Fanny Austen and Chawton

Come join me in a tour of Austen family homes as Fanny came to know them. First, this month to Chawton Cottage and Chawton House in Hampshire and next month to Godmersham Park in Kent.

Soon after her arrival in England in July 1811, Fanny made the first of several visits to Chawton, a small village in Hampshire about 52 miles southwest of London. She travelled through lovely countryside composed of woods, sheltered valleys, hop fields, lanes and downs.[1] On August 8th Fanny, Charles and their two children arrived at Chawton Cottage. Here she met the widowed Mrs George Austen and her daughters, Cassandra and Jane, for the first time.  

Fig. 1: View of Chawton Cottage today

Fig. 1: View of Chawton Cottage today

Fig. 2: Dining Room at the Cottage

Fig. 2: Dining Room at the Cottage

Originally an 18th century farm house, the Cottage had been recently renovated. To Fanny’s eye, it must have looked inviting, set off by an attractive garden, which included shrubberies made by adding ornamental plants, such as lilac and herbaceous plants to the existing hedgerows. The women immediately warmed to Fanny and the children, Cassy (age 2½) and Harriet (1½) , and they were delighted to welcome Charles after an absence of over 6½ years while he was serving on the North American Station of the Royal Navy. Cassandra described Fanny as “a very pleasing little woman, she is gentle and amiable in her manners and appears to make [Charles] very happy,”[2] words which suggest that Fanny passed muster with the Chawton Cottage family from the very beginning.

Besides the happy busyness of a family visit, this would have been an occasion for Charles and Fanny to share some of their experiences in the North American naval world they had recently left. Austen scholar Brian Southam pictures the returned Charles, and presumably Fanny, as “regaling the Austens with stories of Bermuda and Halifax, [the major ports on the North American Station] and Charles’s successes in his vessel, the Indian.”[3] Fanny and Charles departed after an enjoyable visit of one week but their return was greatly anticipated. Cassandra, Jane and Mrs Austen welcomed “Charles and his pretty little wife [back to the Cottage] early in the winter.” In Cassandra’s words: “Charles and his Fanny came to us for a few days previous to taking possession of their aquatic abode [aboard HMS Namur].”[4]

Fig. 3: The Great House, front approach .

Fig. 3: The Great House, front approach.

Living primarily at sea from 1812-1814 meant that Fanny and her family had reduced opportunities to make shore-based visits into Hampshire, but they did go again to Chawton in May 1813. They stayed at the Cottage but frequently socialized with several of their immediate relatives, who were staying at the mansion house, [5] where Charles’s brother Edward Knight was in temporary residence with his own large family.   Edward had been adopted as an adolescent by wealthy childless cousins, Thomas and Catherine Knight. As their heir, he had come into possession not only of Chawton Great House and its estate but also Godmersham Park in Kent.

Chawton Great House had its origins in Elizabethan times but was subsequently much altered by generations of Knights. The house retained aspects of its early construction and decoration so that Fanny could admire some of its original sixteenth-century features, such as a fireplace backed with herringbone brickwork and the richly carved oak panelling in the Great Hall and Dining Room. Edward’s fourteen-year-old  daughter, Fanny Knight, on first seeing the Great House in 1807, described it as “a fine large house [with] such a number of old irregular passages etc. that it is very entertaining to explore them, and often when I think myself miles away from one part of the house I find a passage or entrance close to it, & I don’t know when I shall be quite mistress of all the intricate, and different ways.”[6] Perhaps Fanny Austen explored the interesting complexities of the house with Fanny Knight as her guide.  

Fig. 4: Chawton House, side view.

Fig. 4: Chawton House, side view.

During Fanny’s two and a half weeks in Chawton, she made many informal visits to the Great House, which was easily reached by following a path from the Cottage through the estate to the mansion house.   

Fig. 5: Way across the fields from the Cottage to the Great House

Fig. 5: Way across the fields from the Cottage to the Great House

Should it be a morning visit, the ladies usually gathered in the Oak Room.  

Fig. 6: View from the window seat in the Oak Room.

Fig. 6: View from the window seat in the Oak Room.

Fig. 7: Fanny Palmer Austen’s Silhouette.

Fig. 7: Fanny Palmer Austen’s Silhouette.

In a sense, Fanny has a continuing presence in this room even today as her silhouette, created by John Meirs between 1811 and 1814, hangs on the left-hand side of the fireplace.

