The Trial of Mrs Leigh Perrot

Object name: The Trial of Mrs Leigh Perrrot

Object number: CHWJA:JAHB63

Category: Books

Description: A pamphlet entitled: The trial of Mrs. Leigh Perrot. Published in 1800. Second edition. Printed in London by J. W. Myers, No 1, Paternoster-Row; and C. Chapple, No.66, Pall-Mall. 1800.

It measures 8.5” x 5.5” and consists of 32 pages.

Made: 1800

Context: This pamphlet describes a dramatic event that took place in 1799-1800, when Jane Austen was 23-24. It was a sensational event, documented in three law reports published in pamphlet form immediately after the trial:  at Taunton, in London, and at Bath. This is believed to be only surviving copy of the London report.

Mrs Jane Leigh Perrot was Jane Austen’s aunt. She was married to Jane’s mother’s elder brother James Leigh-Perrot. They were a wealthy couple, with a country seat in Berkshire and a house in Bath.

On 8 August 1799, Mrs Leigh-Perrot went into a haberdasher shop at no. 1, Bath Street, in Bath, and bought a card of black lace. Later in the day the shopkeeper approached her in the street and accused her of stealing a card of white lace, which was discovered on her person. She was arrested on a charge of shoplifting and placed in custody at Ilchester gaol, where she resided for seven months while awaiting trial. Due to her status as a gentlewoman, she was not lodged in the public gaol, but instead was allowed to reside with its governor, Edward Scadding, where she was joined by her devoted husband.

During this time, Mrs Austen offered the company of Jane and Cassandra first at Ilchester and later at the trial itself. Fortunately for them, Mrs Leigh-Perrot declined to subject them to the ordeal.

Mrs Leigh-Perrot was tried at the Taunton Assizes in March 1800, at which the jury took just fifteen minutes to find her not guilty.

Had the verdict gone the other way, she could have been sentenced either with the death penalty or, more likely in her case, with deportation to Australia for 14 years. At that time, theft of any item worth five shillings or more was punishable by hanging.

After the trial, the Leigh-Perrots continued to reside in Bath and were delighted when the Austens joined them in 1801.

It has been suggested that Mrs Leigh-Perrot was the inspiration for two of the most unpleasant aunts in Jane Austen’s novels: Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs Norris.

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