged for the woman to be given a room at the local inn, The Bowl. 

At the time botanical prints were all the rage and popular as decorative items and on the wall of the inn’s parlour was a picture of a pineapple. The woman pointed to the picture and said the word ‘Nanas’, Indonesian for pineapple. The effect was electrifying – the witnesses were convinced that the exotic fruit was from the mysterious stranger’s homeland and assumed her to be from Asia.

Invited back to Knole by Elizabeth, the young woman had some curious habits, including an interest in Chinese imagery, sleeping on the floor and going on to the roof of the Worralls’ home to pray. The woman apparently called herself ‘Caraboo’ and only drank tea and ate vegetables. Mr Worrall, however, was still unsure and declared that the lady was a beggar who should be taken to Bristol and tried for vagrancy. 

The woman was taken to Bristol to be examined by the mayor and then on to St Peter’s Hospital, which cared for vagrants. However, she caused so many problems there that she was put back to the Worralls’ care. By now word had spread of the attractive foreign stranger and curious members of society came to visit the woman now known as Caraboo. The stranger was being treated like a visiting head of state.

After around ten days, Caraboo was introduced to a Portuguese sailor, Manuel Eynesso (or Enes) who could apparently understand her language. He translated her story – the woman claimed to be Princess Caraboo of Javasu, an island in the Indian Ocean who been kidnapped from her home by pirates and held captive on their ship. She claimed to have escaped by jumping overboard into the Bristol Channel and swimming ashore.

For ten weeks ‘Princess Caraboo’ danced exotically for the magistrate’s friends, used a bow and arrow, fenced, prayed to her god, whom she named ‘Allah-Talla’, and even swam naked in a lake when she was on her own. Having become something of a celebrity she acquired exotic clothing, had her portrait painted and even had a ball in Bath held in her honour. Her autenticity was attested to by a Dr Wilkinson, who identified her language using Edmund Fry’s Pantographia and stated that marks on the back of her head were the work of oriental surgeons. 

By all accounts, Princess Caraboo was having a wonderful time until the landlady of a boarding house in Bristol recognised the description of the woman in a newspaper report. She had provided her with lodgings some six months earlier.

When confronted by her landlady, Princess Caraboo had no trouble speaking English. Her ruse, which had gone on for three months, was over. It transpired that the self-styled princess was really Mary Willcocks, who came from Witheridge in Devon. She was no princess, but the daughter of a cobbler. Apparently, she adopted the disguise in the hope that it would make her more interesting. By now Mr Worrall had also received word from academics about Caraboo’s native script, which he had earlier asked to write down and then sent to Oxford University for examination. The academics described it as a ‘humbug language’ and treated it as a joke. The odd marks on Mary’s head were scars from a crude ‘wet cupping’ operation (a procedure intended to relieve pressure on an ‘overheated brain’ in which the back of the head was shaved, the skin scarred with parallel blades and hot glasses applied to catch the blood) carried out a poorhouse in London.

Mary Willcocks expressed a wish to go to America, so Mrs Worrall generously arranged for her passage to Philadelphia, accompanied by a chaperone. The journey, however, was not uneventful. Mary’s fame was such that she was popularly linked to one of the great romantic figures of the age, Napoleon, then exiled to St Helena. It was reported in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal in that Mary Willcocks had gone ashore at St Helena and met Napoleon who was said to have found her ‘enchanting’.

Mary Willcocks stayed in America for seven years before returning to England. She made one last appearance as Princess Caraboo in a London gallery, where she charged visitors a shilling to see her. The fake princess then returned to Bristol and married a Robert Baker, ten years her senior, and set up business in Bedminster as an importer and seller of leeches, then an important medical commodity. One of her clients was the Bristol Infirmary. Their daughter, Mary Ann, was born around 1829.

When Mary Baker died in 1864 at the age of 75, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Hebron Churchyard, Southville. Her daughter Mary Ann carried on the business of selling leeches.

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