10 Regency Women to Know

 I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me…the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.
~ Jane Austen

Despite their under-representation in history, 19th-century Britain had notable women in the arts, in science, in math…and even in the Royal Navy. Many lived long enough to become contemporaries of Queen Victoria, who began her rule in 1837 and arguably became the most famous woman in the British Empire, with influence felt around the world.


Jane Austen

1.       Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

Author of six novels, her works are read and loved around the world. Her wit and gift for satire shone through even in her childhood, when she wrote her very own “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st.”

2.       William Brown (c. 1815)

William Brown was an alias used by the first black woman known to have served in the Royal Navy. Her true name is unknown. She sailed on the warship Queen Charlotte and contemporary newspapers report that she was discharged after her gender became known. (More about William Brown and the Queen Charlotte.)

3.       Katherine Cochrane (1796 – 1865)

I’m in love with Kate’s story and at work on a novel based on her life. Kate Cochrane rose from penniless orphan to countess, but more remarkable than that is her extraordinary life. She traveled widely in South America and Europe, was highly persuasive (she got Thomas Cochrane, her firebrand husband, a pardon from the British government) and survived multiple assassination attempts (her husband helped support revolutionary activities by South American nations against Spain). Kate herself may have lent a hand to revolutionary activities; there’s evidence that she carried “dispatches” on her South American travels.

4.       Maria Graham (1785 – 1842)

An intrepid traveler, author, and science buff, Maria Graham became widowed as she sailed to South America with her husband. She bucked convention by staying on in Chile alone, and her adventures there included surviving an earthquake, cruising with Admiral Cochrane, and befriending the Brazilian empress, Maria Leopoldina. Maria wrote widely about her travels and became a popular author and illustrator.

Ada Lovelace

5.       Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Ada’s mother insisted on a disciplined academic program for her young daughter, fearing that Ada would develop a moody temperament like her father, Lord Byron. Ada had a natural gift for mathematics and was thrilled by the idea of the idea of an “analytical engine.” She created formulas and codes for how the engine could perform calculations – in essence, the world’s first computer program.

6.       Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877)

A talented author, Caroline nevertheless could not access the money she received from her writing due to laws that gave husbands legal rights to their wives’ income. Her husband’s mistreatment included physical brutality and in 1836, she left him. He retaliated by preventing her from seeing her three children. Caroline promoted laws that would extend the social rights of women, especially married and divorced women – laws that were eventually passed in 1839, 1857, and 1870. She also supported better working conditions for children in factories. However, Caroline did not support full equal rights for women, writing “The natural position of woman is inferiority to man… I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.”

Title page of The History of Mary Prince.

7.       Mary Prince (c. 1788 – after 1833)

Born into slavery in Bermuda, Mary was sold away from her family when she was 10, and was subsequently sold three more times. She performed backbreaking labor to manufacture salt, and was frequently beaten by her owners. She married a free black man, Daniel James, in 1826. In 1828 she came to England with her master’s family. There Mary fled and sought help from the Anti-Slavery Society. Though slavery was illegal in England, it had not been abolished in British colonies and Mary feared that is she returned to Bermuda, she would be re-enslaved.

Her book, The History of Mary Prince, is the first account of a black woman’s life published in England. It was widely read and became highly influential in the British abolition movement. It is unknown whether she returned to Bermuda.

8.       Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

Mary Shelley was just 20 when she wrote Frankenstein. Her father, who disapproved of her relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, nevertheless praised the book “”[Frankenstein] is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of. You are now five and twenty. And, most fortunately, you have pursued a course of reading, and cultivated your mind in a manner the most admirably adapted to make you a great and successful author.”

Frankenstein not only sparked the horror genre, but shows a keen understanding of the scientific theories popular at the time – especially the potential of electricity. In her later years she wrote plays, poetry, and books about travel, though her finances remained precarious.

9.       Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)

As a child, Mary used her brother’s assistance to learn algebra. Her interest in math and science continued for the rest of her long life. She conducted experiments and presented her findings on magnetism to the Royal Society in 1825. She also translated scientific works and her translations became widely-read academic texts at British universities. She continued working, writing, and researching; her final scientific book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, was published when she was 89. Mary also served as a tutor to Ada Lovelace.

10.      Elizabeth Creighton, Lady Wharncliffe (1779 – 1856)

Lady Wharncliffe was a prolific artist whose works include drawings and paintings. At the age of about 20, she married James Stuart-Wortley, 1st Baron Wharncliffe. The couple had four children. Many of her works are in the Tate Collection, and her letters are preserved in Britain’s National Archives at Kew.

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(Ms) William Brown

In September 1815 a London newspaper carried a report that one William Brown, an able seaman with more than a decade of service in the Royal Navy, “was a female African.”

Picture of warship Queen Charlotte
Council of war aboard the Queen Charlotte, 1818.

Her true name, sadly, is not known. Neither is the actual length of her service. She certainly was aboard HMS Queen Charlotte, a ship that had played a role in suppressing the African slave trade, possibly while Brown was among the crew. With 104 guns, Queen Charlotte belonged to the largest class of naval warships, impressive first rates capable of carrying nearly a thousand officers and crew.

