Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, in 1775. She moved to Bath with her family in 1801, but the sudden death of her father in 1805 left Jane, her sister, and her mother, in a precarious financial position. The three women arrived in Southampton in 1806 and they moved in with Jane’s brother, Frank. Jane would have known the town from previous visits. In 1783, she had been sent to Mrs Cowley’s school in Oxford along with her sister, Cassandra, but Mrs Cowley soon moved the school to Southampton and took the two sisters with her. Jane Austen returned to Southampton ten years later in 1793 when she danced at a ball – possibly at the Dolphin Hotel – and then, by the end of 1806, the once fashionable spa town on the South Coast of England had become her home.
During her Southampton years, Jane lived in a ‘commodious old-fashioned house in a corner of Castle Square’ with her mother, her sister, Cassandra, their brother, Frank, and his wife. Castle Square took its name from Southampton Castle, a royal residence and defensive fort which had been sold off by the Crown in 1618. In the early nineteenth century, the Marquess of Lansdowne used what was left of the ruins to build a Gothic mansion on the site of the castle which, for a time, dominated the town’s skyline. In Jane Austen’s day, the castle grounds were still bounded on the north by the castle’s extant thirteenth century bailey wall. These days, a tower block called Castle House marks the site of the former royal castle.
The Austens lived in the grounds of Lansdowne’s castle but the exact position of their house is not known. Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, described the house in his A Memoir of Jane Austen, which was published in 1869, some fifty-two years after the death of his aunt. Austen-Leigh, who would have been around eight years old in 1806, wrote:
‘My grandmother’s house had a pleasant garden, bounded on one side by the old city walls; the top of this wall was sufficiently wide to afford a pleasant walk, with an extensive view, easily accessible to ladies by steps. This must have been a part of the identical walls which witnessed the embarkation of Henry V. before the battle of Agincourt…’
From his description, we can safely assume that the Austen household must have been on the west side of Castle Square, with the top of the extant medieval wall running along one side of the garden. This wall once looked out across the water, and the house was probably near the present site of the Juniper Berry pub.
Next to the pub is the top of the medieval wall, along which Jane would have walked as she admired the pleasant view across the water. In Sir Henry Charles Englefield’s A Walk Through Southampton in 1841, he described this view:
‘The tide washes the whole of this wall… and the ground within is almost level with its top the whole way; so that it forms a most beautiful terrace to the gardens which belong to the houses in the High-street and Castle-square, and run quite to the wall, commanding an enchanting view of the bay, from the town to the village of Millbrook, and the river beyond it quite to Redbridge.’
Since the land was reclaimed in the twentieth century to create the Pirelli factory and then the Western Docks, the water no longer washes the base of the wall here, and the top of the wall no longer offers the enchanting view of the bay that Jane Austen would have known. However, you can still stand where she would have likely stood and imagine how it was.
Jane would have stood in her garden and looked across the vast West Bay to the New Forest, or across to Millbrook, or down towards the River Test. Today, you can just about get a glimpse of the river but all traces of the enchanting bay have been erased by the land reclamation projects.
In September 1807, Jane Austen visited Netley Abbey, which lay a few miles from Southampton. Her exact route to the ruined monastery is not known, but we may imagine that she left Castle Square and wandered down Castle Lane to the High Street. To her left, slightly up the street towards the ancient Bargate, would have been All Saints’ Church, which stood on the corner of East Street. Jane attended services at All Saints’ and knew the rector, Dr Richard Mant.
Sadly, All Saints’ Church was hit during the Southampton Blitz and later completely demolished. Today, a music shop occupies the site on the corner of East Street.
Jane went to Netley Abbey with her brother, Edward Austen Knight, plus his wife, Elizabeth, and three of their children. One of the children, Fanny Knight, was around fourteen years old in 1807 and Jane adored her. In a letter written in Castle Square in October 1808, Jane described Fanny as ‘almost another sister’. Fanny Knight noted in her own correspondence that in September 1807, they took a boat on their way to Netley. The family probably took a ferry across the River Itchen.
Some eight months earlier, in January 1807, Jane had written:
We did not take our walk on Friday, it was too dirty, nor have we yet done it; we may perhaps do something like it to-day, as after seeing Frank skate, which he hopes to do in the meadows by the beech, we are to treat ourselves with a passage over the ferry.’