More formal family events also occurred, such as the dinner on May 17th when Fanny, Charles, Jane, Cassandra and their friend, Martha Lloyd, dined at the Great House and enjoyed games in the evening. Perhaps those assembled played charades, a favourite pastime within the Austen family. On another occasion, according to Fanny Knight, they had a “merry” time playing “jeu de violin.”   

Chawton also had a place in the lives of Fanny’s two oldest daughters, Cassy and Harriet. They spent most of June 1813 with their Aunts Cassandra and Jane at the Cottage. In both 1813 and 1814 they made winter visits there, for Fanny feared for her children’s well-being when cold winds, wet, foggy weather and the constant motion of the sea made life on board truly uncomfortable. Her eldest, Cassy, who was particularly prone to seasickness, made regular trips to Chawton even though Fanny hated being separated from her children.  

Fig. 8: Quilt made by Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen displayed at the Museum

Fig. 8: Quilt made by Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen displayed at the Museum

Fanny surely enjoyed the time she spent at Chawton. She experienced the conviviality of a large family gathering at the Great House and the attendant luxury of the Knight’s hospitality. The Cottage also offered a genuine welcome in a pleasing village with a rural setting and a chance for Fanny to become more intimately acquainted with her new sisters, Cassandra and Jane. Moreover, Chawton provided an escape from the confinement and loneliness, the cabin fever that was the fate of an officer’s wife living on a naval vessel riding at anchor at sea.

Today Chawton Cottage is the Jane Austen House Museum and has recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding. The collection of artefacts associated with Jane Austen, her family and her novels is evocative and impressive.

The reconstruction of the garden to include plants which would have likely been in place when Jane was in residence greatly enhances the charm of the setting.

Fig. 9: The Cottage garden today

Fig. 9: The Cottage garden today

 Chawton House is also a fascinating destination as an example of a Tudor mansion and estate, successively adapted and modernized over 500 years. Visitors can view the 15,000-volume library, which specializes in the works of early women writers, and walk in the restored Georgian garden and “wilderness,” while reflecting on the historic associations with the lives and times of Jane and Fanny Austen.

Learn more:

Photos by Hugh & Sheila Kindred, except Fig.1, courtesy of David Brandreth.    

[1] The text in this blog is derived from my book, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister, 78-81, 88, 121-23.

[2] Cassandra Austen to Phylly Walter, quoted in Austen Papers, ed. Richard A. Austen-Leigh, 251.

[3] See Brian Southam, “Jane Austen and North America: Fact and Fiction,” in Jane Austen and the North Atlantic, ed. Sarah Emsley, 26.

[4] Cassandra Austen to Phylly Walter, Austen Papers, 251

[5] The party included Charles’s brother Henry, his brother James’s wife, Mary, and their daughter, Caroline.

[6] Quoted in Deirdre Le Faye, Fanny Knight’s Diary, 12.

Jane Austen's Return to West Kent, 1813

Introduction: Regular readers of my blogs may wonder why a webpage titled Jane Austen’s Naval World includes posts about Jane Austen in distinctly landlocked places, such as Sevenoaks and Seal in Kent, England (see 31 May 2019). There is an explanation. I have been in the UK for the last 10 weeks, living in a part of West Kent that was known to Jane. Being on location during a lovely British summer has got me thinking about what some of the local places meant to Jane Austen. Today’s post, with accompanying photos, is about Jane’s weekend in the attractive village of Wrotham situated eight miles from Sevenoaks, Kent and twenty-seven miles south east of London.


It was mid November 1813. Jane had been at Godmersham for several months, enjoying the luxury of her brother Edward’s estate. He offered to take her back to Chawton, by way of Wrotham, where his sister-in-law, Harriot Moore, née Bridges, lived with her husband, George, the rector of St George’s church. Thus, on Saturday, 13 November, the Knight carriage, with passengers Jane, her niece Fanny, and Edward, proceeded up the long driveway to be warmly received at Court Lodge, the Moore’s spacious and elegant rectory. For the next three days, Jane enjoyed Harriot’s company,[1] admired her handsome home and had a chance to become better acquainted with George Moore.[2]

Fig.1: George Moore, Rector of St George’s Church, Wrotham, Kent

Fig.1: George Moore, Rector of St George’s Church, Wrotham, Kent

Margaret Wilson, in her article titled “The Rev. George Moore,” notes that “the character of Dr Grant in Mansfield Park is sometimes compared to George Moore, for he also enjoyed a luxurious life style.”[3]  I agree there is a similarity between the two men regarding a  taste for comfortable living, but there is nothing in Jane’s descriptions of George Moore to suggest he values good food to the extent that the obsessive gourmand, Dr Grant, clearly does. Moreover, Dr Grant blames his wife when the cook is in error, but Jane does not think George Moore censured his wife when the error is someone else’s. She cites as evidence a recent occasion when she and the Moores were together in Canterbury but were kept waiting by a servant who was late bringing the carriage. She describes George Moore as speaking to the servant “in a very loud voice & with a good deal of heat,” but adds “I was pleased he did not scold Harriot at all.”[4]

