Beautiful For Ever: The True Story of Madame Rachel of Bond Street

“Madame Rachel promised her clients that she would make them ‘Beautiful For Ever!’ But what they found inside her beguiling oriental boudoir with its latticed screens, lavish oriental wall hangings, splashing fountain and heavy crimson drapes, was something far darker. For beneath the clever sales patter and the wheedling manner lay a merciless con-artist and fraudster who made a career out of lies, treachery, and the false hopes of her victims.”

HELEN RAPPAPORT

Madame Rachel: purveyor of cosmetics, lies & false hopes

Open any glossy women’s magazine today and its pages are full of the miraculous effects of a whole range of cosmetics and beauty treatments – from high-tech creams, to Botox, hormone injections, fillers and plastic surgery – all designed, at a price, to keep the ageing process at bay.

Back in the 1860s there was little or no choice for women who wanted to look good – that is if they dared meddle with nature at all. In Victorian England the pursuit of beauty was totally frowned upon. Queen Victoria was appalled at its growing popularity: to her mind and that of all respectable women, cosmetics were vulgar and highly improper – resorted to only by actresses and prostitutes. Such was the general hostility to the use of makeup that many women concocted their own cosmetics and creams at home and those who did buy cosmetics and hair colourants did so under the counter, away from public scrutiny.

Only well-heeled society ladies with plenty of money could afford the exclusivity of one of the discreet ‘lady renovators’ or ‘rejuvenators’ then operating in Mayfair. And the person they all flocked to in secret – heavily veiled and by closed carriage – was Madame Rachel of 47a New Bond Street. A self-appointed, but entirely bogus ‘Purveyor of Cosmetics to Her Majesty the Queen’, Madame Rachel promised her clients that she would make them ‘Beautiful For Ever!’ But what they found inside her beguiling oriental boudoir with its latticed screens, lavish oriental wall hangings, splashing fountain and heavy crimson drapes, was something far darker. For beneath the clever sales patter and the wheedling manner lay a merciless con-artist and fraudster who made a career out of lies, treachery, and the false hopes of her victims.

‘Beautiful For Ever!’

Madame Rachel had started life in the East End as plain Sarah Russell, selling old clothes and hawking bottles and rabbit skins from a barrow in Wapping, before graduating to running a fried fish shop in Clare Market, an area just off the Strand that is now the location of the London School of Economics. When money was short she told fortunes for a penny around the public houses of Covent Garden and helped procure actresses from Drury Lane’s theatres for a brothel run by one of her friends off Long Acre. Some time in the 1850s she turned to making and selling hair dyes; so successful was she that she quickly moved up market for the richer pickings to be found as a cosmetician in Bond Street. ‘Beautiful For Ever’, became Rachel’s clever marketing catchphrase, by means of which she traded on the gullibility of rich women willing to suspend their disbelief and pay through the nose for items from a range of sixty cosmetics that she claimed were based on the exotic beauty secrets of Ancient Arabia and the harem.
Faced with stiff competition in the high-society marriage market, what lady would not wish to be spared the embarrassments of halitosis, perspiration, pimples and a sagging bust? As London’s rich and titled ladies perused the pages of the Court Journal, the Morning Chronicle and The Times how could they resist the frequent advertisements exhorting them to buy a bottle of Madame’s legendary Magnetic Rock Dew Water? Rachel’s sales patter claimed it was ‘brought to Morocco by swift dromedaries’ and that she imported it under special licence from the Sultan at great personal expense; and it was a mere snip at two guineas a throw (about £90 in today’s money). And what about her Armenian Beauty Wash, or anti-greying hair treatments such as the Circassian Golden Hair Wash? Her Royal Arabian face cream and Honey of Mount Hymettus soap worked wonders too; as did Rachel’s Arab Bloom face powder – not to mention the cornucopia of creams, face washes and essences of perfumes and herbs from the most exotic and far flung places that her glossy brochure offered.

But what went into such products? The base ingredients were of course, a lot less exotic-sounding than Rachel boasted: chemicals such as corrosive sublimate, prussic acid, carbonate of lead and even arsenic all were used to whiten the skin in Victorian times, as well as to supposedly eradicate blemishes and wrinkles. All were caustic and poisonous and could cause chronic inflammation of the skin or even kill, if taken in large quantities. Yet Rachel’s desperate lady clients suspended their disbelief and flocked to her door in droves.

Enamelling ladies’ faces

Madame Rachel’s most sought after stock in trade, for which she claimed unique talents, was the ‘enamelling of ladies’ faces’, a method for lightening the skin to a then fashionable whiteness. Although by no means original to her, ‘enamelling’ became for ever after associated with Rachel’s notoriety. The objective was the age-old one of producing a smooth and transparently white porcelain quality to the face and bosom for that special ball or dinner or presentation at court and one whose effects could last – so Rachel claimed – for up to a year. In her seductive advertising campaign enamelling was elevated to an almost occult art, which she claimed was conducive to health and beauty, grace and youth, and one that was exclusively hers. But it didn’t come cheap: her average charge for enamelling a lady’s face was twenty guineas – something like £1,500 today. The method was simple enough – a careful removal of hairs or fuzz on the face and bust by the use of various lotions; followed by the application of copious amounts of alkaline toilet washes, then a filling-in of wrinkles and depressions in the skin with a thick white paste, and a dusting of rouge and powder to finish off.

Rachel’s fame as an ‘enamellist’ spread far and wide: rich American women were reported to be flocking to London for her talents as she continued to assert her exclusivity in the papers, stating that ‘all other persons presuming to style themselves enamellers commit a gross fraud on the public at large’. She and she alone, she warned, was the sole possessor in the world of this great art. In so doing, she entrapped and defrauded a succession of nervous clients. The unwritten subtext of her advertising claims was guaranteed to induce anxiety in the vain and gullible: go to Rachel and you will be transformed into a socially acceptable beauty; stay away and you will languish unnoticed, unloved – and, more importantly, unmarried – in the shadows.

Murky Insinuations

In the end, of course, the law caught up with Madame Rachel. Rumours had been circulating for years about malpractice, intimidation, blackmail and worse going on at no. 47a Bond Street. There was talk that it was used as a house of assignation for society ladies and their lovers. Even murkier insinuations were made that the Madame Rachel’s therapies included the provision of abortifacients for ladies in particular need.

The law inevitably caught up with this clever fraudster. Madame Rachel was twice prosecuted for fraud at the Old Bailey – in 1868 an 1878 – and served two prison sentences. She died in Woking jail in 1880, unrepentant to the last and still insisting that she alone knew the secret art of making women ‘Beautiful For Ever’.

There is still a building on the site of Rachel’s salon in New Bond Street; it is now the premises of Pinet’s, a swish couture shoe shop; her house round the corner in Maddox Street has recently been renovated.

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