Author Helen Rappaport discusses the subject of her newest book, Beautiful For Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street – Cosmetician, Con-Artist and Blackmailer. In the talk, Helen reveals Madame Rachel’s startling career path – from fish fryer in Clare Market to proprietor of an exclusive ‘Temple of Renovation’ that promised eternal beauty but was built upon a foundation of lies, treachery and blackmail.
Madame Rachel of Bond Street
Good afternoon everyone, it’s a pleasure to be here. My first talk at this lovely, lovely repository, and somewhere I have of course myself worked in the past when I was, particularly, researching the Crimean War.
Madame Rachel: had many of you heard of Madame Rachel? She was the most extraordinary, scandalous woman of her day, and yet surprisingly, when I discovered her, she was one of these characters who gets lost in the footnotes of Victorian history. She’d been completely forgotten.
And how I found her really, was just rather lucky, because there I was in one of those fallow periods between books as a writer, and I was looking for another Victorian subject because I have a great passion for the Victorian period, and I thought ‘Well, what’s the obvious thing you do? Well, go maybe down to the Law Library at Oxford where I live, the University Law Library, just have a look at famous trials and scandals of the Victorian era, to see if there’s someone who’s been overlooked’.
Because we know all the obvious ones: the Tichbourne claimant; the Mordaunt divorce case; all the big scandals that have rocked the aristocracy. And there I was reading through a whole collection of old trials from that period, mainly in books published in the 1920s and 1930s, and two or three times I came across mentions of this extraordinary woman, Madame Rachel of Bond Street.
OK, there are only fairly small discussions of her story; ten, a dozen pages, but something about that story completely gripped my imagination. It was so compelling, because here was a woman, I discovered, who’d been all over the papers, in and out of the papers really for the best part of 20 years, and she’d been completely now lost to history.
So, you know, I have that kind of detective instinct with history writing. I suppose if I hadn’t become a historian I would have liked to have been a detective, because I love cracking enigmas and puzzles and it’s such a thrill. The thrill of the chase which you get in family history of filling in the gaps, trying to slot bits of the jigsaw into place.
Well, at the time when I found Madame Rachel, I was so excited. I really, really wanted to write the book, and I took the idea to my agent and he said ‘Not commercial. Forget it! I’ll never sell that. No! This obscure Victorian? Forget it, forget it.’
But of course, things change, time moves on, and this book came out, which of course, if you haven’t read it, what planet are you on? I mean it’s the most compelling…not rediscovery because the case itself was well known, but it’s a retelling of a classic Victorian cause célèbre and the success of this book completely changed the landscape for me, because suddenly Victorian true crime [was seen to be] ‘Ah! That’s suddenly sexy!’, and you know if you’re a trade writer as I am and you’re trying to sell ideas to publishers, you’ve got to be sexy, you’ve got to come up with ideas that are going to appeal to the public.
So that kind of changed things, and I did get the book signed, although in the end I have to say, I did take it to a very small imprint, because my main publisher, with the recession, decided not to do it after all.
So there I was with this extraordinary story, and the immediate thing that gripped me about Rachel first of all was that there were pictures of her. There were quite a few carte de visite in circulation.
This one was taken at the time of her 1868 trial. An extremely imposing woman, very beautifully dressed, à la dowager widow, very much with Queen Victoria in mind, because this is 1860s, not long after Albert died. So, the first thing I wanted to do was have something of Rachel as an inspiration, and I did what maybe some of you have done. I went on e-bay, and I kept looking and kept looking.
Suddenly, another version of the carte de visite became available, and I did that nail-biting thing of going on an online auction and you know the seconds are ticking down and the biddings going up and up and up and you keep clicking and praying. Anyway I did get this. It was just good to have the image of this woman, because the first thing that immediately confronts one, looking at that face: this is a woman who flogged cosmetics, and made enormous, actually enormous amounts of money, and she isn’t exactly an advertisement for them, is she?
And that was what was so astonishing about this story: this was a woman [who was] utterly compelling, quite terrifying, a very clever con artist, blackmailer, in many ways she was, yes of course, a criminal, but one of those seductive criminals who you couldn’t make up. That’s why I love history, that’s why I love writing history, that’s why I love digging up these stories…because the true story is always stranger than fiction.
