Lydia Barrington Darragh (1729 - 1789)
patriot, Washington spy
Lydia Barrington Darragh, the youngest child of six children, was born
to John Barrington, a weaver by trade, and Mary Aldridge Barrington in
Dublin, Ireland in 1729. The Barrington’s were members of the Religious
Society of Friends, nicknamed Quakers, whose English ancestors resettled
in Ireland in the 16th century
The Religious Society of Friends was founded by George Fox in England in
1652(1). Simply stated Quakerism embraced pacifism as
a core principle, rejected the trimmings of organized religion, promoted
social reform, and emphasized caring for the less fortunate within and
without their own communities as a unselfish expression of their faith.
The first recorded Quaker meeting held in Ireland was in 1654 at the
home of William Edmundson in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. Edmundson, the
acknowledge founder of Quakerism in Ireland was born in England. He
resettled in Ireland after the Cromwellian defeat of the Irish
Confederate Armies in 1653.
Lydia’s education was informal in nature, meaning that it was
acquired outside a standard school setting. The fact that she was
brought up in a supportive Quaker setting afforded her the opportunity
to avail of educational resources resident within the community
including access to literacy tutors. She also had
access to the advice and
support of skilled tradesmen and women who helped her acquire her the
necessary skills that would, later in life, help care for her family and
contribute to the welfare of her close-knit community.
In 1753 Lydia married John Darragh, a fellow Quaker and literacy tutor.
The wedding took place at the Friends Meeting House in Sycamore Lane in
Dublin located in what is now known as the Temple Bar area. Within a few
years of their marriage they emigrated to the American colonies. They
settled in Philadelphia,
one of the preferred
destinations for many of the early colonists, because of its adherence
to Quaker principles and its tolerance of diverse religious beliefs and
After settling in to their new life in the colonies,
John resumed his tutoring career and Lydia worked as a midwife. For the
next twenty years they lived their lives in adherence with Quaker
beliefs; contributing to the common good and raising a family of five
children. Four other children did not survive infancy.
In October of 1775 some six months after the onset of
the Revolutionary War their oldest son, Charles, broke with Quaker
orthodoxy by enlisting in the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment.
Despite the family’s strong belief in pacifism they were, nonetheless,
surreptitiously predisposed to the patriot’s cause. As with many of
their fellow Irish immigrants of the same or of different religious
affiliations, they were not inclined to stand aloof to let the same
Imperial Monarchy at whose hands they had suffered persecution and
deprivation in the Old World impose the same draconian rule in the New
World where they now made their home.
When the British Army, under the command of General
Howe, arrived in Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, having defeated
General George Washington’s Army at Brandywine Creek, en-route, from New
York. Before Howes arrival approximately one third of the population
had left, amongst them the Darragh’s youngest children who stayed with
relatives in the suburbs. Those who remained were mostly Loyalists and
Quakers who would not pose a problem to the British presence because of
their loyalty to the crown of their Christian pacifist beliefs.
After an October attempt to retake in city failed,
Washington army retreated to Whitemarsh located 15, miles, or so,
northwest of the Philadelphia City center.
After taking possession of the city, Howe set-up his
headquarters across the street from Lydia’s residence, the Loxley house
at 177 South 2nd St. not far from the Delaware River. The Loxley house
was a spacious two-story house that Howe ordered vacated so that he
could house his staff there. After an officer on Howe’s staff, who
happened to be a cousin of Lydia, interceded on her behalf, she was
allowed to stay but, would have to vacate the downstairs whenever Howe
wanted it for staff meetings. The fact that she was related to one of
his officers, and a Quaker, put her above suspicion of being anything
other than a loyal subject, someone that could be trusted.
Howe was wrong in his assessment of Lydia. Whenever Howe
held his meeting in Lydia’s parlor the family retired to the upstairs
bedrooms. With a little subterfuge and daring Lydia was able to
eavesdrop on the proceedings below without being exposed. What she heard
was disturbing and for the first time in her life her Quaker beliefs of
not engaging in or taking sided in conflict were at odds with her sense
of patriotism. Patriotism prevailed compelling her to pass on what she
heard to Washington.
How she accomplished this is not clear as there are
varying versions of the methods she employed. As was the common
practice, people leaving or reentering the areas controlled by either
Howe or Washington needed passes to cross picket lines. The
‘no-mans-land’ in-between was where information regarding the
disposition and movements of the opposing armies was passed back and
forth by enemy agents and partisan sympathizers. Some accounts have it
that Lydia would sent one of her sons into the ‘no-mans-land’ on some
plausible pretext and once there pass on what she heard Howe discuss to
her son, Charles, a soldier in Washington’s army.
