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(The College as seen from the Water Meadows, from Ackerman’s History of Winchester College 1815)

Jane Austen’s association with Winchester College, one of the oldest educational institutions in England, was through her nephews: Edward Austen Knight’s sons and  James Edward Austen Leigh, son of James Austen and Jane’s first true biographer, were all educated there. She was living in Southampton, with Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Martha Lloyd when young Edward Knight first began his studies at the college and they were pleased to be close to him (Winchester being just over 13 miles away):

(A section from John Cary’s Map of Hampshire (1805) showing the route from Southampton to Winchester, which can be enlarged if you click on it))

We shall rejoice in being so near Winchester when Edward belongs to it & can never have our spare bed filled more to our satisfaction than by him….

(See Letter to Cassandra Austen, dated February 8th 1807)

Their closeness geographically and emotionally was a boon when unexpectedly Elizabeth, Edward Knight’s wife, died a year later  in 1808. By this time young Edward  had been joined at the school by his younger brother George and on first receiving the news of their mother’s death they had been removed from the school to Steventon to be with James Austen and his family for a period of compassionate leave. Jane Austen appears to have found this decision very difficult and in  letters written to Cassandra, who was at Godmersham helping with Edward Knight senior’s grief-stricken family, she made her feelings known:

You will know that the poor boys are at Steventon, perhaps it is best for them ,as they will have more means of exercise and amusement there than they could have with us,but I am myself disappointed by the arrangement;-I should have loved to have them with me at such a time….

(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 13th October 1808)

Eventually, and for what reason it is uncertain, the boys were sent from Steventon to Southampton to Jane and Mrs Austen and she was able to look after them as she wished, and I want to quote extensively from the letter she wrote to Cassandra at this time as it is such an important one, demonstrating that she could indeed love children,despite the criticism often levelled at her that she often felt to a contrary feeling towards them:

Edward and George came to us soon after seven on Saturday, very well, but very cold, having by choice travelled on the outside, and with no great coat but what Mr. Wise, the coachman, good-naturedly spared them of his, as they sat by his side. They were so much chilled when they arrived, that I was afraid they must have taken cold; but it does not seem at all the case; I never saw them looking better.

They behave extremely well in every respect, showing quite as much feeling as one wishes to see, and on every occasion speaking of their father with the liveliest affection. His letter was read over by each of them yesterday, and with many tears; George sobbed aloud, Edward’s tears do not flow so easily; but as far as I can judge they are both very properly impressed by what has happened. Miss Lloyd, who is a more impartial judge than I can be, is exceedingly pleased with them. George is almost a new acquaintance to me, and I find him in a different way as engaging as Edward.  We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed; and we mean to avail ourselves of our kind papa’s consideration, by not returning to Winchester till quite the evening of Wednesday.  Mrs. J. A. had not time to get them more than one suit of clothes; their others are making here, and though I do not believe Southampton is famous for tailoring, I hope it will prove itself better than Basingstoke. Edward has an old black coat, which will save his having a second new one; but I find that black pantaloons are considered by them as necessary, and of course one would not have them made uncomfortable by the want of what is usual on such occasions…

I hope your sorrowing party were at church yesterday, and have no longer that to dread. Martha was kept at home by a cold, but I went with my two nephews, and I saw Edward was much affected by the sermon, which, indeed, I could have supposed purposely addressed to the afflicted, if the text had not naturally come in the course of Dr. Mant’s observations on the Litany: “All that are in danger, necessity, or tribulation,” was the subject of it. The weather did not allow us afterwards to get farther than the quay, where George was very happy as long as we could stay, flying about from one side to the other, and skipping on board a collier immediately. In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home, to which they were very attentive; but you will not expect to hear that they did not return to conundrums the moment it was over. Their aunt has written pleasantly of them, which was more than I hoped. While I write now, George is most industriously making and naming paper ships, at which he afterwards shoots with horse-chestnuts brought from Steventon on purpose; and Edward equally intent over the “Lake of Killarney,” twisting himself about in one of our great chairs.

