Surrey Women in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine

With a name like ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ you’d be forgiven for thinking that this publication was designed solely for a male audience, or that only men contributed their knowledge, articles and trivia to its pages – but that would be a misconception! Women from all walks of life, from the most humble to great ladies, appear throughout.

Retraction of an obituary for Charlotte Turner Smith. The Gentleman's Magazine. Publlished in the August edition (1786)

Retraction of an obituary for Charlotte Turner Smith. The Gentleman’s Magazine. Publlished in the August edition (1786). Click on the image to see a larger copy.

In July 1787 a short, but heartfelt memoir, commemorating the life of the celebrated tragic actress Mary Ann Yates, was published in the magazine. It was written by her friend, Frances Moore Brooke, a notable playwright and novelist in her own right. Mary had died in May from a prolonged illness which had resulted from a fall she had from her horse some years before. She lived in Mortlake and was buried at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Richmond. In a similar vein is the obituary of Charlotte Turner Smith, English poet and novelist, published in the 1786 July issue. The obituary mainly refers to her father and husband rather than the lady herself, but the truly unfortunate thing was that she wasn’t dead! A correction was published in the following issue assuring readers that Mrs. Smith was alive and well! In fact, she separated from her husband the following year and moved back to Tilford in Surrey, where she lived until her death in 1806.

The retraction of the obituary for Charlotte Turner Smith started:

“P.619. We are extremely happy in being able to assure our reader, that the account of Mrs Charlotte Smith’s death is totally destitute of foundation, that amiable and accomplished woman being at present in perfect health; a circumstance which must give pleasure to every admirer of the Elegiac Muse. At the same time that we express our regret at having been inadvertently the instruments of propagating malicious slander;…”

An account of the life of Sarah Steer of Epsom (or Mother Steer as she was known locally), was published in the 1793 January issue of the magazine, after her death at 92 years of age. Despite being described as a ‘mere pauper’, the author describes with warmth how much Mother Steer was admired. Although poor, she was literate and lived comfortably in her declining years through the charity of neighbours and friends by whom she was greatly respected.

A passing reference was made to the infamous Mary Tofts in an extract taken from the ‘Biographical account of Mr. St. Andre’, first published in the Public Advertiser newspaper and re-printed in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ in 1781, five years after St. Andre’s death. Mary claimed to have given birth to no less than 15 rabbits in 1726, and came to be known as the Rabbit Woman of Godalming. Nathaniel St. Andre, physician to King George I, was called in to examine Mary and believed her case to be genuine; it was later proved to be a hoax and St. Andre’s career was ruined.

Finally, there is the story of Mary Davis, alias Mary Pile, who was tried in July 1784 for robbing one David Thompson, a horse trader, while he slept. The magazine reports that the pair had been travelling together from Dover to London, Thompson having taken the young woman into his employ believing her to be an out of work male waiter! After stopping at an inn one evening, Mary disappeared, and Thompson discovered his money was missing. Mary was apprehended at Canterbury where she produced the stolen coin. When she appeared at trial she was dressed in:

‘a brown surtout coat, a striped flannel waistcoat, buckskin breeches, white stockings, and round hat; she had a watch in her fob, a handkerchief round her neck, and not unlike the character she assumed of the waiter at an inn.’

It was discovered that she was under the guardianship of a Mr. Sandys, who had placed her with a Mrs. Berry in Southwark (then part of Surrey). She was to receive an allowance of £500 in increments from her guardian, though she claimed she never received more than one shilling in every pound of her entitlement. Mary was acquitted of the charge; although she was believed to be the same person tried under the name Francis Davis in Kent for a like offence.

There are too many extraordinary people and stories to draw on here, but if this has wetted your appetite for discovery why not come in to Surrey History Centre to have a look at these wonderful magazines!

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