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Women’s History Month: Sarah Biffen – from rags to riches and back

‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy’. These words of F. Scott Fitzgerald were probably never truer than when applied to Sarah Biffin, writes Roger Evans.  

If ever there was a ‘rags to riches and back’ story worthy of the best of Dickensian fiction, the best Catherine Cookson could unfold in the pages of her novels, or the finest television drama, the story of Sarah Biffin must surely be it.

For Sarah was born into a farm labouring family without the benefit of arms, hands or legs.  And yet, through her own endeavours, she became an artist of the highest standards, patronised by no fewer than four British kings and queens, the King of Holland, not to mention a string of dukes, duchesses and celebrities from her time.

Her life is a catalogue of dramas and tragedy, each worthy of a novel in its own right, and yet this incredible lady’s story has remained mostly untold.

 

Humble beginnings

Sarah Biffin was born the middlemost of five children.  Her father, Henry, was a farm labourer in the village of East Quantoxhead and, aged 24, had married the 25-year-old Sarah Perkins, in the picturesque village church on June 11, 1772.

The following year their first born arrived, a son named John.  But sadly he was not destined to remain long in this world and was buried on September 4, 1773.  It was five years before their marriage was blessed with Richard, baptised on September 13, 1778  by which time Henry is described as a shoemaker.  But these were the days when most agricultural workers followed more than one trade.

Six more summers passed before the birth of Sarah, the heroine of our story, on October 25, 1784.  It must have been devastating for her parents to see her born with no arms, hands or legs.  No doubt Sarah’s mother already had her suspicions.  Having already carried two other children the full term of her pregnancies, she would have experienced the movement of arms and legs within the womb.  No doubt, her worst fears were realised.

These were hard, and difficult times in which to survive with such disabilities.  These were the days when it was not uncommon for a child with such handicaps to be put to one side, allowed to ‘slip away’.  These were also the days when such a birth brought shame onto the family.  But Sarah’s parents were of tougher stock and accepted their responsibilities, no doubt tempered with concerns for their child’s future.

Sadly Sarah suffered from what today would be called phocomelia, a condition which left her with no arms or hands and one which is believed to be associated with cottage industries such as blanket making.  Today we associate this condition with the drug known as Thalidomide.

Six days after her birth, she was baptised and given her mother’s name, the record of that baptism clearly stating her disability.  On December 10, 1786 a sister Johanna was baptised followed by Betty on May 3, 1789.

 

Childhood

Let’s examine Sarah’s deformity for a while and consider the challenges which faced her.  She had no arms and hands.  It appears she had stumps on her shoulders where the arms should be.  She had no legs, simply rudimentary toes at the base of her body.

Now consider her parents; hard working, farm labourers living in a small farm cottage which now forms part of  Townsend House.  It is difficult to imagine how they coped with three other children and the long hours of the rural working classes.  How could they find the extra time required for Sarah’s special needs?

As her brother and sisters grew and entered into the normal play patterns for children of their age, we have to imagine Sarah could only watch on, deeply wanting to join in those childhood activities.

We know that as a young eight year old, she had expressed the desire to be taught how to use needle and cotton and to make her own clothes.  Such requests were met by her mother’s disapproval.  Her advice was not to consider such things which were too far beyond her ability and would only lead to tears.

 

Needlework

How she achieved those skills defies belief, but acquire them she did for in her brief autobiographical notes (An Interesting Narrative, 1821) she writes: “At the age of eight I was very desirous of acquiring the use of my needle; but my parents discouraged the idea, thinking it wholly impracticable.  I was not, however, intimidated, and whenever my father and mother were absent, I was continually practising every invention, till at length I could, with my mouth – thread a needle – tie a knot – do fancy work – cut out and make my own dresses.

“At the age of 12 my desire to work with the needle having worked so far, gave place to my inclination to write: and in a short time I was enabled to correspond with distant friends.”

And so we find a determined Sarah approaching her teens, able to sew and write.  But who could have taught her reading and writing.  In all probability her parents would have been illiterate.  In such a small rural community, we must assume her tutor would have been the local vicar or the lady of the manor at East Quantoxhead, for in those days there was a recognised duty for such people to look to the welfare of their flock.

