Hannah More and the Lady of the Haystack

Fishponds’ most famous daughter and a sorry tale from Somerset

One of the most extraordinary stories I came across at Glenside Hospital Museum was that of the mysterious woman who, thanks to Hannah More, came to be known as ‘Louisa, the Lady of the Haystack’. 

Rumours abound that she was the illegitimate daughter of the Austrian emperor Francis I and thus half sister to Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, but she would spend the closing years of her life in lunatic asylums, thanks to Hannah More’s beneficence. 

Hannah More, portrayed by her Cornish contemporary John Opie
The schoolhouse where Hannah was born, behind what is now Fishponds Park

Evangelical poet, educationalist, and campaigner against slavery, Hannah More was born on 2 February 1745 in the forbidding stone schoolhouse which still stands at the back of Fishponds Park beside the entrance to St Mary’s churchyard. The fourth of five children to Jacob the school master, from Norfolk, and her Bristolian mother, Mary Grace, Hannah she began her studies early. Her father taught her Latin and maths from the age of 8. 

At 12 she she moved to the boarding school for young ladies run by her older sister Mary, behind Bristol Cathedral, and went on to teach there. She studied French, Italian, Latin and Spanish. A precocious young woman, she wrote plays and poems and mixed with theatre folk and literary figures in the city. 

Her love of the Somerset countryside was sparked by visits to Belmont, the country home of William Turner, an older cousin to pupils at the school. She helped Turner to lay out his grounds in Failand, which she dubbed Fairyland. They became engaged and he mounted some of her poems on boards along the paths they walked. Some can still be found reinstated in the grounds of neighbouring Tyntesfield, now run by the National Trust.   

Hannah’s first published play, ‘In search after happiness’, followed the ending of her 6-year on-off engagement to Turner. With an annuity from her erstwhile suitor she moved to London and would spend time in actor David Garrick’s house, vowing never to marry. 

She met with leading figures of all shades of opinion but remained a conservative Christian in hers. Her diaries are a name-dropper’s dream. She was friends with Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, supporting his bid to become MP for Bristol, and later campaigned with Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce to end slavery.

Her overriding concern was to promote Christian values and she gradually turned her back on the theatre world. Shocked by rural poverty when she moved back to Somerset, she and her sisters set up a string of charity schools in the Mendips. 

That was when she came across the ‘mad maid’ who had wandered into the village Flax Bourton in a distressed state and set up home in a haystack in 1776. The poor woman was taken to St Peter’s Hospital in Bristol but reacted badly to incarceration. 

Hannah bought the haystack for her. The mysterious woman decorated the hay with trinkets when she returned to Flax Bourton. She accepted milk and tea from local women but foraged for other food, resisting offers of accommodation because, she said ”Trouble and misery dwell in houses”.

Although she kept her distance from men, a Bristol man who claimed to have met her offered this description according to a popular chapbook (cheap novel) published three years after her death.

Louisa, the Lady of the Haystack,
based on a painting made soon after she arrived at Flax Bourton in 1776

“I should have conceived her to be about five-and-twenty; and notwithstanding the injuries which her situation and mode of life must inevitably have occasioned in her looks, she had still a very pleasing countenance. Interesting it certainly was in a high degree; but it is not easy to say how much this impression was to be attributed to the previous knowledge of her story. She had fine, expressive, black eyes and eye-brows; her complexion was wan, but not fickly; her under jaw projected a little, and I fancied I could distinguish something of the Austrian lip; but it was not decidedly marked. Her nose had nothing particular; her hair was very dark, if not black, and in length about a year and a half’s growth, not being thick, but coming down on her forehead; her arm and hand were delicate, with small long fingers.”

Taking it upon herself to investigate the woman’s plight, Hannah gave her the name ‘Louisa’, reporting that she was ‘enough Mistress of her reason carefully to shut up from our observation every avenue that might lead to her secret.’ Hannah was convinced ‘that her Father was a German, her Mother an Italian; that she has one brother and one Sister; that her father had a very fine garden full of olive and orange Trees.’ Louisa’s accent and reaction to spoken German leant credence to this account, and to rumours that she was of noble birth.

Bristol’s ‘milkmaid poet’ Ann Yearsley – another beneficiary of Hannah More’s charity though their relationship would end in acrimony – wrote: 

Beneath this stack Louisa’s haystack rose, Here the fair mania bore three winter snows, Here long she shivered stiffening in the blast; The lightning round their livid horrors cast; The thunders roared, while rushing torrents pour And add new woes to black affliction’s hour.’ 

In the hope of discovering the women’s real identity, using the nom de plume Philalethes, Hannah submitted A Tale of Real Woe to the November 1781 edition of the St James Chronicle. It excited the interest of the Royal court but drew no fresh clues as to Louisa’s true identity. However it raised enough money to allow her benefactress to pay for her to be looked after in a private madhouse in Hanham, run by Methodist clergyman Richard Henderson. 

