On Wednesday, 7 August 1799 Jane Austen’s maternal Aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot, described as a pale, thin, fine-featured lady with a melancholy expression, went to a haberdashery and milliner’s shop at Bath and Stall Streets. It was being managed by Elizabeth Gregory, sister-in-law to a man named Smith, who had owned the shop. He had separated from his wife, declared bankruptcy, and disappeared. Therefore, his shop was under the control of his creditors’ trustees, William Gye and Lacon Lamb.
While in the store Jane Leigh-Perrot, whose maiden name was Cholmeley, inquired about some black lace to trim a cloak. Gregory told her she was expecting a shipment of new lace from London the next day and so Leigh-Perrot decided to return the following day. However, when she did, she found no new lace. She was told the shipment had been delayed and so therefore chose some black lace from what was available.
During this second visit, which happened around 2pm, she was helped by a clerk named Charles Filby. Gregory and Filby were having an affair and Gregory had had hired him as her clerk. According to Jane Leigh-Perrot, Filby had been measuring some white lace edging behind the counter when she arrived. He then stopped what he was doing and showed her their selection of black lace. She found something she liked and purchased at a cost of £1 19s, paid for it with a £5 note, and requested Filby provide change. Filby then claimed:
“He left the counter to do so, and on returning put the black lace into a parcel which he gave Mrs. Leigh Perrot, and she took it in her right hand, but in passing round the counter to give her the change, he saw her left hand in the box of white lace, and distinctly saw her take a card of white lace which she quickly drew under her three-quarter length cloak. He then said … [she] took the change up with her right hand in which she held as well as the piece of black lace.”
After Jane Leigh-Perrot left the store, Filby then approached his associate Sarah Raines, mentioned what had transpired, and she rushed to tell Gregory. Later when Jane Leigh-Perrot was on the arm of her husband walking down the street, Gregory saw them. According to a trial publication written by attorney John Pinchard after the trial:
“Witness [Gregory] went across to them and addressing herself to Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, said ‘Pray ma’am have not you ‘a card of white lace as well as black?’ – Mrs. Leigh Perrot answered, ‘No, I have not a bit of white lace about me.’ – Witness then said to her, ‘See in your pocket ma’am.’ Mrs. Leigh Perrot then took out her arm from under her cloak and gave a paper parcel to Witness, saying ‘If I have your young man must have put it up in mistake.’ Witness then described and represented with paper the situation the paper parcel was in when Prisoner [Jane Leigh-Perrot] produced it – it was rumpled, and appeared to have had something folded up in it, but the ends were then both of them open and not folded. Witness says that Prisoner trembled very much, was much frightened, and coloured as red as scarlet – that Prisoner presented to her the paper, and Witness (whether while it was in Prisoner’s hand, or just when she had taken it into her own, she is not certain) pulled down the corner of the paper; ‘in this manner,’ (representing it,) and saw the card with white lace, and the black lace over it – that the black lace card was about an inch shorter than that of the white lace – Witness says she took out the white lace, and having looked at it she said, ‘Yes, it is mine; I’ll swear to it’ – knew the private mark on it – it was Filby’s writing.”
According to Gregory, Jane Leigh-Perrot claimed that Filby must have put it there by mistake. Gregory then took the white lace and returned to her shop. About a half hour later as the Leigh-Perrots were walking by the Abbey Churchyard, a surly Filby accosted them. He insisted he had not mistakenly placed the white lace in her parcel and then demanded their address. The Leigh-Perrots thought the whole incident unusual and that it was a big mistake, but an annoyed Mr. Leigh-Perrot gave his address as Number 1 Paragon and stated that he could easily be found because his name was on the door. They then did not consider the incident further.
At the time, the Leigh-Perrots lived at Scarlets during the winter but spent their summers in Bath. Mr. Leigh-Perrot suffered from gout regularly, which thereby meant he and his wife were often stuck at home in Scarlets, so visiting Bath allowed his wife greater sociability. Visiting Bath also allowed him to take the healing waters, and, so, for the past 30 years they had been frequent and regular visitors to the city.
Four days after the incident at Smith’s shop, on 12 August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot returned from an evening party and found a mysterious note addressed to her.
