Jane Austen lived in Southampton, Hampshire in Castle Square from 1806 until 1809 together with her sister in law, Mary Austen (nee Gibson, wife of Frank ), her mother, Mrs Austen ,Cassandra Austen her sister, and their friend Martha Lloyd. In July 1809 Jane, Cassandra Mrs Austen and Martha left Southampton to live at Chawton, in a house provided by their brother Edward Knight.
Today we think of Southampton mainly as a modern port-much changed and modernised since the ravages of the Second World War; but in Jane Austen’s time it had been discovered by “persons of rank” and became known as a resort and spa from the middle of the 18th century.
The old port had long been in decline at this point and the new business rejuvenated it. New houses were built, inns were modernised and communications with London improved. The rich built villas in the surrounding countryside. Fashionable promenades were created and shops boomed along with circulating libraries etc.
This is a general description of it from my copy of A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham
EQUALLY adapted for :health, pleasure, and commerce, Southampton, distant about seventy-seven miles from London, is bounded on the east by the river Itchin which flows past the ancient city of Winchester, and on the west by the Tese or Anton, which rises near Whitchurch. It occupies a kind of peninsula, the soil of which is a hard gravel ; and, as the buildings rise from the water with a gentle ascent, the streets are always clean and dry. The approach from the London road is uncommonly striking and grand; in fact, it is almost unparalleled in the beauty of its features, for the space of two miles. At first appear an expanse of water, and the distant Isle of Wight, the charming scenery of the New Forest, and Southampton itself, in pleasing perspective. Elegant seats and rows of trees, nearer the town, line the road on both sides ; and, on entering the place, by one of its most fashionable streets, that venerable remain of antiquity the Bargate, gives a finish to the scene, and fixes the impression of the objects through which we have passed.
But by the time of Jane Austen’s death in 1817 its star had faded, and it was only with the introduction of the railway in 1840 that Southampton once again became a port and place of some import. However, it was undoubtedly a fair place in JAne Austen’s time:
THE lovely situation of Southampton, the elegance of its buildings, the amenity of its environs, and the various other attractions which it possesses, in a very high degree, will always render it a place of fashionable residence, as well as of frequent resort. As a sea-bathing place, indeed, it has less reputation than some others that are described in this work. It has no machines, nor is its beach favorable for immersion; the marine is, also, deeply mixed with the fresh water; but, if the opinion of those is correct, who maintain, that water acts only by the shock and ablution, and that one cold or one warm bath is the same as another, Southampton, notwithstanding the disadvantages we have mentioned, is as eligible as any other station on the coaat, and, in many respects, it is superior. The air is soft and mild, and sufficiently impregnated with saline particles to render it agreeable, and even salutary, to those who cannot endure a full exposure to the sea, on a bleak and open shore.
(See: A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham)
For Frank Austen it was a place not too far away from Portsmouth, the naval base, where he could safely leave his new wife , his mother, sister and their friend Martha while he was away on duty. For the Austen ladies it was a chance to return to Hampshire, and to leave the confines of Bath and a way of life ever decreasing in style and consequence.
Frank wrote of the new domestic arrangements as follows:
He fixed his abode at Southampton making one family with his mothers and sisters a plan equally suited to his love of domestic society and the extent of his income which was somewhat restricted
(See: A Family Record, Le Faye p 153)
This is a detailed map of the areas surrounding Southampton circa 1803:
This is a map of the town centre made in 1791 by T. Milne. If you enlarge it you can clearly see the castle -a circular structure in the lower part of the map.
The Marquis of Landsdown for a very short time before his death in 1809 , lived at Southampton in this Gothic style castle. The Castle was put up for sale in 1816 but no buyer was found and it was demolished in 1818. Jane Austen’s house was in the square surrounding the castle:
Our Dressing-Table is constructing on the spot, out of a large Kitchen Table belonging to the House, for doing which we have the permission of Mr Husket Lord Lansdown’s Painter, -domestic Painter I should call him, for he lives in the Castle-Domestic Chaplains have given way to this more necessary office, & I suppose whenever the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about my Lady’s face.
(see Letter to Cassandra dated 8th February,1807)
The Castle and the Square around it no longer exist, but here is a description of it:
THE CASTLE, &C.
This stands near the middle of the south part of the town. From the High-street, the approach to it is up Castle-lane. The area of the castle seems to be of a semicircular form, of which the town wall to the sea, formed the diameter. The keep stood on a very high artificial mount, and from its ruins a small round tower has been constructed, from the leads of which there is a delightful bird’s-eye view of Southampton, and of the environs, lying like a map before the eye of the spectator.
” The high mount, and circular form of the keep,” says Sir H. Englefield,” indicate an Antiquity much higher than the time of Richard II. who probably only repaired and strengthened the castle.” This ingenious and learned antiquary seems to think it of Saxon origin.
