Paul Sandby, Entrance to Kensington Gardens, near the second turnpike from Oxford Road, 1797
On the afternoon of June 20th 1799, a coachman named Stephen Ledyard was enjoying a quiet stroll through Kensington Gardens when he heard shouts in the distance. In those days, the Gardens sat just beyond the western edge of the city and were bordered on three sides by agricultural land and market gardens. Ledyard had noticed a party of haymakers at work when he entered the park and, assuming they were the source of the noise, he continued his walk. Moments later he heard the unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice crying “stop thief!” and “murder!” Running off the pathway and through some shrubbery, the coachman came upon a bedraggled young lady who was evidently in a state of extreme distress. When he asked her what was the matter she pointed at the figure of another man running away across the park, and said that he had robbed her. Ledyard gave chase and after pursuing the escaping thief through a thicket of trees, he noticed that the man was now strolling nonchalantly towards the park gates at Hyde Park Corner. He trailed the man for some way before running up on him suddenly, catching hold of him and with the help of several bystanders, triumphantly dragging him back across the park to confront his victim.
When they found the lady, she explained that she had been doing her knitting in one of the summer houses in the park when the man had approached her. He had initially assumed she was a prostitute and had propositioned her several times, asking if she would take him back to her lodgings. When these advances were all firmly rebuffed, he took a seat opposite her and sat in silence for several minutes before rising to his feet once again and asking if she had change for a shilling. The young woman took out her pocketbook but finding that she did not have sufficient spare change about her, she told him she was unable to help and the man once again returned to his seat. After a few more minutes elapsed the man stood up, looked slowly about him and then suddenly seized the woman, flung her to the ground violently, stole her pocketbook and ran off.
By now a small crowd of spectators had gathered around Ledyard and his prisoner. They cursed the man for carrying out such a cowardly attack on the girl, demanded the money be returned immediately and that the thief be handed over to the nearest magistrate. On hearing this the wretched man broke down, apologising profusely for any distress he may have caused, he emptied his pockets onto the grass and offered to give the girl all he had if she would agree to take the matter no further. Although the woman indicated that she would be willing to accept the man’s money in compensation for the attack, those who had witnessed the crime could not be deterred and insisted that the matter be dealt with by the proper authorities. The man was duly bundled into a carriage under the escort of Ledyard, another witness and the young woman, and taken to the magistrate’s office in Bow Street.
The case was heard at the Old Bailey on 21st September 1799. The victim, a Miss Jane Gibbs, once again gave her account of the theft and was in turn followed by Ledyard and another man who had witnessed the chase across the park. At this point there were probably a number of spectators in the public gallery who were thinking that this would be an open-and-shut case. The defendant, Jeremiah Beck, was guilty of highway robbery and would in all probability hang for his crimes. However, things took a turn for the unexpected when Mr Beck’s attorney rose to his feet and began his cross-examination of the prosecution’s chief witness. He commenced by pointing out a random selection of men from the public gallery and asked Miss Gibbs if she had ever met any of them before. She confidently asserted that she had not, but as the process wore on she began to grow more agitated, referring to these strangers as “wicked, wicked men” and claiming that any suggestion that she knew these gentlemen was evidence of a conspiracy.
The defence then called the Reverend Doctor Ford, to the stand. This must have seemed like an odd choice of witness; Ford had not been present in Kensington Gardens on the day in question and had never even met the accused before. However, his relevance to the case soon became clear once his testimony began. Ford had been walking home from a tavern late one evening last Christmas when Jane Gibbs had accosted him on a badly lit and otherwise deserted side-street just off Holborn. Gibbs had attempted to solicit the elderly curate, asking if he would care to go home with her. He replied by suggesting that both his age and his profession made it unlikely that he would be interested in her services and attempted to bring the conversation to an end by bidding her good evening and walking on.
Contemporary descriptions of Miss Gibbs indicate that she was precisely the sort of character that one would not like to run into down the proverbial dark alley. She stood a little over six feet tall and was broadly built for a woman. Her face bore the scars of a childhood bout of smallpox and she had a sharply upturned nose, severe squint, and several of her front teeth were missing. Her sudden appearance out of the shadows had unnerved Ford and he decided to head directly to the home of an acquaintance who lived nearby. On reaching the house, he was about to knock when was grabbed by the collar and violently spun about to find himself face-to-face with an apoplectic Jane Gibbs. “You bloody thief!” she hissed, “give me back the money you have taken from me”, and with that she lunged at his waistcoat pocket. The woman’s appearance and manner were so startling that Ford actually began to wonder if his assailant was a madman in disguise. Catching hold of her wrist he shouted that if she did not let go of him, he would be forced to knock her to the ground. The threat seemed to work, as she stood off but continued to hurl abuse at the startled priest and even threatened to call out the watch. Ford responded that he was well-known to the watchmen and the magistrates of the area and that he wished she would call them out as it would likely result in her being placed under arrest. She then said that she would let him go about his business if he would give her some money for a drink. Ford, evidently recovering some of his composure, retorted that there was a water pump nearby and that she could drink all she liked from there and with that he turned briskly on his heels and made good his escape.