“‘Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, Lace dealer: Your many visiting Acquaintances, before they again admit you into their houses, will think it right to know how you came by the piece of Lace stolen from Bath St., a few days ago. Your Husband is said to be privy to it.”
The message was clear, and she showed the threatening note to her husband. They discussed it and decided it must be some scheme by Gregory or Filby to blackmail them as it was a common tactic by cheats and liars to obtain money. Jane Leigh-Perrot was not one to pushed around or threatened and so she did nothing.
Two days later things became worse. As Mr. Leigh-Perrot was suffering in bed with a severe gout attack, the maid told his wife that a gentleman was waiting to speak to her in the parlor. When she reached the room, she found a constable with a warrant. He was there to arrest her for shoplifting based on the sworn depositions of Gregory and Filby who were claiming that she had stolen a card of white lace. She was stunned and went back and told her husband. Despite his suffering he got up from his bed and then “supported on two sticks and with his foot still swathed in flannel, he insisted on accompanying his wife to the Town Hall,” where she learned her fate. According to Jane Leigh-Perrot:
“The Mayor and magistrates, to whom we were well known, lamented their being obliged to commit me … [but] to prison I was sent.”
The prison was the Somerset County Goal at Ilchester, and she would spend the next eight months there. Fortunately, however, because she was a gentlewoman, she was relieved of having to wear the “filthy coarse brown-and-yellow striped prison costume.” Because she had money she was also not to be housed in the public gaol. Rather she was to live with her jailor, Edward Scadding, and his family.
When Jane Austen’s mother heard about the situation, she thought about staying with her sister-in-law. However, Mrs. Austen was ill at the time, so she then proposed that her daughters, Cassandra and Jane, go and stay with their aunt, but Jane Leigh-Perrot refused the kind offer. Still she would not be a prisoner alone at Scadding’s house because her devoted husband insisted that he be allowed to remain by her side and despite being plagued by constant gout, he remained with her.
Living with Scadding was not much better than being imprisoned in the gaol. Jane Leigh-Perrot demonstrated this when she wrote about her life with her jailor, “Had the choice of death or such a 7 weeks as the last been left to me … I should not have hesitated one moment in determining on the first.” In October or November she elaborate further on her experience at Scaddings when she wrote to her Cholmeley cousins stating:
“One of my greatest Miseries here (indeed my very first) is the seeing what my dearest Husband is daily going through – Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from Morning till Night. The People, not conscious that this can be Objectionable to anybody, fancy we are very happy, and to do them justice they mean to make us quite so … this Room joins to a Room where the Children all lie, and not Bedlam itself can be half so noisy, besides which, as not one particle of Smoke goes up the Chimney, except you leave the door or window open, I leave you to judge of the Comfort I can enjoy in such a Room … No! my Good Cousin, I cannot subject even a Servant to the suffering we daily experience … My dearest Perrot with his sweet composure adds to my philosophy to be sure he bids fair to have his patience tried in every way he can. Cleanliness has ever been his greatest delight and yet he sees the greasy toast laid by the dirty Children on his Knees, and feels the small Beer trickle down his sleeves on its way across the table unmoved … Mrs. Scadding’s knife well licked to clean it from fried onions helps me now and then – you may believe how the Mess I am helped to is disposed of – here are two dogs and three Cats always full as hungry as myself.”
Two anonymous letters were received by Mr. Leigh-Perrot while staying with the Scaddings. The first was written by a servant and the other came from one of Gye’s employees. The letters maintained that Gye had devised the plot, that Filby had agreed to be his accomplice, and that they had met to discuss it and that because no settlement had been reached where Mr. Leigh-Perrot would pay off the accusers, ‘injurious calumnies’ were being spread to prejudice the world against his wife.
Things were not necessarily looking good for the accused thief in other ways. Prior to Jane Leigh-Perrot’s trial rumors began to surface that she was trying to buy off her accusers. It was also reported by Reverend Holland, a Somerset parson, that a lawyer known to him told him that she had bribed the prosecutor. Of course, this lawyer was also known to freely repeat rumors, but evidence indicates that Jane Leigh-Perrot possibly “authorized additional sums toward the suppression of evidence against her.”
