Friday 4 January 2013

Photo Essay: Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton

Jane Austen
In August 2009, my good friend Tony Grant and I visited Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, in the north-east of Hampshire, England.  The photographs featured here were taken during that visit (10 August 2009).

Austen – like Tony and me – grew up in Hampshire, England. In fact, apart from brief periods in Oxford and Reading, when she was attending boarding school, and a five-year interlude in Bath (1800-1806), Austen spent most of her life in Hampshire.

She was born at the Rectory in Steventon, on 16 December 1775, to Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Austen (nee Leigh). She and her older sister Cassandra moved with their boarding school from Oxford to Southampton in 1783, where both girls contracted typhus, and Jane nearly died. After 33 years at the Steventon Rectory, the family moved to Bath in 1801, following George Austen’s retirement. With their father’s death there in 1805, his widow and two daughters moved into rented accommodation. Four of Jane’s brothers promised to support their mother and two sisters by providing annual contributions to their upkeep. And then, in early 1806, the women moved in with Jane`s brother Frank and his new wife at their home in Castle Square, Southampton.

Austen spent most of her life in Hampshire: Steventon, Southampton, Chawton and Winchester

When he was twelve years old, in 1780, Jane’s brother Edward had been presented to Thomas and Catherine Knight, wealthy relatives of his father George Austen. The Knights were a childless couple and they took a special interest in Edward, adopting him as their son in 1783. He became their legal heir. When Thomas Knight died in 1794 he willed their Godmersham estate to his wife Catherine; the rest of his property and estates were willed to Edward. Near the end of her life, Catherine moved to Canterbury and transferred legal ownership of Godmersham to Edward. So Edward Knight had now inherited three estates – Godmersham, Steventon and Chawton. Jane Austen later used the libraries at all three estates quite extensively.

Front of Chawton Cottage - the site of jane Austen's House Museum

In October 1808, when the bailiff at his Chawton estate died, Edward Austen Knight offered the bailiff’s cottage rent-free as a permanent residence to his mother and sisters. The large cottage was located in Chawton village. Like much of the property in the village, it was part of Edward’s estate, centred at the nearby Chawton Manor. The Austen women accepted the offer, and they moved into Chawton Cottage on 7 July 1809 – along with long-time family friend Martha Lloyd. Edward spent £80 making it more comfortable.

Looking across the courtyard at the back of Chawton Cottage

Chawton Cottage was actually a substantial brick house – built ca. 1712. It became an inn around 1770 – called “New Inn”. The inn survived for about 20 years; but by 1791 the building was back in private ownership. The house is now called officially Jane Austen’s House Museum, but it is known colloquially as Chawton Cottage.

Through the window of an outbuilding - looking at the back of Chawton Cottage

Jane Austen lived in the cottage for the final eight years of her life (July 1809 – May 1817). She moved to Winchester in May 1817, in order to be closer to her physician. She died there only two months later on 18 July 1817, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Jane’s mother remained in the Chawton Cottage until her death in 1827; and Cassandra did the same – she died in 1845. Martha Lloyd had left the house in 1828, after she had married Francis Austen.

Entrance into the museum from the side of the building

After Cassandra Austen’s death (Jane’s sister), the cottage was divided into three dwellings for farm-workers’ families in the area. It remained as such until 1947, when it was purchased from descendants of the Knight family by T. Edward Carpenter for £3,000. He had visions of setting up some sort of museum to Jane Austen, in memory of his son, who was killed in the war. Carpenter set up a public appeal and gained the assistance of the Jane Austen Society. With that help he was able to repair the cottage, have it fully endowed, and eventually opened as a museum administered by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust.

Chawton is nearby Alton in north-east Hampshire
Jane Austen’s House Museum is located in the village of Chawton, just off the A31, between Winchester and Aldershot – a mile, or two, from the town of Alton. It is visited by about 30,000 people each year. To get to it from London, you could take a train from Waterloo to Alton (hourly), and get to the cottage by bus or taxi. You could also get to it by bus from Winchester. By road, the main access routes are the M3, A31 and A32. Opening times vary according to the season. Telephone is 01420 83262. Their web page:

Jane Austen seemed to know that this new home would be congenial to her writing; once they were settled into their new home, she immediately began preparing Sense and Sensibility for publication. She actually arrived at Chawton with three novels in draft-form: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. These first three were probably revised considerably before publication. And during her time in Chawton Cottage she wrote three more: Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.

