The Dilettante Society on Mr and Mrs Bracey

Friday 11 March 2016
reading time: min, words

"Perhaps Joan truly fell in love with Bracey, or maybe his worldly charms and glamorous appearances were seductive as means to a more adventurous life, unhindered by rules governing proper conduct for a young lady"


The great lovers of the past have always had a knack for enthralling audiences. Spicing up stories with their amorous exploits, they provide heroes and heroines for the romantics in us all to admire and aspire to. Even so, the wholesome and happy lovers often remain unsung, and it is the tragic, forbidden or criminal love which we undoubtedly find far more captivating.

Born in 1656, the only child of a respectable and wealthy Northamptonshire farmer and his wife, Joan was set to live an average but comfortable life. By early adulthood she had developed a keen, daring and artful mind and was known for miles around for her exquisite beauty and angelic form. Naturally, she attracted an array of devoted admirers hoping to take her hand in marriage, but the fair Miss Phillips had a bold, volatile spirit and not one of them did she consider worthy of her affections.

Some accounts suggest this staunch reluctance to marry was pure vanity – Joan favouring to use her charm on countless suitors, or perhaps she was simply, quite rightfully, choosy about her husband to be. Either way, by the standards of the time, her resolve to not marry was most unusual.

That was, until the unexpected arrival of a gallant stranger at the family home caught her eye and irrevocably changed the course her life. A handsome and charming drifter posing as a respectable man of society, Edward Bracey had intended to seduce and debauch the finicky heiress Joan in hopes of seizing the family fortune.

The Phillips were known to be especially indulgent of their only child, though it seems she did not appreciate their doting fondness. When Bracey revealed his malevolent intentions, Joan, being every bit as cunning and clever as her new beau, contrived a new plan. Together, they seized the family assets, and upon stealing all of the money and valuables, the two quickly absconded for a life of deviant crime.

Perhaps Joan truly fell in love with Bracey, or maybe his worldly charms and glamorous appearances were seductive as means to a more adventurous life, unhindered by rules governing proper conduct for a young lady. The pair never officially married, but they went by Mr and Mrs Bracey as they embarked on a criminal spree of pickpocketing, shoplifting and thieving at country fairs and markets. Joan’s artful and cunning mind was put to use devising schemes and swindles. Before long, she disguised herself as a man and joined her partner as a “knight of the road”, holding up carriages with their guns and uttering the tormenting cry of “Stand and deliver!”

Fearing justice, which was often close on the tail of the lawless couple, they retreated with their ill-gotten gains to run an inn just outside of Bristol. Of course, it wasn’t long before they garnered quite a reputation. Joan quickly became notorious as the beautiful proprietress who drew in punters. Enchanting her various suitors, it is said she helped herself to whatever she could reap from them, sometimes simply playing cruel games for her own abhorrent satisfaction or as a display of her power. One tale tells of a Mr Day, with whom Joan had promised to spend a night of passion, only to conspire with the maid to lead him naked into the sewage-ridden street in the night.


Meanwhile, Edward happily lightened the customer’s wallets with any means at his disposal. Before a year had passed, the establishment became well known as a den of criminality best avoided by decent, law-abiding folk. With the authorities closing in on their latest swindle, they were forced to leave and return to previous occupations, this time taking up residence in Farndon near Newark.

Their tale came to a bitter end in 1685 when they were caught by authorities, while attempting yet another routine holdup, on the corner of Wilford Lane and Loughborough Road in Nottingham. This time, the fates were not in their favour. Accounts of Bracey’s fate vary considerably, but with little word of his later exploits it is likely he was injured and later died. Dressed in her usual male attire, Joan was arrested and officers were struck aghast to discover the prize rouge in their captive was in fact a woman. This caused a huge sensation. Women, especially those from a privileged background, simply did not do such things – crimes of passion or ignorance perhaps, but a fully fledged female criminal was scandalous.

Accordingly, the Mayor of Nottingham offered her legal representations, and she could have walked away from the courts a free woman, having been forgiven for crimes committed under the duress of her husband. But Joan, once again, shocked society spectacularly when she confessed to her willful criminal conduct in full knowledge of the certain death that would await her. She was hanged, and her body was displayed in a metal cage at the site of her capture as a warning to others.

Despite her life of callous conduct and crime, the tale of Joan Phillips is enduringly seductive. The victims and violence quickly fade into fiction and are transformed into dramatic fodder for our entertainment, while the other elements of their intriguing exploits are all too easily romanticised to fit the narratives most appealingly.

From morally slanted warnings of the perils of vanity, to celebrations of the outlaw who lives on their wits alone, and characters who choose extraordinary lifestyles, there is no shortage of enticing angles from which to interpret their tale. We are inclined to admire Joan’s defiance of not following the established rules of her gender and class, but in reality the methods of her liberation are much less appealing.

Yet perhaps most alluring is the the fairytale appeal of lovers who care for none but each other. Now as much as ever, be it in modern tabloids, folk tales or history books, we casually indulge in the spectacle and drama of such stories, allowing romanticism to override the causality or crimes of the characters. We hanker for the lovers to reunite before the final curtain closes, be it in a happy ending, or even in death. Loved or loathed, the story of the respectable lady seduced by a life of crime beside her glamorously devious paramour remains truly sensational.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, The Chameleon Arts Cafe, Monday 14 March, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier. The theme of the Show and Tell is music so please take along a CD, record or mp3.

The Dilettante Society on Facebook

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