Mary Anne Clarke was a beautiful woman. Not all courtesans were beautiful – some relied on wit more than beauty — but she was amongst the beauties. Her features – the wealth of soft, dark, curly hair, the changeable eyes (probably hazel), tip-tilted nose, red lips, dimpled chin, the superb white neck and shoulders and a full bosom — were admirably painted in the miniature on ivory by Adam Buck at the beginning of this piece. Her figure was petite, her feet tiny, and her smile (and laugh) as described by her great-great-grand-daughter, above, infectious and memorable. She was also said to be intelligent and quick-witted, known for her skill at repartee and the sharpness of her remarks.
“Mrs Clarke the York Magnet”, hand-colored aquatint by unknown artist, published 1809
But she was a vulgar piece of work, this girl from the mean streets of London, often coarse in language and behavior, impudent, provocative, feisty, tough, possessing a “gutter loveliness,” Du Maurier noted, that was perhaps all “the more alluring because it was ill-bred.” Those not taken in by her smile described her as being “an actress…completely unscrupulous in every way.”
From the 1809 source Authentic And Interesting Memoirs of Mrs Clarke, From Her Infamy To The Present Time, Likewise A Brief Account of Mr Wardle’s Charges Relative To His Royal Highness The Duke of York: Together With The Minutes of Evidence As Taken In The House Of Commons From Authentic Documents… anonymously published in England (and abroad), there is much biographical information…most of it dubious. (I will abbreviate this source as AAIM.) The unverifiable nature of most of this material, however, has not kept it from being repeated as fact in articles relating to the life of Mary Anne Clarke.
From the AAIM, we are told that she was born circa 1776, in an area of London called Ball-and-Pin Alley, near White’s Alley, Chancery Lane (it’s sometimes cited as Bowling Inn Alley or Bowling Pin Alley). It was a humble upbringing, to be sure, a place of ill-kept and dirty lodging-houses, where poverty reigned. Her maiden name is given as Thompson, and we are told that her father was a tradesman who died when she was young. There was a stepfather named Farquhar who’s described as a compositor/corrector at a print-shop owned by a Mr. Hughs in Fleet Street.
The narrative of this so-called memoir relates that Mary Anne would go daily to the print-shop to collect her stepfather’s work, and that she’d undertake the necessary correcting, thus becoming the mainstay of her struggling family. This assumes, of course, that she’d been taught to read and write – and did both well — before she took this upon herself. The narrative goes on to say that a Mr. Day, the overseer of the print-shop — attracted by her vivacity and charm, no doubt — sends her to a school at Ham, in Essex, to be educated. His motive, we are told, is that he had “a view of making her his wife at some future period,” but when she returns, after supposedly spending two years in Ham, things do not work out for Mr. Day. Wedding off! (And, really, it is hard to believe this sending-away-to-school scenario ever happened.)
At this juncture, the Thompson/Farquhar family moves to Black Raven Passage, Cursitor-street, in Holborn, and the narrative goes on to tell of her dealings with a pawnbroker, a Mr F—ll–d, who gives her exorbitant sums of money, to the extent that she eventually ruins him and his business. Undaunted, Mary Anne then sets her sights on another man, Joseph Clarke, the second son of a wealthy bricklayer in Angel-Court, Snowhill, with whom she elopes to Pentonville. She is probably about seventeen years old; they supposedly married in 1794. Clarke’s father sets him up in a business, a stone yard in Golden-lane. (Captain Gronow, in his memoirs, says that Clarke was “a captain in a marching regiment” which has no substantiation whatsoever; Gronow’s memoirs are a wealth of information on the Regency period, but he is often careless with his facts.)
In two years, however, Joseph Clarke is bankrupt and there are tales of philandering (“amours”), and that he is “careless and drunken.” There is no money, but there are, according to the narrative, four children, which is at odds with everything else I have seen that says Mary Anne only had two children, George and Ellen, with Clarke. (A recent article by a writer who was comparing Fergie, the divorced Duchess of York, to Mary Anne Clark – an interesting comparison, but one that can go only so far — stated there were three children. George and Ellen, however, are the only two names that come up consistently. I’ve never seen a reference to a third or fourth child.)
And – are you ready for this? — now we have Mary Anne on the stage, supposedly playing a Shakespearian role, Portia (!), in The Merchant Of Venice, at the Haymarket Theatre. That is extremely hard to believe! There are some asides to her as an actress, character-wise, but verifying that she was indeed on stage – and in a leading role, yet — is problematic. (It should be kept in mind, too, that many streetwalkers and courtesans falsely claimed to be actresses.)
What’s more likely is that she took to the streets after breaking up with Clarke. She had to support her children, after all. Below is a cartoon that speculates on this premise. This contemporary cartoon I saw had what appeared to be penciled in scribbling that might be “M— A—? Clarke”; it shows an ugly old bawd sending a beautiful young streetwalker (who doesn’t look all that much like Mary Anne), out to work; it is undated but bears the caption, Launching A Frigate.
Image is by Rowlandson
So, while any career on the streets is difficult to confirm, what is known is that she soon climbed up the well-trodden whore’s ladder and began to consort with eminent and wealthy men. Among the men named in the AAIM narrative are: Sir Charles M—ln—r; Sir James B.; and an army agent, a Mr. O.; a ne’er do well from Bayswater who’d supposedly seen her on stage, Mr. M—l—y; and a high-roller named Mr. Dowler who takes her to Brighton. The dates don’t add up at all, but this bit is priceless:
“At Brighton under the protection of Mr. Dowler, it is said that she distinguished herself as an excellent swimmer, and occasionally to float on the liquid element to the great astonishment and admiration of the spectators.”
The bathing beauty dumps Mr. Dowler – no doubt after bankrupting him, too – and flees to London with Mr. O – now referred to as Mr. O—l—e, the army agent. They set up house in Tavistock Place. Again, the dates don’t make sense, because the attachments mentioned are all up to 1808, and by 1803/4, she’d already met the Duke of York.
The house below is said to be where she was living before meeting Prince Frederick; it is not Tavistock Place. It’s Chester House, formerly called Manchester House, in Exmouth. The lack of verifiable facts abound, as can be seen in the blue plaque put up on the house by the local historical society:
The blue plaque can be seen to the right of the front door. Note that it is not one of the famous – and usually a bit more accurate! — blue plaques put up by English Heritage. This one states that Mary Anne Clarke “died in disgrace and poverty in Paris in 1813.” Au contraire, as we shall see, for she died in her dotage — quite well off, despite her many extravagances — in Boulogne, in 1852 or 1853. (Daphne Du Maurier, despite having cited the use of three researchers, has her death date one way in The Du Mauriers and the other way in Mary Anne. In the recent Christine Hand article contrasting Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York to Mary Anne, gives the latter’s date of death as 1882, which would have made her 106! She was actually about seventy-six.)
Chester House (Manchester House) with the blue plaque at the side of the front door
So, circa 1803/1804, Mary Anne Clarke, after quite a whirl with quite a large number of men, begins a relationship with Prince Frederick, Duke of York, the brother of Prince George (later King George IV), the Prince of Wales. Frederick was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, hence the nursery rhyme of “the grand old Duke of York” (The origins of this ditty actually pre-dated this particular Duke of York, possibly going back to the 14th century, but it has been associated solely with him in recent memory.)
The undated print below shows the two princely sibs with their father, the king.
Part Three Coming Soon!
Originally published October 24, 2010