Lessons from the Courts: Finding the Stolen Stays.

Submitted by Linnea Bass, Brigade of Guards

It might be expected that the only reason for studying court martial records would for information about military discipline. Trials from the American War for Independence, however, provide fascinating details about the everyday lives not only of the soldiers, but also of their wives. A British court, convened at New York in December of 1779, tried several members of the Brigade of Foot Guards for theft and for hiding and disposing of the stolen goods.1 One of the men broke into a store in New York. The total loss to the shopkeeper was estimated at “three hundred pounds currency.” Several other soldiers helped the thief to sell some of the stolen merchandise and to hide the remainder in the hut of Private Edward Webb of the First Guards and his wife Eleanor.

Some of the items were recovered when they were found buried under Webb’s bed. The trial transcript includes the disposition of a few of the other articles:

“one piece of stuff & 1 piece of Callicoe” were found in the tent of a Hessian woman. One of the men sold “two patterns of Gowns” to another Hessian woman.2 Mrs. Webb was given “two peces of Linnen or Callico, and one that was not printed.” Mrs. Webb also received a pair of stays, as did Mrs. Hughes, who was present when the goods were divided. A third pair of stays was sold to Mrs. Philips, who paid two dollars for them.

It appears that ready-made stays were a desirable commodity among the women of the army, as was material for new clothing. Another interesting facet of the court martial record is that wives of Guards privates are referred to by their first and last name or
by “Mrs.” and their last name. They are identified as either “a soldier’s wife of the Guards”3 or “of the First Regiment of Guards.”4 This confirms their official status as part of the Regiment and subject to military discipline.

Mrs. Webb was sentenced to be “Drum’d out of the Lines with a rope about her neck.” Her husband was given 500 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails. This sentence was imposed despite the fact that the defendants were evidently told that the goods had been found in the street.

1) WO 71/91, Public Records office. London. p. 40-55.
2) “Gowns” may be a type of fancy cotton material woven in Manchester. England. Montgomery, Florence, Textiles in America 1650 - 1820 (NY: W. W. Norton, 1984).
3) WO 71/90. Public Record Office, London, p. 85-88.
4) WO 71/91. op. cit., p. 47.