The charges Jane Leigh-Perrot faced were serious. She was alleged to have stolen something worth more than 12 pence, which was a capital crime and if she was found guilty it was punishable by death or more likely, she would be granted a reprieve and sent to Australia to serve fourteen years. It would also be difficult for her to prove her innocence: she could not testify in her own behalf, her husband could not provide any evidence that might support her claims, and her counsel could not address the jury. Thus, things seemed weight to the fact that she would probably be found guilty.
On 27 March 1800 at 8am at Taunton, before Mr. Justice Lawrence and a large crowd amounting to about 2,000 spectators, Mrs. Leigh-Perrot was tried, along with five other prisoners, one of whom was a 14-year-old boy ultimately sentenced to death for burglary. She appeared dressed in a lead-colored pelisse and a white colored muslin handkerchief and cravat. Her hair was curled on her forehead and she wore a small black bonnet with a big black veil that was trimmed with purple ribbon. When she entered the courtroom, she was leaning on the arm of her husband and accompanied by some of the leading ladies of Bath.
Sir Vicary Gibbs, who was nicknamed “Sir Vinegar” because of his sour attitude, and Mr. Burrough served as the prosecutors while the accused was ably defended by a team of four lawyers: Mr. Bond, Mr. Dallas, Mr. Pell, and Mr. Joseph Jekyll, a celebrated lawyer. However, Jekyll apparently thought Mrs. Leigh-Perrot guilty of stealing the lace and even considered her a kleptomaniac. In addition:
“Richard Austen-Leigh later wrote privately … that she ‘did steal the material and probably meant to’. It seems that wealthy ladies may become more unreliable than other women, a Jekyll blandly supposed: ‘Mrs. L.P.’ was like other rich ladies ‘who frequent bazaars and mistake other people’s property for their own … It was the blunder of my client, Mrs. Leigh Perrot.”
There is also supposedly a poem in a book of the time that indicated Jane Leigh-Perrot had stolen some plants in Ilchester. Furthermore, according to author William H. Galperin in 2013, there is more information that suggests Jane Leigh-Perrot was a thief and that she did steal the lace:
“[A] copy of Northanger Abbey belonging to the Reverend Alexander Dyce, a college friend of James Edward Austen … contains a marginal comment suggesting that Perrot’s kleptomania was well known, at least among members of her family. Promoted by the well-known anecdote, first published in Henry Austen’s preface to Northanger Abbey, in which Austen playfully defends herself against the charge of having ‘pilfered the manuscripts of a young relation,’ … Dyce’s next bit of Austenia seems inevitable rather than gratuitous: ‘The lady last mentioned, Mrs. Austen’s sister, had an invincible propensity to stealing, and was tried at Bath for stealing lace. The printed account of her trial is extant. Her family were dreadfully shocked at the disgrace which she brought upon them. For many years she lived in seclusion at Scarlets (a handsome place where she died).”
During the trial there were several people who testified about extra items being found in their bags after the got home, although the were not necessarily waited on by Filby. There was also a Miss Blagrave testified that Filby had put two veils in her bag instead of the one she had purchased. After these testimonies the Judge addressed the defendant and asked if she had anything to say. The Reading Mercury reported:
“She was so agitated and her voice so low that Mr. Jekyll … was requested to sit near her and repeat her words. She made an affecting address to the Judge and Jury [saying] … ‘Placed in a situation the most eligible that any woman could desire, with supplies so ample that I was left rich after every wish was gratified, blessed in the affection of the most generous man as a husband, what could induce me to commit such a crime? Depraved indeed must that mind be that under such circumstances could be so culpable. You will hear from my noble, and truly respectable friends what have been my conduct and character for a series of long years; you will hear what has been, and what now is, their opinion of me. Can you suppose that disposition so totally altered as to lose all recollections of the station I hold in society, to hazard for this meanness character and reputation, or to endanger the health and peace of mind of a husband whom I would die for?’”