This letter appears in The Letters of Jane Austen, which was published in 1884 by Jane’s great-nephew, Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1st Baron Babourne. Knatchbull-Hugessen was the son of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, who had accompanied Jane to Netley Abbey back in September 1807. It is worth noting that, in transcribing Jane’s letters, Knatchbull-Hugessen writes ‘beech’ instead of ‘beach’.
Jane had used the ferry in January 1807 so it’s likely that they used it again to reach Netley Abbey. To get to the ferry, they would had to have headed east, away from the town. Considering Jane had previously used the ferry, and considering that she had almost certainly written about the Beach before, it’s possible that they would have left town through God’s House Gate, at the south-eastern corner of the town’s walls.
God’s House Gate, built in the thirteenth century and enlarged in the fourteenth, allowed access in and out of the walled town, and led directly to Porter’s Meadow and the Beach.
Next to the gate is the fifteenth century God’s House Tower, which Jane may have admired as she passed.
Jane referenced ‘the meadows by the beech [beach]’ and this possibly referred to Porter’s Meadow (also known as Porter’s Mead), which is now Queen’s Park. Directly south of this was an area called ‘the Beach’, a stretch of shoreline that ran all the way from God’s House Tower to the River Itchen. Beyond Porter’s Meadow was a salt marsh, and beyond that was the river.
Jane and her family would have continued to head east, along the Beach and past Porter’s Meadow.
It was quite a walk from the house in Castle Square to the River Itchen.
We talk of a ferry across the Itchen, but this was not like a modern ferry. Across the river stood the appropriately named village of Itchen Ferry. This small settlement on the banks of the Itchen had a proud history of seafaring and its inhabitants operated small boats that carried passengers and goods from one shore to another.
Opposite Itchen Ferry, on the Southampton side of the river, is the Cross House, which was used as a shelter by people waiting to cross the Itchen. Nobody knows its exact age and it was already old by 1577, when it was noted that the structure needed maintenance. In 1620, it was reported at the Court Leet that ‘by this laste wynters stormes the Cross-howse is muche ympaired in the Bricke worke and Seates’ and there was a warning that if repair work was not carried out immediately, it could be ruined for good. It was repaired, and then repaired again in 1634. In 1846, the council voted to demolish the Cross House but one councillor, Richard Coles, promised to pay for the maintenance himself, thus saving the ancient structure. Its tiled roof was removed in the 1930s for some reason, but it was restored in the late 1980s.
Jane Austen probably saw the structure in 1807. Perhaps she sat here as she waited for one of the ferrymen to arrive to take the party across the river?
The inhabitants of Itchen Ferry had conveyed passengers across the river for centuries, but in 1836 the Floating Bridge was opened to the public just south of where the ferrymen operated. The Floating Bridge was then replaced by the Itchen Bridge in 1977.
After crossing the river, Jane would have found herself in the village of Itchen Ferry. Unfortunately, the village was almost entirely obliterated by enemy bombing during the war. Any remnants of the village became a part of Woolston, which had become part of Southampton in 1920.
It was a couple of miles from the village of Itchen Ferry to Netley Abbey. Netley Abbey was the brainchild of Peter des Roches, who had been Lord Counsellor under King Richard I, and then Bishop of Winchester under both King John and King Henry III. The abbey was founded in 1239, the year after des Roches’ death. Work on the abbey progressed as the century went on and Henry III became its patron in 1251. His name and title can still be seen engraved upon a foundation stone.
Henry VIII ordered Netley Abbey to be shut down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and he gave the building to one of his most prominent statesmen, William Paulet. Paulet transformed the abbey into a large Tudor mansion, but by the early eighteenth century its owner decided to demolish the house and sell off the building materials. During the course of the demolition, after much of the Tudor house had been removed, a worker was allegedly killed and this apparently halted the process. The site was then abandoned, leaving the former abbey as a ruin.
Surrounded by woods and covered in ivy, the ruins became a popular tourist attraction from the eighteenth century onwards. Poets, writers, and artists of the Romantic era flocked to the ruins, whilst others decided that the picturesque setting would be the perfect place for a picnic. It was the renowned beautiful nature of the ruined abbey that brought Jane Austen and her family to Netley in September 1807.
Jane’s niece, Fanny, wrote about the trip in her diary. The words appear in Jane Austen and Leisure by David Selwyn:
‘Wednesday 16th September. We all except Grandmama took a boat & went to Netley Abby [sic] the ruins of which look beautiful. We eat there of some biscuits we had taken, & returned quite delighted. Aunt Jane & I walked in the High Street till late.’
