Sin and Scandal in Edwardian Britain: Fraudster Heiress Violet Charlesworth

Violet's motorcar
Violet’s motorcar – The Motor (Jan 12, 1909) – Google Books

The Edwardian era was an age of reinvention and publicity, and with the right appearance, even the humblest of liars could obtain both. Like Therese Humbert before, Violet (aka May) Charlesworth managed to bilk money and prestige from unsuspecting dupes who were taken in by her appearance of class and poise. Violet’s life of crime actually began in 1900, when her mother set the ball rolling by informing a Dr. Barratt that Violet and her eldest daughter were to inherit a fortune of 75,000 upon the eldest daughter turning twenty-one. This daughter died before twenty-one, but two years later, Violet, now eighteen, claimed a young man named Alexander McDonald promised to settle 150,000 on her when she reached the age of twenty-five. On the strength of this so-called legacy, Violet’s mother was lent various sums by a Mrs. Smith from 1903 on.

Noticing how easily duped people were by these huge lies, the Charlesworths undoubtedly figured they could aim much higher. In 1907, the Charlesworths decamped to Rhyl, a seaside resort in Wales, where they spread the news that Violet was god-daughter of General “Chinese” Gordon of Khartoum and was to inherit 100,000 from his estate upon her twenty-fifth birthday. Violet looked the part of an heiress–she was noted for her fleet of expensive motorcars–and her beauty attracted all sorts of gentlemen willing to settle sums of money and gifts upon her fair countenance. Violet used these “gifts” to speculate thousands of pounds on the stock exchange, which she used to purchase those aforementioned motorcars, “diamond tiaras and other jewerlry, [and] hiring country houses in England, Scotland and Wales.” The Charlesworths had since moved to a manion in Bodera, St. Asaph, Wales, where they lived lavishly on Violet’s speculations until her mysterious death in January of 1909.

Newspapers across Britain, and even in America and Australia, reported on the shocking motor accident that flung the beautiful heiress over the cliffs and into the sea at Penmaenmawr. The area was combed by detectives both professional and amateur, particularly after no body was found and news emerged that Violet’s speculations had failed her to a tune of 27,000 in debt! Photographs of the presumed-dead heiress were circulated in newspapers and police stations across Great Britain, and though there were momentary distractions of false sightings, Violet was eventually found residing in Oban, Scotland under a false name. Unsurprisingly both Violet and her mother Miriam were convicted of four counts of conspiracy to obtain money by false pretenses and two counts of obtaining money by false pretenses, and were sentenced to five years of hard labor (later reduced to three). Violet’s release from prison was mentioned in the February 24, 1912 issue of The Autocar, but after that, the Charlesworths vanished into the ether of history; however, Violet’s audacious scam left a marker on pop culture: the cliff where she was allegedly thrown is known as “Violet’s Leap” and “did she fall or was she pushed?” quickly entered the English lexicon, first in reference to the possible source of Violet’s “death,” later to to flippantly insinuate how a girl lost her virginity, and “now used by headline writers about women who lose their jobs in dramatic circumstances.”


The Criminal Appeal Reports. v. 4 1910.
Science and the Criminal by Charles Ainsworth Mitchell
FIND GIRL SWINDLER; IS ALIVE AND WELL; Violet Charlesworth, Who Said She Was Heiress to Millions, Is at Oban, Scotland – New York Times
Harry Thomas’ Memory Lane, Volume 1 by Harry Thomas
From Hue & Cry to Humble Pie by Judy Parkinson
Image of Violet Charlesworth
“The Startling Career of Violet Charlesworth” – Los Angeles Herald, 14 February 1909
Vanishing Violet – the Wolverhampton heiress who disappeared in the “Welsh Cliffs Mystery”
Historian seeks information about Rhyl conwoman


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