The Wheatsheaf Inn ©Austenonly

The Wheatsheaf Inn ©Austenonly

In our last post we looked at the place where Jane Austen often used to collect the Austen family’s post when they lived at Steventon in Hampshire: the Wheatsheaf Inn, Popham Lane, shown above.

Its existence, however useful it was to the Austens and their communications, may, in my humble opinion, have played a part in forming Jane Austen’s opinion of the Prince Regent, later George IV, which was none too high. You will recall that she was reluctant to dedicate “Emma” to him and voiced her disapproval of the way he treated his wife in a letter to her friend, Martha Lloyd, dated 16th February, 1813:

I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself  ‘attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad — I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. 

Few people realise that the first part in that tragic-comic marriage- referred to by Jane Austen in her letter, above- was played out within 6 miles of Steventon while the Austens were resident there, and that the Wheatsheaf Inn was very much a part of the Prince’s social scene. For, from 1788 to 1795 the Prince of Wales leased Kempshott Park, a beautiful house and estate, now sadly demolished to make way for the M3 motorway, as a base from which to indulge in that most fashionable and expensive of 18th century sports,  hunting. Kempshott was, at that time, a small settlement south west of Basingstoke, not far from Steventon. It is not marked on my Cary’s map of Hampshire but I have estimated its position on the section, below so you can have some idea of just how close the Prince’s establishment was to Steventon (and therefore to the young Jane Austen)



Arrow One denotes the estimated position of Kempshott Park, Arrow Two show you the position of The Wheatsheaf and Arrow 3 shows the position of Steventon Rectory.

Here is a description of Kempshott taken from my copy of  The Beauties of England and Wales; or, Delineations Topographical , Historical and Descriptive, Volume VI by Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton

Between three and four miles south east from Basingstoke is the Manor and park of KEMPSHOT, the ancient seat of the Pink family, of whom Robert PInk, who attained celebrity for his acquaintance with philosophy and divinity, was born here in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He afterwards became Warden of New College Oxford, of which he had been admitted perpetual Fellow in 1596; and on his death in 1647 was buried there in the outer Chapel.The last of his family sold Kempshot about forty years ago and it has since passed through various hands to J. C. Cooke esq. The house is a large and handsome brick building.

The Prince Regent from "The Life of Princess Charlotte"

The Prince Regent from “The Life of Princess Charlotte”©Austenonly

There is a very succinct but interesting account of the Prince’s time in the Basingstoke area of Hampshire, and of the Kempshot Hunt,  in Sporting Reminiscences of Hampshire, from 1745 to 1862 by “Aesop” (1864):

In 1788 the Prince of Wales lived at Kempshot, which was before this occupied by Mr J. C. Crook, and while there had a pack of stag-hounds… Mr Terry says that the stables at Kempshot were full go high-priced horses, but the stables management was bad and they never appeared in condition…At this time William IV was a middy( midshipman-jfw) at Portsmouth and occasionally came up to Kempshot,but he could not ride at all to hounds.

During the French revolution in 1791, Kempshot was crammed with emigrants, and the hospitable welcome they received from the prince must have been some consolation to them. For their amusement a grand stag-hunt was got up, and as the royal stables could not mount them all, ten post-horses were sent for from Demery’s at Hartford Bridge. The foreigners grotesque appearance astounded the Hampshire men, as they were equipped with long horns over their shoulders in the regular French style. Prince William turned out on a pony and soon fathomed a deep ditch. A hind that was not expected to run straight was selected in order that the foreigners might have a better chance of nicking in. At least five hundred horsemen were present.The hind was uncharted at Kempshot Park and very soon after the foreigners  were seen sprawling all over the country and out of the whole number that started scarcely fifty got to the end…

At this time the prince was a very hard liver and suffered much from gout.  Nanny Stevens of Dummer, a stout strong woman was his nurse and even helped him in and out of his bath, while his lazy valet did nothing but brush his clothes and look on.

Mrs Fitzherbert from an illustration in La Belle Assemblee ©Austenonly

Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Prince of Wales Mistress and morganatic wife, from an illustration in” La Belle Assemblée” ©Austenonly

Mrs. Fitzherbert visited the prince at Kempshot and while she was there Mr. Ridge’s hounds with Joe Hall and Phil Gosling came over from Kilmiston. Lady Jersey, lady Cunningham and Mesdames Hodges and Sturt, in hunting costume, joined the field and Charles James Fox was at the breakfast, booted and spurred, but he was so gouty that he could neither walk nor ride. In February 1793 the Prince’s establishment underwent an alteration.They hunted stag no more but took to fox instead.The prince submitted the entire direction of the hounds to Mr Poyntz of Midgham who gave up his Hampshire country to his royal  highness.

