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Mrs Gibbs the Notorious Street Walker & Extorter

James Gillray (1756-1815)


Hand-coloured etching

10 ½ x 8 inches

'Chris Beetles Summer Show', 2021, No 3

The prostitute, Jane Gibbs, gained a brief period of notoriety in London in the autumn of 1799, when her attempts to extort money from men were exposed. As a result, she became the subject of a number of satirical prints, including the present one.

On Saturday 21 September 1799, Jeremiah Beck was brought to trial at the Old Bailey for highway robbery, having been accused of forcibly stealing the pocketbook of Jane Gibbs, ‘a servant out of place’, while she was walking in Kensington Gardens on 20 June. The alleged crime had been heard,though not seen, by Stephen Ledyard, a coachman strolling in the gardens, and it was he who caught Beck and escorted him to the magistrate’s office in Bow Street, Covent Garden. However, during the trial, Beck’s attorney countered the statements of Gibbs and Ledyard, by calling as witnesses several men who, though not present in Kensington Gardens on the day in question, had all been victims of Gibbs, in her attempts to extort money. Her strategy had been to latch on to a man, first by suggesting that she was acquainted with him, then by asking him to return home with her, and eventually pleading poverty. If the man failed to give her money, she would – at over six feet tall – begin to intimidate him, and shout out that it was she who was being robbed. Beck, who was in danger of hanging, was acquitted, while Gibbs had to be escorted from the court for her own protection.

James Gillray was present in the court, and drew and etched this caricature of Jane Gibbs, which was ‘sold by all gd book & print sellers’ from the Monday. It shows her standing on the witness stand, ready to swear on a copy of the Gospels that is in her hand. It captures both her stature and her physical appearance, her neat dress contrasting with her devious expression, which is emphasised by her squint. The accompanying text is not only descriptive but also cautionary, warning as it does of Gibbs’s ability both to affect modesty through her dress and attempt ‘her depredations in all parts of the town’. Gillray’s portrait soon gave rise to other prints of Gibbs, including one by Isaac Cruikshank and Francis Sansom, which was published by S W Fores.

Despite the exposure, Jane Gibbs continued her delinquent activities. In the October, she appeared before the Bow Street magistrate on the charge of falsely swearing to have been robbed by Mr Evans, an Admiralty messenger – though she was acquitted. Again, her appearance was recorded and publicised in prints by Gillray and others. Then, when she was rearrested just a few days later, she was classified as insane and committed to Bedlam.