However, there could be another link with Mansfield Park. As Wilson notes, “in the novel, Jane depicts Henry Crawford trying in vain to persuade Edmund to improve his Parsonage ‘from being the mere gentleman’s residence’ into a house which could ‘receive such an air as to make the owner be set down as the great land-owner of the parish.’”[5] Arguably, George Moore’s attitude to  his rectory and its surrounds is reflected in Henry Crawford’s views. During her visit, Jane could see for herself how Moore valued the impression that his property made on others. His past behaviour was further evidence of his priorities. 

When Moore was appointed at Wrotham, he acquired the rectory and the wealthy living with its associated rights and glebe lands.[6] However, he found the existing rectory unsatisfactory, even though historian Edward Hasted had recently described it as “a Handsome building … considerably improved of late years.”[7] Using influence to get permission for a replacement (his father was the current Archbishop of Canterbury), Moore hired Samuel Wyatt, brother of the acclaimed architect, James Wyatt, to design a new rectory he named Court Lodge. The house is still standing today.

Fig. 2: The porch of Court Lodge

Fig. 2: The porch of Court Lodge

Fig.3: Court Lodge, built 1802

Fig.3: Court Lodge, built 1802

The entry porch is decorated with fluted Greek columns. On the garden front there is a segmented bay window, behind which Wyatt had added a shallow lead dome. In later years Bagshaw’s Directory described Court Lodge as “a handsome building… beautified with tasteful pleasure gardens and shrubberies.”[8] Moreover, in Moore’s time as rector, the living included considerable agricultural lands, which may have created the impression that he controlled a small estate. It was an impression which would have gratified George Moore, whose attitude may have been captured by Austen in Henry Crawford’s advice to Edmund.   

On Sunday, 14 November, Jane was kept busy attending two church services but before she left Wrotham, she might have caught a glimpse of a near by property, even finer than Court Lodge. This was St Clere, the elegant seventeenth century mansion and home of the Evelyn family. It was located west of Wrotham, near the foot of the North Downs hills with extensive views across its surrounding fields and woodlands. William Evelyn, of St Clere and Queens’s Parade, Bath had served as MP for Hythe from 1768 to 1802. He had also been known to the Austen family since at least 1775.[9] Edward Knight had purchased horses from him,[10] and Jane had mixed in the same social circles as the Evelyns in Bath as early as 1799. With all these connections in mind, there would be every reason for wanting to have a look at St Clere before they left the neighbourhood.

Fig. 4: St Clere, built c. 1633

Fig. 4: St Clere, built c. 1633

Fig. 5: St Clere from the garden

Fig. 5: St Clere from the garden

Jane’s earlier encounters with the elderly Mr Evelyn are recorded in her letters to Cassandra, including a vivid and teasing account dating from 26 May 1801 when she was twenty-five. She wrote: “I assure you inspite of what I might chuse to insinuate in a former letter, that I have seen very little of Mr Evelyn since my coming here; I met him this morning for only the 4th time, & as to my anecdote about Sydney Gardens, ... he only asked me whether I were to be at Sidney Gardens in the evening or not. -- There is now something like an engagement between us & the Phaeton.” On the following day Jane received a note from Mr Evelyn “soon after breakfast” and joined him for a drive “to the top of Kingsdown” in “the very bewitching Phaeton & four.”[11]   

Jane’s jaunty description would scarcely cause Cassandra alarm. She knew Mr Evelyn had been a family friend for many years and as Jane wrote: “I really beleive he is very harmless; people do not seem afraid of him here, and he gets Groundsel for his birds and all that.”[12] Her remarks acknowledged his kindness to birds and elsewhere his keen interest in horses is noted: there is no suggestion of any personal attraction on Jane’s part.

