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Francis William Austen,
His Daughter, Mary Jane
Brother and Niece of Jane Austen
Although we don’t have any direct evidence to tell us that Jane Austen herself actually ever visited Deal, we do know that her brother Francis William Austen did. In fact he and his wife with their young family stayed here. Unfortunately, they were not here for pleasure but because of the war with France. Pleasurable pursuits did occur though.
While Jane Austen was visiting her friend Harriot Bridges, at Goodnestone Farm, Harriot received an invitation to a Ball at Deal. Jane writes to her sister Cassandra that she has offered to return home early so not to be in the way. She did not return early but she does not say in her letter a few days later if she went to the Ball or not.
Dansen by Alexander Lauréus, c 1814
Francis William Austen
Francis Wiliam Austen 1795- Public domain
Francis William, or Frank to family and friends, was like his brother Charles, in the Navy. Charles also visited Deal on several occasions while returning from or joining his ships waiting in the Downs. At the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1803, Frank was given the responsibility of raising a corps of Sea Fencibles to defend the coast from the South Foreland to Sandown. At the time his base was at Ramsgate, and it is here that he met and married a local girl, Mary Gibson. They were engaged at Covent Garden in February 1804 and married two years later. In May 1804 he was promoted flag captain to Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis aboard the HMS Leopard, serving in the North Sea. In March 1805 he joined the HMS Canopus again serving under Louis this time in the Mediterranean.
He took part in the Battle of San Domingo on 6 February 1806, and returned victorious to Portsmouth. In June 1806 he left the Canopus. Being without a ship he returned to Ramsgate and married Mary on 24 July at the church of St Lawrence, Ramsgate.
Frank is described as a small quietly spoken man with a dry sense of humour, who was self-confident, conscientious and strict, but fair. He was admonished though, in 1813 for the level of punishments handed out to the difficult crew of HMS Elephant. He apparently felt that the discipline was best served for the welfare of the men. Frank had deep religious beliefs and was known as ‘the kneeling officer’ and apparently was the only officer to kneel in church, his commands were known as the ‘praying ships.’
Frank and Mary’s first child, Mary Jane, was born in Southampton in April 1807. It was a difficult birth for Mary who took time to recover afterwards. The birth of a son, named after his father, in 1809, prompted Jane Austen to write a poem which she sent to Frank. It starts with a verse referring to the difficult birth of Mary Jane.
“My dearest Frank, I wish you Joy
Of Mary’s safety with a boy,
Whose birth has given little pain
Compared with that of Mary Jane….”
Frank remained ashore until March 1807 when he was appointed to HMS St Albans, joining her at Sheerness and going out to the Cape returning home in the New Year. Then in February he sailed to St. Helena on convoy duty protecting merchant shipping. From September, for about six months, he was in British waters where in January 1809 following the defeat at the Battle of Corunna he took the HMS St. Albans out to superintend the disembarkation of the British army, prior to transporting the troops back to Portsmouth.
Following a spell in Chinese waters he returned home to spend five months ashore with his wife and young family. He then joined the new HMS Caledonia in December 1810. From 9 July 1811 he commanded the veteran HMS Elephant in the North Sea, and in the Baltic. Engaged again in convoy duty he wrote home to his young daughter Mary Jane in Deal.
Letters to Mary Jane
The first letter was sent to Mary Jane Austen ‘Prospect Place, Deal. ’Unfortunately there is no clue as to where in Prospect Place she, with her mother and her younger brother, were actually staying. We do know that the family were often resided in Deal either with, or waiting for Frank. Jane Austen in a letter to Martha Lloyd dated Tuesday, 16 February 1813 said that “…I have a letter from Frank; they are all at Deal again, established once more in fresh lodgings. I think they must soon have lodged in every house in the town…”
Dated 17 November 1811 and onboard HMS Elephant Frank writes to “…My dear little girl…” though judging by the hand writing it was to be read to her by her mother. It is full of praise, and he hopes that she will become a fine reader.
He goes on to advise her on good behaviour, and the tone of the letter suggests that maybe her mother had commented to Frank about their daughters conduct as he says “… I have known some little girls, when they had no one to play with or talk to, becoming thereby uncomfortable and very disagreeable to everybody near them…” He goes on to tell her to be ‘kind’ and ‘obliging’ especially to her brothers.
The letter continues with reminders to ‘follow the book of Commandments’ and that he is pleased she has ‘said her Catechism’ and ends with him sending his love to young Frank and to tell him to be a ’good boy’ and, ‘when he is bigger he will write him a letter too’.
It ends very formally with,
“I am my dear child
Your Sincerely Affectionate Father
Francis W’m Austen”
The two brothers were Francis William and seven months old Henry who had been born in April that year at Portsea.
Deal in 1812
Frank wrote to his daughter once again from the Elephant in 1812. This letter was also addressed to Mary Jane at Prospect Place so it is quite possible that the family had continued to live in whatever lodgings they had in Prospect Place.
