On 9 December 1789, laundress Ann Taylor and Elizabeth Wylie, a needlewoman, were put on trial at the Old Bailey, accused of stealing four pieces of cambric fabric from a warehouse in St Martin’s Lane.
This was a crime alleged to have been committed by two women, against two women; the muslin and ready made linen warehouse, near the Strand, was owned by two sisters, Ann and Anna Maria Tapp.
At the time, Ann Tapp said, Taylor and Wylie were the only customers in the warehouse shop, having come in to buy a neckcloth, or cravat.
While Ann Taylor was paying for it, Elizabeth Wylie went to the window to look at another neckcloth that was on display there. As that happened, Ann Tapp said:
“Two other women came in while they were in the shop; I turned round to speak to them other women, and I thought I heard something move while I was speaking to them; I fancied they took the cambric; I missed it directly.”
The Tapps’ father then came into the shop, and Ann Tapp told him her suspicions. She went to the magistrate in the evening – presumably after the shop had closed – to report Taylor and Wylie for grand larceny (the cambric being valued at £3, well over the amount that would make the offence the lesser one of petty larceny).
At trial, the counsel, Garrick, tried to suggest that Ann Tapp had originally thought the other two customers had stolen the cambric, and that the paper she had said the cambric had been stored in had originally been referred to as ‘waste paper’. Garrick clearly felt the offence was trivial, perhaps because of the gender of complainants and defendants. He asked Ann Tapp,
“You know that this indictment imputes a capital offence to each of these prisoners? You did not know, perhaps, that this indictment affected the lives of the prisoners?”
Ann Tapp was made to feel guilty for bringing the complaint; before Garrick, she said she would be “very sorry” to know that Taylor and Wylie were suffering. Her own family’s fortunes were then brought up; her father was in “very distressed” circumstances, and wasn’t it the case that the business was actually her father’s, and she simply worked there for him?
Ann Tapp, rightly, objected to this question, as it suggested that she could not possibly be in charge herself, as a woman and daughter. She confidently asserted that it was her and her sister’s business:
“She is in partnership with me, and no other person; my father has no interest in the business at all but what I choose to give him; it is one thing to assist a father who is in distress, and another to be a partner. The trade is quite independent of my father; he is not answerable for anything that goes in, or anything that goes out.”
Her father, Francis, was also called on to give evidence, and clearly referred to the warehouse as being “my daughters’ shop”. He said when he turned up at the shop, either Ann Taylor or Elizabeth Wylie admitted to taking the cambric and wanted to leave, but he wouldn’t let them. He rang the bell in the shop to call the servant, and told her to run and get the constable. When he, and the magistrate, Thomas Mumford, turned up, one of the accused ran up to the shop counter and dropped the cambric’s paper, saying, “Lord bless me! Here is some waste paper lays!” to try and make out that she had discovered rather than stolen it.
Garrick was not convinced. He thought the Tapps were overestimating the value of the cambric, and suggested that they were trying to make the two accused women face the death penalty, therefore being unduly harsh towards two of their own gender. But although Elizabeth Wylie called two witnesses to attest to her good character, both she and Ann Taylor were found guilty and sentenced to death.
This was not the end of the story, however. The jury had recommended the pair to mercy, and in 1790, two petitions were submitted to John William Rose, Recorder of London, asking for clemency in the case. The petitions were submitted by the women themselves, and by two aldermen and another alderman who also happened to be a London MP.
They argued that they were not only innocent of the crime, and that the failure of the other two women in the shop to appear as witnesses for the prosecution affected their trial, but that the early trial – which took place just a week after the alleged theft – had prevented them from finding either sufficient character witnesses, statements of previous good character, or sureties for their good behaviour. In addition, Ann Taylor said that she was a widow with three young children to support.
Their heartfelt petitions worked. The Recorder recommended mercy, on condition that they find financial sureties for good behaviour for the time equal to the remainder of their sentence. In December 1790, Elizabeth Wylie and Ann Taylor were formally pardoned, a year after being sentenced to death.