Of course what was wonderful in particular about doing this story [was that] I knew from the start there was not going to be loads and loads of secondary material there. I think one of the reasons her story hadn’t been told [was that] you can’t do a quick cut and paste around secondary sources, you’ve got to go back to the primary source material, and what a joy it is, because we’re all living now in the age of digitisation, which makes it possible.
I mean, just thinking in terms of when I did my family tree, way back in the early 1980s, I did it all cranking the microfilm laboriously in the old repositories. But now you can do so much at the press of a button. It’s phenomenal how we can make these fantastic inroads into rediscovering our lost past, particularly from the 19th century, because of digitisation.
And the great thing about doing this story was of course that most of Rachel’s story is told in the newspapers and magazines of the day. And so, thanks to this marvellous project (I’m sure you must have used it), the British Library project to digitise a great number of newspapers and journals, plus the Times of course, which has been digitised longer than all the others. I do wish they’d hurry up and do the Telegraph though.
Anyway, it gave me a chance to get right back into the story, as it was happening in the 1860s. Of course the glorious thing about court cases when you’re reading, (and of course there were acres and acres and acres of coverage of the celebrated court cases this woman was involved in) the great thing about them is you hear the voices. You get verbatim of how people spoke, how they presented themselves, what was said in court, and it so brings history alive and you can’t get that from secondary regurgitated sources.
So, I was particularly proud to be able to reconstruct this story as close as I could to the real thing, and I will just mention one more thing about it, the actual research, because you all, in many ways, are researchers like me, the research for this book.
The other thing that came greatly into play was my experience as a genealogist. I’d done all my own family history and in all my books, I always use genealogy as a tool in getting to find out facts about my subjects, obviously, if they’re Victorian ones.
So, genealogy played an extraordinary part in getting to grips with Madame Rachel, because she was a chameleon; she had many aliases, she never came clean about who exactly she was, her real background. And I don’t want to spoil the story by giving it all to you here, and it’s not that I’m trying to sell my book, but you know, there is a big reveal in the book, and it’s fascinating.
And the extraordinary thing about that genealogy was again: digitisation, the modern age. I was looking and searching in vain for the right connection to her family tree, and I went to the Royal Academy of Music in search of one part of it, via one of her children, and they said ‘Oh, that’s funny; we’ve had someone asking about this same person (this was one of Rachel’s daughters). Hmm, we might have her emails somewhere.’
And of course what happens, and maybe you’ve had this experience too, you’re given an email, you contact someone on the other side of the world or wherever: ‘Oh yes, I know all about that family, you know, I’ve got some information that might help you.’ So, that is the joy of writing history now: digitisation, using genealogy, using the newspapers and magazines of the day to reconstruct people who’d otherwise languish in obscurity, in the footnotes.
So, where did Rachel come from? Well of course, she didn’t start out as Madame Rachel. She was born in the area of Drury Lane. We’re not even sure when she was born; probably around 1815, into a poor family, and grew up in and around Drury Lane and started out in life as what was then called a wardrobe dealer. Now that’s not a dealer in wardrobes that you put your clothes in, it’s actually a second hand clothes dealer. And she used to do her trade up and down Drury Lane amongst the actresses, buying and selling dresses.
Now at this point, very early in the story, I picked up evidence that also, she did a little bit of procuring amongst the actresses for a friend of hers called David Belasco, who ran a brothel just up the road. Now this is part of Rachel’s story that’s very, very hard to pin down. There was a massive amount of rumour during the time of her notoriety about what she got up to, but I have pretty strong feelings that she did work as a procuress in the early days.
But that wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to move on; she was ambitious. So, she moved from selling second hand clothes, into (very close by), she moved into Clare Market, Clare Court. If any of you know where the site of the London School of Economics is; just up from the Aldwych. That whole area was razed, but that was the area [known as] Clare Market, which was a butcher’s shambles; it was also a seething den of pimps and criminals and prostitutes, a bit like Dickens’s Seven Dials, but that whole lot was later razed – that whole area.
But Rachel lived here, and being a very clever, enterprising woman of business, went into an interesting trade. This is the kind of court, the tenements that she would have lived in. She set herself up in what was then I suppose you could call the Victorian fast food trade. I mean we have McDonalds, the Victorians had hot potatoes and fried fish.