At one of Howe’s meetings on December 2nd, she overheard
Howe and his officers discuss plans for a surprise attack on
Washington’s Army at Whitemarsh early on the morning of December 5th.
As the meeting was breaking up she quietly returned to her room. When
one of the officers knocked on her bedroom door, she opened it after an
adequate delay that gave the impression she was awakened. He left
satisfied she heard nothing.
The next morning, she, instead of her son, lined up to
get permission from a British officer or agent to cross the British
picket line to purchase flour at a gristmill located approximately six
miles north of the City Center in Frankfort. As this was a common
occurrence by many of the city’s residence it did not raise suspicion.
With a pass in hand she set out on her audacious journey on December 4,
crossing British picket lines without incident. After arriving at the
mill, she filled her sack with flour and headed for the nearby Rising
Sun Tavern, a known hangout for patriot agents. Along the way she met
Colonel Thomas Craig, one of Washington’s officers, whom she knew, and
informed him of General Howes planned attack on Washington’s army early
the next morning. She also passed along detailed information on the
number of troops, cannon and other armaments that Howes would have at
his disposal. She then returned to her home. In the meantime, Colonel
Craig passed on Lydia’s information to Colonel Elias Boudinot,
Commissary General of Prisoners who was staying at the Rising Sun
Tavern. He, in turn, passed it on to General Washington who immediately
acted on the information.
On the morning of December 5, the approaching British
army was observed, some miles away, at Chestnut Hill. Washington sent
forward 600 troops of the Pennsylvania militia to blunt its advance.
Howe immediately realized that Washington knew of his plans and he,
Washington, had strategically positioned his troops and was ready to
take him on. As a consequence, the planned attack to destroy
Washington’s army turned into a series of ferocious but, indecisive
skirmishes, culminating in a humiliating British withdrawal on December
Lydia observed the dejected British column return to its
base, pleased in the knowledge that her efforts helped to save
Washington’s army and, hopefully, not in the too distant future, herald
the dawn of liberty and release from the yoke of tyranny. However, the
British army’s senior staff set in motion an investigation to determine
who informed General Washington of the impending attack despite the
secrecy surrounding its planning and preparations.
On the morning of December 9, spymaster Major
John Andre knocked on Lydia’s door and questioned her extensively on who
was in the house while the meeting was going on and what each one was
doing. She was able to convince him that everyone had gone to bed early
and were all asleep. His acceptance of her story was based on the fact
that she was a women who, in his misogynistic reasoning, was not capable
of understanding anything significant, other than simple household
related instructions. He also reasoned that even if she heard something
she was incapable of acting on it. Even so, if she had broken down and
confessed during the interrogation her punishment would have been a
speedy and public execution.
Although her spying career only lasted a matter of months, the enormity
of that undertaking can best be understood in considering the
consequences if she had stood aloof or acted otherwise. A surprise
attack would have caught Washington unprepared resulting in the possible
destruction of his army and his capture. Such an outcome would,
probably, have brought the revolution to an end, or at best severely
limit its chances of success. Lydia’s bravery averted that probability.
When the French recognized the United
States by the signing of the Treaty of Alliance in February of 1778 the
Revolutionary War entered a new phase. Fearing a French blockade of the
Chesapeake coupled and the need to protect New York, General Clinton,
who had taken over from General Howe, set in motion plans to evacuate
Philadelphia. On June 8, 1783, he headed north to New York after first
transporting heavy armament and known loyalist to New York on board
ships via the Chesapeake.
After the British left, to the consternation of the loyalist left
behind, American forces returned as
did the residents who had left when the British took over including the
Darragh’s youngest children. With the family intact again life returned
to normal. Lydia continued to support the Independence cause by caring
for the displaced and injured victims of the war.
After Lydia’s husband, John, died in 1783 she moved to a new home from
where she operated a store until her own death on December 26, 1789.
Her contribution to the war effort, an affront to Quakerism, was not
acceptable to the Quakers who barred her from attending Friends
meetings, a price she was willing to accept. The same sanction was meted
out to her soldier son, Charles, who fought for America’s Independence.
Nonetheless, she was buried in the Friends' Burial Ground at Fourth and
Arch Streets in Philadelphia.
Tomás Ó Coısdealha
1) George Fox
(1624-1691) was born in Leicestershire, England. As a young man he
became disillusioned with the religious life of his time. He found many
other “seekers” who also felt the churches had become bogged down with
traditions, rituals and power politics, and together they tried to lead
a renewal of Christianity and live out the Christian message more
In due course they called themselves The Religious Society of Friends.
Many suffered persecution and imprisonment for their beliefs. “Quaker”
was a nick name which stuck, and now we are known as Friends or Quakers.
Arch Street Meeting House Burial Ground
Arch St., Philadelphia PA.19106
Friends Meeting House Burial Ground
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