In Porter’s-lane, at the bottom of the High-street, he discovered a building, which he conjectures was originally a palace. It is evidently of great antiquity, and was probably inhabited by the Saxon or Danish kings, who occasionally made Southampton their residence.
Here are two views of the High Street in the early 19th century:
The Southampton Guide of 1805 stated:
Many of the shops rival those of the metropolis…the shopkeepers are equally strenuous to excel in the elegance of their shops and displays of heir goods. Strangers in general are exceedingly struck at the size and the very superior appearance of the shops as in this town nor are they less so on viewing the abundant stocks of goods with which they are stocked
The town was full of antiquities: this is the Bar Gate as it looked in 1802:
This was singled out in many of the Guidebooks to the town as a “truly beautiful specimen of medieval military architecture”
(See A Walk Through Southampton by Sir Henry Englefield, Bart (1801), page 8.
But look at this description from John Feltham’s Guide(1803) and spot the Austen-esque names:
The principal and formerly the only approach by land is a splendid remain of the fortifications of this place. The north front which is supposed to have been erected in the reign of Edward III is semi-octagonal, flanked with two lower semi-circular turrets.
The arch of entrance which is long and deep is highly pointed and adorned with a profusion of mouldings. Above the arch on a row of sunk pannels alternatively square and oblog, is a shield in relief charged with the arms of England, Scotland, Paulet, Tylney, Abdy, Noel, Mill, Wyndham etc. These arms however are not of ancient date and from a minute inspection of the compnent parts of this curious gate Sir Henry Englefield is of the opinion that the internal centre must have been erected in the early Norman time or even before then.
The front towards the High-street, is modern, plain, and uninteresting, except that in a central niche is contains a whole-length statue of Queen Anne, still and formal enough.
Over the arches of the two foot and carriageways, is a spacious TOWN-HALL, fifty-two feet by twenty-one, with which a room for the grand jury communicates. The windows in these apartments, withinside, bear marks of antiquity.
From the leads, the whole of this noble gate may be traced, and great part of site town may be seen. Two lions serjant, cast in lead, guard the entrance of Bargate, and on this side there are likewise portrayed two gigantic figures, representing Ascupart and Sir Bevios, of Southampton his redoubted conqueror, according to the following couplet:
“Bevois conquer’d Ascupart, and after slew the boare,
And then he cross’d beyond the seas to combat with the More.”
I’m sure this and the castle appealed to Jane Austen’s sense of the Gothick, if not to inspire names of characters in Northanger Abbey and Emma… Southampton had many of the amenities necessary for the amusement of its visitors. In addition to a riding school…
it also possessed chaylebeate springs, baths, public rooms owned by a Mr Martin( complete with a full set of Assembly Room regulations) and winter assemblies were held at the Dolphin Inn
( now sadly closed due to the effects of the current credit crunch)and a theatre:
Jane Austen attended the French Street Theatre while living there .
It also had a multiplicity of circulating libraries:
BAKER’s LIBRARY, in the High-street, contains a well-chosen collection of more than 7000 volumes, in every branch of learning, and in every department of composition Jewellery, stationary, &c. are likewise sold at this shop.
Messrs. Baker have also a printing-office, from which books have issued that would do no discredit to the London presses. The good sense, information, and civility of that family, which is large and respectable, render their acquaintance desirable to every visitor of the place.
Skelton’s Library, standing nearly opposite, is likewise well filled with valuable and entertaining books, and much frequented.
He has likewise a printing-office, and a subscription News-room, which is open from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, on reasonable terms.
If superior industry, understanding, and a zeal to oblige, are claims to patronage, Byles will not be forgotten, though his establishment is comparatively new.
There are some other libraries in Southampton,which possess their appropriate merits, and are ad mired by their respective customers.
(see The Guide to all the Watering Places etc (1803) by John Feltham.)
Jane Austen also attended All Saints Church, which was built in 1792-3 and was designed by William Revesley. Frank’s daughter, Mary Jane, born in April 1807 was christened here.
The beach was a tree-lined walk made around 1769 on the old causeway from the Platform to the Cross House
And it was here -on flooded meadows that froze -that Frank skated :
We did not take our walk on Friday, it was too dirty, nor have we yet done it; we may perhaps do something like it to-day, as after seeing Frank skate, which he hopes to do in the meadows by the beach, we are to treat ourselves with a passage over the ferry. It is one of the pleasantest frosts I ever knew, so very quiet. I hope it will last some time longer for Frank’s sake, who is quite anxious to get some skating; he tried yesterday, but it would not do.
(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 7th January 1807)
And here is a picture of a contemporary couple skating circa 1805…it won’t be long before braver souls than I can attempt that here in darkest Lincolnshire….