Biggs, Rachel Charlotte née Williams, c.1763—1827
by Benjamin Colbert
Rachel Charlotte (Williams) Biggs may have been born in Bristol, although the exact place and date are unknown. Her father was John Williams (b. c.1735), later of Bedale, Yorkshire.
Her authorship of A Residence is confirmed by letters she wrote between 1800 and 1816 to the politicians William Windham (1750-1810; ODNB) and Nicholas Vansittart (1766-1851; ODNB) held in the British Library. The portrait that emerges of her, according to Stuart Semmel, is that of 'a woman of modest birth and with no exalted family connections' (546). She resided in France during the early period of the revolution (1792-95) and wrote A Residence as a loyalist warning to revolution sympathisers in Britain. After at least one rejection, the manuscript was recommended to Longman through the offices of John Gifford, then editor of the True Briton and with whom Biggs corresponded in her capacity as contributor. She later authored a sequel of sorts arguing against the imposition of limits to the price of corn, A Maximum; or the Rise and Progress of Famine (1801), and corresponded with Windham to redress her financial losses on the pamphlet. She also originated the idea of the Royal Jubilee (1809), in her own estimate writing nearly a thousand anonymous letters to leading citizens around the country promoting the idea in a bid to ensure that it appeared a spontaneous and widespread eruption of loyalist feeling (she successfully appealed to Vansittart this time, though well after the fact in 1812, for compensation).
Biggs claims to have visited France during her ‘girlhood’, well before her residence there during the Revolutionary years detailed in her book. She returned during the Peace of Amiens in 1802, and applied for passports in 1807. Whether or not she visited then is uncertain, but she was again in France during the first restoration of the Bourbons in 1815. (In that year, she claimed to have been educated in France, and to have spent a third of her life in total there.) Writing to Vansittart after her return, she reported that she had made extensive travels outside Paris, visiting the west coast harbours, central France, northern Italy, and the south coast of France. In a packet of observations on the state of France, she lamented the comparative improvements in manufacture and agriculture since her last visit, and claimed that her original intentions of publishing a new travel account had been thwarted by the necessity of telling a story that might not support the Tory argument against the efficacy of Napoleonic reform. Another letter offers Vansittart military advice on how to stop Napoleon after news of his progress from Elba reached England, and a further letter announced her intention to return to France via the Austrian territories in May despite the dangers of doing so. By October she was writing Vansittart from Paris (post-Waterloo) and her correspondence continues from France into the spring of 1816.
The correspondence displays Biggs performing a balancing act between proposing useful information-gathering journeys motivated by altruistic loyalist principles while at the same petitioning for funds to undertake them (here she positions herself as a useful investment for ‘secret service’ funding). There is little doubt that Biggs saw herself as a spy, official or unofficial, travelling under cover as an invalid, but actually taking advantage of the opportunities offered by this, by what she perceived as the openness of informants towards women, and by her extensive knowledge of France and the French, to gather intelligence. In her last letter to Vansittart dated 21 April 1816, her attempt to underline her value (at a time when open access to the continent was no doubt depreciating it) strikes a gothic tone. She describes an unknown hand throwing a packet into her carriage unseen by the coachman. Opening it in the secrecy of her chambers, she finds a note warning her off her inquiries. Hardly has she read it when it spontaneously combusts (‘some chemical operation’), leaving no evidence of its existence.
Biggs died in March 1827 at Marseilles. A notice to creditors published in the Morning Post, 19 June 1827, establishes her maiden name, and her connection with Bristol ('formerly of Pritchard-Street, Bristol'). Her base in England during the years she corresponded with Windham was in Farrington Gurney, Somerset, about eight miles from Wells on the Bristol Road, but she took her post at Bristol or Wells in order not to draw attention to her literary and political activities. Other details of her life, including her early years, and her marriage, are scanty or unverified.
Biggs, Rachel Charlotte. Letters to William Windham, 1800-1810. MSS. Windham Papers. British Lib., London.
Biggs, Rachel Charlotte. Letters to Nicholas Vansittart, 1812-1816. MSS. British Lib., London.
Semmel, Stuart. 'Radicals, Loyalists, and the Royal Jubilee of 1809', Journal of British Studies 46.3 (July 2007): 543-69. Print.
|A Residence in France||1797|