However,  the fact remains that she had gone for a drive with a much older married man, who in some quarters had been rumoured to have had an adulterous affair with Miss Mary Cassandra Twistleton, a distant cousin of Jane’s through the Leigh family.[13] This contextual information about Evelyn’s amorous history adds another twist to the import of Jane’s drive in the “very bewitching Phaeton.” Austen biographer, Park Honan, thinks that “the significance of the Evelyn incident would not be worth observing, perhaps, if it did not show that her quiet independence allowed her to enjoy the company of an interesting man whose adultery was his concern.”[14] At any rate, the cheeky manner of Jane’s remarks about her drive with Mr. Evelyn appears to suggest that she was well aware that her choice, in the views of others in Bath, might appear to push the boundaries of acceptable genteel behaviour for unmarried young ladies.

We do not know if Jane Austen even got close to St Clere or if she did, whether being in its proximity was enough to trigger fleeting recollections of the pleasure of her outing with Mr Evelyn and the gesture at independence that it portended. Whatever the case, now, twelve years later, Jane had charted a different course for autonomous action. She had become a published writer and her novels were being read and appreciated. She was about to bring Mansfield Park to publication. The weekend at Wrotham would be her last visit to West Kent. In fact, her social visits with relatives became less frequent. From then on, Austen was very involved with her writing. Emma would absorb her time and energies and there was Persuasion yet to come. Her stay in Wrotham was a pleasing pause, an occasion which may have sparked an idea for use in Mansfield Park. In recollection, she most likely remembered it as an interlude of novelty and sociability in a comfortable place.   


[1] Jane had been friendly with Harriot for some years. They had recently spent time together at Godmersham where, according to Jane “Harriot [was] quite as pleasant as ever, we [were] very comfortable together, & [talked] over our Nephews and Nieces occasionally as may be supposed.” See Jane to Cassandra, Jane Austen’s Letters, [hereafter Letters] ed. Deirdre Le Faye (1995) no. 94, 245.

[2] In the past George Moore had had a mixed press in his parish. According to Kent historian, Edward Hasted, Moore was so disliked by his parishioners at the time of his wedding to Harriot Bridges in 1806 that they substituted a funeral hymn for the traditional wedding psalm. See Margaret Wilson, “The Rev George Moore,” Jane Austen Society Report, 2004, 360.

[3] See Wilson, 362.   

[4] See Letters, no. 94, 245.

[5] See Wilson, 362.

[6] It was worth £1000 a year. Wilson, 362.

[7] See E. Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent (Canterbury, 1797) vol. V, 31.

[8] See Wilson, 363.

[9] See the letter from George Austen to his half brother, William Walter, December 1775: “Mr Evelyn is going to treat us to a ploughing match in this neighbourhood on next Tuesday, if the present frost does not continue and prevent it, Kent against Hants for a rump of beef; he sends his own ploughman from St Clair.” Quoted in Terry Townshend, Jane Austen in Kent (2005), 35.  

[10] Jane wrote about this to Cassandra, 19 June 1799: “[Edward] made an important purchase…a pair of Coach Horses; his friend Mr Evelyn found them out & recommended them.” Letters, 47.

[11] See Letters 38, 90-91.

[12] See Letters, 91.

[13]According to Park Honan: “as to the man who might be involved with Miss Twisleton’s sexual delight every bit of gossip and suspicion focused on old Mr Evelyn who usually spoke of nothing but horses.” See Jane Austen: Her Life by Park Honan (1997), 173.

[14] See Honan, 173-4.

Questions for Discussing Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister

Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister-cover.jpg

I have been hearing from many readers of Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister with their comments, including the suggestion that I provide some ideas for reflection. So here’s a group of questions about Fanny and Jane Austen for further discussion:

Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister - Discussion Guide

Cheers to the Reading Groups at JASNA Greater Sacramento Region and at JASNA SW San Gabriel, who plan to discuss Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister later in 2019. Thanks for your interest.

I would be delighted to hear from readers and groups with your suggestions.

Discovering the Young Jane Austen in West Kent, England

Kent is a county in the south east of England. It reaches from the outskirts of London to the White Cliffs of Dover. West Kent is my husband, Hugh’s, land of origin, so it has become familiar territory to me too. I already knew that Jane Austen had family connections to the Sevenoaks area of West Kent; I have recently enjoyed the opportunity to explore these links on the ground. Join me in following in Jane’s footsteps during the summer of 1788 when she spent time in the town of Sevenoaks and the neighbouring village of Seal. Who did she meet and what might have been the lasting effects of her first visit to this part of England?