Sarah’s determination, perhaps bordering on stubbornness,  is also reflected in an account of her Sunday visits to the local church.  For here she would refuse offers of help to carry her down the aisle to where her family sat.  Instead she would roll down until she reached the required row of seats.

Did she then take help to get up into the seat or did she find her own solution for this ordeal as well, perhaps in the style of ‘yogic flying’?  It is hard to imagine how such tasks would be overcome without the help of others.

 

Sarah’s future

Sarah’s future must have been a great concern to her parents.  They knew they would not always be there for her and a solution had to be found through which Sarah could gain her independence.  It was not a case of wanting to get rid of her, simply to secure her future well being.  What happened next is somewhat speculation on my part but I believe is the most probable account of this undocumented period.

As Sarah approached her teenage years, Bridgwater’s St. Matthews Fair was an even greater event in the social calendar of towns and village in the area than it is now.  It was a hiring fair among other things.  It was then, as it is now, an occasion to buy and sell sheep and ponies, and all those household items that would be bought if one’s shopping was done only once a year.

For many in the rural community, it was the one day a year when they left the farm, the one day to buy boots and shoes, pots and pans, material for clothes, hats and haberdashery.

So large was the gathering at this one day affair, that it was a major attraction for all sorts of thieves, rogues and vagabonds.  It was also a fair with its share of side shows, strong men, bearded ladies, freak animals and all kinds of crowd pulling abnormalities.

An armless, legless lady, lacking hands yet able to thread a needle and make her own clothes would have been a real fairground attraction, a real scoop to an agent with an eye to turn an opportunity into profit.

 

Sold at the Fair

Imagine Sarah’s parents at the fair, spotting and seizing the opportunity.  They certainly would have been visitors to Bridgwater Fair.  And there was Mr Emmanuel Dukes, with a travelling side show, a friendly enough character who appeared to be of honest enough intent.  We know for certain that he was a traveller to the fair at Plymouth on a number of occasions, and that Plymouth formed part of a circuit of fairs covering Barnstable, Bideford and finishing at Bridgwater.

Perhaps this gentleman would have a role for Sarah, now 13, and an opportunity for her to realise her independence and achieve financial security through her endeavours.  It would give her the chance to travel the country, to visit places and meet people in a way she would never realise whilst living at home.  She could already cut and sew, and write by mouth.  What an attraction she would be.

Would her parents have received payment for such a transaction?  Almost certainly, for that was the way of the world in the 18th century.  And so it was that at Bridgwater Fair in 1797 or 1798, Sarah said goodbye to her parents and joined the entourage of Mr Emmanuel Dukes.

And here the speculation ends, for we know that she was bound to Mr Dukes by written contract and thereafter travelled the country with him, exhibiting her amazing talents. It was a transaction of which she once wrote: “Shortly after this it was suggested to my parents that a comfortable living might be obtained by public exhibition, and an engagement was arranged for that purpose; but the result was by no means equal to the expectations raised, and 14 years of my life thus passed away without any substantial benefits to me.”

The earliest record of her appearances comes from a Thomas Rowlandson cartoon of St. Bartholomew’s Fair in 1799 at Smithfield in which a van is depicted with a poster on one side referring to the limbless lady carrying the title of ‘Miss Biffin’.  And so Sarah was destined to the world of the travelling caravans and life on the highway.

 

The Eighth Wonder of the World

Sarah was to spend the next 18 years travelling the fairgrounds with Mr Duke.  The poster opposite shows what “renders her worthy of notice, is the industrious and astonishing means she has invented and practised to obtain the use of the needle, scissors, pen, pencils, etc. wherein she is extremely adroit:  she can cut out and make any part of her own clothes, sews extremely neat and in a most wonderful manner: writes well, she has practised the art of drawing 16 months, and miniature painting only five months, wherein she astonishes even eminent artists, all of which she performs principally with her mouth.”

The poster tells us much.  We can assume that Sarah was originally exhibited demonstrating her ability with needle and cotton and scissors.  No doubt she also demonstrated her ability to write but this was less of an attraction to the fee paying public.