The day began cheerfully, but it is not likely to continue what it should, for them or for us. We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley to-day; the tide is just right for our going immediately after noonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain; if we cannot get so far, however, we may perhaps go round from the ferry to the quay. I had not proposed doing more than cross the Itchen yesterday, but it proved so pleasant, and so much to the satisfaction of all, that when we reached the middle of the stream we agreed to be rowed up the river; both the boys rowed great part of the way, and their questions and remarks, as well as their enjoyment, were very amusing; George’s inquiries were endless, and his eagerness in everything reminds me often of his Uncle Henry. Our evening was equally agreeable in its way: I introduced speculation, and it was so much approved that we hardly knew how to leave off. Your idea of an early dinner to-morrow is exactly what we propose, for, after writing the first part of this letter, it came into my head that at this time of year we have not summer evenings. We shall watch the light to-day, that we may not give them a dark drive to-morrow.

They send their best love to papa and everybody, with George’s thanks for the letter brought by this post. Martha begs my brother may be assured of her interest in everything relating to him and his family, and of her sincerely partaking our pleasure in the receipt of every good account from Godmersham.

This letter, I think, shows Jane Austen at her best. Careful and solicitous of the boy’s feelings. Anxious to do what was right and correct for them but also keen to entertain them as best she could. She was a truly loving aunt.

Life continued, and the boys returned to Winchester where they were  joined by cousins from the Deeds and Bridges part of their family and eventually James Edward Austen Leigh(though he had not the “Leigh ” part of his name at that time.)The Austen ladies and Martha Lloyd moved to Chawton  in 1809 and from their vantage point at Chawton Cottage were able to watch the coaches take the boys to and from Winchester.

We saw a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys pass by yesterday morning-full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools and Vilains(sic)

(See Letter to James Edward Austen dated 15th July 1816)

Occasionally the Chawton ladies wer overrun by the boys on their way to school as this letter from Jane Austen to Martha Lloyd  ruefully records:

We are  going to be all alive from this forenoon to tomorrow afternoon: it will be all over when you recieve this & you may think me of as not sorry that it is so. George, Henry  and  William (Knight-JFW)will soon be here & are to stay the night-and tomorrow the two Deedes and Henry Bridges will be added to our party- we shall then have an early dinner and dispatch them all to Winchester…

(See Letter to Martha Lloyd, dated 16th February 1813)

(A section from John Cary’s Map of Hampshire (1805) showing the route from Chawton to Winchester)

The boys at while studying at Winchester would have worn this uniform, taken from Ackermann’s History of Winchester College (1815)

The history of the College is to be found in many different volumes but today we shall concentrate on one that was  contemporary with Jane Austen: A Short View of the History and Antiquities of Winchester etc by the Reverend Dr Milner (1812) extracted from his 4 volume work on the city, while the coloured illustrations below are all from Ackermann’s history of the college of 1815.

THIS (the College-JFW) was founded by that illustrious and beneficent prelate William of Wykeham at the close of the 14th century for

“A warden, 70 poor scholars to be instructed in grammatical training, 10 secular priests, perpetual fellows, three priests chaplins, three clerks and 6 choristers and a schoolmaster and undermaster for the instruction of the scholars”.

Possession was taken of it March 28th 1393 and it was calculated by its founder to be a nursery for New College Oxon which he had just before completed in order to furnish his clergy with the highest branches of ecclesiastical learning.


There is a lofty tower to the street in which stands a large statue of the patroness, The Blessed virgin Mary. The same figure, with those of the angel Gabriel and of the founder upon his knees is seen on both sides of the second or middle tower.


