We are very familiar with the sites in Hampshire and the south of England associated with Jane Austen: Steventon,Chawton, Lyme…But not many people realise that there is a very interesting site in Lincolnshire, open to the public and easily accessible via the A1, which has a very interesting connection to Jane Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot.
The family who own this estate are named Cholmeley and Jane Austen’s aunt was a part of this family. Though Jane Leigh Perrot was born in Barbados in the West Indies, her maiden name was Cholmeley, and she was a niece of the baronet, Sir Monatague Cholmeley who was then in posession of the estate.
Jane Cholmeley was the daughter of Robert Cholmeley who owned land in Barbados.
(Lincolnshire from Cary’s Traveller’s Companion or a Delineation of the Turnpike Roads of England and Wales etc.(1812) by John Cary)
.She was sent to England and was educated there at a boarding school. Because of the rigours of travelling to the West Indies-as recounted accurately by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park-she did not return to Barbadoes during school holidays but instead spent much of her time here at Easton with her uncle and his family.
She married James Leigh-Perrot, who was Mrs George Austen’s brother, on the 9th October 1764 . Jane Austen’s aunt was of course infamous for being charged with grand larceny an attempt, seemingly at blackmail, by some Bath haberdashers meant that in 1799 she was accused of stealing a quantity of lace. Go here for an essay on her trial by Albert Borowitz. If found guilty she would no doubt have been transported to Botany Bay in Australia for 14 years- a virtual death sentence for a woman of her age.
When she was incarcerated in Ilchester Gaol awaiting trial at Taunton, Montague Cholmeley of Easton wrote her a series of kind letters to her to help maintain her spirits. Here is an extract from one commenting on Mrs Austen’s generous but slightly deranged offer to have Jane and Cassandra accompany their aunt in the gaol( in reality Jane Leigh-Perrot lived together with her husband in the squalid but humane lodgings with the Gaol Keeper and his family and not in a jail cell). Mrs Leigh Perrot declined the offer, recoiling in horror at the thought of the Austen girls having to spend time there writing to her cousin ,Sir Montague Cholmeley the then owner of Easton, as follows :
One of my greatest Miseries here ( indeed my very first) is the seeing what my dearest Husband is daily going through-Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from Morning till Night. The People not conscious that this can be Objectionable to anybody, fancy we are very Happy and to do them justice they mean to make us quite so…this Room joins to a Room where the Children all lie, and not Bedlam itself can be half so noisy, besides which, as not one particle of Smoke goes up the Chimney, except you leave the door or window open, I leave you to judge of the Comfort I can enjoy in such a Room…No! my Good Cousin, I cannot subject even a Servant to the suffering we daily experience…My dearest Perrot with his sweet composure adds to my Philosophy; to be sure he bids fair to have his patience tried in every way he can. Cleanliness has ever been his greatest delight and yet he sees the greasy toast laid by the dirty children on his knees and feels the small Beer trickle down his sleeves on its way across the table unmoved…Mss Scadding’s Knife well licked to clean it from the fried onions helps me now and then-you may believe how the Mess I am helped to is disposed of-here are two dogs and three Cats always full as hungry as myself.
Sir Montague appeared to have agreed with her decision:
You tell me that your good sister Austen has offered you one or both of her Daughters to continue with you during your stay at that vile place, but you decline the kind offer as you cannot procure them Accommodation in the House with you and you cannot let those Elegant Young Women be your Inmates in a Prison nor be subject to the inconveniences which you are obliged to put up with….
Jane Leigh Perrot was eventually found not guilty after the long and infamous trial.
The estate is a very interesting place to visit. Here is a link to its website. The current owners have embarked on a very laudable and brave project to restore the gardens: the site as you can see from these photographs which I took on a recent visit is spectacular, spanning the River Witham :
.The stables are the only part of the massive structure that survive: the main house was sadly demolished in the 1950s. This is all that remains :
The buildings that do survive are fascinating…
..all emblazoned with the Cholmeley crest of a wheat-sheaf in different forms:
And the gardens are bewitching:
Here is a link to the history of the house from Easton Walled Gardens current website:
…and here are some photographs from the family’s archive as to show the hall as it looked before it was demolished.
I do have to sincerely thank Lady Cholmeley, the present chatelaine, for her generosity in allowing me to reproduce them here .
Walking about the grounds, imagining the splendours of the place in Jane Leigh Perrot’s youth is a very interesting experience, and give some idea of her background and possibly explains her imperious attitude, ending her life playing games with the possible inheritors of her wealth-as she was childless and had inherited all her husbands property on his death she knew she had power to wield.
And I’m not sure that Jane Austen had much affection for her aunt, certainly from the evidence of her letters, but in any event, viewing the place where Jane’s aunt spent her early summers was an interesting way to spend a summer’s afternoon, speculating on her character while wandering around.
And I find the prospect of these gardens being fully restored bewitching: but even in their present state , much akin to a half-finished archaeological dig-they exert a certain charm , and evoke memories of eras long gone. I highly recommend a visit