And what was interesting, I didn’t realise this, but all the poor used to go and buy hot potatoes as quick food whenever they needed a quick and easy meal. So there were these hot potato sellers all over London. But interestingly, Rachel was Jewish (although her name at this point, I should point out, was Sarah – Sarah Levison) and I discovered, and I think there have been articles recently, that in fact the first people to fry fish were the Jews, because they fried it for Sabbath night and into Saturday when they could eat it cold.
So Rachel did a roaring trade selling hot potatoes and fried fish. But then, she fell ill. She developed, I think, [and] there seems to be evidence, that she had rheumatic fever, and was taken to the local hospital in the area. And one thing that she was very proud about was her glorious, shiny black hair. I mean she may have had a face like a battleaxe but she had beautiful black hair, and it all started going thin and falling out. So she asked the surgeon at the hospital ‘Please could you give me a tonic for my hair, to restore my hair?’
Now this all may, of course, be apocryphal, and may well be part of Rachel’s sales hype, but she claimed this incredible tonic did the trick, restored her hair to all its glory, and being a clever woman she thought ‘Hmm, hair restoratives, maybe that’s a better line of business than hot potatoes and fried fish.’
So, she decided to go into business selling hair restoratives, and of course, the first thing she had to do was have an image, have a brand, and being Sarah Levison was not particularly good on the ear or attractive as a marketing brand. So what did Rachel do?
Well she stole her identity from this woman: this is Mademoiselle Rachelle, a Jewish-French actress who had wowed audiences in London in the 1840s when she came over on tour, and performed Racine, particularly Phaedra, that was her most notable part. She was a hugely acclaimed actress, and of course Mademoiselle Rachelle had this kind of darkly Jewish exoticism, and Rachel thought ‘Ooh, well, I’m going to steal the name!’
So…she went from being Sarah Levison to Madame Rachel, and of course played on the connection. She used to tell people that she was a distant cousin of the great French tragedian and all that, and even had a bust of Mademoiselle Rachelle in her shop, but it was all part of this persona she was building to gain a very upmarket clientele.
And of course the next move, having got the image, she had to change premises. So, she started advertising for the kind of clientele she wanted, which really had to be Mayfair – the titled and wealthy ladies of Mayfair.
And here’s one of her very first extensive adverts in the Morning Chronicle in 1859. I just want to read you a little bit which absolutely encapsulates the way she was playing on women’s gullibility and vanity:
‘How frequently we find that a slight blemish on the face otherwise divinely beautiful has occasioned a sad and solitary life of celibacy – unloved, unblessed, and ultimately unwept and unremembered! Whereas, by prompt and judicious appliances, the defect can be removed, and a beauteous loveliness succeed, so conducive to the happiness and connubial felicity of the fair and graceful being.’
And then at the bottom (I love this), she says:
‘Jordan water, direct from the river, for state occasions.’
Now what Rachel was doing; she’s moving into cosmetics now, not just hair dyes, she’s putting together lotions and potions and making the most outlandish claims for wrinkle removing cosmetics, and that is how she started and that is how she went on
to her dying day. She claimed she had the best products going; only her stuff worked, her stuff was exclusive, you paid astronomical prices but you got results. I mean she was such a clever self marketer; if she’d been alive today she’d have been ‘Madame Rachel – ‘Cos you’re worth it!’ You know, it’s that kind of finger on the pulse, self publicist she was.
So, she now borrows money, and takes out a hefty mortgage to move to premises in New Bond Street. Now, this is the top end, towards the Oxford Street end of New Bond Street, and this is not her shop, but it’s the kind of façade [her shop would have had], how the facades would have been in the 1860s.
Now before I get onto her career, I just want to digress a little bit into what was available then in terms of cosmetics, what was the attitude to them, because you’ve got to remember this is mid-Victorian Britain. There were massive moral objections at the time to women wearing anything other than, you know, perhaps a dab of powder. Fundamentally, anything a woman put on her face was really frowned on, because it was the old adage, you know, the only women who use cosmetics were prostitutes and actresses.
So any woman wanting to beautify herself and go to a cosmetician, and they were a new force coming into the market, would have invited a lot of disapproving looks, because most of the male detractors of cosmetics would say ‘Oh, absolutely no!’, you know, ‘Nothing but soap and water!’, and one gentleman even wrote that women shouldn’t even indulge in too much dancing, because it made them too flushed and that was rather vulgar.
