Story Of London

Mrs Elizabeth Brownrigg

Mrs Elizabeth Brownrigg
by Polina Coffey

This was a notorious case of physical abuse of servants which eventually led to murder and the scaffold at Tyburn. Parish councils and various charities were, in the eighteenth century, setting out on their crusades of good works. These largely focused on young girls who were either orphaned or otherwise indigent and who could hope for nothing better than a life on the streets. One of the favoured ways of setting these girls up was to apprentice them to a local woman who was employed in Good Works. Mrs Brownrigg was a recognised midwife and was appointed to look after the women in the poorhouse run by the parish of St Dunstan in the West. The trustees sent her three apprentices who lived at her private house and performed the functions of domestic servants as they learned their trade. But they also learned something else….

Mrs Elizabeth Brownrigg

Elizabeth Brownrigg was the wife of a plumber James Brownrigg who, after practising his trade for seven years in Greenwich moved to London. He took a house in Fleur-de-Luce Court off Fleet Street and soon had a thriving business. Before long, he also purchased a small property in Islington which the family used for their occasional country retreats. They had had sixteen children and Mrs Brownrigg became a recognised midwife when her child-bearing years were over. After the move to London, she was appointed by the overseers of the poor in the parish of St Dunstan in the West to take care of the poor women in the workhouse. She performed the duties of her position to the entire satisfaction of the overseers.

Mrs Brownrigg took pregnant women in to lie privately in her own house and was therefore supplied with apprentices who were meant to save the expense of women-servants. The first apprentice was one Mary Mitchell, a poor girl from the Whitefriars precinct who was appointed in 1765. She was joined not long after by Mary Jones, one of the children who had been reared in the Foundling Hospital. It was not long before these children began to regret what they probably initially saw as a stroke of great good luck.

Mary Jones was frequently made to lie across two chairs in the kitchen whereupon Mrs Brownrigg proceeded to whip her with such force that she herself was ‘occasionally obliged to desist through mere weariness’. When she had finished the whipping, Mrs Brownrigg used to throw water on her victim and often thrust her head into a pail of water. The girl was in a constant state of pain from the continuously open wounds on her body and was desperate to escape but there was nobody to whom she could turn.

Her room was next to the passage that led to the street door. One morning, as the family slept upstairs, she discovered that the key had been left in the door. She took her opportunity and escaped into the street. Repeatedly inquiring the way from passers-by she eventually found her way back to the Foundling Hospital where she described her treatment. She was examined by a surgeon ‘who found her wounds to be of a most alarming nature, the governors of the hospital ordered Mr Plumbtree, their solicitor, to write to James Brownrigg, threatening a prosecution if he did not give a proper reason for the severities exercised towards the child’. This notice was completely ignored and the governors of the hospital did not have the stomach to go through an indictment at common law. They therefore made an application to the Lord Chamberlain to have the girl discharged from the hospital.

Meanwhile, Mary Mitchell, was still in the service of Mrs Brownrigg and was treated with as much cruelty over the next year or so. One day she managed to escape from the house but ran into the younger son of the Brownriggs. He forced her back into the house and her attempted escape only served to increase the intensity of the beatings. Meanwhile, the overseers of the precinct of Whitefriars had replaced Mary Jones by one Mary Clifford and it was not long before she, too, began to suffer under the Brownrigg regime to an extent that the other girls had not experienced.
She was frequently tied up naked and beaten with a hearth broom, a horsewhip or a cane till she was absolutely speech-less. This poor girl having a natural infirmity, the mistress would not permit her to lie in a bed, but placed her on a mat in a coal-hole that was remarkably cold; however, after some time, a sack and a quantity of straw formed her bed, instead of the mat. During her confinement in this wretched situation she had nothing to subsist on but bread and water; and her covering, during the night, consisted only of her own clothes, so that she sometimes lay almost perished with cold.

Driven by hunger and thirst she broke open a cupboard and paid the penalty. She was made to strip naked and during the course of a whole day was repeatedly beaten with the butt-end of a whip. A jack-chain was put around her neck and tied to the yard door and pulled as tight as possible without actually strangling the girl. At the end of the day she was thrown back into the coal-hole with her hands tied behind her back and the chain still fastened around her neck.