The Princess of Wales from "The Life of Princess Charlotte"

The Princess of Wales from “The Life of Princess Charlotte”©Austenonly

George IV kept his honeymoon with Queen Caroline, April 1795, at Kempshot. In this month the prince was in treaty for Penton lodge, near Andover; but in October he went to the Grange and paid £5000 for the stock and fixtures.The beer alone was estimated at £500 so large a stock had Mr Drummond in his cellar. Lord Dorchester succeeded the prince at Kenpshot; and often no doubt amid the domestic troubles on his after days, did the prince look back on the privacy and tranquil enjoyments of the sojourn at the Grange…

The Mr Poyntz mentioned in the text was William Poyntz. The Mr. Terry mentioned in the text was Stephen Terry of Dummer, friend of the Austen family. James Austen, Jane Austen’s oldest brother was very keen on hunting, and often rode out with The Vyne Hunt founded by his friends and patrons The Chutes when he was rector of Sherbourne St John. But in 1789 he was appointed to the curacy of Overton, which as you can see from the map above, was the nearest small town to Steventon, and what is interesting to me is that while he lived there James “went out” with the Kempshot pack.  According to Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: A Family Record

Here he (James Austen-jfw) lived in the “very small vicarage house” and indulged in his love of hunting by going out with the Kempshot pack under the mastership of Mr. William Poyntz. At this date Kempshot Park was leased by the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and George IV) and Mr Poyntz’s diary shows several occasions when James went out in the field alongside the Prince and his courtiers.

Back to the inn. The Wheatsheaf was a very popular haunt of the hunting fraternity, and was the venue for many post-hunt dinners held by the Hampshire Hunt. Mr Vernon, the proprietor of the Inn, and someone with whom Jane Austen would, no doubt, have been familiar, kept a fine cellar of port wine at the inn, which was reserved  for the Hampshire Hunt’s use. Charles Powlett, who was the illegitimate son of the third Duke of Bolton, the Rector of Itchen Abbas attended  the Hampshire Hunt’s dinners at the Wheatsheaf. Known as the “poet of the Hampshire Hunt ” he immortalised the inn’s role in a song which he composed and which was sung at their monthly dinners:  here are the lyrics to the first verse and the last verse:

Draw near, ye frail mortals of every degree,
Who heartily sigh and complain,
We’ll find you a medicine, without any fee,
Shall quickly alleviate your pain.
Would you drive away care,
To the Wheatsheaf repair,
Where mirth and good humour embrace,
Our Hampshire Hunt join,
While young mirth and old wine,
Enliven the joys of the chase!
On tithes and obligations no longer intent,
The parson came hobbling along,
To forward the sport ever anxiously bent,
Though feeble and last in teh throng,
his weak muse and his horse,
Have alike run their course,
Long hacknay’d, exhausted, and lame,
Yet the veteran entreats,
In return for past feats,
Your favour he humbly may claim.
Then, to drive away care,
He’ll to Vernon’s repair,
Where wit and good humour embrace,
The Hampshire Hunt join,
With young mirth and old wine
Enliven the joys of the chase.
See:Sporting Reminiscences of Hampshire, from 1745 to 1862 by “Aesop” (1864)pages 6-7

The Kempshot Hunt also held many celebratory dinners at the Wheatsheaf: did James Austen attend any of these, do we suppose? The Kempshot hunt ceased to exist in 1793 due to the Prince’s debt crisis. Retrenching all round meant that the Prince left the area and gave up his interest in the hunt, which folded.  It is interesting to note that after 1795, when the Prince had ceased to visit the area for hunting that poor Mr Vernon, the proprietor of the Wheatsheaf was bankrupted:

Up to February 1784 it (the Hampshire Hunt-jfw)was called the Kilmiston Hunt and it will be seen in the “Hants Chronicle” of that year that , under that name, meetings were advertised tone held at the White Hart,Winchester; the Swan Inn, Alresford; and at Mr Vernon’s at the Wheatsheaf,Popham-lane; at this last place the club possessed a very fine cellar of port wine; the proprietor, however,became bankrupt, and it was seized by his creditors and sold…

See: page 6, Sporting Reminiscences of Hampshire, from 1745 to 1862 by “Aesop” (1864)

Did the extravagances of the Prince and his hunting fraternity play any part in  the financial demise of Mr Vernon? This needs more investigation but it might be linked. These goings on of the profligate and, in the eyes of Jane Austen, I am sure, immoral  Prince and his circle, must have caused a tremendous buzz of gossip and speculation in the Steventon neighbourhood.  Jane Austen’s brother James rode out with the Prince and his cronies, and no doubt talked about the goings on at the Steventon Rectory. Stephen Terry of Dummer was also involved. The Nanny Stevens who bathed the Prince under the eyes of his lazy valet may have been linked to the family of Stevens who lived in Steventon at the time and one of them was employed by the Austens as a cleaner at the Steventon Rectory:

John Steeven’s(sic) wife undertakes our Purification:She does not look as if anything she touched would ever be clean, but who knows?

(See: letter to Cassandra Austen dated 27th October 1798)

I have no doubt that the scandalous high life goings-on of the Kempshott circle were talked about with gusto in the Austen family home at Steventon. The fate of Mr .Vernon of the Wheatsheaf was also very probably a topic of debate. Is it too much to speculate that Jane Austen’s dislike for the Prince of Wales may have begun at this time?