Fanny later wrote a letter, in which she added:
‘Papa, Mama, Aunts C. & J. Uncle H[enry] Wm. & myself went across to the other side of the Southampton water, to view the beautiful ruins of Netley Abbey, & never was there anything in the known world to be compared to that compound of every thing that is striking, ancient, & Majestic; we were struck dumb with admiration, & I wish I could write anything that would come near to the sublimity of it, but that is utterly impossible as nothing I could say would give you a distant idea of its extreme beauty, & therefore I can only hope, that some lucky star, may conduct you there, some time or other, in the mean time you must be contented with hearing that it stands on an eminence, in the most Romantic situation you could imagine, over grown with Ivy, & concealed from your view, by a high Wood, down to the waters edge, till you ascend a slight eminence, when it breaks upon you on the opposite bank, most lovelily. There are parts remaining entire, but very little, the rest form a beautiful ruin, from which we have a view of Southampton to the greatest advantage. We were all of course enchanted, & after staying there long as we possibly could, we descended to Netley Fort which stands [down] at the Waters edge & is likewise a bea[utiful] but smaller Ruin & was it is supposed [inten]ded as a guard to the Monastery [We then] returned to Southampton, highly delighted…’
There may be less ivy now, and a road may run close to the ruins, but to wander around Netley Abbey is to wander in the footsteps of Jane Austen and her family. If you visit the abbey today, you will look upon what they looked upon, venture through the same doors that they would have ventured through, and walk upon the same ground that they walked upon well over two-hundred years ago. When the road is quiet, and the only sound you can hear is birdsong, you could almost be back in 1807.
The fort that Fanny mentioned was built not to defend the abbey, but to defend Southampton Water. It had been constructed by Henry VIII in the 1540s, shortly after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, Netley Castle has been transformed from a ruin into luxury apartments. Netley Castle may not be open to the public, but Netley Abbey is, and people today continue to enjoy its surroundings, just as they have for centuries.
After viewing the ruins and eating their biscuits, the family returned to Southampton ‘quite delighted’. That evening, Jane Austen walked the High Street ’till late’ with her niece, Fanny.
A little over a year later, in October 1808, Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra, from her home in Castle Square. In September 1807, she had visited Netley Abbey with her brother, Edward Austen Knight and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth sadly died in 1808 and shortly afterwards, two of their children, George and Edward, came to visit Jane in Southampton. Jane wrote of their sadness and the tears over the loss of their mother, but said they were kept busy with games like bilbocatch (also known as cup-and-ball) and spillikins (also known as pick-up sticks). They made paper ships, teased each other with riddles, solved conundrums, played cards, went for walks, and spent time ‘watching the flow and ebb of the river’, perhaps from the top of the medieval wall. Jane also wrote:
‘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 moonshine, 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.’
Jane clearly enjoyed the River Itchen and its ferries, and she must have liked Netley Abbey too.
Jane Austen did not write any novels whilst residing in the town. The first drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had been written in the late 1790s, and the novels were not published until 1811 and 1813 respectively. In 1809, Jane moved from Southampton to Chawton, where she wrote Emma. Her health was failing by the end of 1816 and, in 1817, she was taken to Winchester for treatment. Jane Austen died in a house on Winchester’s College Street on 18 July 1817, and she was buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral.
She may have only lived in Southampton for a few years, but Jane’s letters illuminate the time she spent in Castle Square. The town she knew has changed a great deal in the years since she called it home. These Southampton years are sometimes overlooked, but this is unjustified. Her time in Southampton should not be forgotten and, if you know where to look, you can still walk in her footsteps.
Jane Austen and Leisure by David Selwyn
Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh
Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh
The Letters of Jane Austen by Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1st Baron Brabourne
Jane Austen and Her Times by Geraldine Edith Mitton
Jane Austen and her Country-house Comedy by W. H. Helm
A Vanished Castle (An Attempt to Reconstruct the Castle of Southampton from Observation, Analogy and Documentary Evidence) by Percy G. Stone for the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society
Picture of Southampton by Philip Brannon
A Walk Through Southampton by Sir Henry Englefield
Historic England entry for Netley Abbey (1001960)
Court Leet records, v. 1., pt. 1. A.D. 1550-1557. pt. 2. 1578-1602. pt. 3. 1603-1624
Featured image © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 3630