Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter I

Austens and Leighs


At the end of the sixteenth century there was living at Horsmonden--a small village in the Weald of Kent--a certain John Austen. From his will it is evident that he was a man of considerable means, owning property in Kent and Sussex and elsewhere; he also held a lease of certain lands from Sir Henry Whetenhall, including in all probability the manor house of Broadford in Horsmonden. What wealth he had was doubtless derived from the clothing trade; for Hasted[4] instances the Austens, together with the Bathursts, Courthopes, and others, as some of the ancient families of that part 'now of large estate and genteel rank in life,' but sprung from ancestors who had used the great staple manufacture of clothing. He adds that these clothiers 'were usually called the Gray Coats of Kent, and were a body so numerous that at County Elections whoever had their vote and interest was almost certain of being elected.'

John Austen died in 1620, leaving a large family.[5] Of these, the fifth son, Francis, who died in 1687, describes himself in his will as a clothier, of Grovehurst; this place being, like Broadford, a pretty timbered house of moderate size near the picturesque old village of Horsmonden. Both houses still belong to the Austen family. Francis left a son, John, whose son was another John. This last John settled at Broadford (while his father remained at Grovehurst), and, when quite young, married Elizabeth Weller. He seems to have been a careless, easy-going man, who thought frugality unnecessary, as he would succeed to the estate on his father's death; but he died of consumption in 1704, a year before that event took place. One of his sisters married into the family of the Stringers (neighbours engaged in the same trade as the Austens), and numbered among her descendants the Knights of Godmersham--a circumstance which exercised an important influence over the subsequent fortunes of the Austen family.

Elizabeth Weller, a woman happily cast in a different mould from her husband, was an ancestress of Jane Austen who deserves commemoration. Thrifty, energetic, a careful mother, and a prudent housewife, she managed, though receiving only grudging assistance from the Austen family, to pay off her husband's debts, and to give to all her younger children a decent education at a school at Sevenoaks; the eldest boy (the future squire) being taken off her hands by his grandfather.[6] Elizabeth left behind her not only elaborately kept accounts but also a minute description of her actions through many years and of the motives which governed them. It may be interesting to quote one sentence relating to her move from Horsmonden to Sevenoaks for the sake of her children's education. 'These considerations with ye tho'ts of having my own boys in ye house, with a good master (as all represented him to be) were ye inducements that brought me to Sen'nock, for it seemed to me as if I cou'd not do a better thing for my children's good, their education being my great care, and indeed all I think I was capable of doing for 'em, for I always tho't if they had learning, they might get better shift in ye world, with wt small fortune was alloted 'em.'

When the good mother died in 1721, her work was done. Schooldays were over, the daughter married, and the boys already making their way in the world.

The young squire and his son held gentle sway at Broadford through the eighteenth century; but much more stirring and able was the next brother, Francis. He became a solicitor. Setting up at Sevenoaks 'with eight hundred pounds and a bundle of pens,' he contrived to amass a very large fortune, living most hospitably, and yet buying up all the valuable land round the town which he could secure, and enlarging his means by marrying two wealthy wives. But his first marriage did not take place till he was nearer fifty than forty; and he had as a bachelor been a most generous benefactor to the sons of his two next brothers, Thomas and William.

His second wife, who became in due course of time godmother to her great-niece, Jane Austen, was the widow of Samuel Lennard, of West Wickham, who left her his estate. Legal proceedings ensued over the will, and Mrs. Lennard took counsel of Francis Austen, who ended by winning both the case and her hand. Francis's son by his first wife (known as Motley Austen) rounded off the family estate at Sevenoaks by purchasing the Kippington property. Motley's third son, John, eventually inherited the Broadford estate. Francis's two most distinguished descendants were Colonel Thomas Austen of Kippington, well known as M.P. for Kent, and the Rev. John Thomas Austen, senior wrangler in 1817.

Both the two next brothers of Francis Austen adopted the medical profession. Thomas, an apothecary at Tonbridge, had an only son, Henry, who graduated at Cambridge, and, through his uncle's interest, held the living of West Wickham for twenty years. His descendants on the female side are still flourishing.