Fig. 1: Map of West Kent showing Sevenoaks, Seal and Chevening, c. 1800

Fig. 1: Map of West Kent showing Sevenoaks, Seal and Chevening, c. 1800

In July 1788, Jane Austen, age 12½, was introduced to her great uncle, the rich 90-year-old Francis Austen II who lived in Sevenoaks. She travelled there with her parents and sister, Cassandra. In Jane’s immediate family, Uncle Francis was held in esteem and gratitude as he had paid for her father, George Austen, to attend the nearby Tonbridge Grammar School and, later St John’s College, Oxford. Jane’s parents presumably thought their daughters should meet their father’s benefactor and Uncle Francis was happy to receive them at his residence, the Red House. Francis held a large family luncheon, which included the Walter family and probably his son, Francis Motley Austen, and grandchildren.

How might Jane have reacted to meeting her great uncle at his fine red brick town house, which is still prominently situated on the High Street of Sevenoaks. [1]

Fig. 2: The Red House today


Fig. 2: The Red House today

One of Francis’s aunts who visited the Red House in 1751 was very impressed. In her view, “the house and garden were very delightful; [my Nephew] shew’d me all the Offices where Brewing and Baking, Washing etc. [are done], Coach House, Grainery, where to dry Hopps etc. & lastly his Cellars, well stored with the best wines & other good liquor.”[2]

Fig. 3: The Red House when Owned by Dr Fuller (1688-1734), showing Knole in the background

Fig. 3: The Red House when Owned by Dr Fuller (1688-1734), showing Knole in the background

Jane must have noticed that this property was a far cry from the humble rectory and its surrounds that she currently inhabited in rural Hampshire.

Uncle Francis had achieved personal, professional and material success. Presumably Jane knew that his late wife, Jane Austen née Chadwick (1758-1782), had been her godmother, and she had most likely heard family stories about his professional acumen. He had practised law at Clifford’s Inn, London and in Sevenoaks, served as a Clerk of the Peace for Kent, acted as parliamentary agent for the Lionel Sackville, first Duke of Dorset and as agent for the Duke’s huge estate, Knole, at Sevenoaks.[3] Francis was also a rich landowner. As for his physical appearance, Ozias Humphry’s fine portrait, titled “Francis Austen Esq. of Sevenoaks” (1780) provides clues to how her great uncle would have appeared to Jane.

According to her brother, Henry, who saw the portrait on a visit to the Red House, about 1780, Francis was depicted wearing “a wig like a Bishop, & a suit of light grey, ditto coat, vest and hose … He retained a perfect identity of colour, texture and make to his life’s end.”[4] Certainly, in the painting, Francis’s expression and style of dress are suggestive of authority accompanied by wealth.

Fig. 4: Copy of a portrait of Francis Austen (1698-1791) by Ozias Humphry.

Fig. 4: Copy of a portrait of Francis Austen (1698-1791) by Ozias Humphry.

It is likely that Jane’s encounter with her Uncle Francis in Sevenoaks made a lasting impression on her as she came to appreciate the diversity of her family’s past accomplishments, not to mention her uncle’s links with the aristocracy. Given Francis’s long term associations with the Dukes of Dorset, presumably Jane knew about the Sackville family’s reputation and great wealth. As the Red House was located close to Knole, she most likely had at least a glimpse of the grandeur of the huge mansion of 365 rooms, which is still surrounded by a magnificent Deer Park.[5]

Jane Austen showed an early interest in the aristocratic world, whose members she delighted in satirizing in her juvenile writings. Perhaps it was observations made while in the home territory of the Sackville family that inspired her imagination when she wrote a short story for her brother Charles, titled “Sir William Mountague.”[6] It was created only a month or so after the family’s visit to Sevenoaks [7] In it, Jane included details which seem to reflect the Sackville family and their property.

Her story begins by poking fun at the intricate patterns of inheritance among the aristocracy. She lists the convoluted line of descent within the Mountague family, where sons and a nephew sequentially lay claim to the family’s title, and other remoter ancestors are cited. Compare the relationships in the Sackville family of Knole: the first Duke of Dorset was succeeded by his eldest son, the second Duke by a son, the third Duke, by his nephew. Additionally, Austen’s young hero, Sir William Mountague, inherits “a handsome fortune, an ancient house and a Park well stocked with deer.” This description fits Knole remarkably well, as the estate had been the Sackville family seat since 1603, the mansion house dating from the mid 15th century and the 300-year-old deer park had medieval origins. As well, the fictional Mr Stanhope, who is shot by Sir William, bears the name of another aristocratic family associated with Sevenoaks, the Stanhopes of Chevening.

