Sunday, 31 July 2016

Jane Austen and Tonbridge

Yesterday, I undertook the Jane Austen Walking Tour of Tonbridge. Tonbridge in Kent, is the home of Jane's father (Rev George Austen), her grandfather William Austen (surgeon) and her great grandmother Elizabeth Weller. William Austen (and his wife) are buried rather covertly, under a carpet in St Peter and St Paul, Tonbridge. Elizabeth Weller is buried (unmarked) in its churchyard.
Austens are buried in Tonbridge Parish Church 

Jane’s family background in Tonbridge offers one a deeper understanding of her life and attitudes. There were immensely subtle social gradations in the Austen/Leigh family but also real reasons for a sense of distrust of 'family'. The 'Tonbridge trauma' for the Austens made them self-reliant but undoubtedly, left deep scars, mitigated only by their Christianity and resourcefulness.

Negotiating 'family' requires discernment, a virtue which Austen heroines excel in, while behaving attractively within a strict social pecking order in the hope of being elevated to married love. Although Jane Austen was blood-related to clothiers, apothecaries, lawyers, baronets and a duke, she was dependent on the generosity of her family, and later, on a small income from her writing. Knowing how best to negotiate the benefits as well as the limitations of a range of such social relationships was crucially important for dependent women, in an age when supporting oneself was very challenging.

Jane descended maternally from the the Brydges/Grey family of Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Sheriffs of Herefordshire, and under Mary Tudor, Lord Lieutenants of the Tower of London. Her great-great uncle was the 1st Duke of Chandos, John Brydges whose wife was called ‘Cassandra Willoughby’ (names familiar to Austen readers). It was only through the charity of the Knight family who owned houses at Godmersham and Chawton, who Jane knew through her brother Edward Austen (chosen as their heir to inherit Godmersham Park and Chawton) that Jane learned about high society. Her own family life in Steventon was characterised by modest self sufficiency: her mother ran a large allotment producing the family food and her father schooled his own children. She also had close encounters with wealthy Kent society at stately Goodnestone Park through Edward's marriage to heiress, Elizabeth Bridges, who was brought up there.

1st Duke of Chandos, the great-great Uncle of Jane Austen (By Michael Dahl - Berger Collection: Website; Archived webpage (work no longer in collection as of February 2011), Public Domain,

We are used to the concept of 'equality' but this was foreign to 19th century England. As the impoverished daughter of a clergyman, albeit a handsome Fellow of St Johns College, Oxford, Jane was not ranked 'equal' to the daughter of a knight, baronet and certainly not a Duke. Belonging - but in a sense disinherited - Jane used her sparkling wit and powerful pen to strike back with an acceptable level of irony. One senses that Jane’s ironic laughter comes from an interested but relegated insider-cum-outsider. She may be laughing at what she cannot have, what she partly despises and yet partly longs to regain. Her ‘critical eye’ may reflect the 'Tonbridge trauma' which surely left deep scars in her father orphaned at the age of six. It clearly ruined the life of her Aunt Philadelphia. Did family pain arm Jane's wit against the cold, greedy and selfish elements of the English class system? Oddly, although the Tonbridge Austen line was saved by education, self-sufficency, hard work and their best relatives, Jane Austen does not extol learning in her works, above everything. Learning, reading and observation must form 'discernment', 'taste' an 'elegant mind' which combine with all the Christian 'fruits' (virtues) which underpins charm, accomplishments, wit and manners. These, held in disciplined balance in someone with certain 'physical attributes' may lead to true love and financial security, via marriage.

Why does Jane not extol learning? Jane Austen herself descended from rich merchants, clergymen and baronets and her family’s descendants are similar. They appear in a mid-to-high social rankings with real status coming from ‘marrying up’. They range from naval and RAF officers to Lord Brabourne godfather of Prince William, whose family held Jane Austen’s letters. Lord Brabourne is Jane’s great nephew several times removed, directly descended from her favourite niece Fanny Knight (Austen). In a sense, Jane Austen understood that once a basic income is assured through education, accomplishments and hard work, it is marriage, ideally coupled with mutual love, that is the key to social success. This may have been the private 'Austen family philosophy' which is why Jane's novels so amused her relatives. It is also a truth universally acknowledged today by ambitious mothers in every class.

Substantial 'Chauntlers', Tonbridge was the childhood of Jane Austen's great-grandmother, Elizabeth Austen (nee Weller), who, as a widow, was forced into service through the unhelpfulness of her wealthy Weller family.  Its blue plaque states that it was later the home of famous cookery writer Eliza Action.
Jane herself came from:

The Austens (‘Astyns’ in Elizabethan English) were a line of wealthy Wealden clothiers from Horsmonden about nine miles south of the market town of Tonbridge. Since Elizabethan times the Austens conducted cottage cloth industries in their houses, Broadford and Grovehurst (see photos below). Lines of Austen cousins continued to live there in the 19th century, one building Italianate Capel Manor. Their church was St Margaret's, Horsmonden. Some Austens were at one point been rich enough to lease Tonbridge Castle.

