Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



FRANCIS AUSTEN'S first appointment on his promotion to post rank was to the Neptune, as Flag-Captain to Admiral James Gambier. It was not usual for an Admiral to choose as his Flag-Captain one who had so lately gained the step in rank. It is clear from the letters of Francis Austen at this time that he, in common with many officers in the Navy, was bent on improvements in the food and general comforts of the crews. Francis Austen's capacity for detail would here stand him in good stead. There is one letter of his concerning the best way of preserving cheeses, which is a good example of his interest in the small things of his profession. He had, on the advice of Admiral Gambier, made the experiment of coating some cheeses with whitewash in order to keep them in good condition in hot weather, and had found it very successful. He thereupon wrote to the Admiralty Commissioners recommending that all cheeses should be so treated before being shipped, in order that the men might have "more wholesome and nutritive food," and also "that a material ultimate saving to the public may be effected at an inconsiderable first cost."

We have not far to look for a parallel to this love of detail in the works of Jane Austen. Admirers and detractors are agreed in saying that she thought nothing too unimportant to be of interest, and in allowing the justice of her own description of her work—" the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour." There is no doubt that naval officers must often have felt in their dealings with the Admiralty that they produced "little effect after much labour."

A curious point of etiquette in connection with these letters is that the Commissioners invariably signed themselves "Your affectionate friends," followed by the names of those concerned in the business.

At the peace of Amiens, Francis Austen, among many other officers, went on half-pay; but when war broke out again in 1803, we find him at Ramsgate, employed in raising a body of "Sea Fencibles." This service was instituted chiefly on the advice of Captain Popham, who had tried something of the same kind in Flanders in 1793.

The object, of course, was to protect the coast from invasion. The corps was composed of fishermen, commanded in each district by an officer in the Navy, whose duty it was to quarter the men on the beach, exercise them, and to have the beaches watched whenever the weather was favourable for the enemy to land. The men were exercised once a week, and were paid at the rate of a shilling a day, with a food allowance when on service.

Captain Austen's report on the coast of the district lying between the North Foreland and Sandown is a document of considerable detail, dealing with the possible landing-places for a hostile army. He comes to the conclusion that in moderate weather a landing might be effected on many parts of this coast, particularly in Pegwell Bay, where "the enemy would have no heights to gain," and, further, "that any time of tide would be equally favourable for the debarkation of troops on this shore." But "in blowing weather, open flat boats filled with troops would doubtless many of them be lost in the surf, while larger vessels could not, from the flatness of the coast, approach sufficiently near." Of course, all is subject to "the enemy's evading our cruisers, and getting past the ships in the Downs."

This time at Ramsgate was of importance to Francis, for it was here that he met, and became engaged to, Mary Gibson, who was his wife for seventeen years. This engagement, though "Mrs. F. A." became one of the best loved of the sisters-in-law, must at the outset have been a slight shock to Jane and Cassandra, who for long had been cherishing a hope that Frank would marry their beloved friend Martha Lloyd. A few extracts taken from the letters will show their affection and their hopes.

"I love Martha better than ever, and I mean to go and see her, if I can, when she gets home. . . . I shall be very glad to see you at home again, and then—if we can get Martha—who will be so happy as we? . . . I am quite pleased with Martha and Mrs. Lefroy for wanting the pattern of our caps, but I am not so well pleased with your giving it to them. Some wish, some prevailing wish, is necessary to the animation of everybody's mind, and in gratifying this you leave them to form some other which will probably not be half so innocent. I shall not forget to write to Frank."

The connection of ideas seems very clear. Perhaps it may have been some memory of these old times, and the wishes of his sister who had passed away, that induced Francis to make Martha his second wife in 1828.

That their religious life was the mainspring of all their actions is sufficiently clear throughout the whole lives of the two brothers. During this time at Ramsgate, Francis was noticed as "the officer who knelt in church," and up to the day of his death there is one entry never absent from the diary of Charles Austen—"Read the Lessons of the Day."

In May 1804 Captain Francis Austen was appointed to the Leopard, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Louis, who held a command in the squadron blockading Napoleon's Boulogne flotilla. This flotilla, begun in 1802, had by 1804 assumed very large proportions. With the object of stirring up the descendants of the Norman conquerors to a new invasion of England, Napoleon, always dramatic in his effects, made a progress through the maritime provinces attended by the Bayeux Tapestry, the display of which was expected to arouse much martial ardour. It was assumed that his great army of veteran soldiers, encamped above the cliffs of Boulogne, was only waiting for favourable weather to embark on board the two thousand flat-bottomed boats. His review of this fleet in August 1804 was, however, so seriously disturbed by one or two of the British men-of-war that the new Emperor was obliged to recognise the impossibility of crossing the Channel unless he had the command of (at least) the narrow seas.

