I have created this blog to share new research and supplemental information related to my book, Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce & Community, published by Woodpigeon Publishing. All text is © Linda Slothouber, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Linda Slothouber and chawtoncommerceandcommunity@blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Please feel free to contact me at lindaslothouber@gmail.com.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Travelers Through Chawton in Jane Austen's Time

This post focuses on information that was not central to the theme of my book but that I found intriguing nonetheless, drawn from some of the many original records I examined in the Knight Archive.

A village snow scene (detail),
Robert Hills, 1819
from Yale Center for British Art, Mellon Collection

When Jane Austen lived in Chawton, coaches on the London to Winchester route passed close by the cottage windows—one traveler wrote about glimpsing the Austen ladies “looking very comfortable at breakfast.”  Many people passed through Chawton—and not just those who could afford a seat in or on the coach.  We think of Chawton in the early 19th century as a tiny, fairly remote village, but in fact, the Chawton record books show that strangers passing through on foot were not uncommon.   They included soldiers and sailors, the poor, and “gipsies.”

Soldiers, Sailors, and Prisoners

Chawton’s location, on a main road north of Portsmouth, meant that men who had served in the army or navy often passed through on their way home.  They carried passes from their commanding officers that entitled them to aid from parishes through which they passed.  In 1806, for example, the Chawton overseers’ book records payments of 3 pence each to two sailors with such passes.  

French prisoners taken in the war were temporarily lodged in the town of Alton, and it’s likely they were marched from the coast up the Gosport Road and through Chawton to get there.  (The cemetery in the nearby town of Alresford, by the way, contains the graves of several French officers—some officers and their wives were granted parole and allowed to live in the town during the war.


There were always poor people on the move, some begging, some performing itinerant labor or looking for work, others just passing through.  English law established the principle of settlement:  every individual belonged somewhere, but a person without the means of sustaining himself who was away from the parish where he had legal settlement was liable to be removed.  Since parishes were obliged to care for their settled poor, they were vigilant about expelling any poor strangers before they could secure settlement (authorities were especially quick to move along pregnant women so that their infants would not have settlement).  To send the vagrants on their way, the parish magistrate would issue vagrant passes.  Some vagrants were accompanied, handed over from one parish’s constable to the next, but often they would simply be sent away alone, pass in hand.  

When a vagrant turned up in Chawton, he or she showed the pass to one of the parish’s two overseers of the poor, who were local farmers or tradesmen that served in that role on a rotating basis.  The overseer would examine the pass and give the traveler a small amount of money for a day’s sustenance, while, no doubt, sternly directing him or her to keep on walking.  The Chawton overseers book shows that such payments ranged from 2 to 4 pence, with the higher amount probably going to family groups.  

In some months, the overseers recorded no payments to vagrants, while in others quite a number of people passed through the village.  In September of 1813, for example, the overseers spent 7 shillings 1 pence (£0.7.1) on aid to those with passes, which means some 30 to 40 pass-holders walked through Chawton that month.  

The law dictated that vagrants who were too ill to travel had to be supported by the parish where they were until they were well enough to move on.  The parish overseers paid “John French for a woman ill” £0.1.6—French was an innkeeper, and presumably the sick woman lodged at his inn.  A notable traveler is the “sick American” who turned up in Chawton in February 1813 and received parish aid for seven weeks.   A local historian informed me that church records for the beginning of that year were not kept correctly, so it’s impossible to say whether the American recovered and moved on or rests in Chawton churchyard.

Not all vagrants had passes, and apparently the overseers often found it more expedient to simply give a poor person the means to continue his or her journey immediately rather than involve a magistrate.  While passes were recorded using that specific term, the Chawton book also includes overseers’ payments made to a “poor woman and two children” (£0.0.2); “a traveler” (£0.0.6); “a man on the Road” (£0.0.6); “2 Men & a Woman” (£0.1.4).  

Gypsies by the side of the road,
Thomas Gainsborough, 
via Wikimedia Commons

Gypsies (or gipsies, as Jane Austen spelled the word) were classed by the law among “rogues and vagabonds,” along with poachers, beggars pretending to be seamen or soldiers, and other disreputable types, liable to whipping and imprisonment.  Most gypsies had no legal settlement.  Some made a living through itinerant farm labor, while others were horse-traders, hawkers, tinplate workers, performers, or fortune-tellers.  

Austen readers will of course remember that, in the novel Emma, Harriet Smith is besieged by “gipsies” while on a walk.  In the records kept by Edward Knight’s steward, Charles Trimmer, there is a record of a payment he made on Knight’s behalf in 1813 to have “gipsies” removed from Chawton Park.  Interestingly, the earliest known reference to a gypsy camp in Hampshire was a 1638 entry in the Chawton parish records (according to this source).   Other sources attest to gypsies in and around the area in the early 19th century.  

Was Jane Austen’s inclusion of gypsies in Emma inspired by the encampment on her brother’s estate?  Possibly, though Chawton was certainly not the only place where she might have been aware of gypsies nearby, and gypsies were a familiar “exotic” presence in Gothic novels—in her juvenile story Evelyn, “gipsies and ghosts” are coupled as imagined sources of fear.  Nor should it be taken for granted that the Chawton gypsies were necessarily doing anything to threaten the local residents; Edward Knight’s woods were key to his income and he declared them off-limits to everyone, including gentlemen exercising their dogs or horses.  

Was Jane Austen curious about the travelers in her midst, or wary?  We don't know.  What is clear is that strangers of various types were part of the village landscape, sometimes helped, sometimes driven out by the settled residents.

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