Jane Austen in Southampton map
In March 1807 Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra and their mother - with their friend Martha Lloyd - moved to Southampton to share a house with brother Frank and his new bride Mary. Southampton was an old seaport with medieval streets tumbling down to the quay, just reinventing itself as a fashionable spa town. Now the town is more noted for shopping, but it is worth discovering the ancient city walls which Jane would have walked along.
The site of the Austen house by the city wall in Castle Square, and the plaque on the Juniper Berry pub.
After Jane’s father’s death in Bath, it fell to her brothers to financially support their mother and sisters.
This was an unsettling time. The Austen women moved into modest lodgings in Bath while the brothers offered various lump sums of money, but no permanent solution. Then after a year or so brother Frank announced he was to marry and suggested that his mother and sisters (and Martha) share a house with him and his bride in Southampton. The women agreed; it seemed a good project, as sea captain Frank would be close to the naval base in Portsmouth, while newly-wed Mary would have company while Frank was at sea.
The house they chose was in Castle Square. Jane wrote that she had heard that the garden, running up to the ancient city wall, was the best in town and she eagerly made plans for new planting.
Number 3 where the Austens lived has now gone, but the site is believed to be more or less the area now occupied by a pub called The Juniper Berry .
The city wall is still there, though the sea views the Austens enjoyed have been superseded by land reclamation and building.
There was much to do in the town, which attracted visitors to take therapeutic sea-water baths and drink mineral spring water. The Austens attended winter assemblies (dances) in the High Street Dolphin Hotel. This is still in business (now owned by Mercure) and accommodates functions such as weddings in its Jane Austen Suite on the first floor.
We know that Jane had visited friends in Southampton as a younger woman, and the
Dolphin claims to have hosted her 18th birthday celebration. Before that, as a young child, she was briefly at school in the town.
As well as dancing, other attractions for visitors and residents included boat trips, and one popular destination across the water was Netley Abbey, a picturesque ruin now owned by English Heritage (free admission). Many writers, poets and painters came here for inspiration.
Jane took her nephews Edward and George on such trips when they came to stay at the Southampton house in 1808 after their mother died. The boys were at school in Winchester, about seven miles away. It was the boys’ father, Jane’s brother Edward, who offered the Austen women their next home in Chawton, after Frank and Mary with their new baby had already moved to the Isle of Wight.
Jane did no writing during her two years in Southampton, but it is thought that perhaps her scenes of a similar seafaring city, Portsmouth, in Mansfield Park are drawn from here.
The Dolphin Hotel, where Jane danced, is in High Street, a few minutes’ walk from Castle Square.
Netley Abbey, which Jane visited by boat, can now be reached by bridge.