The Hampsons - (Baronets) of Gloucestershire descended from the Sheriffs of London around 1600 and Bishops of London and Chichester. Jane’s paternal grandmother Rebecca Hampson was the daughter of Sir George Hampson, physician and Baronet and sister of a Woman of the Royal Bedchamber who witnessed the birth of King George III. Having married William Austen, Rebecca died in Tonbridge giving birth to Leonora, younger sister of Philadelphia, the mother of Jane’s first cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Rebecca’s husband, William, died two years later having remarried quickly, leaving their children orphans (George was only six years old). They were ejected by a cold stepmother, Susannah, from their family home in Tonbridge High Street. George only inherited the land after she died aged 80.

The Wellers of Tonbridge- a major Parliamentarian family of lawyers who had owned a fine house in Tonbridge, Chauntlers. Jane’s great grandmother, Elizabeth Weller was brought up comfortably at Chauntlers and married well to John Austen (IV), from Horsmonden. On his untimely death, she lost everything to pay debts and was forced to take up the post of housekeeper to the bachelor Headmaster of Sevenoaks School, to give her sons an education there. Being Austens, they made the most of it. Three became rich Tonbridge/Sevenoaks apothecaries, surgeons and lawyers.

The Leighs - Jane’s mother descended from the 8th Baron Brydges of Sudeley Castle and Wilton Castle (in the Wye Valley). The first Duke of Chandos, patron of Handel, was Jane’s great, great uncle. The 8th Baron Brydges was her mother's great grandfather.

The 'Tonbridge Trauma' for the Austens
The Austens of Tonbridge were intelligent but only junior members of powerful, moneyed families. They pulled themselves up after widowed Elizabeth Weller’s wealthy family refused to help her which forced a privileged woman into demeaning 'service'. Elizabeth clung on to the power of an education and, no doubt, to her Christian faith. As a result, her male children succeeded. Then, when her grandchild George’s stepmother, Susannah Austen refused to bring up orphaned children not her own, Jane’s father, George (aged six) and his sisters, were almost put out almost on the streets. Initially, the children were taken in by Stephen Austen, a bookseller at St Pauls, London. Philadelphia was farmed out to the high status but cold Hampson family who, in due course, effectively abandoned her in Covent Garden among prostitutes. She saved herself financially by being married off, by her uncle Francis (Austen), a lawyer in Sevenoaks, to a doctor in India twenty years her senior. Francis Austen who was rescued himself by a good education at Sevenoaks School, also stepped in to educate George at Tonbridge School where he excelled.

The house of Jane's great uncle - an apothecary in Tonbridge.
The Tonbridge Austens were survivors, on the male side, through a mix of intelligence, wit and work. They mastered words. Two of Jane’s own brothers became Admirals, having been taught by their father who was previously deputy headmaster at Tonbridge School. Who can doubt that it was highly-educated, godly and disciplined Rev George Austen that taught naturally gifted Jane to write perfect English? He encouraged creative writing in all his children, but he took particular delight in her juvenilia and even tried to publish them himself. Her mother Cassandra wrote witty poems: she may have encouraged Jane to write, too. Almost as compensation for George's  early misfortunes, through his son Edward, selected as heir of Godmersham Park, George was offered the secure living at Steventon Hampshire by the same generous Catherine Knight without whose exemplary (even Austenesque) kindness, we would probably not have the works of Jane Austen.

It is known that Jane's parents returned to Tonbridge High Street to visit relatives, but Jane may not have been with them, although it is thought that she did visit Tunbridge Wells.  Her favourite brother, Rev Henry Austen retired to Tunbridge Wells, where he was buried in Woodbury Park Cemetery (see photos here). Tunbridge Wells was close to the family at Godmersham. It was a running joke among the Austens that Jane would marry Rev John Papillon, vicar of Tonbridge, who later became the vicar at Chawton, but as we know, it never happened.

Possible site of the location (not the same house) where, at six, Rev George Austen's and his sisters' lives fell apart (174 High Street - but see note below).  The boarded-up house seems suitably melancholy to me.

I lead a Jane Austen walking tour of Tonbridge. If you are interested, please contact me via email
  • Further information the Tonbridge Austens
  • There is some controversy whether 5 Bank Street, Tonbridge (now 'Warners Solicitors') or 174 High Street (photo above) is where Rev George Austen lived until he was six when his father William Austen, died.
  • For the shocking story of George's orphaned siblings and especially Philadelphia, effectively abandoned among prostitutes by heartless Hampsons see here.
  • Further photos are attached below of St Margaret's Horsmonden (the ancestral church of the Austen family since Tudor times) and their houses nearby where they treated wool - Grovehurst and Broadford.
Remote St Margaret's Horsmonden is two miles from its village and predates it.  Austen tombs and windows can be seen there.

Grovehurst, an Austen house in Horsmonden
Broadford, where John Austen IV, Jane's great grandfather was born in Horsmonden

The gravestone of Robert Austen, died 1727 aged 25 of smallpox, son of John Austen IV of 'Broadford Horsmonden' and Elizabeth Weller of 'Tunbridge' the old spelling of Tonbridge (her name noted in capitals by her 'five surviving' sons and one daughter) in The Lady Chapel, St Mildred's, Tenterden.  His Austen coat-of-arms are shared by the Elizabethan Austens buried in the same church who were Bailiffs of Tenterden. For details of Robert, his siblings, including Elizabeth Austen his only sister,  see here.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting the photos from your walking tour of Tonbridge. I am researching the life of Jane Austen's great-grandmother and wondered if you could tell me the precise location of Chantlers. Although I would love to take the walking tour, I unfortunately live half-way around the world (in Arizona, USA)