From Winkles to Wealth on the Isle of Wight

I would like to thank Warwick Kellaway for this wonderful story of the life of Sophie Daw

Born in 1791 at St Helens on the Isle of Wight, Sophia (Sophie) Daw was one of the children of Richard Daw (known as Dickie Dawes), a well known local smuggler, and Jane, the daughter of Edward and Mary Calloway, of St Helens. Richard and Jane had married in 1775, and produced a number of children over the succeeding years. About 1796 Dickie died, leaving Jane and their family destitute. After trying to survive by winkle picking on the foreshore, the youngest children were taken to the Isle of Wight House of Industry, or Workhouse. Sophie was only 6. Her brother William was 4, while baby sister Charlotte joined them two years later at 3. The Workhouse was regarded as progressive for the time, and young Sophie was later placed, at 13, with a local farmer. She walked out after a few years with him, to work as a Chambermaid in Portsmouth. The next step was as a Milliner′s Assistant in London. Forced to leave after an affair with a young watercarrier, she resorted to selling oranges at Covent Garden. Possibly appearing on the stage, it was not long before she was “noticed”, and set up in an elegant villa at Turnham Green. Falling from favour with that particular patron, another gentleman settled her, with 50 pounds a year, non professionally, in a Piccadilly brothel. There, she was noticed by a M. Guy, servant to the exiled French Duc de Bourbon.

In 1812, the elderly Duke, last of the Bourbon royal line, installed her in a splendid house off Queens Square, Bloomsbury. Sophie was now given 800 pounds a year pin money, together with tutoring in languages, music, dancing and deportment. Finding herself destitute and deserted again when, with the restoration of the French Monarchy, the Duke returned to France the next year, she crossed the Channel to be near him in Paris. The Duke however had by now inherited the vast estates of his father, and it was socially impossible for her to be taken into the Palace de Bourbon. The solution was a return to London, and an arranged marriage there to an available, perhaps gullible, M. Foucheres.

Now socially acceptable, the Foucheres moved into the household of the Duke. Sophie′s meatporter nephew James followed, as the Baron de Flassans. Her elder sister Mary Ann was supplied with a large dowry, and a suitable husband, while Grandmamma Jane was given comfortable lodgings in Paris.

Sophie′s new husband soon discovered the situation, and divorced her. Meantime, the aging Duke was becoming a concern. He was in poor health, and had no direct heirs. Sophie contrived for him to make a will in favour of the son of Louis Philippe, Duc d′Orleans, and later to become King, with a suitable contribution for her. Now acceptable at the French Court, her personal situation was starting to worsen. The relationship with the Duke deteriorated badly, and he was also said to fear for his life. The 1830 Revolution sent King Charles X into exile, and the Duc de Bourbon made plans to follow.

On the eve of leaving however, the Duke was found hanging in his bedroom. Suicide or murder? In the scandal that followed, Sophie bore the brunt of the accusations and blame. Her position, her “toadies”, her violent treatment of the Duke, and the inheritance, now however only 2 million francs, rather than an anticipated 12 million, were serious grounds for suspicion.

Louis Philippe was implicated, and did his best to suppress the matter, but it was taken to court, and Sophie moved close to the guillotine. Conveniently however the judge was retired early, and the new judge strangely could find no case to answer. Soon afterwards, her young nephew was to die mysteriously in some agony, and Sophie, now known as la Baronne de Foucheres, brought his body back home to St Helens. Public opinion in Paris was by now heavily against her and, after realising her French assets, in 1837 she returned to England, building a mansion on the estate of Bure Homage, near Christchurch, and a fine house in Hyde Park Square London. Her mother Jane was brought back to a Hammersmith Convent, where she was to die aged nearly 90.

Sophie, now grossly overweight, developed dropsy. After giving away most of her fortune to charity, she died in December 1840, highly regarded on the Isle of Wight as a benefactor. A poor workhouse girl, who had risen from winkle picking to the wealth and position of French royal society.

It was many years later that documents were found proving that Sophie Dawes had planned the murder of the Duc de Bourbon, and that her Sergeant lover of the time, secreted away by her after the event, had suffocated the old man in his bed.
April 2002

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Sophie Daw′s Story
Last updated February 2009
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