Women disguising themselves as men and joining the crews of fighting ships was certainly unusual in 19th-century Britain, but not unprecedented. Brown’s exact role remain unknown. Some scholars discount the newspaper report and believe that she served less than a month before her gender was discovered and she was discharged, as shown on the Queen Charlotte’s muster list. Others, like Suzanne J. Stark, believe that Brown had successfully served for many years, eventually earning an appointment as “captain of the foretop” – and even re-enlisted after her discharge.

While interpretations differ, one thing is clear: William Brown is the first known black woman to serve in the Royal Navy. I like to imagine that she had a longer tenure on the Queen Charlotte as the ship sailed along the African coast, and that maybe Brown herself witnessed the capture of slave ships and had a hand in the liberation of their human cargo. Perhaps someday we will know.


Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Suzanne J. Stark. Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Wikipedia contributors, “William Brown (sailor),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=William_Brown_(sailor)&oldid=706936213 (accessed February 28, 2017).


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Kate Cochrane: Her Life and Times

This week – October 12, to be precise – is Kate Cochrane’s birthday (on the evidence of a greeting her husband sent to her in one of their many letters.) What better time to introduce the lady herself and some of her exploits?

A secret elopement. Intrigues in South America. A knife fight with a would-be assassin. Crawls across rope bridges in the Andes. A four-month sea voyage with a teething infant.

Such adventures, one might think, would make a woman famous, especially if she undertook them 200 years ago, when a woman’s chances of attempting even one such feat were considerably more circumscribed. Kate Cochrane did them all.

I came across her accidentally – and admittedly, through reading about her husband. (Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane served as a model for the literary exploits of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and several instances in the film Master and Commander were inspired by Thomas Cochrane’s naval actions.)

Portrait of Kate with her daughter Elizabeth
Detail of a portrait showing Kate Cochrane and her daughter Elizabeth. Private collection.

Kate and Thomas’ relationship likewise rarely lacked for dramatic flair. He was a dashing war hero, aged 37, of an illustrious but bankrupt Scottish family – and he would someday be an earl. Kate was approximately 20 years his junior, a beautiful orphan living in the care of her relatives. They chanced across each other in London, and Thomas was smitten. After multiple proposals and multiple refusals, Kate eventually agree to marry him. The couple hurried off to Scotland by coach and were wed in a hasty ceremony that Thomas tried, but failed, to keep secret from his family. When Thomas’ father and uncle learned of the elopement, they withdrew a sizable inheritance. Kate went back to live with her aunt;  it was many months before the couple set up their own establishment and Thomas publicly acknowledged Kate as his wife.

From this rocky yet romantic start, Kate’s adventures began. Little is known of her early life due to a dearth of historical records. It is uncertain what year she was born, although 1795 or 1796 seems likely, given that she was said to be 69 at the time of her death in January of 1865. She was born the daughter of Thomas Barnes. There is some ambiguity surrounding her mother; some sources identify her as Frances Corbett, while a number of Cochrane biographers speculate that Kate was illegitimate. Kate’s father died while she was young, and she spent her later childhood and teen years being raised by relatives. She was living with a widowed aunt in a fashionable area of London when she met Thomas.

After their elopement, Kate and Thomas eventually set up house together and soon welcomed the birth of the first of their six children. It was a difficult birth for Kate – she had been gravely ill with scarlet fever, and her survival and the child’s were in question. But Kate, not yet twenty, came through the ordeal, and the little boy, christened Thomas Barnes Cochrane, lived as well.

Portrait of Thomas Cochrane
Portrait of Thomas Cochrane, c. 1807, five years before he wed Kate.

Kate’s troubles, however, were only beginning. Two months after the birth of the couple’s son, Thomas was convicted in a financial scandal and sentenced to serve a term in the King’s Bench Prison. He had had no commission for several years, and with the prize money he’d won in his earlier career not being replenished, Kate and the child were left in straitened circumstances. Kate visited Thomas as she could, and the couple exchanged regular letters. Upon his release, Thomas accepted an offer to lead the fledging Chilean Navy in the nation’s fight for independence from Spain.

Kate set sail with Thomas for South American in early autumn of 1818, with four-year-old Tom and his infant brother Horace in tow. While Thomas waged audacious attacks on Spanish ships and fortifications, Kate traveled on horseback through the Andes, visiting Mayan ruins and paying visits to the regional gentry. On one of these occasions, she crawled across a rope bridge with the newest addition to the family, a daughter named Elizabeth, strapped to her chest.

The family kept a house in the port city of Valparaiso, as well as an estate in the Quintero Valley gifted to them from the Chilean government. While there, an assassin sent by the Spanish chanced upon Kate. The man threatened her with a knife, but Kate gamely held him off until her shouts brought some of the servants to her aid. There is some suggestion that Kate was more than a bystander to the revolution, and that she carried messages and dispatches on behalf of Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s Supreme Director. However, the assassin was likely seeking information on Thomas’ orders rather than attempting to thwart Kate’s intrigues.

