Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


By Marcia Williams, Colonial Historian, and excerpts from the National Women's History Museum

Lydia Barrington Darragh was a Philadelphia Quaker who became a Patriot spy during the American Revolution.  Her courageous efforts helped prepare General George Washington for an attack by the British in December of 1777.

Born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland, Lydia Barrington, age 24, married William Darragh in 1753.  The Darraghs moved to America, settling in Philadelphia with its large Quaker community.  William worked as a tutor; Lydia as a midwife.  She raised five children, while losing four infants during childbirth.

In September of 1777, after several victories over Washington’s army, the British marched triumphantly into Philadelphia.  When Washington’s October bid to retake the city failed, he and his troops retreated to Whitemarsh.  Nearly one-third of Philadelphia’s population evacuated the city.  The Quakers, known to be pacifists and neutral during the Revolutionary War, remained in the city.  The Darraghs, however, secretly supported the rebel cause.  When the British General, Sir William Howe, established his camp across the street from the Darragh’s home, Lydia made it her duty to spy on the comings and goings of the British invaders.  She had her fourteen-year-old son, John, smuggle her coded notes about General Howe’s activities to her eldest son, Charles, a Patriot soldier.

In late fall of 1777, British troops demanded use of the Darragh’s home for meetings.  Lydia—aided by a cousin in the British army—persuaded the British to allow her family to stay in their home.  The younger children were sent to relatives outside the city.

On December 2, 1777, British officers ordered the Darragh family to remain in their bedrooms while they held a top-secret meeting.  But, Lydia hid in a closet where she overheard their plans for a surprise December 4th attack on Washington’s army at Whitemarsh.

Determined to warn General Washington, Lydia used her role as homemaker to receive a pass from Howe to visit her children and obtain flour from the Frankford mill.  On December 3rd, Lydia made the cold and dangerous six-mile walk to the mill, passing through several British patrol stops.  At the mill, she dropped off her empty bag to be filled with ground flour and headed toward the American camp.  Upon reaching one of Washington’s officers, Lydia passed on the British plan of attack, which was quickly relayed to Washington.  Then returning to the mill, Lydia picked up her flour, and walked home.   

Lydia’s commitment to the Patriot cause, as well as her unmitigated bravery, gave Washington time to prepare his troops for the British attack and possibly avoided a catastrophic defeat for the American army.  After four days of fighting, which resulted in a standoff, Howe and his troops returned to Philadelphia.  Once there, Howe ordered an investigation into who leaked their plan.  Lydia had told no one, not even her husband, about her dangerous covert activities, as the punishment would be jail, or even death. 

In June of 1778, the British left Philadelphia, and Lydia and William were reunited with their children.  In 1783, William died.  Three years later, Lydia moved into a new house and ran a store until her death in 1789.