I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A young girl without family in eighteenth-century England was often abandoned to a hopeless street life and an early death.
The only other feasible alternative was to go into service; that meant a lifetime of drudgery cleaning a rich family’s toilets and polishing their silverware. At the bottom of the service hierarchy, maids-of-all-work received an annual wage of £2 10s (about $150 in today’s terms) plus a room and food. It was a job that involved 16-hour days, seven days a week.
Respected Midwife Takes in Destitute Girls
Having had 16 children of her own, although only three survived infancy, Elizabeth Brownrigg knew a thing or two about delivering babies.
She went into the midwifery trade and, by all accounts, was very good at it. Eventually, says storyoflondon.com, “She was appointed to look after the women in the poorhouse run by the parish of St. Dunstan in the West.” She was described as caring in helping women through the agony of labour, something that seems at odds with her later behaviour.
Through her connections, Mrs. Brownrigg took several orphaned girls from institutions for the poor into her house to be trained in domestic service. Not incidentally, the girls didn't have to be paid the meagre wages that servants received at the time. Mrs. Browrigg's only costs were food and lodging and these she was very stingy about.
A Peek Into Georgian London Courtesy of William Hogarth
Two Apprentices Join the Brownrigg Household
In 1765, Mary Mitchell was sent to work in the Brownrigg home, and she was soon followed by Mary Jones.
No doubt thinking themselves lucky to get the positions, the two Marys soon learned otherwise. Capitalpunishmentuk.org records that, “Both girls endured frequent physical and verbal abuse, with regular beatings for the smallest mistakes.”
The Newgate Calendar recounts that, “Having laid Mary Jones across two chairs in the kitchen, she (Brownrigg) whipped her with such wanton cruelty that she was occasionally obliged to desist through mere weariness.”
This girl was able to escape and make her way to the Foundling Hospital, where she had come from in the first place. Doctors were alarmed at the nature of her wounds but, beyond warning Mrs. Brownrigg’s husband James to put a stop to the mistreatment, did nothing.
Elizabeth Brownrigg Gets Another Victim
A third girl, 14-year-old Mary Clifford, was brought to the Brownrigg home for service early in 1766. She was to suffer worse than the two Mary’s before her.
In addition to the frequent whippings, she was made to sleep in a frigid coal cellar and to subsist on bread and water.
Clifford told a woman staying in the house about what was happening to her. The woman confronted Mrs. Brownrigg who, says storyoflondon.com “flew at Mary Clifford with a pair of scissors and cut her tongue in two places.”
But this was not the end of Mary Clifford's misery. Brownrigg’s practice was to chain her victims to a roof beam in her house and then to lay about them with a whip.
Authorities Act to End Brutality
In July 1767, a relative of Mary Clifford inquired about the girl and was threatened with legal action by James Brownrigg. But, a neighbour called the relative in and said she had heard moaning coming from the house and feared the girls in it might be being brutalized.
Finally, the authorities took notice of what was going on in the Brownrigg house. Mary Mitchell and Mary Clifford were removed. The Newgate Calendar described Clifford’s condition: “almost her whole body was ulcerated. Being taken to the workhouse, an apothecary was sent for, who pronounced her to be in danger.” She died a few days later.
Elizabeth Brownrigg Convicted of Murder
At her trial on September 7, 1767, Elizabeth Brownrigg testified to her treatment of Mary Clifford: “I did give her several lashes, but with no design of killing her …” She tried to explain away the masses of injuries as mostly the result of various accidents.
James Brownrigg and son John got away with a six-month prison term for assault. Elizabeth was sentenced on Friday, September 11 to be hanged the following Monday.
On the appointed morning, capitalpunishmentuk.org writes that her “hands and arms [were] tied with cord. The rope was placed around her neck and she was put into the cart accompanied by Thomas Turlis, the hangman, to make the journey to Tyburn.”
Her crimes were so notorious and she was so detested by the public that huge numbers turned out for her execution; a greater crowd, it was said, than for any hanging. Along the way, and at the hanging, they jeered and cursed her. Writing for mensnewsdaily.com, Denise Noe describes the scene: “ ‘The devil will fetch her!’ some yelled. ‘I hope she burns in hell!’ others screamed.
“As she stood on the gallows, Elizabeth Brownrigg prayed aloud for the salvation of her soul and confessed her guilt.”
- According to research carried out by capitalpunishmentuk.org “it was neither illegal nor unusual for employers to beat their servants and apprentices in the mid-18th century.” It was, however, illegal to beat them to death.
- Elizabeth Brownrigg was a particularly cruel mistress, but there were others like her. In 1681, Elizabeth Wigenton was hanged for giving a 13-year-old apprentice coat maker such a severe beating that she died. In 1740, servant Jane Butterworth was beaten to death, and several others were similarly mistreated.
- The journey from Newgate Prison to Tyburn was made by horse-drawn wagon. It was customary for convicts making this final trip to be allowed to stop at a pub along the way to fortify themselves against the ordeal ahead. Aided by courage from a bottle they were then put back on the wagon having taken the last drink they would ever have in their lives. Hence, the phrase “On the wagon” meaning to abstain from drinking. There are other explanations for the origin of the phrase but this one fits best with the subject of this article.
- After the hangman cut her down, Elizabeth Brownrigg’s body was dissected in public. Her skeleton was put on display at the Royal College of Surgeons, so “that the heinousness of her cruelty might make the more lasting impression on the minds of the spectators.”
- “Elizabeth Brownrigg.” The Newgate Calendar, undated.
- “Portrait of an Evil Woman: Torture-Killer Elizabeth Brownrigg,” Denise Noe, mensnewsdaily.com, February 5, 2008.
- “The Skeleton Of Elizabeth Brownrigg, 18th Century Murderer.” Strange Remains, November 26, 2013.
- “Elizabeth Brownrigg.” Capitalpunishmentuk.org, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Joanna Pilatowicz from Germany on March 24, 2017:
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 24, 2017:
What a horrible woman! And to think that they were others like her. Surprised that they did not find her insane. Thanks for telling this story.
Suzie from Carson City on March 23, 2017:
Yes Rupert, Humanity's cruelty toward our fellowman has not come too far, has it? This is serious cause for shame, awareness and CHANGE!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 23, 2017:
Peace too Paula.
But, while this was the 18th century the same exploitation of vulnerable people, particularly women, goes on today. Where do our tee-shirts, sneakers, and cell phones come from?
Suzie from Carson City on March 23, 2017:
Rupert, This terribly nasty woman can easily be described as "rotten to her core." Such horrendous viciousness and for what? Because she could? Let us count the ways she can be described as a monster with no soul. Just to be the "owner" of another human being, who toiled day & night as her private slave, is a disturbing offense. To further allow them no comforts , little food & drink and beat them mercilessly, how does a human being get to this degree of pure evil? I am abhorred and sickened. My heart literally breaks when I imagine the physical pain and mental damage done to these young girls, unfortunate enough to be orphaned.
It does not please me to know that Elizabeth was hanged, but in all honesty, I cannot say she did not deserve her punishment. May God show mercy upon her. A disturbing piece, Rupert but well-written and educational......Peace, Paula
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 23, 2017:
Blimey, I've never heard of her before. This was really interesting to read and to learn about her crimes.