I have recently become acquainted with the fantastical story of Princess Caraboo, the Beggar Princess of Bristol. It is so incredible, and had such an impact on Regency society, that I simply had to share it here.
A mysterious woman
On April 3rd, 1817, a mysterious young woman looking lost appeared in the small village of Almondsbury, in Gloucestershire, England – just north of Bristol. She was dressed in a turban and a ruffled black dress, called herself Caraboo and apparently spoke no English.
The local county magistrate, Mr Worral of Knole Park, and his wife Elizabeth, who was American, initially thought that she was a beggar. However, an encounter with a Portuguese sailor changed everything.
A faraway land
The sailor declared he could communicate with the woman and translated her story for the Worrals. She was Princess Caraboo, from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean. She had been captured by pirates, and had escaped her captors by swimming ashore from the ship where she was held prisoner.
The Worrals were delighted: a princess, nevertheless! They promptly offered her hospitality to Princess Caraboo and proceeded to observe her quirks and parade her to everyone of their acquaintance.
An exotic culture
Princess Caraboo soon became a favourite with the Bristol and Bath haut ton. Dressed in exotic clothing, she mesmerised everyone with her strange habits and feistiness. She enjoyed dancing, fencing and swimming naked, liked sleeping on the floor, used a bow and arrow and prayed to a god she called Allah-Talla.
Dr Wilkinson of Bath, a specialist, declared her story authentic, and even decided to consult the Foreign Office in London to help return the Princess to her land. He also reached the conclusion that the mysterious marks on the back of her head were the result of the work of oriental surgeons. Everyone was convinced Caraboo really was who she said.
An eagle-eyed lady
The princess achieved national notoriety, and her story and portrait even appeared in newspapers throughout the land. Alas, Caraboo’s celebrity also became her downfall. There are two versions as to what happened next, both involving a Mrs Neal or Mrs Neale, who lived in Bristol.
Mrs Neal/Neale either saw Caraboo’s portrait in the Bristol Journal, or met her face to face in the Pump Rooms at Bath. Either way, Mrs Neal/Neale recognised Caraboo as Mary Baker, née Willcocks, a cobbler’s daughter from a village near Devon who, according to some sources, she had either once employed or welcomed into her boarding house.
The end of the fairy tale
In an instant, everything came crashing down for Caraboo. The British pressed dissected the hoax. Her language was proclaimed to be made-up nonsense, and the strange scars on the back of her head, the result of a fire cupping operation in a poorhouse hospital in London.
With her deception exposed, Mary had precious few friends left in Britain. However, after finding out her real story – of an unhappy childhood, poverty and ill-adjustment to strict society rules – Mrs Worrall took pity on her, and got her a passage to Philadelphia. Mary left the country on 28 June 1817.
After reprising her Princess Caraboo role with little success in the US, Mary returned to Britain in 1824, but her attempts to regain her popularity were unsuccessful. What remains surprising to this day, however, was her ability to capture the imagination of a whole country and convince everyone that she was a foreign princess.
Were you familiar with the story of Princess Caraboo? Perhaps you’ve watched the 1994 film about her – and if so, would you recommend it?