Women at this point though, the 1860s, were beginning to want to escape the domestic sphere, to stop being the domestic angels of the house. Women wanted to be consumers. Women with money wanted to go out shopping, in places like Bond Street. They wanted to buy nice dresses, have their hair done; look good. So this is the beginning of the battle for women to get out there and spend money, and Rachel was tapping into that.
But what could these women buy? Well, very little at the time. Advertising was absolutely in its infancy. This is the kind of advertisement you would have got: this is from a serialisation of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s novel, which came out in 1864-1865 – very, very crude adverts there of these things (you’ve seen those white pots, with the kind of transfer lids): Peace and Lubin’s Love and Kisses, Congress of Flowers. Well, they were just down the road from Rachel, [they were] an older established firm.
So there wasn’t much out there, and what there was, was very crudely advertised. But there was one product, in fact, that had been around for quite a long time already. Rowland had set himself up early in the century, and by the 1820s, was promoting his face washes and his macassar oil was a huge seller with gentlemen, and his ‘Rowland’s Calidore’ was a kind of face wash: ‘a multi-purpose specific, for cutaneous deformities including freckles, pimples, spots, redness and every other imperfection incident to the skin.’ So another practitioner making outlandish claims for a catch-all product, which is exactly what Rachel, of course, would be doing.
What exactly were these skin lotions? Well, really they were kind of crude exfoliants. And this is where it becomes rather worrying, because in fact what they were, were dilutions, with perfume added or oils added, fundamentally of things like corrosive sublimate, chloride of ammonium, bichloride of mercury, prussic, and even hydrochloric acid. So you can just imagine, in the wrong dilutions, the damage these kinds of products could cause. And, of course, they did.
Then, of course, the advertising was crude. So was the packaging. And so what happened was, because cosmetics were hard to get, expensive, and also so frowned upon, a lot of women did it themselves. They made their own cosmetics at home because there were lots of helpful little books around that would give them just the basics.
Literally, it would be like a cookery recipe, and this was one of them: ‘the Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion’, which has an amazing array of recipes using everything from cucumbers to myrrh and incense and the most expensive ingredients.
But if women wanted to do it themselves, there were two basic commodities they could make. There was white cosmetic, which was fundamentally white powder. In the old days of course, women used white lead which actually slowly killed them, but white cosmetic normally now was a mixture of fine French chalk with starch or ground flour of oatmeal, so they could easily mix that up at home. That was face powder.
As far as redness was concerned, well, they could make red cosmestic, or rosinette. By taking a wood with a very dark stain, like Sandalwood, and boiling it up with white wine vinegar and alum, and then leaving it to dry, it left a very pinky powder which they could then use as rouge. But that was pretty much it, and it was very, very crude.
So the only other thing they could make at home of course, the other essential, was face cream to protect their skin. So the products there, even the ones available in the shops were very, very basically a crude mixture of either, odourless wax, animal fats or lard, with a bit of almond oil or essence of rose, essence of lavender or orange, or something to disguise the rather gruesome smell.
So women could quite easily make these up at home, and those with a bit of money, could buy a more superior product, which was spermaceti. No wonder the whales were hunted almost to extinction because this extraordinary ingredient was the wax from the head cavity of the whale, which provided a very fine quality wax. It was used in candles and ointments, but also it was an absolute key ingredient in the cosmetics business. If you could afford it, you could make your own face cream at home using spermaceti; it was widely available.
But those who couldn’t afford it would make something crude, like this recipe I found for cucumber pomatum (which was a kind of cold cream), which was basically four pounds of clarified lard, a pound of veal suet, melt it down and stir in three pounds of mashed and strained cucumber and let it solidify, and that was your brew.
Well, Rachel was using these kinds of ingredients, and, I will say one thing, she did use very expensive oils and lavender perfumes and this that and the other. Some of those basic oils and tinctures were expensive to import, but when it came down to it, what she did was just dress it up in fancy bottles, charge huge amounts of money, and hype – massive, massive hype.
She was a very clever business woman, she advertised all over the place. Here’s a page from Debrett’s Peerage in which she makes all her many outlandish claims promoting her pamphlet called ‘Beautiful Forever’, in which she promised all these miraculous transformations of women’s skin. And she advertised everywhere: she advertised in The Times; The Court Journals; the theatrical newspaper The Era, which was very popular at the time.