Fig.5: Knole

Fig.5: Knole

Deirdre Le Faye thinks that the George Austen family visit to Sevenoaks and area could have lasted from mid July to the end of the month.[8] If so, there was time to appreciate not only the significance of Knole and its park but also a chance to explore an even earlier family connection with Sevenoaks. This entailed showing Jane the Sevenoaks Grammar School, which is located on the High Street near to the Red House. Founded in 1432 by William Sevenoke, a foundling and later Lord Mayor of London, the school had since its inception offered a comprehensive classical education. It is still in operation, now as a well regarded private school.

From 1708 onward Uncle Francis’s mother, the genteel Elizabeth Austen née Weller, had been the housekeeper for the Master of the Sevenoaks School and responsible for its resident pupils.

Fig. 6: Old School, Sevenoaks.

Fig. 6: Old School, Sevenoaks.

Her story was one of courage and determination. Left widowed at an early age, with five sons to educate and minimal resources after paying off the debts of her husband (John Austen IV), she had taken the post at the school with the understanding that her sons would be educated almost free of charge. In her view, she “could not do a better thing for my children’s good, their education being my greatest care, for I always tho’t that if they had learning they might ye better shift in ye world.”[9] Here was a role model for a young girl like Jane Austen to take seriously. As Jane grew older, she displayed the focus, dedication and determination necessary for a writer. Elizabeth was a woman with a goal and the resolve to achieve it. Jane Austen resembled her ancestress in this characteristic.  

Fig. 7: Plaque to Elizabeth Weller Austen, Sevenoaks School

Fig. 7: Plaque to Elizabeth Weller Austen, Sevenoaks School

While Jane was absorbing details of a new place and new people, someone else was observing her. Twenty-six-year-old Phylly Walter, daughter of William Walter, the half brother of Jane’s father, was at the family lunch at the Red House. She subsequently wrote to her brother on 23 July 1788: “The Youngest (Jane) is very like her brother Henry, not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve; but it is “hasty judgement which you will scold me for.” But after the George Austen party spent a day at the Walter home, the Grey House, in the nearby village of Seal, Phylly added that “Jane is whimsical and affected.”[10]

Fig. 8: The Grey House, Seal

Fig. 8: The Grey House, Seal

This is the only description on record of Jane Austen just before her teenage years. What might be made of Phylly’s assessment? It appears there was little bonding between Jane and Phylly during their tine in each other’s company. This may have been because Phylly was particularly impressed by Cassandra (age 15½), who she declared was like herself in “features, complexion and manners,” and who “keeps up conversation in a very sensible and pleasing manner.” Jane, in Phylly’s view, simply did not pass muster. The serious minded Phylly may not have appreciated, or even understood her younger cousin’s range of remarks and sense of humour. In consequence, Jane is dubbed as “whimsical” and “affected.” There is no evidence that others in the family party shared Phylly’s opinion of Jane; it would be interesting to know what Jane thought of Phylly!

Fig. 9: Approaching Seal.

Fig. 9: Approaching Seal.

I have been fascinated to explore connections to Jane Austen in Sevenoaks and Seal.  Her ancestors Elizabeth Weller Austen and Francis Austen II showed a determined sense of purpose in life, which Jane grew up to exhibit as well. Moreover, it is intriguing to consider what was happening in Jane’s life at the time she was beginning to write her first fiction. From her perspective, there had been plenty to see and think about during her visit to Sevenoaks. She had stayed in an elegant town house, the Red House; she had met a venerable and valuable family benefactor. It is highly likely that she was briefed about her courageous ancestress, Elizabeth Austen, and was also exposed to the history of the prestigious Sackville family and saw something of their impressive estate. The young Jane’s social behaviour apparently did not impress her older cousin Phylly Walter, but that opinion need not be considered definitive in the absence of other evidence. Jane Austen’s summer sojourn in Sevenoaks and Seal was full of interest for her and, in a different way, for us, her later readers.   

[1] The Red House can be found at 50 High Street, Sevenoaks, looking much as it did in Jane Austen’s day. It was built in 1686 and owned by Francis Austen from 1743-1791. According to John Newman, in West Kent and the Weald, (Penguin, 1969), 515, it is “the finest house on the street… it represents the late 17th century ideal.”

[2] Quoted in Sevenoaks An Historical Dictionary, compiled and edited by David Killingray and Elizabeth Purves, (Phillimore, 2012), 151.  

[3] According to Brian Southam, John Sackville, the Third Duke of Dorset, “valued Francis as highly as had his grandfather and relied on him for a host of official and personal services.” See Southam, “Old Francis Austen The Rich Lawyer of Sevenoaks,” Jane Austen Society Report, 2006, 38.