But, as John Wesley found when he visited her, Louisa’s mental and physical health deteriorated.

‘Her features were small and finely turned; her eyes had a peculiar sweetness; her arms and fingers were delicately shaped, and her voice soft and agreeable. But her understanding was in ruins. She appeared partly insane, partly silly and childish. She would answer no question concerning herself, only that her name was Louisa. She seemed to take no notice of any person or thing, and seldom spoke above a word or two at a time.’

John Wesley

In January 1782 he described her as ‘Pale and wan, worn with sorrow, beaten with wind and rain, having been so long exposed to all weathers, with her hair rough and frizzled, and only a blanket wrapped round her, native beauty gleamed through all.

Then in March 1784 he wrote ‘I spent a few melancholy minutes at Mr. Henderson’s with the lost Louisa. She is now in a far more deplorable case than ever. She used to be mild, though silly: but now she is quite furious. I doubt the poor machine cannot be repaired in this life.’

Hannah More also found her ‘much altered: and has lost all that beauty and elegance which I am afraid had too great a share in seducing my affections, I dare not ask myself whether it was her calamity or her attractions which engaged my heart to serve her.’

She described the poor woman become utterly distraught when she saw herself in Hannah’s mirror, tearing off her ribbons and wrapping herself in her bedclothes ‘full of grief and disgust, remembering, I fear, what a different Spectacle that glass used to present her.’

St. Luke’s Hospital in Cripplegate, London, 1815

Hannah had now moved to Bath with her sisters, but continued to support Louisa when she was moved to St Luke’s Hospital for the insane in London. From there she was sent to Guy’s Hospital where ‘the Lady of the Haystacks’ died in December 1801.

This anonymous poem then appeared about her in The Gentleman’s Magazine.

Louisa, re-imagined in 1803

In yonder dust, unmark’d for public fame, Low rests the relicts of Louisa’s frame! Poor hapless sufferer, of the maniac line! Thy wrongs no more a tortur’d breast confine! Enough for thee, that ling’ring Sorrow’s breath Found final rescue in the boon of death! Consol’d be they, who sought thy soul’s relief! Tormented they, who overwhelm’d with grief! Accurs’d the crime, that ‘reft thy reason’s ray! Though thou be ransom’d for eternal day! And where frail Innocence would Vice repel May guardian angels thy sad story tell!

Her story remains a mystery to this day, although there was much speculation in the years after her death.

A pamphlet in French, L’Inconnue Histoire Véritable, circulated on the continent, asserted that she was indeed Félix-Julienne de Schonau, or Mademoiselle La Frülen, the illegitimate daughter of the Austrian Emperor. 

Writer and clergyman George Glasse published several versions in translation including A Narrative of Facts: Supposed to Throw Light on the History of the Bristol-Stranger; Known by the Name of the Maid of the Hay-stack, with an introduction by Hannah More writing as Philalethes, the same pseudonym she used for her article in the St James Chronicle

Her plight inspired a three act play by James Boaden, The Maid of Bristol, performed in London’s Little Theatre, Haymarket in 1803. And it formed the substance of a popular chapbook The Affecting History of Louisa: The Wandering Maniac, or, Lady of the Hay-Stack; so called, from having taken up her residence under that shelter, in the village of Bourton, near Bristol, in a state of melancholy derangement; and supposed to be a natural daughter of Francis I, emperor of Germany, a real tale of woe. 

Hannah in 1821,
by Henry William Pickersgill

Hannah More had meanwhile build a home for herself and her sisters at Barley Wood in Wrington. Ironically the home of the confirmed spinster is now a wedding venue. She continued her writing and good works, specialising in religious tracts.

After 25 years there she moved back to Clifton in Bristol in 1828, unwell and increasingly recluse once her sisters had died. 

According to friends she had begun to show signs of what we would now call dementia, though she was not unaware of her failings. In her last days she told her secretary Mary Frowd “I am all confusion. I seem to have quite lost my understanding”. 

Hannah More died in September 1833, aged 88, and was buried at Wrington with her sisters.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.


  1. Good tale. Shades of Princess Cariboo’s back-story. Go back far enough and we’re all descended from royalty, to our shame. Respect for Hannah’s hairdo.

  2. Thanks for that Mike – another unique take on British local history…keep them coming. John
    Happy Christmas to you and yours.

  3. This is presumably the Hannah More afterwhom the state primary school off Old Market in Bristol, is named? (Although I heard a rumour that there were plans to rename it with some wishywashy new age twaddle)
    When I worked for the Fire Service I was able to go weekly to assist children in reading there. A real practical task.

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