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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2000

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The Austen Connection

Joy Pibworth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was born and bred in Hampshire. Anyone travelling the main roads into that county will have that confirmed by the brown tourism signs erected by the county council. However, the Austens had many important links with Berkshire and some of those villages immediately north of the River Thames.

Jane Austen - silhouette

Jane Austen - not authenticated but a likely silhouette

Jane Austen's life (1775-1817) spanned turbulent times: the loss of the American colonies, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the spread of the British influence in India. Members of her family and friends were involved directly in these events. Her roots were unquestionably English, her father George originating from Kent, gaining a scholarship to Oxford and thence becoming Rector of Steventon and Deane, near Basingstoke, Hampshire. Her mother, Cassandra Leigh, was born in the tiny village of Harpsden, to the north of the Reading to Henley road. Her father was Thomas Leigh, Rector of the village and their home, now the Old Rectory can be seen in the village. The parish registers reveal the history of the family:

Aug. 14 1734 Ann (d. 1738)
July 15 1735 James (d. Mar. 28 1837)
October 9 1736 Jane (d. October 1783)
October 14 1737 Mary (d. October 31 1737)
Sept. 16 1739 Cassandra (d. Jan. 17 1827)
April 27 1747 Thomas (d. 1821)
(Mentally or physically handicapped, he spent his long life in the care of a lowly family in Hampshire).

The Leigh family had aristocratic and academic ancestors: a 16th century Lord Mayor of London, the Lord Leighs of Stoneleigh, distinguished scholars at Oxford, as well as marriage connections with the Earl of Berkeley and the Duke of Chandos.

Reverend Thomas Leigh retired to Bath in the early 1760's and it was here that Cassandra married George Austen on 26th April 1764. The vicar who performed the ceremony was Thomas Powys, a childhood friend whose family lived in Hardwick Hall, Whitchurch, near Pangbourne. Cassandra's sister, Jane, married the Reverend Edward Cooper, whose family owned Phyllis Court, near Henley. The couple settled in Royal Crescent, Bath, and he also served as Vicar of Southeote, now a modern suburb on the western fringes of Reading. Even in those days of uncertain travel, family visits were important and we discover from one of Mrs Austen's letters, dated gth December 1770:

'We went to Southcote, where we found my sister, Dr Cooper and the little boy quite well'

The little boy was Edward Cooper, her nephew, who in later life married Caroline Lybbe, daughter of Philip and Caroline Lybbe Powys of Fawley, near Henley. (Philip was brother to Reverend Thomas Powys and took the extra surname when he married the heiress Caroline Lybbe). This Edward Cooper was later Rector of Harpsden, where four of his children were born, before moving to Hamstall Ridaware in Staffordshire. The Reverend Edward Cooper (senior) and his wife had a second child, Jane, who was of a similar age to Jane Austen's elder sister Cassandra.

Between 1765 and 1779 the Austens had 8 children, 6 boys and 2 girls. Jane was the 7th child and the 2nd daughter. It was decided that the two Austen girls and their cousin should go away to school together. Firstly they went to an establishment in Oxford run by a Mrs Cawley (widowed sister-in-law of Reverend Cooper). Soon after they went there in 1783 the school moved to Southampton and it was there that a 'putrid sore throat' spread from the port through the town to the school, leaving Jane Austen in danger of her life. Jane Cooper wrote to her mother, who immediately came with Mrs Austen to nurse them all. Jane's life was saved but Mrs Cooper returned home to Bath to die of the fever in October 1783. Dr Cooper, devastated, decided to return to his roots, and took up the living of Sonning from 1784 until his death in 1792.

After this unpropitious attempt at school the three parents decided to send the three girls to school again and this time they chose the Reading Ladies Boarding School, otherwise known as the Abbey School, or Mrs La Tournelle's School. The school was based in the 13th century Abbey Gateway and an adjoining house. The building, now used as the venue for a music club, can still be seen today in its refurbished state, after a partial collapse in 1861.1 The building overlooks the Abbey Ruins and the Forbury Gardens (as well as the Remand Centre and Railway Station) The head of the school Madame La Tournelle (aka Sarah Hackitt) was renowned for her cork leg. Banking records show that George Austen paid 35 per pupil for the usual accomplishments of sewing, spelling, dancing, music and French. In 1786 the girls left school and returned home.

