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Monday, 8 May 2017

An Apology and A Grumble

Whenever anyone takes the time to comment on my blogs, I'm extremely grateful. So it's extremely annoying that whenever I try to make a reply, it disappears into the ether. I have tried fiddling with the Blogger settings but no joy. (Weirdly, my comments do appear to work intermittently on my Sue Wilkes history blog). I suspect it's something to do with the pop-up blocker but who knows? So I do apologise if I appear to be ignoring you - there's some kind of technical fault and I've no idea how to fix it.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Stand and Deliver!

Although England’s most infamous highwaymen, like Dick Turpin, ended their careers on the ‘fatal tree’ at Tyburn long before Jane Austen was born, their lurid exploits were still legendary.  Highwaymen were no longer numerous but were still a force to be reckoned with. Mail-coachmen were armed with blunderbusses, and gentlemen travellers carried pistols with them when crossing areas infested by these mounted robbers.

In 1793 a highwayman was on the prowl not far from Jane Austen’s Steventon home. That same year Mrs Bramston, a friend of the Austens, was very upset after being robbed and threatened by a footpad at gunpoint at Overton, not far from Steventon. Footpads were renowned for their viciousness because they sometimes killed their victims so they could not testify against them later.  A few years later the Revd. Charles Powlett, who was well known to the Austens, fell victim to a Surrey highwayman and lost a valuable watch and money.

Dr Syntax attacked by footpads. 

It was customary to hang up executed malefactors’ bodies in chains. These gruesome remnants of humanity were a familiar sight for travellers, and Jane Austen could hardly have avoided seeing them on her journeys.

For example, one frosty winter’s night in January 1796, teenage post-boy John Stanton was carrying the Warrington mail when he was stopped by two men on horseback near Helsby in Cheshire. The men tied him to a tree and said he was being watched: if he tried to escape they would slice off his arm.
Highwayman Higgins' house at Knutsford. Copyright Sue Wilkes.

Stanton eventually escaped, and highwaymen Thomas Brown (twenty-six) and James Price (nineteen) were caught.  A few weeks later they were ‘launched into eternity in the presence of an immense multitude’ at Chester (Chester Chronicle, 6 May 1796). Their corpses were hung in chains on Trafford Green, and their bones rattled in the wind for over twenty years.

But the age of the highwayman was waning. The last recorded attack by a robber on horseback in England was near Taunton (Somerset) in 1831.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review of Gone to the Continent: The British in Calais 1760–1860

‘Dessein’s’ hotel in Calais was immortalized by Laurence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey, first published in 1768. The hotel was run by Pierre Dessin and his family.  
In Gone to the Continent, Martin Brayne gives us a series of snapshots of British travellers’ experiences at this romantic destination.

Fans of Georgian and early Victorian social history will find much to enjoy in this engaging exploration of the L’Hotel d’Angleterre’s visitors. Calais was the start and end point for thousands of Brits journeying on the Continent, whether for business or pleasure.

Visitors included young barristers like Harry Peckham; the poet William Wordsworth, with his sister Dorothy and wife Mary; and novelist Fanny Burney (Mme D’Arblay).  Using original sources and contemporary letters and diaries, Brayne relates the perils of the Channel crossing; seasickness; the battles with petty officialdom; food and drink; and theatrical performances in the hotel. Famous debtors like Beau Brummel, Emma Hamilton and Charles James Apperley (Nimrod) also stayed in the hotel after fleeing their creditors in England.

I enjoyed the book immensely. I was particularly interested by the story of the Nottinghamshire lace-makers who settled in France and set up factories there, in an attempt to escape the post-Waterloo economic slump at home. (Nottingham was home to Luddite attacks on machinery during this period). Later, during the 1848 revolution in France, many of these English families returned home. However, there are still lace-makers in Calais today, some descended from these English migrants.

The book has several charming contemporary illustrations (some plates are in colour), and contains detailed references, a bibliography, and appendices.

As Brayne says, ‘The Calais of Sterne and Mrs Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson, Thackeray and Dickens has long since disappeared but thanks to what is written by and of them, they can still be seen dining at Dessein’s, sauntering about the Place d’Armes or strolling on the sands.
Old Calais lives on’.

Monday, 6 March 2017

No Dreaming Spires for Jane!

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine discusses the limited education available for girls and women in late Georgian times. Jane and her sister Cassandra could not go to university like their father George, and brothers James and Henry, who went to St John’s College, Oxford.
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. 

Girls’ education was designed to prepare them for the marriage ‘market’ and their future lives as wives and mothers. Authors like Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay argued passionately that girls should have as good an education as boys - but no higher education colleges were open to women until over three decades after Jane Austen's death.
Cartoon: ‘Farmer Giles & his wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their neighbours, on her return from school. Gillray, 1809. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZC2-3803.

Update 7 March: For some reason none of my replies to comments are showing online - so many thanks to Tony for all the informative comments!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey, 1833.
One of the odd things about Austen's novels, letters and diaries is that she seemingly never mentions Bath Abbey, even though she must have walked past it many times, and perhaps even attended divine service there.
Visitors today don't see the Abbey as Jane would have known it; the building was re-modelled by George Manners in the 1830s, and restored in the 1860s and 1870s by that serial 'improver' of ancient churches, George Gilbert Scott.
The Abbey, also known as the church of St Peter and St Paul, may have been founded as early as 675; there's a
timeline here on the Abbey website. 
The Abbey in the 1890s. 

During Jane Austen's day, services were held daily at 11am; the tower had a peal of ten bells. In 1785 (when Jane was ten years old), several Sunday Schools were set up in Bath; one was attached to the Abbey Church. Within a few years, over 500 children attended the schools (they had to be recommended by a subscriber to be able to attend).

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Jane Austen Festival, Louisville

This festival sounds like great fun! The largest Jane Austen event in North America will take place 14-16 July at Louisville, KY, to celebrate the novelist's enduring legacy. It's sponsored by the Jane Austen Society of North America, Greater Louisville Region.
Dr Cheryl will give a talk on 'The Eulogy Jane Austen Should Have Had', and there will be tours of a Georgian home.
Visitors can enjoy delights including a Regency fashion show, a Grand Ball, afternoon tea, an Emporium, duelling gentlemen, bare-knuckle sparring, bobbin lace-making, archery and a Punch & Judy show.
On the Friday, Lord Nelson and Napoleon will attend, along with an encampment of His Majesty's Royal Navy.
Full dress for February 1805.
For more information, contact Bonny Wise, festival chair at
You should attend in Regency dress - I look forward to seeing the photos for this amazing event!
If you can't make it to the festival, there's an updated list of Jane Austen bicentenary events in the UK here on the Jane Austen 200 website.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Ladies of Llangollen

The foaming River Dee at Llangollen. 
Many thanks to Austen Authors for hosting my guest post on the Ladies of Llangollen's Romantic friendship this week! You can read my blog post here, and there are lots more interesting goodies to explore here on Austen Authors!
There's some more photos of the Ladies' home, Plas Newydd, here on the Llangollen website.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Upcoming Highlights!

January fashions for 1805, Lady's Monthly Museum.
I hope you all had a lovely peaceful Christmas and New Year with family and friends. It's back to normal now after the break - I have got a lot of work to get through in the next few weeks, so my blog may be quiet for a little while. But watch out for my feature on Jane Austen coming soon in the Discover Your Ancestors bookazine, and we have got all the Jane Austen 200 celebrations this year to look forward to, in honour of the bicentenary of her death. Upcoming and ongoing events are listed here.