One-by-one the spectators that Jane Gibbs had been asked to identify, all followed Ford to the witness stand. All told similar tales of how they had been out walking in some quiet part of the town when they had been accosted by Miss Gibbs. She would often appear very friendly, claiming she knew them well, insisting that they had met on several occasions and pestering them to return home with her. When they declined she would grow morose, often weeping as she explained that she was an unemployed maid-servant would needed money for food and drink. If money was not forthcoming she would then fly into a frightful rage, swearing, grabbing hold of her victim and shouting loudly that she had been robbed of her money or valuables.
Jeremiah Beck’s statement of what had happened in Kensington Gardens that afternoon reflected the experience of many of Gibb’s earlier victims. He had been walking in the park when Miss Gibbs had called to him from the summer house. She said she had seen him several times at a house in Twickenham where she had worked as a maid. Beck said that she must be mistaken, as he knew no-one who lived in Twickenham. Miss Gibbs asked if he would give her some money for beer. He replied that this would be pointless as beer wasn’t sold in the Gardens. She then suggested that the two of them take a walk off into the trees, or that Beck should accompany here to a boarding house nearby. Whereupon she stood up, embraced him and dug her hands into his pockets to remove a handful of guineas. Beck grew angry now, insisting that the money be returned, he watched as Miss Gibbs slowly and sullenly counted each coin back into his hands. Once the money was safely back in his pocket, he turned and walked off towards the park gates. Suddenly, he heard the cry of “murder!” behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw Miss Gibbs running after him crying “stop thief!” Realising that the woman was completely mad and fearing that she would charge him with attempting to assault her, he panicked and ran. Ledyard then seized hold of him and as the angry crowd gathered around he was overcome with fear. He denied having robbed the lady but explained that he was so alarmed by his predicament that he had indeed apologised for upsetting her and offered to give her some money if she would let the matter drop. Ledyard would have none of this, as he believed he was due a reward for catching a thief and forced both Beck and the equally reluctant Miss Gibbs off to the magistrate’s.
The jury had heard enough. The foreman interrupted the proceedings to inform the court that they wished to deliver an immediate verdict of not guilty and no sooner has this been passed than another juryman leapt to his feet and announced that Jane Gibbs had once accused him of theft. The court was adjourned in uproar. Gibbs was booed out of the chamber and the Sheriff was obliged to assign two of his officers to protect her from the angry mob of spectators that had flooded out of the public gallery, onto the street outside the courthouse.
The trial had taken place on a Saturday and was widely reported in the London press the following Monday. Even more impressive was the fact that James Gillray managed to etch a caricature of Jane Gibbs which, according to the publication line, he was able to publish and sell to book and printsellers all over London that same day. Gillray’s portrait (above) captures something of the ferocious appearance of Miss Gibbs, as she stands in the witness box and glares out at the viewer. The image is accompanied by the following warning:
Caution to the unwary! This pest of society is rather of a tall & thin form; has a little of the West Country accent – is, or affects to be, heard of hearing; – dresses neat and appears as a serving maid – sometimes as a Quaker – affects a deal of modesty at first – has no particular beat or walk – having attempted her depredations in all parts of the Town.
Hot on Gillray’s heels came the publisher S.W. Fores, who commissioned Isaac Cruikshank and Francis Sansom to produce their own Correct Likeness of the Notorious Jane Gibbs shortly after.
Such publicity did not deter Jane Gibbs but it did make her job infinitely harder. Only a fortnight after she had been forced to flee the courtroom of the Old Bailey in ignominy, she approached an Admiralty clerk named Evans as he was walking home down the Strand. After walking alongside him for several minutes making small talk, she suddenly stopped and screamed “what d’ye want me for? Do you want to take me life away?” Seizing him by the collar she began shouting for the watch and insisting she had caught a thief. Luckily for Evans, two gentlemen passing by at that moment recognised Miss Gibbs and told him to pay no attention to her. The three of them then agreed to take her to the nearest watch house, where she once again attempted to lodge a false complaint of highway robbery. She was arrested for assault and appeared at the Westminster Quarter Sessions later that month. The caricaturist and portrait painter John Cawse sat among the spectators in the gallery and sketched his own picture of Jane Gibbs, which would be published by S.W. Fores shortly after the trial (right). She was acquitted but was picked up by the law again within a few days and committed to Bedlam, whereupon she vanishes from the historical record forever.