The first court is intersected by a modern-built house for the use of the warden. The second court is bounded to the south by a magnificent Gothic chapel, ornamented by a rich and curious tower. The inside of the chapel is not less striking than the outside of it , being remarkable for its bold and lofty vaulting, enriched with beautiful tracery, for  its large painted windows, for its beautiful and appropriate altar piece and for the ancient monuments and epitaphs of its warden and other members  which occur in what is called the ante –chapel. A great number of these, equally curious with the former, are to be seen in the Cloisters, which are spacious and elegant. In the area of the Cloisters stand the Library, which is a neat Gothic structure having been originally built for a chantry or chapel in which prayers used to be offered for the surrounding dead.

The school is a noble modern building, adorned on the outside with the statue of bishop Wykeham; and in the inside, with suitable inscriptions and emblems. Besides the arts of the College already mentioned, the Refectory or Eating–hall, likewise the Kitchen and an allegorical figure of a Trusty Servant near it are generally shewn to strangers. A the close of the scholastic year the students break up with the solemn performance of the well known ode or song “Dulce Domum”. Adjoining to the College is a spacious modern building for the residence of the gentlemen commoners who live their under the inspection of the head-master and frequent the public school.

Jane Austen could joke with James Edward Austen of his record  at school once he had left in 1816:

I give you Joy of having left Winchester. Now you may own how miserable you were there; now, it will gradually all come out-Your Crime and your Miseries-how often you went up by the Mail to London and threw away Fifty Guineas at a Tavern and how often you were on the point of hanging yourself-restrained only as some ill-natured aspersion upon old Winton(Winchester-JFW) has by the want of a Tree within some miles the City.

(See Letter to James Edward Austen dated 16th December 1816)

Jane Austen’s final connection with the college was that she died within sight of it. The house in College street where she lived during her last illness is next door to the Warden, or Headmaster’s House ,as you can see from the photograph below:

In her last letter to James Edward Austen dated 27th May 1817 ,written from that house,  Jane Austen gave a characteristically cheerful account of it and the view from it:

We have a neat little Drawing Room with a Bow Window over looking Dr Gabell’s garden.

Dr Gabell was the then headmaster of Winchester College (he was head from 1810 -1823). And this is a view of the Wardens (or Headmaster’s ) Garden again taken from Ackermann’s 1815 History of the college.

It is pleasant to think that  though she may not have had a view of the countryside in her last illness, Jane Austen could at least look out onto this garden, part of Winchester College.

Winchester College is open to the public, and I can highly recommend a tour to anyone visiting Winchester, due to the interesting Austen family connections. If you go here you can find all the necessary details.

Jane Austen, Cassandra and Mrs Austen lived with and Mary Austen, wife of Frank, in Southampton from 1806 to 1809.

The old port of Southampton had by this time long been in decline but when Jane Austen lived there Southampton had a short lived popularity as a fashionable place to live, take the waters and bathe in the Solent. From the mid 18th century, new houses were built, inns were modernised and communications with London improved and the fashionably rich built villas in the surrounding countryside. 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 system, in the 1840s that Southampton once again became a port and place of some import.

However, it was undoubtedly a pleasant place to be 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 coast, 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)

Jane Austen as we know from her letters was a keen play goer, and there was a theatre in Southampton which she could visit. However, the theatre in Southampton was a far cry from the theatres she knew in Bath and in London. It was a place where amateur and provincial theatre companies performed. I suppose we can assume that the performances Jane Austen saw there were probably not always first rate evenings.

The first theater built in  Southampton as not at all salubrious, despite this description of it, again from The Guide to all the Watering Places etc by John Fletham (1803):

THE Theatre, which was built by subscription in 1766, is commodious, and capable of admitting a large audience. It is under the management of Messrs. Collins and Davies, who exert themselves to give satisfaction, and have a full attendance during the season.
They usually open their campaign in the beginning of August, and perform every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, till the end of October, after which they take a regular circuit to Portsmouth, Chichester, and Winchester.