A slew of well-regarded witnesses then testified as to Jane Leigh-Perrot’s honesty. They included a vicar, a doctor, and a reverend and all stated as to Jane Leigh-Perrot’s excellent reputation. The words to describe her included that she had “remarkable good character,” was “a lady of the greatest respectability,” and that she demonstrated “exemplary good conduct.” In addition, all the witnesses who testified on her behalf stated she was honest and trustworthy.
The seven-hour trial that ultimately cost the Leigh-Perrots almost £2,000 ended with the jury considering the case privately for fifteen minutes before they rendered the verdict “Not guilty.” Some people contend the finding was based on the fact that the jury could not be imagine a woman of wealth doing such a thing. Afterwards, according to newspapers, the scene “was most affecting.” Fashionable women and other well-wishers who had attended the court crowded round Jane Leigh-Perrot with congratulations and happiness.
Unfortunately, despite the acquittal, that was not the end of the situation because according to author David Nokes:
“Mrs. Leigh-Perrot soon found … her enemies … not entirely done with her. An anonymous letter repeated the threat of printing the ‘parrot’s bill’ lampoon unless the Leigh-Perrots paid a hundred guineas to the city’s general hospital. A newspaper claimed that the trial jury had never come to a verdict; that Mrs. Leigh-Perrot had staged a faint and had been carried out of court; and that when she brought back to court she was tried ‘by a fresh jury which had all been bribed with a guinea each.’”
Of the case and Mrs. Leigh-Perrots’ innocence, Author Park Honan’s view in 1988 stated:
“It is by no means clear … that Mrs. Leigh Perrot was innocent. The letters sent to the Perrots reporting a conspiracy against them have the look of hearsay, gossip and local feuds, and her attorney’s belief that she was a kleptomaniac, as well as the … report that … she had bought off ‘her prosecutor’, leave the matter of guilt open to question.”
The assessment of Jane Leigh-Perrot’s Austen relatives was never openly spoken of or made clear. For instance, Jane Austen never wrote clearly only hinted that she believed her aunt possible of committing the crime. Jane’s brothers and sister never spoke of it, including her favorite brother Henry nor his lively wife Eliza, who had once been married to the Count of Feuillide. However, Jane Leigh-Perrot herself did have some last words about the incident that she sent to her Cholmeley cousins:
“[B]efore 10 on Monday Morning our anxious Friends began coming in … my whole time has been taken up in kissing and Crying … To be sure (as a kind Friend told us) I stand some chance of being killed by Popularity – tho’ I have escaped from Villany … That these Wretches had marked me for somebody timid enough to be Scared and Rich enough to pay handsomely rather than go through the terrible Proceedings of a public Trial nobody doubts; and by timing it when I had only my Husband with me they were sure that I could have no Evidence against them. Surely our boasted Laws are strangely defective – owing to this Circumstance I find no Punishment from me can attach to this Villain – and had he gone off the very day before the Trial, we should have lain under the Stigmas of having bought him off with a possibility of Clearing ourselves … my dear and Affectionate Sister Austen is impatient for our going into Hampshire, but I cannot go just yet. I shall not feel quite easy till our heavy charges are known and paid.”
-  Reading Mercury, “A Berkshire Lady Accused of Theft A.D. 1800,” March 19, 1892, 8
-  The Trial of Jane Leigh Perrot, Wife of James Leigh Perrot, Esq., Charged with Stealing a Card of Lace in the Shop of Elizabeth Gregory, Haberdasher and Milliner at Bath: Before Sir Soulden Lawrence, Knight, One of the Justices of His Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench, at Taunton Assizes, on Saturday the 29th Day of March 1800 (Tauton: Thomas Norris, 1800)
-  D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh and R. A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 120
-  D. Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 201
-  P. Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 150
-  D. Nokes. 1997
-  D. Nokes. 1997, 202
-  D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh, and R. A. Austen-Leigh. 2004, 121
-  W. H. Galperin, The Historical Austen (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, Incorporated, 2013), 42
-  P. Honan. 1988, 150–51
-  W. H. Galperin. 2013, 38
-  Reading Mercury, 8
-  D. Nokes. 1997, 213
-  P. Honan. 1988, 153
-  D. Le Faye, W. Austen-Leigh, and R. A. Austen-Leigh. 2004, 124