All the naval history that follows, up to the day of Trafalgar, was the outcome of his attempt to obtain this superiority for his "Grand Army of England." The failure of Villeneuve, on his return from the West Indies, to reach the appointed rendezvous with Ganteaume off Brest, broke up Napoleon's combination; the army marched to Austerlitz and Vienna, the flotilla was left to decay, and the site of the two years' camp is commemorated only by the Column of Napoleon himself.

The work of watching Boulogne and the neighbouring ports was, in common with all other blockades, as a contemporary writer says, "a trial to the temper, spirits and health of officers and men." There was a strong feeling in England against this system, which seems to have been popular with naval authorities. This opinion is voiced in the following cutting from the Naval Chronicle of that date:

"Were it indeed possible to keep so strict a watch on the hostile shores that every effort of the enemy to escape from the ports would be unavailing, that the fortuitous circumstances of calms, fogs, gales, the obscurity of the night, &c., would not in any degree advance his purposes, then would the eventual mischief inseparable from a blockade, by which our marine is threatened, find a compensation in our immediate security. But until this can be effected with a certainty of success, the national interests ought not to be compromised, and our future offensive and defensive means unnecessarily abridged." This extract is perhaps of greater interest as an example of the journalese of the date, than for any unusual depth in the ideas which it expresses, which merely amount to the fact that it was considered that the "game was not worth the candle."

Against this we may set another view of the blockades as expressed by Dr. Fitchett:

"It was one of the compensations of these great blockades that they raised the standard of seamanship and endurance throughout the British fleets to the highest possible level. The lonely watches, the sustained vigilance, the remoteness from all companionship, the long wrestle with the forces of the sea, the constant watching for battle, which for English seamen marked those blockades, profoundly affected the character of English seamanship. When, indeed, has the world seen such seamen as those of the years preceding Trafalgar? Hardy, resolute, careless alike of tempest or of battle; of frames as enduring as the oaken decks they trod, and courage as iron as the guns they worked; and as familiar with sea-life and all its chances as though they had been webfooted.

"If the great blockades hardened the seamanship of the British fleets, fighting for long months with the tempests of the open sea, they fatally enervated the seamanship of the French navy. The seaman's art under the tri-colour decayed in the long inaction of blockaded ports. The seaman's spirit drooped. The French navy suffered curious and fatal loss, not only of nautical skill but of fighting impulse."

Nelson's comment is opportune: "These gentlemen are not accustomed to a Gulf of Lyons gale, which we have buffeted for twenty-one months, and not carried away a spar."

Captain Austep's idea of the best way to minimise the evils of a blockade was to give the men as much work to do as possible in the care of the ship. At one time this took the form of having the boats re-painted. Over this question we have the following characteristic letter:

"Leopard, DUNGENESS, June 23, 1804.

"SIR,—I have received your letter of 21st instant, relative to the paint and oil I have demanded for the preservation of the boats of his Majesty's ship under my command, and in reply to it beg leave to inform you that I did not make that demand without having previously stated to the Navy Board by letter the situation of the boats of the Leopard, and the necessity of an extra proportion of paint being supplied for them; and as by their answer they appeared to have approved of my application, inasmuch as they told me orders had been sent to Deal to issue it, I concluded nothing more remained for me than to demand the necessary quantity. Presuming, however, from the tenor of your letter, that you have received no direction on the subject, I shall write to renew my application.

"With respect to 'no colour than white being allowed for boats,' I would only ask you, as knowing something of the King's naval service, how long one of our six-oared cutters would look decent painted all white, and whether a darker colour would not be both more durable and creditable? If, however, stfch be the regulation of the Board (from which I know there is no appeal), I have only to request, when you receive any order to supply the paint, that you will give an additional quantity of white in lieu of black.

"The paint to which you allude in your letter as having been supplied on the 9th and 12th June, was sea store, and ought to have been furnished to the ship months ago. Nor is it more than sufficient to make her decent and fit for an Admiral to hoist his flag in.

"I am, Sir, your humble servant,

"Geo. Lawrence, Esq., &c., &c"

Shingle ballast was one of the grievances of naval officers at that time. It was, naturally, much cheaper than iron ballast, but it had a particularly awkward habit of shifting, and the larger stones occasionally drilled holes in the ship. It was also very bulky and difficult to stow.

Francis Austen was neither slow to enter a protest, nor easily put off his point. He writes:

"Though the ship is deep enough in the water, she can only acquire the proper stability by having the weight placed lower. By a letter which I have this day received from the Navy Board in answer to my request, I am informed that the Leopard cannot be supplied with more than the established proportion of iron ballast, but if I wish for more directions shall be given for supplying shingle. I have, therefore, to request you will be pleased to move their Lordships to give directions for the Leopard's being supplied with the additional iron ballast as requested in my letter to the Navy Board."