At the age of 20, Sarah was a full grown woman, and yet never exceeded 37 inches in height.  She was “aspiring to further acquirements” and “felt anxious to try my skill in the art of painting”.  So after some six years with little change to her act, Dukes took it upon himself to teach her the art of painting.  A year later, she was producing miniatures to such a high standard that she earned herself the billing of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

George Long was to witness these talents when Sarah was 44 years old and described how “this lady’s ability was indeed unique, as she had neither arms nor legs, being born with only short stumps of both.  Her appearance is handsome, as seemingly seated on a cushion she deftly plied her needle with her mouth, with which too she threaded it, her work resting on her shoulder stump.  She worked both in plain sewing and embroidery, but she also painted miniature portraits, handed round for inspection, and she wrote her name, in an excellent lady’s handwriting as we should call it but executed, as all else, by her mouth alone”.

Sarah, while tied to Mr Dukes, travelled the country and was viewed by all and sundry.  Her income from Mr Dukes was limited to £5 per year and she lived in as one of the family.  The public paid one shilling for a seat in the pits or sixpence in the gallery to see her perform.

As an additional source of income, she would paint miniatures on ivory at a cost of three guineas for those who sat for her, but this also went entirely to Mr Dukes, who promised 5,000 guineas to anyone who could prove his act was a fraud.

 

The Earl of Morton and royal patronage

On one such occasion, at St. Bartholomew’s Fair, she was watched by the Earl of Morton who saw her complete a portrait, but not the whole process.  He was somewhat suspicious and agreed to sit for a portrait of his own.  It must have taken a considerable time and a number of sittings, for we know that, in order to ensure her integrity, he took the unfinished portrait away at the end of each of the many sittings.

The completed work was taken to King George III.  So impressed was he that that he agreed to fund lessons for her from William Craig, himself a painter in water colours to the Queen, and miniature painter to the Duke and Duchess of York and the Duke of Kent.  Her ability moved forward in leaps and bounds.

To produce her works of art, she would hold the paint brush in her mouth while the handle end of the brush was passed through a loop on her shoulder.  In this fashion, she created miniatures, as small as two and a half inches across, of the highest standard.  And yet with such abilities, and now being recognised in the highest circles in the land, she remained on the fairgrounds.

The Earl of Morton was much concerned to extricate Sarah from the freak show life to which she was subjected, and away from the life of travelling caravans.  But Sarah was determined to honour her contract with Mr Dukes who she considered to have always shown her great kindness.

 

Reluctance to leave the fairgrounds

To some extent we can understand her reluctance to leave.  Born into a farm labourer’s family, she came from humble beginnings with a very uncertain future.  Accepted into the family of Mr. Dukes, she had spent almost half her life with him and no doubt had developed a stronger feeling of security than during those days at East Quantoxhead.  To step away from that comfortable routine and enter the world of the aristocracy was no doubt a daunting prospect.

Her travels continued: London, Norwich, Oxford, Exeter, Plymouth, Swansea and Cheltenham.  The list goes on and on.  But in 1816 the Cheltenham Chronicle makes reference to her residence in The Crescent and it appears she has finally been persuaded to settle down and no further references to her fairground activities can be found beyond that of Swansea in 1815.

It appears the Earl of Morton had his way and in 1819 Sarah had her own residence in London with a studio in the Strand.  Two years later, we find the Earl of Morton taking Sarah to Brussels where she was introduced to the Prince of Orange.  He was to join her list of patrons on appointing her to the position of miniaturist to the King of Holland.  Sarah had truly arrived.

Perhaps we can imagine these royal personages patronising Sarah through acts of charity, but that would belittle her true capabilities.   Her work was now of such a high standard that in the same year that she went to Brussels, the Royal Society of Arts presented her with their silver award, a recognition not lightly given.  And in announcing the award, the Society’s president, the Duke of Sussex, appealed to the membership to offer their patronage and comfort to Sarah.  Meanwhile Sarah stayed in Brussels painting for the Dutch court until 1822.

 

Betrayed

Life was about to deal Sarah a most cruel blow.  Sarah, now approaching 40, fell in love with William Stephen Wright, a Londoner and a banker’s clerk, who she married on September 6, 1824.  Could this have been a marriage of convenience with some other purpose?  I think not, for Sarah and William travelled all the way to her home just outside of Bridgwater to be married at the hamlet of Kilton, near Kilve.

