Meryton, or should that be…Hertford? Does he hold the key to the identification of Jane Austen’s inspiration for Meryton, the bustling town near to Longbourn,Netherfield and Luacs Lodge.? I think perhaps he does….let me explain.
Last time we looked at the possibility of Hertford, Ware, Hemel Hempstead, Watford or even Harpenden being Jane Austen’s inspiration for Meryton. Bearing in mind that Sir William Lucas was Mayor of Meryton,I think the stronger candidate truly is Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire.
We have already seen that Jane Austen may have been influenced when composing First Impressions by reports from her brother, Henry or her father’s cousin, the Reverend Thomas Bahthurst of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, of the Derbyshire Militia’s billeting at Hertford and Ware during the winter of 1794-5. John Breihan and Clive Caplan in their article in Volume 14 of JASNA’s Persuasions had this to say in favour of Meryton being based on the real town of Hertford:
The Derbyshire’s Headquarters was in the county town, Hertford and all nine companies of men were scattered in billets around the neighbouring towns and villages…Applying this to the novel, Meryton the regimental headquarter was likely to have been Hertford. The town of _____ where Kitty and Lydia amused themselves by watching a sentinel was likely to have been Ware. The high street of Ware was lined with coaching inns and one of these was the George dating from 1570.
These identifications fit other facts. Longborn, one mile from Meryton was said to be 24 miles form London as are both Hertford and Ware. In their elopement Lydia and Wickham were presumed to have fled up the Great North Road which runs parallel to the Old North Road ten miles to the West through Barnet and Hatfield. It was there that Colonel Forster enquired about them in the inns….Hatfield on the Great North Road is just eight miles west of Hartford/Meryton verifying Jane Bennet.
Here is a section from Cary’s map of Hertfordshire showing the relative positions of 1, Hatfield; 2, Hertford; 3, The Old North Road and 4, Ware.
Lets consider this shall we? We know from the text of Pride and Prejudice, it was at the George Inn in the town of _____ that Kitty and Lydia “entertained” Jane and Lizzy to lunch on their way home from the Gardiners in Gracechurch Street:
Oh! Mary,” said she, “I wish you had gone with us, for we had such fun! As we went along, Kitty and me drew up all the blinds, and pretended there was nobody in the coach; and I should have gone so all the way, if Kitty had not been sick; and when we got to the George, I do think we behaved very handsomely, for we treated the other three with the nicest cold luncheon in the world, and if you would have gone we would have treated you too. And then, when we came away, it was such fun! I thought we never should have got into the coach. I was ready to die of laughter. And then we were so merry all the way home! we talked and laughed so loud, that anybody might have heard us ten miles off”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39
Is this a mere coincidence? Probably not. Ware was very famous for its coaching inns, of which the George was only one. It was found in the building which is now 27-29 High Street and it was built in 1570 . Ware had a vast number of coaching inns because Ware was situated directly on the Old North Road, a road which followed the route of the Roman Ermine Street, which ran parallel to the Great North Road. You can see its route, on the right,(London via Edmonton and Waltham Cross to Ware) in this in this map, below, of the Old and Great North Roads from the book, The Great North Road:A Guide for the Curious Traveller, by Frank Goddard:
Many coaches passed through the town therefore, travelling to and from London and the number of inns was commensurate with the economic activity this traffic afforded the town.Travelling from the City of London, where Gracechurch Street was and is to be found, it would have been logical for the Bennet sisters to have followed the route, not of the Great North Road but the route of the Old North Road, which began in Bishopsgate (in the City). As you can see from the above map, this route went through Ware, which therefore reinforces the theory that Ware may have been the inspiration for the town of ____.
In addition they noted this interesting snippet:
There are several country houses in the vicinity of Hertford/Meryton which might represent Longbourn, Lucas Lodge and Netherfield but exact identification seems unlikely.There is though an actual Netherfield estate five miles west of Hertford that might have suggested the name…
Fascinating. But crucially, to my mind they also state that:
Hertford /Meryton as the county town was a suitably prominent borough for its mayor,William Lucas, to be granted the honour of Knighthood for a timely loyal address to the Throne…
This is, I think, the most decisive clue to Hertford being the rightful claimant to being the inspiration for Meryton. It was the shire’s country town and it was therefore of some importance. Important enough to have possessed a mayor, which Ware -a smaller town without a chater-did not. Here is a description of Hertford, which include its civic structure, from my copy of Crosby’s Complete Pocket Gazetteer of England and Wales (1807):
The Anglo Saxon kings often kept their court here, and, upon the first division of the kingdom into counties Hertford was made the county town…The town is governed by a mayor, a high steward, a recorder and 9 aldermen, 10 capital burgesses and 10 assistants.The number of voters here is 570 and the returning officer is the mayor…Hertford is a respectable and improving town; it has a court of sessions and at town hall all which have been rebuilt some years ago and are handsome brick edifices..the town also has a grammar school..Hertford formerly had five churches but only two are now standing…Market Day is Saturday and Fairs are held on the second Saturday before Easter Sunday, Old MayDay, Old Midsummer Day and November 8th: all for horses, cows, sheep, dogs etc.