William, the surgeon, Jane Austen's grandfather, is more immediately interesting to us. He married Rebecca, daughter of Sir George Hampson, a physician of Gloucester, and widow of another medical man, James Walter. By her first husband she had a son, William Hampson Walter, born in 1721; by her second she had three daughters, and one son, George, born in 1731. Philadelphia--the only daughter who grew up and married--we shall meet with later. Rebecca Austen died in 1733, and three years later William married Susanna Holk, of whom nothing is known except that she died at an advanced age, and did not mention any of the Austens in her will; neither is there any trace of her in any of the family records with which we are acquainted; so it is hardly probable that little George Austen (Jane's father), who had lost both his parents when he was six years old, continued under the care of his stepmother. However, all that we know of his childhood is that his uncle Francis befriended him, and sent him to Tonbridge School, and that from Tonbridge he obtained a Scholarship (and subsequently a Fellowship) at St. John's College, Oxford--the College at which, later on, through George's own marriage, his descendants were to be 'founder's kin.' He returned to teach at his old school, occupying the post of second master there in 1758, and in the next year he was again in residence at Oxford, where his good looks gained for him the name of 'the handsome proctor.' In 1760 he took Orders, and in 1761 was presented by Mr. Knight of Godmersham--who had married a descendant of his great-aunt, Jane Stringer--to the living of Steventon, near Overton in Hampshire. It was a time of laxity in the Church, and George Austen (though he afterwards became an excellent parish-priest) does not seem to have resided or done duty at Steventon before the year 1764, when his marriage to Cassandra Leigh must have made the rectory appear a desirable home to which to bring his bride.

Before we say anything of the Leighs, a few sentences must be devoted to George Austen's relations of the half-blood--the Walters. With his mother's son by her first husband, William Hampson Walter, he remained on intimate terms. A good many letters are extant which passed between the Austens and the Walters during the early married life of the former, the last of them containing the news of the birth of Jane. Besides this, William Walter's daughter, 'Phila,' was a constant correspondent of George Austen's niece Eliza.

The Walter family settled in Lincolnshire, where they have held Church preferment, and have also been well known in the world of sport. Phila's brother James seems to have been at the same time an exemplary parson, beloved by his flock, and also a sort of 'Jack Russell,' and is said to have met his death in the hunting-field, by falling into a snow-drift, at the age of eighty-four. His son Henry distinguished himself in a more academical manner. He was second wrangler in 1806, and a Fellow of St. John's. Nor was he only a mathematician; for in June 1813 Jane Austen met a young man named Wilkes, an undergraduate of St. John's, who spoke very highly of Walter as a scholar; he said he was considered the best classic at Cambridge. She adds: 'How such a report would have interested my father!' Henry Walter was at one time tutor at Haileybury, and was also a beneficed clergyman. He was known at Court; indeed, it is said that, while he declined higher preferment for himself, he was consulted by George IV and William IV on the selection of bishops.

The wife that George Austen chose belonged to the somewhat large clan of the Leighs of Adlestrop in Gloucestershire, of which family the Leighs[7] of Stoneleigh were a younger branch. Her father was the Rev. Thomas Leigh, elected Fellow of All Souls at so early an age that he was ever after called 'Chick Leigh,' and afterwards Rector of Harpsden, near Henley.

Both these branches of the Leigh family descended from Sir Thomas Leigh, Lord Mayor of London, behind whom Queen Elizabeth rode to be proclaimed at Paul's Cross. He was rich enough and great enough to endow more than one son with estates; but while the elder line at Adlestrop remained simple squires, the younger at Stoneleigh rose to a peerage. The latter branch, however, were now rapidly approaching extinction, while the former had many vigorous scions. The family records have much to say of one of the squires--Theophilus (who died in 1724), the husband of Mary Brydges and the father of twelve children, a strong character, and one who lived up to fixed, if rather narrow, ideas of duty. We hear of his old-fashioned dress and elaborate bows and postures, of his affability to his neighbours, and his just, though somewhat strict, government of his sons. It is difficult to picture to oneself a set of modern Oxford men standing patiently after dinner, in the dining-parlour, as Theophilus's sons did, 'till desired to sit down and drink Church and King.' Meanwhile, his brother-in-law, the Duke of Chandos (the patron of Handel), used to send for the daughters to be educated in the splendour of Canons (his place in Middlesex), and to make such matches as he chose for them with dowries of 3000 a-piece.

Cassandra's father, Thomas, was the fourth son of Theophilus Leigh. An older and better known brother was another Theophilus, Master of Balliol for more than half a century.

The story of his election, in 1727, is remarkable. The Fellows of Balliol could not agree in the choice of any one of their own body; and one set, thinking it would be no disadvantage to have a duke's brother as master, invited their visitor, Dr. Brydges[8], to stand. On his declining, they brought forward his nephew, Theophilus Leigh, then a young Fellow of Corpus. The election resulted in a tie, and the visitor had no qualms of conscience in giving his casting vote to his nephew. Theophilus proved to be a man 'more[9] famous for his sayings than his doings, overflowing with puns and witticisms and sharp retorts; but his most serious joke was his practical one of living much longer than had been expected or intended.' He no doubt became a most dignified Head, and inspired the young men with fear and respect; but he must have sometimes remembered the awful day when he first preached before his father, who immediately turned his back on the divine, saying afterwards: 'I thank you, Theo, for your discourse; let us hereafter have less rhetoric and more divinity; I turned my back lest my presence might daunt you.' When Theo in turn was an old man, and when Jane Austen's eldest brother went to Oxford, he was asked to dine with this dignified kinsman. Being a raw freshman, he was about to take off his gown, when the old man of eighty said with a grim smile: 'Young man, you need not strip; we are not going to fight.'[10]