This surely confirms Sarah’s love for William and a desire to be wed in the traditional manner.  Such a distance to be travelled and such a conformance to tradition would surely not have applied to a marriage of convenience.  Yes, I am sure her intentions and her love were honourable and true – but not so those of her husband.

It appears they were never to live together.  However, her husband persuaded her that he was better fitted than herself to look after her financial affairs.  Her accumulated wealth, no doubt intended to see her through her later years, was duly given into his keeping.  He then left her life and for a while granted her just £40 per year from her own money.  But this was very short lived.  She was left impoverished, just able to pay her way as long as she remained able to work.

 

The loss of her benefactor

Throughout this difficult period, the Earl of Morton continued to keep in touch by writing, indeed right up to his death in 1827.  And with his passing went perhaps her greatest benefactor and guardian.  Who else, throughout her life, had shown such a selfless interest in her welfare.

At about this time, she found herself in some considerable need and returned to the life of travelling the fairgrounds with which she was previously familiar, but now as an independent artist and looking after her own publicity matters.

She was also obliged, and no doubt much to her own embarrassment, to appeal to her former patrons for their pecuniary support in an appeal endorsed by Princess Augusta.  Perhaps it was as a result of this appeal that Sarah was to receive a pension from the Civil List of £12 per year.

 

Tragedies

Further personal tragedies were to follow with the death of her 87-year-old father in 1835 and her mother the following year aged 93.  Both remain at rest in the village of East Quantoxhead.  Shortly after, Sarah’s most supportive royal patron, Princess Augusta died.

In 1837 she was living in Brighton and painting likenesses of royalty copied from the works of others.  By April 1841, she had returned to Cheltenham and was clearly considering embarking on a new life in America.  But it was in Liverpool that she was to arrive before the year was out, and there she remained for the rest of her years.

She set up a studio in Bold Street and attracted a reasonable clientele, at least to begin with.  Ill health however was soon to take its toll and as her health faded, so did her ability as an artist, and with it her ability to maintain a respectable quality of life.  She was on a cruel and unstoppable downward spiral, moving from premise to premise, each of a lesser standard reflecting her own decline.

In 1847, Richard Rathbone launched an appeal to raise funds for this remarkable lady, now unable to maintain the dignity for which she once fought for so hard.  The royal family and various celebrities contributed and her lot was eased to some extent.

 

Final days

Her final days were tormented by a long illness causing great difficulty in breathing.  It  was on October 2, 1850 at the age of 66 that her suffering was to end.  She died in poverty at her lodgings at 8 Duke Street in Liverpool. The inscription on her grave in St. James Cemetery included the following words.

 

Few have passed through the Vale of Life

so much the Child of hapless fortune as the deceased;

and yet possessor of mental Endowments of no ordinary kind.

Gifted with singular talents as an Artist,

thousands have been gratified

with the able productions of her pencil! 

 

Whilst versatile conversation and agreeable manners

elicited the admiration of All.

This tribute to one so universally admired

is paid by those who were best acquainted

with the character it so briefly portrays. 

Do any enquire otherwise the answer is supplied

in the solemn admonition of the Apostle.

 

See 1 Cor.: Chap: 4 Verse 5

 

Now no longer the subject of tears

Her conflict and trials are o’er

In the presence of God she appears

On the calm of Eternity’s shore

 

Immortalised

In death, her name lives on in the novels of Charles Dickens;  Little Dorritt, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewitt and the Old Curiosity Shop.  Thomas Hood mentions her by name in the Mermaid of Margate, R. S. Surtees in Handley Cross and in Thackeray’s work, A Grumble about The Christmas-Books.  Her works live on and feature regularly in Sotheby auctions.  They can be seen in Windsor Castle, private collections and various venues in Liverpool.

It was a sad end indeed for such an incredible lady.  Born into poverty and sold to a fairground freak show.  Through her own determination and perseverance, she rose to a station from which she moved into the highest circles in the land.  Betrayed in love, as in life itself, she returned to the poverty from which she came.

How true were those words of F. Scott FitzGerald.

Show me a hero and I will show you a tragedy

 

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