I came across the on-going archeological dig at Steventon last week, and I thought you might like to see my pictures of it. As I’ve reported before, the dig is being undertaken to try and discover more about the rectory where Jane Austen was born and which was demolished in the early 1820s by Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s brother, who had inherited the Steventon and Chawton estates from his adoptive parents, the Knights.
This is a fascinating project for, like so much information surrounding Jane Austen, hard facts are difficult to come by. We know very little concrete information about the Rectory where she was born. The images we have are, in fact, only three and only two of them were made while it was still extant.
This, below, showing the view of the rectory’s main facade, was drawn by Anna Austen, later Lefroy, Jane’s niece, in 1814. She lived in the rectory with the Austen’s when her father James Austen was widowed, and then from 1801 until her marriage to Benjamin Lefroy in 1814, during which time James Austen was either curate or, from 1805, rector of the parish, succeeding his father,George Austen in the position:
This image, below, again possibly by Anna, shows the rear of the Rectory:
This final image, below, was draw by Anna’s second daughter Julia, for inclusion in the Memoir of Jane Austen written by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh. This was published in 1869:
Anna described this as:
A little drawing of Julia’s made from my description of the Parsonage; more pretty than true: yet, some thing perhaps may be made of it
(See Le Faye, Jane Austen : A Family Record, page 280)
We do have some written descriptions of the rectory, both outside and in. In Jane Austen: A Family Record Dierdre Le Faye collated them for us: we learn from a set of note compiled by Catherine-Anne Austen that it
consisted of three rooms in front on the ground floor-the best parlour, the common parlour and the kitchen; behind these wr Mr Austen’s study, the back kitchen and the stairs; above are seven bedrooms and three attics.The rooms were low -pitched ,but not otherwise bad and compared with the usual stile (sic) of such buildings, it might be considered a very good house
and, then in the Memoir, James Edward Austen-Leigh thought that:
It was sufficiently commodious to hold pupils in addition to a growing family, and was in those ties considered tone above the average of parsonages; but the rooms were furnished with less elegance than would be now found in the most ordinary dwellings.No cornice marked the junction of wall and ceiling; while the beams which supported the upper floors projected into the rooms below in all their naked simplicity, covered only by a coat of paint or whitewash
There is also this more detailed version, from a Lefroy manuscript detailing the Austen family history, also written by Anna Austen:
The lower bow windows looking so cheerfully into the sunny garden, up the middle grass walk bordered with strawberry beds, to the sundial, belonged to my Grandfather’s study; his own exclusive property and safe from the bustle of all household cares. The Dining or common sitting room looked to the front and was lighted by two casement windows; on the same side, the principal door of the house opened into a parlour of smaller size. Visitors it maybe presumed were few and rare; but not a whit the less welcome would they have been to my Grand Mother on account of their finding her seated in this very entrance parlour, busily engaged with her needle, in making or repairing.
There is also this description of the garden: Anna Lefroy wrote to James Edward Austen-Leigh,while he was compiling the Memoir that there was
a well between the house and the Wood Walk…in the square walled-in cucumber garden. The walls of this inner garden are covered with cherry and other fruit trees. On the west side was a garden tool house. On the south a door communicated with the back yard – not far from the granary- another door opened into the larger garden, in the east wall I think. I remember this sunny cucumber garden well-its frames and also its abundance of pot herbs, marigolds etc-Oh! me! we never saw the like again
And this one, also written by Anna Austen:
Behind on the sunny side of the house was an enclosed garden bounded by a straight row of spruce firs and terrace walk of turf. At one end this terrace communicated by a small gate with what was termed ‘the Wood Walk” which winding through clumps of underwood and overhung by tall elm trees, skirted the upper side of the Home Meadow. At the other end of the terrace a door in the garden wall opened to a lane that climbed the hill, and led through a field or hedgerow to the Church…near the Wood Walk gate, and garden bench adjoining, was place a tall white pole surmounted by a weathercock. How pleasant to childish ears was the scrooping sound of that weathercock, moved by the summer breeze! how tall its stem! and yet how more stupendous was the height of the solitary sliver fir that grew at the opposite end of the terrace and near the church road door! How exquisitely sweet too the honeysuckle, which climbed a little way up its lofty stem!
Here is a section of the Glebe Map made in 1821 which shows the position of the Rectory and the surrounding gardens, and which I have annotated:
Number 1 shows the position of the Rectory, which faced the lane leading into Steventon. Number 2 shows the direction of the lane which leads to the centre of Steventon. Number 3 shows the field which rises up from the valley and is where the new rectory was built by Edward Knight for his son William, after he had had the old rectory demolished. Number 4 show the lane that leads up the valley, in the opposite direction, to St Nicholas’ church. Numbers 5 and 6 show the points where I took the following photographs. The original Glebe map is on show at the Jane Austen’s House Museum, and you can see a photograph of it below:
If you want to see it in more detail then go here to see a full colour digital version.
I took this photograph from the gate near number 5 on the glebe map. There was a lot of activity going on when I happened to pass by, and I didn’t like to disturb the people working there as they seemed terribly busy.
In the background, you can see the land rising towards Steventon church, and the hedge that runs along the lane.
The old pump-which is no longer there, sadly, and which was the only remnant of the old rectory, used to be in the enclosure, marked “Keep Out” : you can see it in the photographs, behind the chap in blue with a wheelbarrow.
I took these photographs, below, from the gate marked 6 on the glebe map. This was probably the entrance for the old carriage “sweep” in front of the rectory.
This shows the archeologists working on the site from the sweep gate . You can see how the ground rises rather steeply behind the site of the old rectory. No wonder it used to flood.
This photograph, below, shows the new rectory, now known as Steventon House, which was built by Edward Knight to accommodate his son, William, who was also rector of the parish.
You can see that it is built on much higher ground, and I wouldn’t think it has ever flooded.
The only tangible link left to Jane Austen in the field where the Rectory used to stand is the lime tree. This was planted by her brother James who, of course, lived in the rectory with his wife and children, including Anna Austen, from 1801, when Jane Austen and her family removed to Bath, until his death in 1819.
This is the view from the rectory , looking to the left into the centre of Steventon village:
And this photograph shows the view along lane that rises up from the corner of the old rectory site to the church:
It is a fascinating project, and very worthwhile. The old rectory seems to have been a much-loved place, and certainly Anna Austen had very lovely, sunlit memories of it. I cannot wait to see the results when they are published.
I spotted these snowdrops flowering in the hedge in front of the space where the old rectory stood. I wonder if they are descendants from Jane Austen’s garden?