Jane's experiences in Reading are thought to have influenced her description of Mrs Goddard's school in "Emma":

'A real old-fashioned Boarding School where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price and girls might be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education without any danger of coming back prodigies'

Jane's only reference to her schooling is in one of her letters to her sister:

'I could have died of laughing at [your letter] as they used to say at school' (Letters 1st September 1796)

But after nearly two years in Reading, living in its most historic area amongst the ruins of the Abbey with its association with the monarchy (Henry I was buried here in 1135, Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and had Abbot Hugh Faringdon executed for high treason and Charles I's Cavaliers fought the Roundheads on fortifications visible today) it is hardly surprising that Jane Austen was to produce 'The History of England by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian' in 1791 and illustrated by her sister Cassandra. Jane, incidentally, was a staunch supporter of Mary Queen of Scots and the Stuarts.

Jane Cooper spent much time with her cousins. On holiday on the Isle of Wight with her father, brother and the Lybbe Powys family in 1792 she met and subsequently married Captain, later Sir, Thomas Williams RN. She died in a carriage accident six years later.

George Austen, orphaned and dependant on family charity as a young boy, had two sisters: Leonora, of whom little is known except that she was cared for by a succession of families with printing associations in London until her death in 1784; and Philadelphia, his other sister, took drastic, but not unheard of, action to achieve financial security. At the age Of 21 she was granted permission by the East India Company to travel out to India with the presumed intention of marrying one of the many Britons working there. She did get married soon after her arrival, to Tysoe Saul Hancock, a doctor who became a friend and trading partner of Warren Hastings, a rising star in the company. Hastings, whose wife and daughter had recently died in India, sent his son George home to England in 1761, in the care of Francis Sykes, owner of Basildon Park, near Reading (now a National Trust property). The child was put in the care of George Austen, then a bachelor, doubtlessly due to the influence of Philadelphia.

The little boy did not survive long, dying in 1764 soon after the Austens' marriage. The links between the families survived, Warren Hastings making a particularly generous settlement of 10,000 on Philadelphia and her daughter Eliza Hancock. George Austen, one of the trustees, did not allow the money to be released to her when she married a French nobleman in 1781. Wisely, since the Comte de Feuillide was guillotined in 1794 and all of his property confiscated. Letters still exist between the Austen family and Warren Hastings and in later years Jane was to write:

'And Mr Hastings (who was pleased with 'Pride and Prejudice) - I am quite delighted with what such a man writes about it'

In 1771 Hastings was made 1st Governor of India, but was later accused of corruption and was put on trial. This was a cause of great distress to the Austens who considered him an honourable man, but attendance at the trial, which lasted seven years before finding him innocent, was considered one of the events of the season. Whilst this trial was in progress Hastings rented Purley Hall, a few miles outside of Reading (a fact announced in the Reading Mercury on 4th May 1789).

Purley Hall Purley Hall

Whilst Cassandra and Jane were 'out of the way' at school, Mr Austen supplemented his income by taking in pupils and tutoring them for Oxford. The Fowle family of Kintbury provided four pupils. One of them, Tom Fowle, later returned after obtaining his MA at Oxford and being ordained to the rather impoverished parish of Allingham in Wiltshire. He became engaged to Cassandra Austen and in order to make enough money to marry on, went as chaplain with his distant relation Lord Craven of Hampstead Marshall and Ashdown Park in Berkshire, to the West Indies with the fleet. He died of yellow fever in San Domingo in 1797. Cassandra inherited 1000 from his will, giving her a little financial independence, but never entertained the idea of marriage after that. But the families remained close and were already related by marriages (James Austen married Mary Lloyd whose sister Elizabeth married Reverend Fulwar-Craven Fowle).

The final and most lasting link with Berkshire was that caused by Mrs Austen's brother James Leigh. He led a charmed existence.

Whilst in his teens his elderly great uncle, Thomas Perrot, bequeathed all of his Northleigh (Oxfordshire) estates to James at the age Of 21, on condition that he took the additional name of Perrot. This duly done, Mr Leigh-Perrot sold the land to the Duke of Marlborough and had the mansion'Scarlets'built on farmland at Hare Hatch, Wargrave. In 1764 he married Jane Cholmely, daughter of an English lawyer in the West Indies. She had been sent back to England at the age of six and had never seen her immediate family again. Mr and Mrs Leigh-Perrot were a devoted, yet childless, couple.

