Shops & Shoplifting: Jane Austen’s Aunt & a Card of Lace
In this month's Musings, Jennie Batchelor, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Kent, looks at shopping in Regency Bath and tells the intriguing story of how Jane Austen's aunt went shopping for lace and ended up in Lichester gaol
"Bath is a charming place, sir; there are so many good shops here. We are sadly off in the country … here one can step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes.Northanger Abbey
Shopping has been a popular pastime among Bath visitors since the eighteenth century. The city’s wealth of shops – from butchers and bakers to book shops, high-end furniture makers, drapers, haberdashers and dressmakers – was noted in countless letters, diaries, travelogues and novels of the time. For people of means, as Mrs Allen observes in Northanger Abbey (1818), it seemed as though everything conceivable was available for immediate purchase within a few minutes’ radius of the city’s centre. And for those on a more limited budget, there were still pleasures to be had in visually consuming Bath goods in the form window shopping. Jane Austen, whose tastes often exceeded the contents of her purse, wrote excitedly about visits to stay in Bath with her uncle and aunt, James and Jane Leigh-Perrot, where she browsed ‘Gauzes in a shop in Bath Street’ and marvelled at ‘Almonds & raisins, French plumbs & Tamarinds’ in a grocer’s shop of the ‘dearest kind’ (2 June 1799).
There was also one other, less salubrious, way of acquiring goods from shops: shoplifting. When Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, about Bath Street gauzes, little did she know that just eight weeks later, in the same street and perhaps even in the same shop, her aunt would be suspected of just such a crime. On 8 August 1799, Jane Leigh Perrot visited Elizabeth Gregory’s milliner’s shop where she paid £1 and 19s for some black lace. After leaving the establishment, she was followed by Gregory who asked if she had pilfered a card of white lace in addition to the length of black that she had legitimately purchased. Jane Leigh Perrot denied possessing the lace but it was subsequently found in the parcel with which she had left the shop. After repeated efforts to bring the episode to the notice of the authorities, Gregory and her shopman, Filby, successfully persuaded the law to intervene. On the 14 August 1799, Jane Leigh Perrot was imprisoned for theft and committed to Lichester gaol.
As a gentlewoman, Jane Leigh Perrot’s imprisonment was more comfortable than that of her fellow inmates. She and her husband, who stayed at her side throughout, were confined in the jailer’s house, rather than the public gaol itself. But her letters nonetheless reveal her physical discomfort while living in a crowded and less than sanitary house with people she considered her social inferiors. The discomfort was intensified by the length of her confinement. The wait from August until the March Assizes when her trial would be heard was long, and the prospective punishments that awaited her if she were found guilty too horrible to imagine. Because the card of lace was worth more than five shillings, Mrs Leigh Perrot faced a charge of Grand Larceny. Punishments for this class of felony included transportation and even death by hanging.
On 27 March 1800, Jane Leigh Perrot appeared at the Taunton Assizes. Her trial attracted a good deal of local press interest and was the subject of two pamphlets issued by Bath publishers. It also received national coverage, too, perhaps most notable in the Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832), a popular women’s magazine that her niece, Jane Austen, read.
The Lady’s Magazine’s report of the trial of the Mrs Leigh Perrot in the April 1800 issue unfolds over six densely printed pages and opens with an engraved portrait of the accused. Leigh Perrot’s face is striking, particularly her sharp-angled nose and sad yet defiant eyes. Only part of the sitter’s curled hair is visible. Otherwise, her head, neck and body are covered by layers of clothing and accessories. Around her neck and tucked under her ‘very light lead-colour pelisse’ (a wrap dress), she wears a ‘muslin handkerchief’ as well a ‘cambric cravat’ (a fashion usually associated with men but also worn by women) tied closely round her neck. Her head is covered by ‘a small black bonnet’, which is partly concealed by a ‘black lace veil’ she wears over the top of it. Her modest and decorous clothing is designed to tell a story. Her tightly swathed body and simple, plain-coloured gown and accessories show her modesty and decorousness. How could the jury have found so visibly sober and respectable a woman guilty of such a mercenary crime? They did not. After seven hours of testimony, character witnesses for the accused and her accusers and cross-examination, the jury took just a quarter of an hour to find Mrs Leigh Perrot not guilty. Mr and Mrs Leigh Perrot returned to life in Bath. She died at nearby Scarlet’s – the country home of the Leigh Perrots – in 1836. She was in her ninetieth year.
Questions about Mrs Leigh Perrot’s innocence or guilt remain. We may never know whether the matter was simply a misunderstanding or whether Jane Leigh Perrot was unfairly set up by an unscrupulous couple who wanted to extort money from her husband through blackmail. Likewise, we will likely never know how much the Leigh Perrots’ status and class prejudice against shopkeepers and workers affected the jury’s verdict. Perhaps she did steal the lace after all. In 1800, kleptomania was yet to be identified. It was as unthinkable to the jury at the Taunton Assizes as the notion that a woman of Mrs Leigh Perrot’s rank would condescend to steal when she had no financial reason to do so.
But the question that has always intrigued me more than Jane Leigh Perrot’s guilt or innocence is how this prolonged and devastating episode in her life affected her and her family. Aside from letters written during and in the immediate aftermath of her imprisonment of her trial, there is little documentary evidence in the Austen family archives as to how she or the family felt about it. Indeed, there seems to have been a concerted effort to conceal this unhappy period of their lives. So, we are left to speculate about various aspects of Jane Leigh Perrot’s life in Bath post-1800. How, I wonder, did she feel walking the streets of Bath and entering its shops after the trial?
Jennie Batchelor is the author and editor of eight books and many articles on women's writing, dress history and needlework. Her most recent books include (with Alison Larkin) Jane Austen Embroidery (2020) and a book about the Lady’s Magazine (2022), the first modern women’s magazine and one that Jane Austen read. She is Patron of the Jane Austen Society Kent Branch and previously worked at Chawton House.