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This is a very elegant church and I’ve always loved seeing it on its hill, on the approach to Bath from the A4…
Here is its position in Bath,
shown on a section from this larger map of Bath in 1803 from John Feltham’s Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places etc
The church is number 1 on this map, which can be enlarged if you click on it. You can see the position of the church -marked as a black section of the top of the piece of land between Walcot and Cornwall Buildings: if you look carefully you can also see the site of the Walcot burial ground to the south-east of the church.
This church holds very special Jane Austen associations, as it was the church where her mother and father married and also where the reverend George Austen was buried.
The building we can see now-still a functioning church-
was rebuilt after the Austen’ wedding, because of the boom in the Bath population in the mid 18th century. The parish of St. Swithin’s decided to demolish the old medieval church on the site and to rebuild, employing the architect of St James ,Bath, John Palmer as their architect for their more spacious and modern church.
This is how Walter Ison in his wonderful book, The Gregorian Buildings of Bath, describes the exterior and the interior of the building:
The exterior is adorned with a giant order of Ionic pilasters with plain shafts ,which rise from a deep plinth and divide the side elevations into six equal bays. The two tiers of widows, low segmental-headed lights to the ground floor and tall arched lights to the galleries, are framed by heavily moulded architraves. A plain strongcourse marks the gallery level and the fronts are finished with an entablature and plain parapet. Low wings containing vestries and staircases, flank the of the tower, which forms the centre of the west front…
The interior measure approximately 68 feet by 52 feet and is similar to that of St James’s Church except that here three widely spaced columns stand on each side of the nave and the gallery is independent of them. The alter stands in a shallow bay corbelled out over the lower road and the side walls are adorned with many interesting memorial tablets including one to the architect, John Palmer.
Back to Jane Austen…Jane’s mother, Cassandra Leigh was living in Bath at the time of her marriage to George Austen in 1764. Her father had retired to Bath in the early 1760s, and had died there in January 1764, and was then buried in the subject of our post today, St Swithin’s Church.
The Austens married on the 26th April 1764 by special license at St. Swithin’s
This is a copy of the register recording their marriage, which you can enlarge as you can all the illustrations in this post, simply by clicking on it.
In a characteristically practical manner, Mrs Austen did not appear at church arrayed in any special wedding dress of fine embroidered silk. Instead she wore a typical mid 18th century travelling dress -a habit-of red worsted wool.
Her dress must have been very similar to this one held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in their collection. If you go here you can see a 360 degree view of the dress and a short description of it.
This dress was indeed very practical garb for the wife of a country rector. And it gave good service to the family for when no longer fit to be worn as a dress, it was adapted as clothes for the Austen children.
Frank Austen , one of Jane’s sailor brothers, was by all accounts a fearless little boy and had an instinctive gift for horse trading. When he was seven years old he bought a pony for £1, 11 shillings and 6 pence, which he trained and hunted and at the end of two years ownership sold for £2 12 shillings and 6 pence, thereby making a profit of over one guinea. The wedding dress was finally used up to make Francis a jacket and a pair breeches so that he could appear in style in the hunting field as a child.
When Jane Austen was staying with Edward Austen at Queen’s Square in June 1799 she was of course commissioned by her sister, Cassandra, to buy articles of clothing, and in particular to find out what the latest fashion was so that they could keep up with the times in rural Hampshire.
Bath was (and still is) a wonderful centre for shopping: it impressed the fashion-obsessed Mrs Allen in Northanger Abbey :
“Bath is a charming place, sir; there are so many good shops here. We are sadly off in the country; not but what we have very good shops in Salisbury, but it is so far to go — eight miles is a long way; Mr. Allen says it is nine, measured nine; but I am sure it cannot be more than eight; and it is such a fag — I come back tired to death. Now, here one can step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes.”
Northanger Abbey,Chapter 3
But in Jane Austen’s case, the shops proved disappointing:
Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers’, but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or greengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five, I believe, but this is at some of the dearest shops. My aunt has told me of a very cheap one, near Walcot Church, to which I shall go in guest of something for you.
(See :Letter to Cassandra Austen dated June 2nd 1799)
The search for fruit in Walcot was not very productive: Jane Austen’s Aunt, Mrs Leigh Perrot typically sending Jane on a fools errand in search of cheap decorative fruit, sending her to a cheap shop where annoyingly only flowers were to be had:
We have been to the cheap shop, and very cheap we found it, but there are only flowers made there, no fruit; and as I could get four or five very pretty sprigs of the former for the same money which would procure only one Orleans plum — in short, could get more for three or four shillings than I could have means of bringing home — I cannot decide on the fruit till I hear from you again. Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. What do you think on that subject?
(See: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated June 11th, 1799).
I tend to agree…flowers and not fruit sprouting from the head seems far more natural, but I am not sure exactly why…
The last Jane Austen association with St Swithin’s is rather poingnant: Jane’s father, Geroge Austen was buried there after his death in Bath on the 21st January 1805, and this is a picture of the original ledgerstone, which indicated the place of his burial.
This was re-sited and renovated by the Bath and Bristol branch of the Jane Austen Society in 2000, and a new sign recording George Austen’s associations with the church was erected:
You might like to note that Fanny Burney –one of Jane Austen’s favourite novelists-
and her husband who lived in Bath in the early 19th century, were also buried in the Walcot burial ground and at a later date a memorial was erected near the church commemorating them.