About this time Francis Austen began to keep a private note-book, which is still in existence, in which he recorded (not always seriously) points of interest in the places he visited. He seems to have kept this note-book while he was in the Leopard, then laid it aside for three years, and begun it again when he was Captain of the St. Albans. His notes on the "Anchorage Off Boulogne" contain some interesting details.

"Directions for Sailing into the Roads.—There is no danger whatever in approaching the anchorage usually occupied by the English squadron employed at the blockade of Boulogne, as the water is deep and the soundings are regular. There is a bank called the 'Basse du Basse,' which lies about a mile off Ambleteuse, extending in a direction nearly parallel to the shore, but rather diverging outwards to the westward of Boulogne Pier; on it there are in some places as little as three fathoms at low water, and within it considerably deeper water." He goes on with some special advice for the various types of vessel.

"The situation usually occupied by the British squadron off Boulogne is, with the town bearing from S.S.E. to E.S.E., distant about four miles, in from i6 to 20 fathoms water; coarse sandy bottom, with large shells and stones, which would probably injure the cables materially, but that from the depth of water and strength of the tides, little of them can ever drag on the bottom.

"From Cape Grisnez to Portel the coast is little else than one continual battery, and I conceive it to be absolutely impregnable to any attack from the sea. Of its defences towards the land I know nothing. I had no means of knowing anything relative to the landing-places.

"Trade.—On this point I had no means of acquiring any certain information, but believe, previous to the war with England, it was a place of great resort for our smuggling vessels from the Kentish coast. As it is a tide harbour, and completely dry at low water, no vessels of very large draught of water can go in, nor anything larger than a boat until nearly half flood."

A hundred years have wrought great changes. The Folkestone and Boulogne steamers have some larger dimensions than the Leopard herself, and they go in and out at all states of the tide.

One heading is always devoted to "Inhabitants," and under this Francis Austen remarks: "The inhabitants are French, subjects to Napoleon the First, lately exalted to the Imperial dignity by the unanimous suffrages of himself and his creatures." The sarcastic tone of the reference to Napoleon was characteristic of the general tenor of publications in England at the time. "The Tom Thumb egotism and impudent bulletins of the Corsican usurper continue almost without a parallel in history," says the Naval Chronicle. The language in which this protest is couched is hardly that we should use now in speaking of Napoleon.

Charles, when the war broke out again, was reappointed to the Endymion, and served on her with some distinction until October 1804, when he was given the command of the Indian sloop.

Among other prizes taken under Captain Paget, who finally recommended Lieutenant Charles Austen for command, the Endymion had captured the French corvette Bacchante on the return voyage from St. Domingo to Brest; she had left France about three months before, meeting with the Endymion on June 25, 1803. This prize was a remarkably fine corvette, and was added to the British Navy.

Somewhere about this time Charles had come across Lord Leven and his family, and was evidently useful to them in some way, besides being doubtless extremely agreeable. When Lord and Lady Leven were in Bath, they made some effort to become acquainted with the family of Mr. Austen, and Jane writes to Cassandra describing a visit paid one morning by her mother and herself:

"When I tell you I have been visiting a countess this morning, you will immediately (with great justice, but no truth) guess it to be Lady Roden. No; it is Lady Leven, the mother of Lord Balgonie. On receiving a message from Lord and Lady Leven through the Mackys, declaring their intention of waiting on us, we thought it right to go to them. I hope we have not done too much, but friends and admirers of Charles must be attended to. They seem very reasonable, good sort of people, very civil, and full of his praise. We were shown at first into an empty drawing-room, and presently in came his lordship (not knowing who we were) to apologise for the servant's mistake, and to say himself—what was untrue—that Lady Leven was not within. He is a tall, gentleman-like looking man, with spectacles, and rather deaf. After sitting with him ten minutes we walked away, but Lady Leven coming out of the dining-parlour as we passed the door, we were obliged to attend her back to it, and pay our visit over again. She is a stout woman, with a very handsome face. By this means we had the pleasure of hearing Charles's praises twice over. They think themselves excessively obliged to him, and estimate him so highly as to wish Lord Balgonie, when he is quite recovered, to go out to him.

"There is a pretty little Lady Marianne of the party to be shaken hands with, and asked if she remembered Mr. Austen. . . . I shall write to Charles by the next packet, unless you tell me in the meantime of your intending to do it.

"Believe me, if you chuse,
Your affectionate sister."

In January 1805, just before Francis Austen was moved from the Leopard to the Canopus, and a few months after Charles had taken command of the Indian, a family sorrow came upon them. Jane wrote twice to tell the news to Frank, as the first letter was directed to Dungeness, in the belief that the Leopard was there, instead of at Portsmouth.

