Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, deserves a prominent place amongst 18th-century Norfolk eccentrics, despite the fact that she was neither Norfolk born nor — though she was happy to suggest it — related to the well-known Norfolk Walpole family, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister.
Charlotte was born in Ireland around 1758, the daughter of a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress, making her debut in Dublin in January 1776, and playing at various theatres in the city throughout that year. Her first London appearance was at Drury Lane in October 1777, where she had modest success. By 1778, she was appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, and displaying her versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in this way in the local newspapers:
“She is a good Singer, an excellent Actress, and it is a matter of dispute with the young Londoners in which character she appears to most advantage, male or female.” [i.e. in “breeches” parts, as in the image above]
In 1778 – 79, she returned to Drury Lane where she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she did not continue on the stage. The reason was simple. In May 1779 she married Edward Atkyns of Ketteringham Hall, near Wyndham in Norfolk, and bore him a son in 1780, though like many actresses who married into the gentry, she does not seem to have been easily accepted by her husband’s peers. The couple spent some time abroad, a fact that was put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying her. This is what Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille in 1784:
“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”
Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:
“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most [enterprising?] Female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing… to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”
The French Revolution
During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Mrs Atkyns and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antionette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of them date from long after the lady’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism.
I’m not going to go into those matters in this blog. They demand fuller treatment, which must be reserved for another occasion. All that matters now is to note that she gained something of a reputation for enthusiastic support of causes dear to her — and for spending her husband’s money on them.
The Norwich Election of 1806
Edward Akyns died young (36) in 1794 and Charlotte lived on alone at Ketteringham Hall. All was quiet until another matter arose into which she threw herself with her typical vigour.
Although women couldn’t vote at the time, a good number of ladies from the gentry and aristocracy took active roles in supporting their chosen ‘side’ in parliament. In 1806, the previous government, dubbed ‘The Ministry of All The Talents’, collapsed and fresh elections were called.
In Norfolk, the election for the two county members was especially fiercely fought. On the Whig side, Thomas Coke and William Windham opposed Colonel John Wodehouse, a man of firm Tory principles, assisted in his ambition by the wealth he had obtained by marrying an heiress. Both sides canvassed hard. However, the Whigs found themselves at a decided disadvantage in terms of feminine support, going so far as to claim that they were victims of a female conspiracy.
Coke had hoped for the support of Lady Townsend, but she preferred to ignore the Norfolk County vote in the hope of getting her son elected at Great Yarmouth. Windham had been both a member of the outgoing cabinet and a vocal supporter of war in the administration of William Pitt the Younger. As a result, he was now unpopular, since he was associated with a war against France of which many people were thoroughly tired. He also found female support decidedly lacking.
“Vote for the Colonel!”
The Whigs were even more irritated when two Tory ladies, a Mrs Bernie and our Mrs Charlotte Atkyns, decided to take a public part in proceedings. They rode around Norwich in a carriage, dressed in the Tory colours of pink and purple, canvassing and calling out “Vote for the Colonel!”
Things turned nasty. The Whigs denounced the two women as Amazons, “brazen-faced widows”, and “saucy and over-bold witches”, who dared:
“To trade and traffic with our fate
In riddles and affairs of state.”
Since both ladies had once been actresses, a good deal of sexual innuendo and general mud was also thrown against them. The Whigs even went so far as to dress two local prostitutes in their own colours and have them ride around Norwich the next day, pouring scorn on the Tory ladies. Coke at least was embarrassed:
“… some of Coke and Windham’s party placed two prostitutes in a barouche and drove them about in imitation of those ladies. Mr Coke said that on hearing of it, he did what he could to prevent it, but found one of his nephews at the head of the mob, which he could not stop.”
Coke and Windham won — just — but it proved a short-lived victory. The two Tory ladies were not to be outdone. They raised a petition, claiming bribery and electoral fraud. Coke and Windham lost the subsequent case, though neither were punished. However, the election result was declared null and void and had to be held again.
Since the two Whigs were said to have spent £33,000 on the previous election and defending the petition, neither had the means to take part in the re-run. Windham was given a seat for a safe “pocket Borough” by one of his supporters. Coke took his brother’s seat. Colonel Wodehouse also refused to stand again. Two Whigs were therefore elected, neither of whom had stood before. You might well say Mrs Atkyns had won in the end, even though no Tory member got elected.
As a postscript, it’s worth noting there was yet another election in 1807. This time, Windham tried to persuade one of the Whigs victorious in 1806 to stand aside for him, but was rebuffed. His personal unpopularity had grown to the point where he had no chance of re-election, either for Norfolk or his short-lived pocket Borough, so he withdrew from politics altogether.