[4] Henry also recalled: “I think he (Francis) was born in Anne’s reign, and was of course a smart man of George the First’s. It is a sort of privilege to have seen and conversed with such a model of a hundred years since.” See Brian Southam, “Old Francis Austen,” 38. Perhaps Jane reflected on their great uncle similarly. Given her growing interest in history, (she would soon be writing a tongue in cheek piece “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1 st.”) to have met someone whose life had spanned so many decades and different reigns must have seemed impressive.

[5] Knole is now looked after by The National Trust.

[6] See Catherine and Other Writings, ed. Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray, (OUP. 1993), 38-39.

[7] Deirdre Le Faye thinks this dating is plausible. See A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family (CUP, 2006), 118.  

[8] See Deirdre Le Faye, Chronology, 116.

[9] Quoted in “Elijah Fenton: The Man Who Employed Mrs Austen, by Claire Graham in Austentations, vol. 9, Spring 2009, 50.

[10] See Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen A Family Record, (Cambridge, 2004), 64.

Charles Austen’s Colleague, Captain John Shortland: His Naval Service in Australia and North America

Captain John Shortland

Captain John Shortland

Charles Austen began his career as a ship’s captain in North American waters in 1805. In the six years that followed he served with a variety of other young men hoping to succeed in their naval careers. While I was researching my biography of Fanny Palmer Austen, Charles’s wife, I became curious about his fellow officers. What were their backgrounds? What had been their successes and failure? This quest led me to Captain John Shortland (1769-1810), who worked quite closely with Charles Austen on the North American Station of the Royal Navy during 1808-1809. While recently in Australia, I learned much more about Shortland’s earlier career there. These new details contribute to a profile of a courageous but ill-fated officer. Here is his story.   

Hunter’s sketch of a wombat

Hunter’s sketch of a wombat

 John Shortland went out to New South Wales from England on the First Fleet,[1] initially on the Friendship as 2nd mate, but transferred to the Sirius, Captain John Hunter, where he was promoted to master’s mate just before the vessel arrived in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. Shortland found himself in a land very different from England. Human contact was limited to the company of other naval personnel, British administrators and increasing numbers of arriving convicts. An impression of the exotic fauna of the place is provided by Captain John Hunter’s contemporary sketch book, which included images of a wombat[2] and a platypus along with drawings of birds, flowers and fish encountered in the environs of Port Jackson and Norfolk Island.[3] Shortland was free to explore this remarkable new land between his naval assignments on board the Sirius.

In January 1789, the Sirius was despatched to the Cape of Good Hope, where the crew   loaded foodstuffs and supplies at Table Bay and transported them back to New South Wales for the relief of the needy, fledgling colony at Port Jackson.  In 1790, still aboard the Sirius, he sailed to Norfolk Island as part of an exploratory group sent to determine the Island’s suitability for settlement. Soon after the party landed, the unlucky Sirius was thrown upon a reef of rocks and sank. Shortland was thus stranded on Norfolk Island for the next eleven months.

He returned to England in 1791 but went back to Australia again in 1795 as first Lieutenant on the Reliance. He accepted the posting at the invitation of his friend, John Hunter, who had just been appointed Governor of New South Wales. According to the “Memoir of the Public Services of Captain John Shortland” in the Naval Chronicle, 1810, he undertook his transfer into the Reliance with “utmost reluctance and regrets and afterwards he considered his removal  as the most unfortunate era of his life; as an event that banished him from the active scene which was opened by the [war with France].”[4] It seems that the challenges of exploration and colonization of Australia held less attraction than the chance to accrue prize money while the French war with Britain continued.  Nevertheless, he stayed with the Reliance for the next five years, making voyages to the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand as well as one journey which has earned him a place in Australian history.

In a letter to his father, Captain John Shortland Sr. he described an “expedition on the Governor’s whaleboat about as far as Port Stephens, which lies 100 miles northward of this place [Port Jackson]. In my passage down I discovered a very fine coal river, [on 10 September 1797] which I named after Governor Hunter. … Vessels from 80 to 250 tons may load here with great ease, I dare say [the river] will be a great acquisition to this settlement.”[5] Shortland enclosed an eye sketch of the estuary of the river and what is now known as Newcastle harbour, which he made in “the little time I was there.”