"Monday, January 21, 1805.

"My DEAREST FRANK, — I have melancholy news to relate, and sincerely feel for your feelings under the shock of it. I wish I could better prepare you for it, but, having said so much, your mind will already foretell the sort of event which I have to communicate. Our dear father has closed his virtuous and happy life in a death almost as free from suffering as his children could have wished. He was taken ill on Saturday morning, exactly in the same way as heretofore—an oppression in the head, with fever, violent tremulousness, and the greatest degree of feebleness. The same remedy of cupping, which had before been so successful, was immediately applied to, but without such happy effects. The attack was more violent, and at first he seemed scarcely at all relieved by the operation. Towards the evening, however, he got better, had a tolerable night, and yesterday morning was so greatly amended as to get up, join us at breakfast as usual, and walk about without the help of a stick; and every symptom was then so favourable that, when Bowen saw him at one, he felt sure of his doing perfectly well. But as the day advanced all these comfortable appearances gradually changed, the fever grew stronger than ever, and when Bowen saw him at ten at night he pronounced his situation to be most alarming. At nine this morning he came again, and by his desire a physician was called in, Dr. Gibbs. But it was then absolutely a lost case. Dr. Gibbs said that nothing but a miracle could save him, and about twenty minutes after ten he drew his last gasp. Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to ts to soften it. Next to that of the consciousness of his worth and constant preparation for another world, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking, nothing. Being quite insensible of his own state, he was spared all pain of separation, and he went off almost in his sleep. My mother bears the shock as well as possible; she was quite prepared for it, and feels all the blessing of his being spared a long illness. My uncle and aunt have been with us, and show us every imaginable kindness. And to-morrow we shall, I dare say, have the comfort of James' presence, as an express has been sent for him. We write also, of course, to Godmersham and Brompton. Adieu, my dearest Frank. The loss of such a parent must be felt, or we should be brutes. I wish I could give you a better preparation, but it has been impossible.

"Yours ever affectionately,
"J. A."

As this letter was wrongly addressed, it was necessary for Jane to write a second one to send direct to Portsmouth.

"Tuesday Evening, January 22, 1805.

"Mv DEAREST FRANK,—I wrote to you yesterday, but your letter to Cassandra this morning, by which we learn the probability of your being by this time at Portsmouth, obliges me to write to you again, having, unfortunately, a communication as necessary as painful to make to you. Your affectionate heart will be greatly wounded, and I wish the shock could have been lessened by a better preparation; but the event has been sudden, and so must be the information of it. We have lost an excellent father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. He was seized on Saturday with a return of the feverish complaint which he had been subject to for the last three years—evidently a more violent attack from the first, as the applications which had before produced almost immediate relief seemed for some time to afford him scarcely any. On Sunday, however, he was much better—so much so as to make Bowen quite easy, and give us every hope of his being well again in a few days. But these hopes gradually gave way as the day advanced, and when Bowen saw him at ten that night he was greatly alarmed. A physician was called in yesterday morning, but he was at that time past all possibility of cure; and Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Bowen had scarcely left his room before he sunk into a sleep from which he never awoke. Everything, I trust and believe, was done for him that was possible. It has been very sudden. Within twenty-four hours of his death he was walking about with only the help of a stick—was even reading. We had, however, some hours of preparation, and when we understood his recovery to be hopeless, most fervently did we pray for the speedy release which ensued. To have seen him languishing long, struggling for hours, would have been dreadful—and, thank God, we were all spared from it. Except the restlessness and confusion of high fever, he did not suffer, and he was mercifully spared from knowing that he was about to quit objects so beloved and so fondly cherished as his wife and children ever were. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to? My mother is tolerably well; she bears up with the greatest fortitude, but I fear her health must suffer under such a shock. An express was sent for James, and he arrived here this morning before eight o'clock. The funeral is to be on Saturday at Walcot Church. The serenity of the corpse is most delightful. It preserves the sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him. They kindly press my mother to remove to Steventon as soon as it is all over, but I do not believe she will leave Bath at present. We must have this house for three months longer, and here we shall probably stay till the end of that time. We all unite in love, and I am

"Affectionately yours,
"J. A."

This was followed in a few days by another.

"Tuesday, January 29, 1805.

"My DEAREST FRANK,—My mother has found among our dear father's little personal property a small astronomical instrument, which she hopes you will accept for his sake. It is, I believe, a compass and sun-dial, and is in a black shagreen case. Would you have it sent to you now—and with what direction? There is also a pair of scissors for you. We hope these are articles that may be useful to you, but we are sure they will be valuable. I have not time for more.

"Yours very affectionately,
"J. A."