We see a Mayor in England and Wales these days as having a primarily ceremonial role, and not having any important administrative duties.( Do note I’m not talking about elected Mayors such as the Mayor of London: these mayors have very wide-ranging powers!) We generally regard the role of mayor as an honour which would be conferred on its recipient for some local distinction, long service on the Council, or for past services. The mayors we know now ( and now they can be either male or female!) usually devote much of their time to civic, ceremonial, and representational functions. In the early 19th century the situation was very different: the mayor then( and it was solely a role for men, note) was a very important person in the locality and I fear that we may be blinded to this by both Sir William’s buffoonish nature and our lack of knowledge.
Let us therefore consider the role of mayor then, why it was important and why it distinguished towns that had one from those that did not.
Traditionally boroughs and cities in England and Wales have had the right to elect a mayor, not villages or hamlets. In cases where a town or a city was a civil parish, the mayor was elected from their number by the parish council.
However, as in much English history /law, it is difficult to be exactly precise. No two boroughs, towns or cities have the same history, or indeed charter, and it was not until Parliament first defined the term “Municipal Corporation” in the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 that any clear definition of attributes necessary to become a “Borough” were laid down. And though the head of the corporation or council, was often called “The Mayor”, this was not always the case. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their classic history of local government, English Local Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act, note the following titles for the heads of corporations in England and Wales, in addition to mayors. At Kidderminster they had a High Bailiff; a Portreeve at Beccles and Yeovil; a Warden at Godlaming and Sutton Coldfield .
In his fascinating book The English and Welsh Boroughs, W.B. Faraday states that the first “Mayor Town” in England was Thetford in Norfolk, which established its Mayoralty in 1199 (although the City of London Mayoralty dates from 1192). This was followed by Winchester, Wallingford, Gloucester and Exeter, and, later in the thirteenth century, a number of other Boroughs were granted the same privilege by Royal Charter. During the same period other towns gave various titles, as mentioned above, to what was virtually the same office.
So…in Jane Austen’s time would a Mayor have been an important person? The answer is very positively, yes.He had many more powers than the mere ceremonial. Let’s list them. First and very importantly, from the Middle Ages, upon his election, the Mayor began to become appointed, as a matter of course, to the local bench of magistrates , and, indeed due to his position as “First Citizen” of a particular town, if you like, he was always given, additionally, the position as the Chief Magistrate. As a “Custodian of the Peace” – the name for early Magistrates- he would therefore normally preside as Chief Magistrate in the Borough’s civil and criminal courts, deciding the outcome of both criminal and civil cases. This practise of appointing mayors as Chief Magistrate for their area continued uninterrupted until 1949 in England and Wales, when it was stopped by the introduction of the Justices of the Peace Act (1949).
In addition to being the Chief Magistrate and presiding at Quarter Sessions as well as Petty session, the mayor’s powers included being Chairman of the Council or other governing body of the town (e.g. the Aldermen, Capital Burgesses, Masters, Approved Men, Portmen or Brethren); President of the Civil and Manorial Courts of the Borough, sometimes sitting with the Recorder or the Town Clerk, and sometimes alone; Borough Coroner; Clerk of the Borough Market(s);Keeper of the Borough Goal;Being responsible for the appointment of most Borough Officers including, in some towns, the Town Clerk and the Chamberlain; responsible for the appointment of Freemen of the Borough ( often for a fee!) and Admiral of the Port( a title retained even today in some sea coast towns such as Southampton, Poole and Kingston-upon-Hull)
it is interesting to note that the Council in most Boroughs recruited themselves by co-option( not by election!) and that a Mayor, once chosen, was customarily re-appointed for several years: the extent of the powers and influence wielded by the Mayor therefore may be readily appreciated, and accordingly we have to now realise that Sir William Lucas actually was an important man in Meryton.
And that I think is the crucial deciding factor. If Hertford was important enough a place to warrant a Mayor, it beats all other claimants to be the inspiration for Meryton.