The cottage seen from the back garden
The Austen women were very happy in their new home. It was a quiet life full of domestic pleasures. They didn`t socialise much with the local gentry, but regularly entertained visiting family and friends. During her early, enthusiastic days in the new place, Jane wrote some doggerel verse to her brother Frank, in a letter designed primarily to congratulate him on the birth of his second child. Of their new situation she wrote:

Our Chawton home, how much we find
Already in it to our mind
And how convinced, that when complete
It will all other houses beat
That ever have been made or mended
With rooms concise and rooms distended

Austen wrote nearly every day, and seems to have been relieved of much of her portion of the household duties, in order to concentrate on her fiction. One of Jane`s daily obligations, however, was the preparation of breakfast: she didn`t work from the kitchen, she boiled water for the kettle in the dining room, in order to make the tea, and toasted bread at the fire. There was a small stash of sugar, tea and china kept in a cupboard in the alcove. The original fire grate and hob is still in this room.

The small table Jane Austen often sat at when she was writing

When breakfast was over, Jane would often take up her writing. In the same room there was a small round table. She would balance a small writing desk on top and set to work. If she was interrupted by callers, she would hide the manuscript she was working on under a large sheet of blotting paper. Characteristically, she also asked that a squeaky door leading into that room not be oiled – she liked the fact that it warned her of anybody’s approach. That was how privately she dealt with her novel-writing! The dining room was a favourite of Mrs. Austen. She liked to stare out of the new, Gothic-styled window her son Edward had installed, in order to watch the horse-drawn vehicles go by.

The window Mrs. Austen gazed out of to watch the passing horse-drawn traffic

The original window looking out from the sitting room had only been a few yards from the public road running through Chawton village. Edward had it filled in. 

The Hepplewhite bureau from Steventon Rectory

A bookcase was placed in front of where the window had been. The museum now has a Hepplewhite bureau-bookcase containing several rare editions of her works – there is, for example, a first edition of Pride and Prejudice that was once owned by Lady Caroline Lamb, a lover of Lord Byron. The bookcase, and several chairs, were originally in the Austens’ former home in the Stevenage Rectory. 

A Clementini fortepiano (ca. 1810) similar to the one Jane bought for the cottage

Also downstairs is a Clementini fortepiano (ca. 1810) – the same sort of piano that Jane bought for the house and enjoyed playing. The museum has eight music books in Jane`s own hand.

The bed in Jane Austen's bedroom

There are many interesting rooms on show at Jane Austen`s House Museum. Downstairs, apart from the dining room just mentioned, there were the drawing room and parlour. Upstairs there are six bedrooms, some of which have been remodelled to exhibit special parts of the museum`s collection. There is Jane`s bedroom – showing a bed of the Regency period (covered by the patchwork quilt made by Jane and her mother and sister). Despite the number of bedrooms in the house, Jane still shared the same bedroom with her sister.

My friend Tony Grant upstairs

One of the other bedrooms shows memorabilia of her two brothers – they had been active in the Royal Navy. Another room houses a display of period costumes from 1809-1845. Also displayed around the house are family items and furniture. Many original and facsimile letters and documents are displayed either on the walls, or in cases; and illustrations from Austen’s novels are also found displayed on the walls. There is Edward Knight’s Wedgwood dinner service from Godmersham  displayed on the dining room table. And there are also some of Jane’s personal things: a lock of her hair, some items of her jewelry, and examples of her needlework.

The bake house - one of the outbuildings used by the servants

Behind the main building, across the courtyard, there are several outbuildings. It was out here that the washing, brewing and baking were done. There is the original bake house. On one side of it is displayed Jane Austen’s donkey carriage. Jane and Cassandra used to go for a walk every day – often going into nearby Alton, only a mile away, in order to do some shopping. Their brother Henry was part-owner of a London bank. There was a branch of the bank in Alton, and the Austen family used it as a location where post could be delivered and collected. When Jane had been weakened by her final illness, she was too weak to walk – so a tiny carriage was rigged up for her, and pulled by a donkey.

