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Myths and Legends
Bristol’s Princess Caraboo

Exposed

Astonished at having a foreign princess in their house the Woralls began to advertise the fact. ‘Princess Caraboo’ delighted guests with her strange language and eccentric manners. She was a skilled fencer and used a home-made bow and arrow with great proficiency, danced exotically, swam naked in the lake when she was alone, and prayed to her supreme being "Allah Tallah" from treetops. Spellbound Romantic intellectuals were desperate to find out her exact origins; at first she seemed to imply she came from China - but her entirely European appearance suggested otherwise.

The prevailing attitude of the early 1800s towards the Orient -
Princess Caraboo
Princess Caraboo, Princess of Javasu, alias Mary Baker (detail) MEYER, Henry after BIRD, Edward 1762-1819
© Copyright Bristol Museums & Art Gallery
a combination of incomplete knowledge and a fascination for the strange and forbidden practices associated with such shadowy places as Java - only added to the girl’s aura of mystery. Every week more and more visitors poured in to see her and newspapers were full of descriptions of the Princess Caraboo. She had become a national figure, but this notoriety was to prove her undoing.

In early June a Mrs. Neale, the owner of a Bristol lodging house, read the description of the princess in the Bristol Journal and recognised her immediately. A couple of months earlier "Caraboo" had been a lodger at a house which she kept with her daughters, and she'd sometimes entertained them by speaking in her own made up language. When she left the house she would wear a turban.

The shocked Mrs. Worrall confronted Caraboo with this information, and after some resistance she eventually broke down and admitted the truth. She was Mary Baker (born Willcocks), the daughter of a cobbler, from Witheridge, Devon. After the initial shock, the reaction to the royal impostor was amazement and not a little admiration. The press made her into a working-class heroine who had deceived high society and exposed upper class vanity.

For the second time in two months she enjoyed iconic status in England and such was her fame that a story was printed detailing Caraboo’s meeting with another hero of the increasingly discontented working class, Napoleon, then in exile in St Helena. That this fiction was believed by many suggests that the old aristocratic order was beginning to crumble as more and more people identified themselves with the ideas of Napoleon, radical romantics like Shelley and Byron, and even the plight of Mary Baker herself.

Others involved in the hoax fared less well. The newspapers of the time,
Knole Park, the home of the Worralls
Knole Park became 'the place' to see a Princess
© Jennifer Raison & Michael Goldie - The Windrush Press
always ready to ridicule the intellectual, had a field day and published several satirical pieces on the theories about Caraboo’s origin put forward by various experts who visited her.

But how had this uneducated country girl manage to fool so many people, some of them highly intelligent academics, for so long and perhaps more importantly, why? It was an amazing achievement for a poor working-class girl to turn the accepted view of society upside down with such apparent ease. Was she assisted by the mysterious "Portuguese sailor" Manuel Eynesso who claimed to understand her language? There is no evidence that the two knew each other or that there was any collaboration between them and it seems more likely that Eynesso was himself an impostor trying to take advantage of her fame.

Mary’s own personal history before "Caraboo" is strange enough. Born in 1791, into a very poor family where six of her brothers and sisters had died young, she spun wool and weaved, and occasionally worked on local farms from the age of eight. Later she worked as a maid in various houses in Exeter and London, her employers, often stating that although they were fond of her, they feared for her sanity and thought her ‘odd and eccentric’. She also spent time in St. Mary’s workhouse in London and the Magdalen Hospital for reformed prostitutes – though it seems she stayed at the latter under false pretences.

Words: Brian Haughton

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