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Modern Britain

A Fake Princess's Part in History

Edited from BBC News, 30 March 2007

She turned up in Gloucestershire in 1817, claiming to be Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu - saying she had been kidnapped by pirates before escaping and making her way to England.

And the fact that Mary Willcocks' tale was completely invented arguably makes her story no less remarkable. The young woman who said she was a princess from a faraway island was later proved to be a twenty-six year-old cobbler's daughter from Devon, whose exotic foreign dialect had been a fictitious language.

But her place in Bristol folklore was recognised in 2007 with the unveiling of a blue plaque in a street in Bedminster, the suburb in which she spent the last eleven years of her life. The supposed princess arrived in the Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury, near Bristol, on 3 April 1817, wearing a black turban and black dress, with her possessions wrapped up in a small bundle.

Publicity her downfall

She appeared exhausted and starving and was speaking a language nobody in the village could understand. The villagers thought she was a foreign beggar and she was taken to the home of Samuel Worrall, the local county magistrate. His wife was keen to find out more about her and, after taking her in to stay, she managed to work out that her name was Caraboo and she had come to England by ship.

After various attempts to identify the language she was speaking, a Portuguese sailor said he understood it and he translated Caraboo's story. He said that she was a princess from an island called Javasu who had been abducted by pirates and taken on a long journey by sea which ended when she jumped overboard in the Bristol Channel. Once the Worralls realised they had a foreign princess in their house, they began to exploit the fact, inviting guests round to be entertained by the exotic Caraboo and her strange language and behaviour.

Newspapers began to ran stories on her, but it was this publicity which would bring Miss Willcocks' spell as a princess to an end. After two months, the owner of a Bristol lodging house saw a picture of her in a newspaper and realised that 'Princess Caraboo' was the same young woman who had stayed with her earlier in the year - and had entertained her daughters with an invented language.

But rather than being the end of her time in the limelight, the truth extended it further, with Miss Willcocks now being hailed as a working class heroine who had deceived high society.

She was sent to America and spent seven years there, but she found herself hailed as a heroine in her Princess Caraboo role and made public appearances as her - just as she did when she returned to England in 1824. She spent the last few years of her life back in Bristol, making a living selling leeches to the city's hospital, before dying at the age of seventy-five in 1864.

A film of Mary Willcocks' life was made by Disney in 1994 - titled Princess Caraboo and starring Kevin Kline and Jim Broadbent, with Phoebe Cates in the title role.

'Dared to escape'

Brian Haughton, a historian who has written about Princess Caraboo, agreed that she is worthy of recognition - and was as much a class-warrior inspiration as a cheeky hoaxer.

Princess Caraboo film poster
Princess Caraboo, the 1994 film version starring Phoebe Cates, covering the real events in the life of Mary Willcocks who first appeared as the original star of this role in 1817

  Mary Willcocks should be an inspiration to anyone who feels held back by their position in society

Brian Haughton, historian and Princess Caraboo expert  


He said: 'In an age in which women were second class citizens, and working class women had practically no rights at all, Mary Willcocks managed to break out of her class and into high society and beat them at their own game. Through a combination of her own unique talents and her appeal to the romanticism of the upper class, Mary was treated like the exotic princess she claimed to be. This Devon servant girl achieved this during a period of English history in which people were being transported to Australia for stealing a petticoat. That Mary dared to escape her menial position and perpetrate such a complicated hoax is, I believe, nothing short of wondrous. Mary Willcocks should be an inspiration to anyone who feels held back by their position in society.'

Christopher Orlik, a former member of Bristol City Council who was involved at the time in organising the city's blue plaques, agreed that the hoax princess deserved her recognition.

In his words, he agreed that she was part of Bristol's history: 'In an age where there was no entertainment in the way of radio, television, or cinema, she provided a lot of entertainment for people, and she didn't do any harm. We've got forty-seven blue plaques now and she may not be as famous as some of the other people but she's the only one who has had a full length film made about her. It creates pride in the city - I'm proud to be a Bristolian and I'm proud to be from where Princess Caraboo lived and to walk on the streets she walked on.'

 

  I'm proud to be from where Princess Caraboo lived and to walk on the streets she walked on

Christopher Orlik
Blue Plaque organiser
 
 

 

     
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