Jane's donkey carriage - used when she was too weak to walk long distances

Chawton Cottage had a large garden – it’s still there – running along one side of the house and back behind the outbuildings. It features a substantial lawn, lots of flower-beds, plenty of trees and bushes to provide privacy, and a kitchen-garden to provide fruits and vegetables. The garden still contains many of the flowers and shrubs that Austen refers to in her letters: sweet williams, columbines, laburnum, lilac, etc.

The garden at Chawton Cottage

It was all rather idyllic. The women enjoyed a modest lifestyle – enjoying mostly a quiet, domestic life. Ideal, really, for Jane to focus on her novel-writing. Jane Austen’s niece Anna had this to say about the lifestyle she observed in Chawton Cottage:

“It was a very quiet life, according to our ideas, but they were great readers, and besides the housekeeping, our aunts occupied themselves in working with the poor and in teaching some girl or boy to read or write.”

Looking down an upstairs hallway

As Maggie Lane observes, what a pity it was that Austen would only get eight years in this wonderful home. Nonetheless, it was a time of great fulfillment for Jane, and – here at Chawton Cottage – she was able to revise, edit, write, and see through to publication the six novels upon which her literary legacy is built. 

As I mentioned earlier, during an earlier time than that of the Austens, Chawton Cottage had been an inn. After a long and careful look around Jane Austen’s House Museum, you might be in the mood for a drink to slake your thirst. Or a pub lunch – how about a pint of bitter and a ploughman’s lunch with a huge slab of stilton cheese? That’s what I enjoyed after my visit – right across the road from the museum, in a Fuller's pub called The Greyfriar.

After a long visit to Chawton Cottage, time for a visit across the road

Photographs © Clive W. Baugh
(using a Nikon D7000 with a Nikkor 18-105 mm zoom lens)

Main resources used:  Jane Austen's World (1996) by Maggie Lane, and Jane Austen's House Museum brochure and website.


  1. An enchanting account beautifully illustrated with phoros. Excellent.

  2. Hello! I'm Christine from the Netherlands. I want to thank you for updating this article about Jane Austen's House Museum! Next week I have to give a presentation for English about Jane Austen and her book Persuasion. This article was really helpful!

    1. Thank you for your response. I hope your presentation goes well!

  3. Awesome collection.. Some really inspiring, colourful designs!!

  4. Dear Mr. Baugh,
    my compliments for this perfectly designed article about Jane Austen!
    We are currently discussing her novel Pride and Prejudice in school and over spring break each one of the students has to deal with one topic concerning the book. I got to write about Jane Austen herself and I am nearly done with her biography so far, but there is one thing that I am confused about since I read your article: You wrote about Stevenage at the beginning, as the place where she lived as a child until they moved to Bath, but I even looked it up and I was pretty sure it was Steventon she lived at? So maybe you could tell me, if this was just a little mistake by yours or whether I skipped some important information while reading.
    Thank you so far,

    Have a good day! Lisa

    1. Lisa: Thank you for your response. Thank you even more for pointing out that bad mistake I made, by confusing Steventon with Stevenage. I proofread my articles over and over, yet I still missed that.

      Stevenage is in Hertfordshire, not Hampshire. I think the reason for this mistake is that the English football team I support (Southampton - which is also in Hampshire) spent a little time recently in League One (they're now back in the Premier League, where they belong!), and Stevenage is a football club in that league.

      Anyway, I have fixed the mistake. Thanks again!

  5. The Jane Austen House Museum is set up as a fraud to deceive the public into believing that Jane Austen wrote the novels that bear her name. As Nicholas Ennos shows in his recently published book "Jane Austen - a New Revelation" the novels were in fact written by her cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Eliza could not publish them under her own name as she was the secret illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India. The novels were not published from this house, as is falsely claimed on a plaque on the house, but from the home of Eliza de Feuillide in London. There is no evidence that the poorly educated Jane Austen wrote the novels. All of the manuscripts were destroyed and most of Jane Austen's letters and all of Eliza's letters were destroyed by the Austen family to conceal her authorship. What is told to you at the museum is little more than a fairy tale.