Interestingly, she never paid any of her bills and was always being chased to settle up. So as you can see, she was a very accomplished con artist, and the thing that happens with a very clever con artist like this who brings out these exotic, exclusive sounding products from the right premises, all that social cachet, advertising in the right magazines, claiming to be purveyor to Her Majesty the Queen (well, that is a joke for a start, I mean, as if Queen Victoria would ever use this stuff) – but what it did was, it attracted the clientele she wanted.
Rich women would come. The word got round the sort of tea parties and afternoon receptions of London, and women wanted the confidentiality, to come and see Rachel at her salon in Bond Street. But the one thing they all demanded of course, at this time when cosmetics were so frowned on, was secrecy, because they didn’t want their husbands to know, and they didn’t want society gossip to go round that ‘Oh, Lady So and so’s having her face done at Madame Rachel’s.’But a lot of rich and influential women were going to her, and running in the door heavily veiled, from their carriages which were pulled up outside, in secrecy going for consultations.
Word got out about Rachel very quickly as I probably mentioned, and right from the beginning when she moved to Bond Street, the satirical press were talking about her, doing cartoons about her; I mean this is an exaggerated view, but they were also, of course, satirising the women who went to Rachel.
So what did these women find when they got to that front door at 47A New Bond Street? Well, she absolutely went the whole hog. They’d walk into this kind of Aladdin’s cave of Middle Eastern mystery and opulence. It was like going into a harem, you know, sandalwood and spices, and incense burning and tinkling fountains and wall hangings and Oriental rugs on the floor.
And in attendance, the terrifying looking Madame Rachel. She had actually seven children, but her two eldest daughters, Rachel and Leontine, were dressed up in beautiful flowing Arab robes, as handmaidens. Very beautiful girls, so everyone said. She had her youngest little boy dressed up in a turban as a page boy.
So you can imagine all this wafting around, and when the clients come in, they’re completely beguiled by it. And what do they actually get for their money? Well, I found it quite astonishing when I did the research and I discovered the kind of money these women were spending was astronomical by today’s standards.
The prices started from ten shillings and sixpence. Now, ten and six then had the spending power of about £32 today, and that was just for a little bottle of aromatic gum. Rachel’s various products went up and up and up to her top product, Jordan water, direct from the river, remember, all the way from the Middle East? This miraculous wrinkle removing Jordan water for which she would charge ten to 20 guineas a bottle. And that’s astonishing. That’s something like…£600 a bottle.
But these women spent it, and of course she dressed up all her products with these exotic names: Circassian Golden hair wash; Royal Arabian face cream; Honey of Mount Hymettus soap; her Arab Bloom and Favourite of the Harem’s face powders.
And the women just bought into it. All these products, though she claimed were brought by swift dromedaries across the deserts of Africa, from Armenia, from Circassia, from Madagascar. Maybe some of them were, because she did use good quality oils and perfumes, as I’ve mentioned.
The Holy Grail of this absurd repertoire was her much hyped Magnetic Rock Dew water for removing wrinkles. Now if you believe this, this was brought all the way from a magnetic rock dew water stream in the middle of the desert, and it was brought and bottled and she sold it for enormous amounts of money
And then there was this special treatment she offered for brides before they were married, which was called ‘The Royal Arabian Toilette of Beauty, as arranged by Madame Rachel for the Sultana of Turkey, the facsimile of which is used by the Royal European brides.’ And here was the price: £100 to 1,000 guineas. That’s thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds. And women bought it. I’m just completely astonished, but they did. They came, and they came in droves, and they bought these absurdly overpriced products.
One other thing that Rachel prided herself on, and that she promoted throughout her sales pitches in all the press, was this thing about being an enameller of ladies faces. Now I don’t know if you’ve come across the term, [which had been in use previously] but once it was associated with Rachel it remained always linked to her name.
Enamelling of ladies faces basically, was a process of painting them up with this beautiful, fashionable, porcelain perfect whiteness, for some grand ball or a levee or a soirée, and what she did, she just cleansed the skin, took out any fuzz on the face, using all these alkaline solutions, and then mixed up this kind of cream, which literally was a bit like polyfilla I think, which she sort of spread (she never gave away any of her secrets so I don’t know exactly what she used) but she would spread it across these women’s faces for these special occasions telling them that this was going to make them beautiful for ever.
Now what’s so interesting about this technique is that it did persist beyond Rachel, right through the century. Ah, here’s one other image I should show you: this is all about the hype of promising, you know, ‘you start off as an old hag, come to me and you’ll be beautiful.’