Shortland's map of Hunter's River from the  Naval Chronicle of 1810

Shortland's map of Hunter's River from the Naval Chronicle of 1810

Shortland’s drafting and observational skills are evident from his sketch, which is done to scale. He made some soundings, identified the height of the tide, the location of shoal waters and rocks, and the channels navigated by his boat through the harbour. He indicated where fresh water could be found and described a long sandy beach, “bending towards Port Stephens about 14-16 miles.” Shortland indicated the presence of “natives” at two locations, including one close to where his party slept at the base of what is now known as Signal Hill, but it is thought he had no contact with them.[6]

Newcastle harbour entrance with Noddy's Island

Newcastle harbour entrance with Noddy's Island

Shortland’s lucky find of both the coal deposits and the Hunter River occurred, by chance, when he was sent in pursuit of some convicts who had seized the government boat, Cumberland, which ordinarily carried supplies between Hawkesbury and Sydney. Apparently, Shortland failed to apprehend the convicts. Nonetheless an enthusiastic Governor Hunter received Shortland’s subsequent report and immediately informed officials in England of his discovery of both the river and “a considerable quantity of coal”[7] at the base of Signal Hill on the south shore near the water.

Returning to England in 1800, John Shortland received various commands, before being made post captain on 6 August 1805. He was subsequently appointed to the Squirrel (24 guns).  By 1808 we find him on the North American Station, where Admiral Sir John Warren posted him into the 40 gun Junon, a vessel recently captured from the French in February 1809. As Shortland was keen to have her ready for action as soon as possible, he is said to have put £1000-1500 of his own money into the Junon’s refurbishment at the Naval Yard in Halifax, Nova Scotia.[8] Amid the busyness of preparations, he found time to have his portrait painted by the accomplished British artist, Robert Field,[9] who happened to be working in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By mid September 1809, Shortland sailed from Halifax on a cruise, undermanned by about 100 sailors, but ready all the same for what prize captures he might make.

John Shortland was fortunate to get his first frigate, the Junon, but his luck did not hold. He had heard of a 20 gun French vessel, bound for Guadeloupe, and while in search of her in December 1809, the Junon was trapped by four French frigates off Antigua. They were the Renommée (40 gun), the Clorinde (40 guns), the Loire (20 guns) and the Seine (20 guns) and they showed no mercy. Shortland fought bravely until he was seriously wounded. After a gallant but hopeless action of 1¼ hours, the French broadsides smashed the Junon before her captors destroyed her by fire.[10] Captain Shortland was taken to Guadeloupe where he died of his wounds five weeks later.[11] 

 Shortland’s career in the Royal Navy had taken him world wide into new and uncharted southern waters. In his profession, he had been an ambitious and diligent naval officer, notable as an early explorer of coastal New South Wales, remembered as the first European to discover coal at Newcastle and to sketch her harbour. But sadly, while serving on the North American Station, he lost both his life and his ship.

Today a suburb of Newcastle bears his name. The motto of the local school is “Respect, Responsibility and Relationships.” This seems fitting for the commemoration of an individual of decisive action and faithful service to his country and his profession.

Shortland public school

Shortland public school


[1] The First Fleet refers to the eleven ships that sailed from Portsmouth, England, 13 May 1787, in order to establish a penal colony, which became the first European settlement in Australia. 

[2] Governor Hunter was given the gift of a live wombat captured on Preservation Island in the Bass Strait. When the wombat died, it was preserved in spirits and sent to Joseph Banks to be forwarded to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. When a platypus was discovered in 1798, Hunter sent both a pelt and a sketch of it back to England.

[3] For information about Hunter’s sketches, see Linda Groom, The Steady Hand: Governor Hunter and His First Fleet Sketch Book, National Library of Australia, 2012.

[4] Naval Chronicle for 1810, July to December, vol. 24, 11.

[5] See John Shortland to his father, John Shortland Sr., 10 September 1797, Historical Records of New South Wales, vol.3, 481.

[6] The first published edition of the map in 1810 in the Naval Chronicle does not show the locations of native settlement. For a detailed reconstruction of his explorations, see “Lieutenant Shortland’s Survey of Newcastle on 9th September 1797” by H.W.W. Huntington, in hunterlivinghistories.com.

[7] See Governor Hunter to the Duke of Portland, 10 January 1798, transcribed from Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. 3, 727.  

[8] Naval Chronicle, vol 24,.

[9] See the impressive miniature of Shortland, set in a gold locket. It is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England. The link is collections-rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/42038.html

[10] For an account of the battle, see the Naval Chronicle for 1810, July to December, vol. 24, 12-14.

[11] For the touching story of Shortland’s faithful dog, Pandore who was with him when he was dying in Guadeloupe, see Sheila Johnson Kindred, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister, MQUP, 2017, 64.