Image of the harbor in the city of Valparaiso
Valparaiso, Chile – and its harbor – as it looked in the early 1800s.

By the mid-1830s the family had returned to London. After several decades of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Admiralty and the British crown to grant Thomas a pardon for his earlier conviction, Kate’s efforts – which included personal meetings with the prime minister – eventually carried the day. Thomas had also inherited the title of 10th Earl of Dundonald, and Kate rose to the rank of countess. With the money from Thomas’ exploits in South America, the family purchased an elegant villa, Hanover Lodge, in Regents Park. There Kate entertained in style, and for the first time in many, many years, the Cochranes had a settled residence where they could live in comfort.

Image of Hanover Lodge, an elegant house and home of the Cochrane family.
Hanover Lodge, an Italian-inspired villa in Regent’s Park where Kate Cochrane and her family lived in the 1830s.

Sadly, not all of their children survived to benefit from the family’s improved circumstances. Little Elizabeth died in Chile around her first birthday, and Kate later lost another infant who was stillborn. Five children did live to adulthood: Tom, Horace, Arthur, Katherine Elizabeth (aka “Lizzie”) and Ernest.

Disparities in age and temperament, which had previously strained the Cochrane’s marriage, now led to irreconcilable differences that resulted in Kate living in France. The couple remained cordial – and never divorced – with Thomas sending financial support and paying occasional visits. They continued to exchange letters. When Thomas penned his autobiography late in life with the help of a ghostwriter, Kate’s actions in South America feature in it, and he writes admiringly of his wife’s courage.

Kate did not cross the Channel to attend her husband’s funeral when Thomas died in 1860, though she spoke warmly of his memory afterwards. She spent her final years in the French seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, suffering from bouts of ill health, and died in 1865. She is buried at St. Mary the Virgin, Kent, beneath a simple headstone. Thomas Cochrane was interred at Westminster Abbey.

Headstone at Kate Cochrane's grave
Headstone marking the grave of Lady Katherine Cochrane.

With a larger-than-life figure like Thomas Cochrane for a husband – radical MP, eventual Earl of Dundonald, and contemporary of men such as Napoleon and Lord Nelson  – it is understandable, though unfortunate, that Kate’s story had been subsumed within her husband’s colorful career. Now at last, she is figuring as the heroine of her own story – The Admiral’s Wife.


Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chili, Peru and Brazil, from Spanish and Portuguese Domination, Volume 1, by Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald. The Project Gutenberg eBook.

Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander, David Cordingly. Bloomsbury USA, 2007.

Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain, Robert Harvey. Carroll & Graf, 2000.

Correspondence. GD233: Cochrane Family, Earls of Dundonald (Dundonald Muniments.) National Records of Scotland.

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Vote Early, Vote Often

 On Tuesday night, I spent a good 45 minutes waiting in line to vote. Since cell phones are prohibited in polling places, it was a good time to get some thinking done and mull over the electoral process.
It struck me that while more and more of our daily lives can be conducted online (shopping for gifts, paying bills, buying groceries, renting movies…even renewing library books), voting is one of the few activities in American culture that still must be done in person. That was why, on that dark and chilly evening, I put on a pair of sneakers, bundled up in my winter coat and hat, and walked 10 minutes up the street to a local elementary school to cast my vote.
Walking to the polling place felt a bit old-fashioned, yet somehow fitting. Voting is a communal activity, and I didn’t want to hide behind my car or my cell phone. When I arrived, I saw more of my neighbors than I had ever had before. Old, young, black, white, Asian. Men and women, union members and office workers, young twentysomethings in sweats and families bringing their kids. It was a melting pot in microcosm, it was Ellis Island on the local level.
Of course, voting hasn’t always been like this, and as a woman, I am very aware that it took decades of dedicated and pioneering effort to extend suffrage to both genders.
In fact, many of the first states to allow women to vote were Western states, where women were “pioneers” on many levels! The territory of Wyoming gave women voting rights in 1869 (I read somewhere that this was done to create better public order and curb the effects of too many rough and tumble men participating in the political process). In fact, when Wyoming became a state in 1890, it insisted on retaining suffrage for women.
Utah’s move to support women’s suffrage in 1870 is said to have been part of a PR campaign to counter perceptions of Mormonism as anti-female. Women’s voting rights there were later repealed under the Edmunds–Tucker Act, but by the time Utah became a state in 1896, women had won back their right to vote.
Montana was also an early adopter of female suffrage, giving women the right to vote in 1914.  Montana then became the first state to elect a woman to Congress. Jeanette Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1917, at the age of 36. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, considering that the United States did not amend its Constitution to give women the right to vote until 1920. It really makes you wonder what her first day on the job was like when she got to Washington.

Note: New Jersey is actually the first state where women had full voting rights. After the Revolutionary War, eligibility to vote was determined by property ownership, not gender. In 1790, state law was amended to specifically state that women had the right to suffrage. In 1807, these privileges were revoked by the New Jersey state legislature.

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