But one of the most interesting fans of the enamelling technique, believe it or not, was Alexandra, at that time of course, only Princess of Wales. But there are records of her having this strange kind of plasticated, enamelled look, and I did eventually find a recipe for enamelling from the 1890s, in which the cosmetic was a mixture of turpentine, sweet almonds, spermaceti, flour of zinc, white wax and rose water, and this would have all been melded together and spread on the face.
Now the thing I kind of have this vision of is all these ladies going round like this, [frozen faced] because if they smiled or cried or laughed or done anything, surely the whole thing would just have collapsed! It’s astonishing it was so popular; they must have had a permanent kind of rictus expression.
But anyway, we now come to the problem with all these rich and titled ladies coming to Rachel. Well of course, yes they were, on paper, rich, but of course the convention in those days, and I think it prevailed well into the 20th century, was the aristocracy never handed over money; that was just too crude and dirty; everything was on tick, on account.
So what happened, all these rich ladies were running up enormous bills on account. And the crux of it was that this was at a time when their money wasn’t their own, because this is the 1860s and it wasn’t until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that a woman had any rights to her own money once she married. The convention at the time was, once you married, your property was your husband’s; any money you wanted to spend was entirely up to him giving you an allowance. So these women went way over their allowances, ran up enormous bills they couldn’t pay, and then, you know, they get into real trouble because this is the point at which things get very sinister with Rachel.
Now, two of her clients: it’s very, very hard to pinpoint precisely which women patronised her, for obvious reasons. She promised exclusivity and secrecy, but I have found one or two names, and one of them who went to her, was Adeline Horsey, Countess of Cardigan, wife of the Cardigan war hero. Now I do have documented note of her patronising Rachel, and also, another extraordinary woman, called Georgiana, Countess of Dudley.
Now what strikes you about those two women? They’re already beautiful! Why did they need to go to Rachel? I just find this completely baffling, even more so with the Countess of Dudley because she was a noted, great beauty of her day, and later on in the century became one of the Prince of Wales’s many mistresses. These women hardly needed to go, but it’s this kind of unspoken peer pressure, ‘Well, Lady So and so goes and she looked fabulous at her last ball, oh, maybe I ought to go too’, you know, there’s this constant rivalry amongst these high society ladies to go one up on each other.
Now, the Countess of Dudley got into real trouble with Rachel because she, like all the others, way overspent her credit, and then we come to the point where Rachel would say to many of her lady clients as she did to Dudley: ‘Oh, well you wouldn’t like me to tell your husband you’ve been coming here…umm, why don’t you leave your diamonds with me as security?’
And this happened time and time again; women handed over their jewels as security because they couldn’t pay their bills, and in the case of the Countess of Dudley, she handed over her jewels, and then created this most preposterous story about how they were stolen, and it was all over the papers and it’s just amazing what went on.
Well, as you can imagine, lots of women got caught in Rachel’s net, but the thing that kept them all schtum, was the terror of exposure, of the social scandal of court cases. But in the end, one rather unlikely lady did eventually go to court.
This is poor Mary Tucker Borradaile who maybe did need a bit of help from Rachel, because she was the widow of an Indian Army Major; she spent a long time out in the hot sun and was worried her skin was looking a bit tatty. [She was an] extremely timorous and impressionable woman, and went to Rachel to get some help with her skin, and it’s at this point that Rachel kind of pounced like an absolute vulture and fleeced this woman of virtually every penny she had.
It’s still hard to credit, and if you read the book, I mean it’s just insane how this scam was created by Rachel, but what she did, she used to have a gentleman who used to pop down to her shop quite often, who she was friendly with. His name was Lord Ranelagh: he was a well known man about town, (and rake), who used to pop into Rachel’s, so he claimed, just for a chat and to buy the odd thing, because as well as selling cosmetics she sold objets du virtue, little bits of ceramics.
Actually what he popped down there to do, I think, and again this is a part of the story that’s quite hard to prove but there’s enough gossip, was to spy on these ladies taking their Arabian baths, through a Judas hole.
So anyway, she created this absurd scam, in which she convinced Mary Tucker Borradaile, that Lord Ranelagh had seen her at the salon, and thought she was absolutely gorgeous and he wanted to marry her, but it all had to be kept hushed up until the right moment, and of course if she was going to marry a Lord she’d have to be beautiful for the occasion; she’d have to buy a tiara, and frocks and lace and this, that and the other.