In 1806 after a legal settlement with two co-heirs, he inherited a further 24,000 and an annual allowance of 2,000 for life. The Leigh-Perrots lived a wealthy and luxurious lifestyle, either at 'Scarlets' or at their house at The Paragon in Bath. They were generous towards the Austens, offering them gifts and receiving them as guests. The Austens in return seem to have been genuinely attached to them, although Jane makes critical references to 'my Aunt' in her letters.

James Leigh-Perrot

James Leigh-Perrot

Whilst in Bath in 1799, Mrs Leigh-Perrot was accused of the theft of a piece of lace valued at 1, a felony punishable by death or transportation. She was imprisoned in the house of the gaoler of llchester gaol throughout the winter, but was finally acquitted at Taunton in 18oo. It was revealed as a blackmail plot, but the threat of the punishment was very real. Family tradition saysthat Mr Leigh-Perrot was prepared to sell up everything to accompany her to Australia if she was found guilty.

Despite these frightening experiences, Mr and Mrs Austen made the sudden decision, at the end of 1800, to leave Steventon Parsonage to retire to Bath with their two daughters, then aged 25 and 28. The Reading Mercury, with its large circulation in southern England, was chosen to advertise the sale of the contents of the house. The advert appeared on Monday 4th May 18ol but, according to Jane's letters, did not net as much money as they had expected. The family moved to Bath in 18ol where they lived until 1806, after Reverend Austen's death. The ladies then moved to Southampton with their brother Frank (Captain, later Admiral) Austen and thence to Chawton, near Alton, in 1809. It was there that Jane wrote and revised her six novels. From 1816 she became increasingly unwell and was also preoccupied by a series of severe financial difficulties that beset three of her brothers.

The final blow to her spirits and health came after the death of her uncle Mr Leigh-Perrot on 28th March 1817. When his will was read it was discovered that he had left all of his money to his wife, with some bequests to any Austen nephews and nieces who might survive her. The Austens had been led to believe that they would benefit from his vast fortune and there must have been disappointment that it would be deferred. Jane wrote to her brother Charles:

'I am ashamed to say that the shock of my uncle's will brought on a relapse.... I am the only one of the legatees to be so silly'

Her health declined and she died on 18th July 1817 in Winchester and was buried in the cathedral.

A classically elegant tomb to Mr Leigh-Perrot is to be found in Wargrave churchyard with an elaborate and effusive eulogy to him on one side. On the other is a more concise inscription to his wife, who lived a further 19 years. She continued to live at 'Scarlets' and spent her time favouring first one then another potential heir. Jane's nephew Edward Austen and her brother Frank became the front-runners. The capricious old lady chose Edward hoping that he and his family would love 'Scarlets' as much as she and her husband had, but she kept him waiting to find out until after her death in 1836.

In the years after Jane Austen's death the family of her eldest brother James, who survived her by only two years, kept the Berkshire connection alive. His widow Mary had originally come from Enborne, near Newbury and returned to that area accompanied by her daughter Caroline and son Edward.

James Leigh-Perrot's grave at Wargrave James Leigh-Perrot's grave at Wargrave

After her mother's death in 1843, Caroline Austen made her "headquarters at Scarlets", with her brother and his family, before renting a house at Knowl Hill and then buying Wargrave Lodge, where she lived until 186o when she moved to Sussex to act as housekeeper for two unmarried nephews. She returned on occasions to Berkshire visiting her half-sister Anna Lefroy at Southern Hill, Reading and her brother, who had sold 'Scarlets' in 1863 before moving to Bray to act as Vicar. Caroline and Anna, contributed her memories of 'Aunt Jane' when Edward wrote his Memoir of Jane Austen, the first biography, published in 1869, thus the three 'Berkshire Austens' told the story of their Hampshire aunt.

In 'Northanger Abbey', published posthumously in 1818, the heroine Catherine Morland rejects the study of history:

'It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of Popes and Kings, with wars and pestilence on every page: the men all so goodfor nothing and hardly any women at all - it is very tiresome'

The history of the Austen family and their connections with Berkshire fortunately bears little resemblance to that description.


Jane Austen's Letters - Deirdre Le Faye

Reading Mercurv 1801 (Reading Local Studies Library)

1851 Census

Book of Wargrave - edited by Rosemary Gray and Sue Griffiths

Jane Austen's Family - Maggie Lane

The Jane Austen Society - Collected reports

Reminiscences of Caroline Austen.

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updated 21st June 2001