You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty

The Princess Caraboo hoax of 1817

The bucolic calm of the Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury was disturbed on April 3, 1817 when the local cobbler came across a young woman, seemingly disoriented, wearing exotic clothing and babbling in a strange language. Taking her to his home and communicating by sign language he soon determined that she wanted food and drink and somewhere to sleep. The cobbler’s wife, though, was not happy to have this strange woman under her roof and told her husband to take her to a Mr Hill, the Overseer of the Poor.

One of Mr Hill’s tasks was to take anyone suspected of vagrancy to the local Justice of the Peace, which he duly did. Samuel Worrall, who lived in nearby Knole Park House, was the magistrate for the area, took pity on the woman and with the help of his wife, Elizabeth, tried to make some sense of what the woman was saying. These enquiries came to naught save for deducing that the woman called herself Caraboo.

Her arrival had put the Worralls in a spot. They had their position in society to think of and harbouring a woman who, for all they knew, could have been a criminal wasn’t on. Saw Elizabeth arranged for the local pub, The Bowl, to give her rooms. On the walls of the pub were prints of exotic fruits, all the rage at the time, and Caraboo astonished the local topers by pointing to a pineapple and saying Nanas, the Indonesian word for the fruit. Caraboo’s stock rose dramatically, the good folk of Almondsbury being convinced that she was from the East, and she was invited back to stay with the Worralls.

To say that Caraboo was not an easy house guest is no understatement. She slept on the floor rather than in a bed, would only eat vegetables and drink tea, and would insist on clambering up on to the roof to say her prayers to a god she called Allah-talla. Her appearance was disturbing to contemporary eyes with her exotic clothing and strange markings on her head.

The mystery of Caraboo seemed to have been solved when she was introduced to a Portuguese sailor, Manuel Eynesso, who seemed to understand her language. He told Mr Worrall that she was a princess from an island called Javasu, had been captured by pirates, had escaped by jumping overboard in the Bristol Channel and swum ashore. Transformed instantly from a vagrant to an exotic princess whose escape from the pirates appealed to the Worrall’s anti-slavery sentiments, Caraboo was someone to cherish and boast about.

The Worralls were not shy in letting all in the locality of their exotic house guest. Her eccentricities were now something to behold with wonder and she wowed onlookers with her skills with the bow and arrow and her exotic dancing. She would swim unclothed in the lake, away from prying eyes, at least so we are told. Drawings were made of her and stories were written about her in the local press. Samuel Worrall sent some of her strange writings to Oxford to be analysed and a Dr Wilkinson, using a copy of Edmund Fry’s Pantographia, attested to the authenticity of her language and stated that the markings on her head were the work of oriental surgeons. Caraboo even had a ball held in her honour in Bath.

Caraboo’s moment of fame lasted for around ten weeks before her bubble was rudely burst by a Mrs Neale, a boarding-housekeeper from Bristol. Recognising Caraboo’s picture in the Bristol Journal as that of Mary Willcocks, an itinerant servant girl from the Devon village of Witheridge, she blew the whistle on her deception. Caraboo was a figment of Willcocks’ imagination, her language a mix of imaginary words and Romany, and the marks on her head were the scars from a cupping operation performed in one of London’s poorhouse hospitals. Worse still, the academics from Oxford reported that the writings Worrall had submitted for examination were of a “humbug language”, a popular term in Oxford it would seem.

The British press seized on the hoax as a tick with which to beat the naivety and gullibility of the rural middle classes. Quite why Willcocks carried out the hoax, other than to see how far it got her as she had nothing else to lose, is not clear but after a stint in America she returned to Blighty and tried her luck in the theatre as Princess Caraboo. Her stage career did not take off and she returned to the West country, supplying and selling leeches, until her death in 1864.        

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

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