Dated 18 April 1812, he writes so that his daughter can read it herself. His wife had asked him to write to their daughter previously and now Mary Jane had asked him to write directly to her. It seems that he was again concerned with her behaving properly as he says he wants to “…impress on her mind …to do whatever your Mama or I may desire of you…” He is praising and encouraging of her education that her ‘Mama’ is giving her. He mentions her brother Henry’s birthday and if he can send word of his favourite pudding he will get his cook to cook it for himself.
He mentions that William has been very seasick. There is no mention though of who William was. He then tells the sad tale of a goat kid who seemingly had free roam of the deck area onboard ship and how he had jumped into the open oven to keep warm. Not realising this, the door was closed and the poor kid was burnt to death. He says “… poor thing he must have suffered much before he died…”
He ends the letter with a P.S. saying
“…give my love to your brothers…”
On 20 October 1812 a fourth child, George, was born. He was baptised at St. George’s Church Deal on 25 November. Whether Frank attended or not we don’t know. We do know that in December of that year he, on HMS Elephant, captured the United States privateer Swordfish.
Letters from Jane Austen
Colorized version of engraved depiction of Jane Austen
Jane Austen wrote to Frank in July 1813 saying that every copy of Sense and Sensibility had been sold. She also remarks upon “…P&P…” meaning Pride and Prejudice and that she has “..something in hand…” and “…shall you object to my mentioning the Elephant in it …” That something was Mansfield Park.
The family was still in Deal in September 1813 when Jane Austen again wrote to Frank saying that “…she will be sorry to be in Kent without seeing Mary. She has kindly invited me to Deal…”
Frank and Mary were to have seven more children Cassandra born in 1814, Herbert Grey in 1815, Elizabeth in 1817, Catherine Ann in 1818, Edward Thomas in 1820, Fanny Sophia in 1821 and Cholmley in 1823.
While Frank was away at sea the family often stayed at Chawton House, which was owned by Edward, Frank’s elder brother. Mary Jane was there In 1816 when Jane Austen wrote to her niece that Mary Jane was “…romping with your Brother in the Back Court…and I am to tell you she has passed her time at Chawton very pleasantly indeed…”.
It was at Chawton that several of Mary Jane’s siblings were born. The estate of Chawton was owned by Jane and Frank’s elder brother Edward Austen. They may have stayed with Jane Austen in Chawton Cottage, given to her by Edward, that was in the village and is now Jane Austen’s House Museum. They definitely visited though “Chawton House” as in 1819, while awaiting the birth of her brother Edward Thomas, born in January 1820, Mary Jane partook in a little bit of graffiti! She wrote “Mary Jane Austen 1819” on the painting by Mellichamp of Chawton House.
A View of Chawton, Mellichamp, oil on canvas, c. 1740. On loan from Richard Knight. Courtesy Chawton House.
Death of Mary
Cholmley, Frank and Mary’s last child, was born in Gosport on 8 July 1823. Mary wasn’t to survive this birth she sadly died soon after and was buried in Gosport on 19 July by her brother-in -law Henry Thomas Austen who was then a Curate in Farnham Surrey. Cholmley was to die the following year.
Mary Jane’s Marriage
Little more is known about Mary Jane. She married Lieutenant George Thomas Maitland Purvis of the Royal Navy, in St. Nicholas’s Church, Chawton on 7 June 1828. Her father gave her away and also signed the register as a witness. Keeping things in the family James Edward Austen Leigh performed the marriage service.
George had inherited Blackbrook Cottage near Fareham from his father and it is here that they set up home and where Mary Jane was to have her five children. Following the birth of her last child, in July 1835, she suffered from an unnamed illness. It is quite possible that she never fully recovered from the birth and Mary Jane died, aged just 29, on 29 December 1836. It is assumed that she was buried inside the church on 4 January 1837 in Ss Peter & Paul, Fareham. Her memorial plate says
In Memory of MARY JANE, wife of
George Thomas Maitland Purvis R.N.
of Blackbrook Cottage in this Parish.
She departed this life December 29th 1836.
Her patience and resignation during an
illness of fifteen months borne without a
murmur against the will of her God
proved the sincerity of her faith and
the value of those truly Christian
principles which had been implanted
in her mind by her excellent Father.
It seems Frank had instilled his strong religious faith in his daughter.
Frank and Martha Lloyd
On 23 July 1828 Frank married Martha Lloyd in St. Michael’s Winchester. Martha was a longtime friend of the Austen family and often corresponded with Jane Austen.
Frank was to rise steadily up through the naval ranks ending his career as Admiral of the Fleet. He died in 1865 at his home, Portsdown Lodge at Widley in Hampshire. Martha died in 1843, and Frank was buried beside her in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, Wymering, Portsmouth.