On Saturday 23 October 1802, Mrs Sophia Austin began the two mile trek from her home in Deptford to Blackheath. Little did she know that her actions would spark one of the biggest royal scandals in decades. Her destination was Montague House where Caroline, Princess of Wales, was living estranged from her royal husband. Mrs Austin hoped that the charitable princess would be able to exert her influence on behalf of Mr Austin, who had recently been dismissed from his job at the Dockyard. If all else failed, she had heard that the princess provided food for poor women in her kitchens. But as luck would have it, Mrs Austin had brought along the most effective bargaining chip she could: her three month old son, William.
On her initial application, Mrs Austin was interviewed by Caroline’s page, Stikeman, who was able to offer her husband some work turning the mangle at a laundry in Pimlico. However, he urged Mrs Austin to return again soon, as the princess might take an interest in her son. Return she did. This time, on 6 November, she met Caroline herself in the blue room. Caroline took an instant fancy to William, touching him under the chin and exclaiming,’Oh what a nice one! How old is it?’ At length Mrs Austin was informed that, if she could make up her mind to part with William, he would be adopted by Caroline and treated like a young prince. Mrs Austin, who was poor with many children, said she would ‘rather part with him to a lady like [Caroline] than keep him to want’. The deal was struck, and Mrs Austin was given a pound note and arrowroot to begin weaning William at once.
Separated from her legitimate daughter, Caroline threw her heart and soul into carrying for little William, who was henceforth known as Willy or Willikin. Rather than packing him off to the nursery quarters, she let her royal house become littered with spoons, plates and feeding boats. A row of Willy’s nappies were constantly drying before the fire, as she changed them herself. Perhaps because of this treatment, the child become loud, rude and spoilt. There are many anecdotes of Willy at Caroline’s famous supper parties, none of them endearing. He was dangled over the dining table to snatch his favourite food, knocking over the wine in the process. He leafed through hideously expensive books with inky fingers and ruined them. Another time, he threw an epic tantrum because of a spider on the ceiling. The hapless footmen were called in with long sticks to try and poke the spider away. Caroline, who was boisterous herself, could not see her darling’s faults. ‘Isn’t he a nice boy, Mr Pitt?’ she asked the Prime Minister. Pitt showed the diplomacy of his office by offering the evasive reply, ‘I don’t understand anything about children’. Pitt’s niece Lady Hester Stanhope was less tactful, referring to the boy as a ‘nasty, vulgar-looking brat.’
It all would have remained rather funny and charming, had anyone but Caroline adopted Willy. For with Caroline, mischief was never far behind. Prior to Willy’s arrival, she had been regaling her friend Lady Douglas with symptoms of a pregnancy. This may have been real, phantom, or one of Caroline’s beloved practical jokes. Either way, her tales of breast milk, ravenous hunger and increasing girth served to convince Lady Douglas that Willy was in fact Caroline’s illegitimate son. When questioned about this, Caroline laughed and said she would claim the child belonged to her husband the Prince of Wales. This was a dangerous jest, throwing the royal succession into jeopardy. Before long, The Delicate Investigation was launched by the King and Prince of Wales to examine Caroline’s behaviour and establish if she had in fact born an illegitimate child.
While the Investigation ruined Caroline’s reputation, it proved that Willy was the son of Sophia and Samuel Austin. In later life, Willy grew up to be the spit of his mother and elder brother. However, the rumours surrounding his birth didn’t fade away. As late as 1814, the Prince of Wales was still questioning Caroline’s daughter Charlotte about Willy. Charlotte believed Willy was her mother’s ‘bastard’ and suspected Captain Manby of being the father. She was also constantly afraid that Caroline would put Willy on the throne in her place. These fears seemed well founded when in later years, Caroline was hailed with the cry ‘God bless Queen Caroline and her son, King Austin!’
But Caroline had her own story, which wildly denied Willy belonged to either her or the Austins. She did not tell this tale for many years, swearing that nobody would know who the boy really was until after her death. However, Caroline could never keep a secret, real or imaginary, and told her legal adviser that Willy was in fact the natural son of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. Louis Ferdinand had been a candidate for Caroline’s hand before she married the Prince of Wales, but the negotiations foundered. According to Caroline, the pair had continued a desperate romance, and Louis Ferdinand entrusted his son to her. The boy was supposedly brought over by a German woman and swapped with Willy Austin, all unbeknownst to his parents. Caroline said the real Willy Austin had been ‘taken God knows where, but sent away.’ It seems an unlikely story, although Caroline did repeat a variant of it on her deathbed. She informed Dr Lushington that Willy was ‘a son of a brother or friend in Brunswick who was dead…he had been clandestinely brought over from the continent.’
Willy remained a part of Caroline’s life up until her death in 1821. He accompanied her on exile across Europe and stood weeping outside the sickroom at her last illness. However, there is some evidence that her affection waned after his infancy. She began to look out for another little boy when Willy became a teenager. For a long time, Willy slept on a couch in Caroline’s own bedroom, but as soon as she found an Italian lover she ousted the boy without a second’s hesitation. This was just the beginning of the slippery slope for poor Willy, whose tale ends tragically. He should have been a rich 19 year old man after Caroline’s death but she died insolvent. He was not left destitute – she had put aside £200 per annum for the last three years and invested it into government stock for her young charge – but while £600 was a good prize for a labourer’s son, it wasn’t the royal fortune Willy was raised to expect. He had remained in contact with his natural parents through out his life and presumably returned to their neighbourhood after losing his patroness. I have not researched the following years of Willy’s life in depth, but it is recorded that he died aged just 47 in a lunatic asylum in Chelsea. Enemies of the eccentric Caroline would say this was a natural end for the boy she had raised. But I feel truly sorry for the man who must have lived a confusing and conflicted life. It would not be surprising if the scandal surrounding his birth, the dual roles of Deptford boy and princess’s son, and the destruction of his hopes served to unbalance his mind. Let us hope he found peace, and the truth about his identity, when he was released from his suffering.