And what Rachel did was fleece this woman systematically of first of all her private income, then her stocks and shares which she was forced to cash in, then she was forced to sell the reversion on a property she owned, and finally she stripped her, even, of her widow’s pension. All in all, swapping it into a kind of contemporary equivalent, she fleeced her of something like £350,000…every penny she had.
In the end, of course, Mary Tucker Borradaile’s family were very alarmed and they said ‘you’ve got to go to law, you’ve got to get this woman, you’ve got to.’ So they went to probably the greatest criminal lawyer of his day: George Henry Lewis, a very fine man; later actually knighted, towards the end of the century. George Lewis had a whole network of snouts and gossipers and informers, people who gave him information. He knew the whole London underworld.
He also later in the century was involved in several court scandals, particularly, I think, it was the Mordaunt or the Tranby-Croft case, with the Prince of Wales. There wasn’t a bit of scandalous, society gossip that his man didn’t know about. I just wish he’d written his memoirs; they would have been the kiss and tell of the century, but like all good men of integrity, they went to the grave with him and he always said they would.
But George Lewis got together a team and Rachel was hauled up on a charge of fraud.
Now, she was tried twice in very quick succession in 1868: first of all she was taken to Newgate pending her trial and held there, and then into the Central Criminal Court. Now what happened unfortunately was that at the first trial there was a mistrial because one of the jurors held out for an acquittal; he felt the case against Rachel technically and legally hadn’t been sufficiently well proved, and many of the press actually agreed with that; certainly the legal press agreed it hadn’t been well proved.
But of course, this was a field day. A big scandalous court case, so everyone was there. The courtroom as you saw was crowded out; [Rachel] was sketched by people in court. The first trial was a mistrial, and she was re-tried about six weeks later. During that second trial, the same prosecutor again confronted her, and his name was Sergeant William Ballantyne (Sergeant is the attribution they have in the legal profession), one of the great criminal prosecutors of his day, and he fought tooth and nail and in the end, he did secure a conviction.
But one thing I just want to point out: between those two trials, the important thing to remember is that there was no gagging order, no gagging order whatsoever on discussion on the case, and also of course this was in the days before the Prisoner’s Evidence Act of 1898, so Rachel wasn’t even allowed to go in the witness box and defend herself.
So what happened in the six weeks between those two trials was a systematic campaign of vilification of Rachel. Well first of all there were the penny pamphlets, and this here is Lord Ranelagh spying on a lady taking an Arabian bath. Actually Rachel herself promoted one, giving her side of the story. But the press was awash with scandal, and every possible aspect of her business operation.
And the other thing that comes through loud and clear in the interim period, was massive anti-Semitic satire and attacks on Rachel as a Jew. This is probably one of the most unpleasant cartoons I found. She was vilified in the music halls, in the gutter press, in all satirical journals. Arthur Lloyd, the famous music hall performer, was taking this song round the halls to great acclaim: Mrs Mary Plucker Sparrow tail. So of course it wasn’t just Rachel, it was Mary Borradaile who got completely satirised and lampooned by the press.
So you can imagine, whatever her crime Rachel didn’t stand a chance, and of course she was given the full possible sentence that could be given: five years for fraud, and consigned to Milbank…that hideous great octagonal fortress of a prison, on the site of what is now the Tate Gallery.
She was sent to Milbank, but unfortunately this rheumatic fever she’d had in her youth [returned]. She did have heart trouble, she was quite a sickly woman, and very quickly she had to be transferred to a new invalid convict prison that had been built at Woking in Surrey, specifically for sick prisoners, and she worked in the laundry at Woking. And, obviously things go quiet for a while.
She comes out on good behaviour, ahead of her full five year term, in…1872, and goes off quietly, goes to ground for a few months. And then suddenly in December 1872, what appears in the press? Yes, another advertisement for Madame Rachel, and again, she’s set herself back up in business; modestly, quietly, but nevertheless – you know, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – she wasn’t going to let go of the one thing that she knew how to make a living out of, and there were still gullible women, despite all that exposure, who would come, and still wanted to patronise her.