This theatre was however  thought to be in such a run down and dowdy condition that the Company-the fashionable people who visited Southampton to take the waters or to bathe, or lived in the fashionable villas, did not care to go there. So in 1803-4 a new theatre opened in French Street, almost exactly opposite the site of the old theatre:

The Theatric Tourist (1805) written by the actor/manager James Winston , gives this account of the history of the new theatre:

The elegant fashionables visiting Southampton refused to patronize the theatre on consequence of its ruinous condition and most deplorable entrance; therefore as the lease was nearly out on the 12th September 1803 they commenced campaigning in another built under the regulation of Mr Slater. Collins gave 450 guineas for St John’s Hospital and the ground on which it stood in French Street nearly opposite the former theatre: the charity being discontinued this old building furnished him with ample materials for this new one. He says his theatre cost him £3000 which with due deference we should suppose an error; if we  give credit for £2000 besides the purchase of the ground we think it not amiss.

He did not think much of the interior of the theatre, and as an actor/manager his opinion has some worth:

It has a bad gallery; the Pit is much too low; the Stage is short and the Boxes so near the Pit that the lower tier resemble the Orchester (sic) boxes of Drury lane the company appearing to sit below the level of the stage. The old theatre  had this fault also; but we acknowledge the Green Room to be good. The house holds upwards of £100; 4 shillings admission to the lower boxes, which have a good lobby; as have also the upper tier. Charges £23. The benefit of favourite performers generally amounts to £60 or £70 .

The illustration of the theatre which was included in The Theatric Tourist and was also drawn by James Winston has this  withering “explanation”:

The right hand entrance is to the Boxes to which there are two lobbies, lighted by the only two windows in the elevation; the door on the left is to the Pit,gallery and Stage; here the old saying is verified,”spoil the ship”etc.,- for the niche over each door,meant undoubtedly for Statues of Tragedy and Comedy; and the plinth at the top for the Royal Arms, both remain blanks.

As Southampton had minor fashionable status as a spa and sea-bathing resort- Charles Dibdin, the dramatist,

who was born in Southampton, related the popularity of Southampton to the increasing number of;

“genteel families who have made it their residence-

it is no surprise that stars from the London stage made occasional visits-for example Mrs Siddons visited in 1802


and Dorothea Jordan, one of Jane Austen’s favourites

appeared there in 1803.

We know that Jane Austen took the opportunity, while in Southampton, to visit the theatre. She took her niece Fanny Knight to the theatre in French Street on 14th September 1807, (Fanny recorded the event in her diary) and that  night  they saw the famous comedy actor, John Bannister

in “The Way to Keep Him” .

Interestingly The Way to Keep Him by Arthur Murphy includes the following lines, spoken by Sir Brilliant Fashion:

Never be so abrupt. Who knows but Lady Constant may be the happy wife, the Cara Sposa of the piece ! and then, you in love with her, and she laughing at you for it, will give a zest to the humour, which every body will relish in the most exquisite degree.

(Act II)

Paula Byrne in her book Jane Austen and the Theatre posits the theory that Jane Austen, after hearing the phrase Cara Spousa delivered with relish at Southampton, then took this ‘fashionable Italisniam” and ran with it in Emma:

For Emma there is  no clearer mark of  Mrs Elton’s vulgarity  than her references to her husband as “Mr E “ and “my caro sposo”…Scholars have debated  the source of Austen’s use of the phrase, but no one has noticed its presence in Murphy’s comedy, where spoken by the coxcomb Sir Brilliant Fashion, it surely got a laugh in the theatre.

Amateur dramatic performances took place in the theatre as well as professional ones.

In 1807 Hume’s tragedy Douglas– was performed at the French Street theatre by the local grammar school boys for the benefit of British prisoners of war in France.

This may explain why Jane Austen put these words into Tom Bertram’s mouth in Mansfield Park , when he was reminiscing about reading aloud at home as a young lad;

“And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays

Mansfield Park , Chapter 13.

Jane Austen certainly had the opportunity of seeing this play at the theatre, and I would not be surprised if she had seen these productions at Southampton and they had made a mark.

I do love these speculations, don’t you?

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