Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1729, Lydia Barrington married her tutor, William Darragh on November 2, 1753. The Quaker couple immigrated to the American colonies a few years later and settled in Philadelphia where a large Quaker community was established. Settling in to life in their new home, William continued his work as a tutor. Lydia assisted the women of the area as a midwife and bore nine children of her own, with four dying in infancy. The five survivors were Charles, Ann, John, William, and Susannah.
As 1777 came to an end, winter imposed a lull on the American Revolution. British General William Howe had taken up residence in Philadelphia, along with a number of his officers. Next door to the house in which General Howe was quartered stood the home of William and Lydia Darragh. Though outwardly Quakers, William and Lydia were pacifists, but harbored a loyalty to the revolutionary cause. The fact they were well known as Quakers offered them a measure of reassurance it would be safe for them to remain in their homes, rather than evacuate from Philadelphia the way a good percentage of the population had.
Given the size of the Darraghs’ home, General Howe sough to quarter his troops there. Lydia was successful at maintaining her resistance to this request; however, she would permit them to use a large room in the home for meetings. General Howe gave orders that while the meetings were in session, the Darraghs and anyone who came to the home were to stay away from the room in which the British were meeting.
On December 2, 1777, General Howe sent the Darragh family to bed prior to a meeting scheduled with his officers and staff at 8:00 p.m. Lydia was able to leave her room and hide in the closet of the room next to where General Howe was conducting his meeting. As she listened, she learned the general’s message included plans to attack General George Washington and the troops encamped at both Whitemarsh, about 12 miles outside Philadelphia, and Valley Forge for the winter. The plan was for British troops to leave Philadelphia on the evening of December 4 and conduct the surprise attack on the Continental Army. With her eldest son, Charles, serving as an officer in the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army, Lydia was not happy with what she heard.
When she heard the meeting conclude, she quickly returned to her bedroom. A British officer knocked on her door a short time later, but she ignored his first two efforts. When he rapped the third time, she answered the door, acting as if the reason she did not respond earlier was because she had been asleep. She followed the officers to the front door, latched it behind them, blew out the candles and returned to her room.
The question in Lydia’s mind now was how to get the message to Washington and the troops. She had to develop a plan quickly if she was to save her son and the regiment. This would not be the first time Lydia served as a spy of sorts for Washington. Previously Lydia gave the information she acquired to her then 14-year old son and, on the pretext of sending him to visit his older brother, sent the lad off with instructions to carry the message to the Continental Army. This time, however, she felt this was a message she needed to personally deliver.
She began her efforts by going to General Howe’s headquarters next door and stating it was necessary for her to travel to the mill near Frankford to purchase flour. Her request was not at all surprising; the people frequently made such requests which allowed them to purchase goods in the countryside. She received the necessary pass to do so. After dropping her bag at the mill the following day, Lydia made off in the direction of the American camp. The pass she received allowed her to precede with no problem through the various patrol stops.
During her trip she encountered American Colonel Thomas Craig, a member of the Light Horse, a patriotic military organization. She informed him of what she learned concerning the impending British attack. Craig immediately relayed this vital information to Washington. Once her task was completed, she returned home with her purchase.
As planned, on December 4, 1777, General Howe and his 10,000 British troops left Philadelphia, just shy of midnight. Early on the morning of December 5, the British column was spotted at Chestnut Hill. Sent out by Washington, Brigadier General James Irvine took 600 of the Pennsylvania militia to counter the pending advance. The British continued to seek a weakness somewhere in the American lines, but were constantly repelled by the Continental Army, coupled with Mordecai Gist’s Maryland militia and General Daniel Morgan’s corps of riflemen. On December 8, 1777, General Howe called off the attack and returned to Philadelphia. The casualty count was 100 on the side of the Americans and 300 for the British.
Returning to Philadelphia, General Howe was determined to learn who revealed his plans to the Continental Army. Major John Andre, the spymaster who would play a part in Benedict Arnold’s traitorous behavior later on, returned to the Darraghs’ door. When he questioned Lydia as to whether or not any of the family had been up and about during the meeting, she was able to convince him everyone was asleep.
The British left Philadelphia on June 18, 1778. The American forces soon returned and Lydia was reunited with the two children who were staying with relatives outside of Philadelphia.
In 1786, Lydia and her children moved into a new home following William’s death on June 8, 1783. She then became a storekeeper, a trade she maintained until her death on December 28, 1789. Lydia was laid to rest at Friends Arch Street Meeting House Burial Ground in Philadelphia.
Lydia’s efforts denied General Howe his element of surprise without him ever discovering who the spy was who ratted him out. Though she was not in essence a true spy, Lydia played an important part in helping the patriots move a step closer to the independence they sought.