I love a good smuggling story and I’ve been exploring the Isle of Wight in search of secrets from its shady past. When I visited the village of St Helens for the first time, I had no idea that one of its past inhabitants was a courtesan, self-styled aristocrat, and maybe even a cold-blooded murderer.
Looking out onto the green at the centre of the village, a few doors along from The Vine Inn, there is a small wisteria-covered cottage with a blue plaque. This is the humble birthplace of Sophie Dawes, a smuggler’s daughter who became Madame de Feuchères and frequented the court of French king, Louis XVIII. Her astonishing history is a real-life rags-to-riches story, with a rather sinister twist at the end.
Sophie was born at Freefolk Cottage, in St Helens, around 1792. She was one of the ten children of Richard ‘Dickie’ Dawes, a fisherman and renowned smuggler. When her father died, Sophie aged 11, was forced to enter Newport Workhouse with her mother and surviving siblings. It was there that she learned to read and write, as well as basic domestic skills, which would change her life forever.
After about two years in the workhouse, Sophie left and travelled first to Portsmouth, where she worked as a chambermaid, and then to London. A few years later, she was working in a brothel at Piccadilly, where she met the exiled Duke of Bourbon, who had escaped to London in the aftermath the French Revolution. Allegedly winning the attentions of young Sophie in a game of cards, when the 54-year-old duke returned to Paris in 1814, he took her with him. By this time, Sophie had been transformed into a lady, having received education in foreign languages and music, funded by the duke, who had also installed her in a fashionable residence, with her own servants.
Once in France, the couple decided to conceal their illicit relationship behind a respectable marriage for Sophie and, in 1818, she married Baron Adrien-Victor de Feuchères, a major in the Royal Guards. Around the same time, the duke inherited his father’s title, the Prince of Condé. All three lived in his estate, without anyone knowing about the secret affair. Sophie, now Baronne de Feuchères, soon became known as the Queen of Chantilly, such was her influence and position in aristocratic French society. She even installed members of her own family into the household, such as her nephew James, a meat porter from London, who was appointed as the prince’s equerry.
By 1822, Sophie’s fortunes at court began to turn. Her husband discovered her relationship with the prince, whom he had believed was her father, and he started divorce proceedings against her. Now disgraced, she was banned from court and had to act fast to preserve her reputation. Sophie managed to persuade her ageing lover, the Prince, to change his will in her favour, thus making her wealthy and respectable once again. However, the story takes a sinister turn when, in 1830, he was found hanging from his bedroom window with a knotted handkerchief around his neck. Although the official verdict was suicide, it did not account for the extensive bruising on the prince’s body, and it is likely that he was killed by one of Sophie’s many lovers.
Sophie and her nephew James, now the Baron de Flassans, sold all their estates in France and returned to England. Unfortunately James did not make it back home and died suddenly in Calais on the way. Sophie bought an estate near Christchurch and a house in Hyde Park. She died of a heart attack in 1840, and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
On my way out of St Helens, I visited the churchyard, where there is an elaborate headstone dedicated to James Dawes, erected by his loving aunt, who probably poisoned him.