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Taylor, Janelocked

  • Sylvia Bowerbank

Jane Taylor (1783–1824)

by unknown artist

Taylor, Jane (1783–1824), children's writer, was born on 23 September 1783 in Islington, London, the second of the eleven children (six of whom survived infancy) of the Revd Isaac Taylor (1759–1829), engraver, writer, and nonconformist minister, and Ann Taylor, née Martin (1757–1830), children's writer. Jane Taylor's sister, Ann [Ann Gilbert (1782–1866)], with whom she was later to collaborate, was born on 30 January 1782, also in Islington. In 1786, for financial reasons, the family left London and settled in Lavenham, Suffolk, when Ann and Jane were four and three, respectively. The parents devised an innovative, if strict, regimen of home instruction in which no time was wasted: during mealtimes the mother read aloud, and during picnics the father taught the children to draw picturesque landscapes. As very young girls, Jane and Ann began to collaborate in inventing and acting out little fictions; they frequently impersonated not only royal princesses, but also 'two poor women making a hard shift to live' (Gilbert, 29). In their make-believe poverty, they gathered little plants for their winter food and stored them, with cheeses, in the reclaimed pigsty they used as their playhouse. In a painting by their father, now in the National Portrait Gallery, the two girls are depicted holding hands in their Lavenham garden. From early childhood, Jane's disposition combined a pensive seriousness with a witty turn of mind. She was a lover of nature and solitude, but when she was lifted onto the kneading board at the house of the local baker, she showed a brilliant talent for entertaining the neighbours with her stories and songs.

In 1796, when Jane Taylor was thirteen, the family moved to Colchester, Essex, where her father presided over a nonconformist church. The engraving business fell on hard times, so he let his apprentices go and trained his eldest children, including Jane and Ann, as engravers. In 1798, with other adolescent girls of Colchester, Jane and Ann formed a literary circle, known as the Umbelliferous Society, which required them to produce an original piece of poetry or prose each month. The circle was called umbelliferous to indicate that many buds and blossoms might flourish from the one productive stem. The sisters had so little leisure to write that they would scribble down poems in their spare moments on the margins of their engraving projects. In 1798 Ann published a rhymed answer to a riddle in the Minor's Pocket Book and, for the next thirteen years, continued to make contributions to the same periodical, including her poem 'Crippled Child's Complaint', which was prompted by the lameness of her brother Jefferys Taylor (1792–1853), also a writer for children. Following Ann's lead, in 1804, Jane published her first poem, 'The Beggar Boy'. The publishers Darton and Harvey next invited the sisters to contribute to Original Poems (1804–5), which achieved immediate and enduring success, and was translated into Dutch, French, German, and Russian. Although the book had other contributors, most of the poems were by Jane and Ann, whose 'My Mother' was much loved, imitated, and parodied in the nineteenth century.

The Taylor sisters' talent for capturing the child's voice is again evident in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), especially in Jane's classic 'Twinkle, twinkle little star', and in Ann's 'The Baby Dance', which imitates the pleasurable rhythms of baby-talk:

Dance little baby, dance up high,Never mind baby, mother is by;Crow and caper, caper and crow,There little baby, there you go.

From Limed Twigs to Catch Young Birds (1808) and The Associate Minstrels (1810) to The Linnet's Life (1822), the Taylor sisters' books were often composite productions including poems and engravings by other family members. Jane herself engraved the frontispiece for Hymns for Infant Minds (1810), an enormously popular book written in the tradition of Isaac Watts and Mrs Barbauld. According to family legend, their great-grandmother had sat on the knee of Watts and been given a precious copy of his Divine Songs for the Use of Children (1715). Ann Taylor describes the thrill of meeting Mrs Barbauld in 1807: 'a small, plain, lively, elderly lady made her appearance; but it was Mrs. Barbauld, and that was enough!' (Gilbert, 133).

In the winter of 1812–13, when their brother Isaac Taylor (1787–1865) was forced by bad health to move to Ilfracombe in Devon, Ann and Jane accompanied him. The daily collaboration of the sisters ended when Ann moved to Yorkshire on her marriage on 24 December 1813 to Joseph Gilbert (1779–1852), a Congregational minister, who courted Ann after falling in love with her poetry. Mrs Gilbert found it difficult to achieve the high standard of her early writings while raising eight children, but her autobiography (written during the last decades of her life) is a memorable account of her girlhood struggle to become a writer and of her mixed feelings regarding the superior celebrity of her sister.

During the years 1813–16, while living in Devon and Cornwall with Isaac, Jane Taylor revelled in wandering on the wild coastline. She completed Display: a Tale for Young People (1815) and Essays in Rhyme (1816), in which she began to write openly as a dissenter. In response to a letter criticizing her for impropriety, she rejected the idea that women should be silent on controversial topics. After all, she quipped, 'Who ever blamed Mrs. [Hannah] More for poking the steeple into almost every page of her writings?' (Memoirs 1.154). In 1816, when a crowd assembled to welcome her to Sheffield, the shy writer became uneasy. Yet, upon being asked 'What do you consider the principal defect in the Quaker system?', she retorted with ready wit, 'Expecting women to speak in public, sir' (Gilbert, 227). Early in 1817 Jane confided to Ann, as the only married woman not too 'blunted' to understand her literary ambitions, that she rejoiced in her 'increasing capability of intellectual pleasure' (Memoirs, 1.162–3).

Tragically, that spring Jane Taylor detected a lump in her breast; her health began a slow decline. In the autumn she made a public profession of faith and put herself under the pastoral charge of her father, who had since 1811 presided over the meeting-house in Ongar. Jane's final essays, written periodically for the Youth's Magazine (1816–22), are shrewdly designed to appeal to the intellectual and ethical interests of teenagers; they are collected in The Contributions of Q. Q. (1824). Jane died of breast cancer on 13 April 1824 in her parents' house, New House, Ongar, and was buried beside her father's church in Ongar. Ann died at her home in College Street, Nottingham, on 20 December 1866, and was buried in Nottingham.


  • Memoirs and poetical remains of the late Jane Taylor: with extracts from her correspondence, ed. I. Taylor, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1826)
  • Autobiography and other memorials of Mrs Gilbert (formerly Ann Taylor), ed. J. Gilbert, 3rd edn (1878)
  • C. D. Stewart, The Taylors of Ongar: an analytical bio-bibliography, 2 vols. (1975)
  • C. D. Stewart, ‘Notes’, in Ann Taylor Gilbert's album, ed. C. D. Stewart (1978)
  • D. M. Armitage, The Taylors of Ongar (1939)
  • I. Taylor, ed., The family pen: memorials biographical and literary, of the Taylor family of Ongar, 2 vols. (1867)
  • F. V. Barry, ‘Introduction’, in Jane Taylor: prose and poetry (1925)
  • H. C. Knight, Jane Taylor: her life and letters (1880)
  • CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1866) [Ann Taylor]


  • Notts. Arch., letters
  • Suffolk RO, Bury St Edmunds, corresp. and papers, related material
  • Suffolk RO, Bury St Edmunds, Ann Gilbert MSS


  • I. Taylor, double portrait, oils (with Ann Gilbert), NPG
  • charcoal and coloured chalk drawing, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

under £800—Ann Gilbert: will, 1867

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]