Tonbridge History

Jane Austen's Tonbridge relations

Jane Austen

Jane Austen, from the watercolour by her sister. Twenty-two of their relations had Tonbridge associations.

The Austens were a Wealden family, involved in the cloth trade. By the reign of James I they were established at Horsmonden where John Austen held the estate of Broadford. His great-grandson, another John, married a Tonbridge woman, Elizabeth Weller, in 1693. John and Elizabeth were great-grandparents of the novelist Jane, and her grandfather William and father George were also among the twenty-two members of the extended Austen clan who spent at least part of their lives in Tonbridge.

Despite the many family links with Tonbridge, there is no firm evidence that Jane Austen herself ever came here, though it is quite possible – even likely – that she would have done so.


Elizabeth Weller

Elizabeth Weller was Jane Austen’s great-grandmother. She came from a Tonbridge family whose origins go back to the Civil War. As a child she lived at Chauntlers, a substantial house in Bordyke now divided and renamed as The Priory and The Red House. Elizabeth married John Austen in 1693 and bore seven children before he died unexpectedly eleven years later, leaving her with considerable debts. As a widow and single parent with little financial support she showed resourcefulness and strength of character in raising her large family. To achieve this she took employment as housekeeper to the bachelor headmaster of Sevenoaks School, thereby enabling her sons to be educated there free of charge. (There was no vacancy for a housekeeper at Tonbridge School as the headmaster there was married.) Elizabeth Weller died in 1721 and is buried at Tonbridge parish church, though no memorial can now be found. She is commemorated by a plaque at Sevenoaks School.

Thomas and William Austen

Two of Elizabeth Weller’s sons came to live in Tonbridge. Thomas, the third son, became an apothecary, and lived with his wife and son in a house of mediaeval origin in the upper High Street, now restored as Blair House, No. 186.

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The memorial to William Austen in Tonbridge Parish Church.

His younger brother William became a surgeon and lived at what is now No. 174 High Street. Part of the older dwelling on this site was discernible inside the later furniture store there until it was destroyed by fire in 1997. Like their mother, Thomas and William are buried at the Parish Church. There is a memorial to William and his family on the floor of the north aisle (not normally visible), but no memorial to Thomas can now be found. William Austen was Jane Austen’s grandfather.

George Austen – Jane’s father

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The Upper School at Tonbridge School, where George Austen taught. (THS12.103)

George Austen was William Austen’s only son. Born in Tonbridge in 1731, he was orphaned at the age of six. He was educated at Tonbridge School at the expense of his great-uncle Francis of Sevenoaks. After going to Oxford George returned to Tonbridge School for a few years as Second Master or ‘Usher’. He then returned to Oxford as chaplain and junior proctor, before becoming rector of Steventon in Hampshire. He married in 1764 and he and his wife had eight children of whom Jane was the seventh.

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George Austen was a scholarly and gentle man, happy in his family and his job, whose children enjoyed huge benefits from the stable and caring environment he and his wife Cassandra created. He died at the age of 73 and is buried in Bath. A plaque to his memory on the wall of the Old Chapel, now the Cawthorne Lecture Theatre, at Tonbridge School is shown alongside.

Henry Austen

Henry Austen was a grandson of Elizabeth Weller and a cousin of Jane's father George. Born in 1726, he was educated at Tonbridge School, being Head Boy when his cousin George was lower in the school, so they must have known each other. Like George he became a clergyman, serving in several parishes, the last of which was West Wickham, where his clerical career ended in some controversy when he adopted Unitarian views. Among his various homes was one in Tonbridge High Street called Fosse Bank (No. 182, now replaced with an office block.) His wife was the daughter of John Hooker, Lord of the Manor of Tonbridge.

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Portrait of Elizabeth Matilda Harrison, with a lock of her hair. (THS)

Henry Austen's daughter Elizabeth Matilda married a Mr Harrison of Southampton, and was known to Jane Austen and her mother and sister when they lived in that city from 1806-9. A small portrait of this lady, shown here, was presented to Tonbridge Historical Society by one of her descendants.

If Jane Austen ever paid a visit to Tonbridge it is likely to have been to Henry's house when Jane was young. There are memorials to Henry, his wife and two sons in the parish church.

Philadelphia Hancock

Philadelphia Hancock was a popular aunt of Jane Austen, one of her father’s sisters. She was born in Tonbridge in 1730 but lived with relations after her parents died. A spirited girl, she travelled to India at the age of 20 to find a husband. The man she married was Tysoe Hancock, a surgeon in the East India Company. She and their only child, Eliza, returned to England where the two of them saw much of Jane and her family. Mother and daughter were helped financially by the famous Warren Hastings, a friend of Mr Hancock. Philadelphia died in London at the age of sixty.

The Walters

Jane Austen’s grandfather, William Austen, married a widow, Rebecca Hampson, whose previous husband had been a member of the Tonbridge-based Walter family. The Walter step-relations were always friendly towards Jane’s father, George Austen – particularly his half brother William Hampson Walter who, even after his marriage, continued to keep in touch with George, who was ten years his junior. William Hampson Walter had no profession and was never prosperous but he lived in the Tonbridge area all his life. His daughter Phylly kept up a correspondence with both Jane and her sister Cassandra which provides useful information about the novelist's life. Late in life Phylly married a farmer, George Whitaker from Pembury. There is a memorial to her in Pembury Old Church.

>A number of other Tonbridge people whom Jane Austen encountered in the course of her life are listed on another page.

>A 60-page booklet "Jane Austen's Family and Tonbridge" by Margaret Wilson is available from the Jane Austen Society.