Cassandra Leigh's youth was spent in the quiet rectory of Harpsden, for her father was one of the more conscientious of the gently born clergy of that day, living entirely on his benefice, and greatly beloved in his neighbourhood as an exemplary parish-priest. 'He was one of the most contented, quiet, sweet-tempered, generous, cheerful men I ever knew,' so says the chronicler of the Leigh family, 'and his wife was his counterpart. The spirit of the pugnacious Theophilus dwelt not in him; nor that eternal love of company which distinguished the other brothers, yet he was by no means unsocial.' Towards the end of his life he removed to Bath, being severely afflicted with the gout, and here he died in 1763. His peaceful wife, Jane Walker, was descended on her mother's side from a sufficiently warlike family; she was the daughter of an Oxford physician, who had married a Miss Perrot, one of the last of a very old stock, long settled in Oxfordshire, but also known in Pembrokeshire at least as early as the fourteenth century. They were probably among the settlers planted there to overawe the Welsh, and it is recorded of one of them that he slew 'twenty-six men of Kemaes and one wolf.' A contrast to these uncompromising ancestors was found in Mrs. Leigh's aunt, Ann Perrot, one of the family circle at Harpsden, whom tradition states to have been a very pious, good woman. Unselfish she certainly was, for she earnestly begged her brother, Mr. Thomas Perrot, to alter his will by which he had bequeathed to her his estates at Northleigh in Oxfordshire, and to leave her instead an annuity of one hundred pounds. Her brother complied with her request, and by a codicil devised the estates to his great-nephew, James, son of the Rev. Thomas Leigh, on condition that he took the surname and arms of Perrot.[11] Accordingly, on the death of Mr. Thomas Perrot at the beginning of 1751, James Leigh became James Leigh Perrot of Northleigh. His two sisters, Jane and Cassandra, also profited by the kindness of their great-aunt, who left two hundred pounds to each. Another legacy which filtered through the Walkers from the Perrots to the Austens was the advantage of being 'kin' to the Founder of St. John's College, Oxford--Sir Thomas White--an advantage of which several members of the family availed themselves.

Northleigh, for some reason or other, did not suit its new owner. He pulled down the mansion and sold the estate to the Duke of Marlborough, buying for himself a property at Hare Hatch on the Bath Road, midway between Maidenhead and Reading. We shall meet him again, and his devoted wife, Jane Cholmeley; and we shall see a remarkable instance of his steadfast love for her.

George Austen perhaps met his future wife at the house of her uncle, the Master of Balliol, but no particulars of the courtship have survived. The marriage took place at Walcot Church, Bath, on April 26, 1764, the bride's father having died at Bath only a short time before. Two circumstances connected with their brief honeymoon--which consisted only of a journey from Bath to Steventon, broken by one day's halt at Andover--may be mentioned. The bride's 'going-away' dress seems to have been a scarlet riding-habit, whose future adventures were not uninteresting; and the pair are believed to have had an unusual companion for such an occasion--namely, a small boy, six years old, the only son of Warren Hastings by his first wife. We are told that he was committed to the charge of Mr. Austen when he was sent over to England in 1761, and we shall see later that there was a reason for this connexion; but a three-year-old boy is a curious charge for a bachelor, and poor little George must have wanted a nurse rather than a tutor. In any case, he came under Mrs. Austen's maternal care, who afterwards mourned for his early death 'as if he had been a child of her own.'[12]


[4] History of Kent.

[5] For further particulars respecting the earlier Austens, we venture to refer our readers to Chawton Manor and its Owners, chap. vii.

[6] This almost exclusive care of the old man for his eldest grandson may possibly have been the model for the action of old Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility.

[7] We are allowed to quote freely from a manuscript History of the Leigh Family of Adlestrop, written in 1788; some part of which appeared in an article written by the Hon. Agnes Leigh and published in the National Review for April 1907.

[8] Brother both of the Duke of Chandos and of Mrs. Leigh.

[9] Memoir, p. 5.

[10] The author of the Memoir remarks on the fact that the Leigh arms were placed on the front of Balliol towards Broad Street, now pulled down. He did not live to see the same arms occupy a similar place on the new buildings at King's College, Cambridge, erected when his son Augustus was Provost.

[11] The Perrots seem to have set great store by their armorial bearings: at least we are told that two branches of them lived at Northleigh at the same time in the eighteenth century, hardly on speaking terms with each other, and that one cause of quarrel was a difference of opinion as to whether the three 'pears'--which, in punning heraldry, formed a part of their coat of arms--were to be silver or gold.

[12] In the absence of any information as to where George Hastings died or was buried, it is at present impossible to be sure about the details of this interesting tradition.