It is difficult to know what Brownrigg himself knew about the cruelty. As the pervading morality and religious sentiment of the time meant that he could not observe these female apprentices in anything other than a completely clothed state, they were kept from his sight ‘for whole days, if their garments happened to be torn’. It is certainly the case that Mrs Brownrigg, who used to tie the girls to a water-pipe which ran across the ceiling of the kitchen, had her husband fix a hook in the timber beam when the pipe gave way. Thereafter she strung the girls up by means of the hook and horsewhipped them until she herself was weary and ‘till the blood flowed at every stroke’.

Mary Clifford did not suffer at the hands of the mother only. It is on record that the elder Brownrigg son
‘one day directed Mary Clifford to put up a half-tester bedstead, but the poor girl was unable to do it; on which he beat her till she could no longer support his severity’.
At other times, when the mother had been whipping her in the kitchen until she wore herself out, the son renewed the treatment. And again, Mrs Brownrigg would sometimes seize the girl by the cheeks and, forcing the skin down violently with her fingers, cause the blood to gush from her eyes. Mary Clifford told of her treatment to a French Lady who was staying in the house. The latter spoke to Mrs Brownrigg who thereupon flew at Mary Clifford with a pair of scissors and cut her tongue in two places.

On the morning of the 13th of July 1767 ’this barbarous woman went into the kitchen and, after obliging Mary Clifford to strip to the skin, drew her up to the staple; and though her body was an entire sore, from former bruises, yet this wretch renewed her cruelties with her accustomed severity. After whipping her till the blood streamed down her body she let her down, and made her wash herself in a tub of cold water, Mary Mitchell, the other poor girl, being present during this transaction. While Clifford was washing herself Mrs Brownrigg struck her on the shoulders, already sore with former bruises, with the butt-end of a whip ; and she treated the child in this manner five times in the same day’.
The wood Street Compter

The parish authorities finally took some action. Brownrigg himself was arrested and incarcerate in the Wood Street Compter. His wife, however, and his elder son escaped with a gold watch and a purse of money. They bought clothes with which to disguise themselves at Rag fair and shifted around the outskirts of London before taking lodgings at the house of a Mr Dunbar, a chandler in Wandsworth. Brownrigg, meanwhile appeared before Alderman Crosby who had him committed and ordered that the two girls be taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital where Mary Clifford died a few days later. At the subsequent coroner’s inquest a verdict of murder was found against James and Elizabeth Brownrigg and their son John.

A warrant was issued for mother and son and advertisements were placed in the newspapers. On August 15th the Wandsworth chandler saw one of these advertisements and was in no doubt as to the identity of his lodgers were. He quietly went to the police and returned with a constable who arrested the pair who were taken to Newgate. The trial of the father, mother and son took place at the Sessions House at the Old Bailey. Father and son were acquitted of murder and committed to trial on the charge of misdemeanour for which both were subsequently imprisoned for six months.
The Sessions House at Old Bailey

The mother, however, after a trial of eleven hours, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
’After sentence of death was passed on Mrs Brownrigg she was attended by a clergyman, to whom she confessed the enormity of her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the sentence by which she had been condemned. The parting between her and her husband and son, on the morning of her execution, was affecting. The son fell on his knees, and she bent over him and embraced him; while the husband knelt on the other side’.
The condemned cell at Newgate.
Find Tyburn on the Map

On the 14th of September 1767 Elizabeth Brownrigg was taken by the usual route to Tyburn and was attended by the usual mob. However, on this occasion the mob vented its disgust and abhorrence of her cruelty, and her final journey through London was a very unpleasant one. Once dead, her body was cut down from the scaffold and taken by hackney-coach to Surgeon’s Hall in the Old Bailey. Once they had dissected it for the benefit of their students her skeleton was hung up in the Hall and exposed to the public gaze.
Surgeon’s Hall in the Old Bailey.