So she sets up business again quietly here: (this is Oxford Street in the early 1870s) just up from Oxford Street at Great Portland Street, and again builds a clientele. It’s much more low profile than the first time, but she does advertise, and she does pull in her victims, and of course sooner or later, a woman comes along who’s, again, defrauded, whose jewels are taken from her, and who then in the end has the courage to tell her husband, who immediately hauls her off to George Lewis again – the George Lewis who put together the previous trial.
Now this woman was not a silly kind of twittering creature like Mary Borradaile. Cecelia Maria Pierce was a lady of some substance and standing: she had a lot of friends and patrons; she was involved in the music business as an amateur singer and was patron of a lot of charities, and coincidentally knew one of Rachel’s daughters, who was an opera singer, so there was a loose connection. But nevertheless, she, again, decided to sue Rachel and in fact again, Rachel was actually prosecuted in the end for fraud, as before.
But what’s so interesting about the second trial is that for the first time a direct accusation was made about damage to the woman’s face, because Cecelia Pierce had come out in a terrible rash from using one of these diluted acid based skin lotions, and in the trial in 1878, again at the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, you get the very first forensic evidence being given, and it’s fascinating; they actually got chemists in to…actually examine the residue of the bottle of stuff Cecelia had bought and described what was in it, so that’s fascinating.
And again of course, there was a considerable amount of press coverage again, the whole trial verbatim, recounted across the press and again she was sent down for five years. Again, as before, she was sent to Milbank, but [was] much too sick and had to be transferred to Woking Invalid Convict Prison (that remained for quite a long time, that building; it became an army barracks and eventually was demolished) but she in fact died there because her health never recovered.
She probably spent her last few days in the exercise yard at Woking. There was this rather marvellous article I found [dating from] quite late I think in the 1890s in one of the illustrated journals which was a journalist going and doing an article about the prison at Woking, and getting some wonderful accounts of Rachel, to the bitter end saying ‘I can make you beautiful!’…’no-one takes me seriously…I alone have the secret art of making women beautiful for ever!’ She never let go of her claims, and maybe in the end, she believed her own hype.
To sum up, I just want to say, well of course, the extraordinary thing about this story; it proves that nothing changes, does it, nothing changes. 160 years on from this story, women still are chasing those elusive products that will transform their skin, keep them beautiful for ever; women are still willing to spend not only enormous amounts of money, but also take risks.
Now these are much more serious risks than the women then were taking (nevertheless their skins could have been badly damaged by the acids), but we’re now looking at the kind of things like this, not just plastic surgery but we’re looking at these very highly invasive techniques of injectable acid fillers, of toxins like Botox, there’s silicon lip plumpers – Priscilla Presley is one extreme example, but you know even Nicole Kidman; her face doesn’t move anymore.
I don’t know if any of you saw Sharon Osborne on The X Factor? Well if you can just go online and just google ‘Sharon Osborne X Factor’ – her face is shocking. I don’t know what she’s done to herself but she looks as though she’s been embalmed.
So this is what women are doing, it’s this endless, endless, hopeless quest. And of course I did a quick google, I thought ‘Oh, let’s see over the last year or so, how many women have fallen foul of this kind of thing’, and there it was: ‘Why I’ll suffer any pain to be beautiful!’ This woman had botched fillers. ‘I tried to turn back time with a wrinkle jab, but it wrecked my life!’ ‘I’ve had £30,000 worth of beauty treatments and none of them worked!’ This one tried to do do-it-yourself Botox.
So, really, I just find it absolutely fascinating. There are so many parallels in this whole story of Madame Rachel of Bond Street that show us that women are still compelled to chase this hopeless dream.
Now, as I say, Rachel remained unrepentant to the last, and what’s so fascinating is right up to the day she died in October 1880, women were still writing to her in jail, begging for her cosmetic secrets, begging to know what she put in her recipes. She never did betray her trade secrets, and she had threatened to write her memoirs. Oh my God, I wish she had. Oh, they would have been amazing. But she carried on to her dying day claiming that she alone had this secret art.
And, finally, if you’re curious, you can still see the shop and the house that she lived at just off Bond Street. 47A is now 47- 48. It’s a different building on the site; this frontage was all revamped, it’s sort of Belle Époque 1900s style, and the actual ground floor is a very swish, couture French shoemaker, but round the corner in Maddox Street, it’s on the corner of Maddox Street, you can still see the house where she lived, that she rented and where she also saw clients, and so it’s wonderful that there’s still a part of history, that you can go and rediscover. Thank you.