J. H. (John Henry) Hubback.

Jane Austen's sailor brothers: being the adventures of Sir Francis Austen ... and ... Charles Austen; online

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At Home and Abroad

have been half so great ; as it could not be brought
to the proof, his absence will be always a lucky
source of regret."

The ** promotion " spoken of in this letter
was extensive, and took place on January i, 1801,
on the occasion of the union of Great Britain and
Ireland. At the same time there was an increase
in the number of line-of-battle ships which is com-
mented on with reference to Charles.

** Eliza talks of having read in a newspaper that
all the ist lieutenants of the frigates whose cap-
tains were to be sent into line-of-battle ships were
to be promoted to the rank of commanders. If
it be true, Mr. Valentine may afford himself a fine
Valentine's knot, and Charles may perhaps
become ist of the Endymion, though I suppose
Captain Durham is too likely to bring a villain
with him under that denomination."

The letters give no account of the homecoming,
but from the story of William Price s return in
** Mansfield Park," we can see that Jane knewsome-
thing of the mingled feelings of such a meeting.

''This dear William would soon be amongst
them. . . . scarcely ten days had passed since
Fanny had been in the agitation of her first dinner
visit, when she found herself in an agitation of a
higher nature. . . . watching in the hall, in the
lobby, on the stairs, for the first sound of the car-
riage which was to bring her a brother,


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

*' It was long before Fanny could recover from
the agitating happiness of such an hour as was
formed by the last thirty minutes of expectation
and the first of fruition.

"It was some time even before her happiness
could be said to make her happy, before the dis-
appointment inseparable from the alteration of
person had vanished, and she could see in him the
same William as before, and talk to him as her
heart had been yearning to do through many a
past year.**




Francis Austen's first appointment on his pro-
motion to post rank was to the Nepttme, 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 concern-
ing 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 Ad-
miral 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


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

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. Ad-
mirers and detractors are agreed in saying that
she thought nothing too unimportant to be of in-
terest, 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

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 fisher-


Blockading Boulogne

men, 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

113 H

Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

** 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. Per-
haps 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


Blockading Boulogne

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 stir-
ring up the descendants of the Norman con-
querors 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 ex-
pected 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 t he outcome of his attempt to
obtain this superiority for his ''Grand Army of
England/' The failure of Villeneuve, on his return


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

from the West Indies, to reach the appointed ren-
dezvous with Ganteaume off Brest, broke up
Napoleon's combination ; the army marched to
Austeriitz and Vienna, the flotilla was left to
decay, and the site of the two years' camp is
commemorated only by the Column of Napoleon

The work of watching Boulogne and the neigh-
bouring 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 awatch
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 compensa-
tion 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


Blockading Boulogne

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 block-
ades, 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 web-

** If the great blockades hardened the seaman-
ship 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


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

the long inaction of blockaded ports. The sea-
man'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 Austen's idea of the best w^ay to mini-
mise 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,/««^ 23, 1804,

'* Sir, — I have received your letter of 21st in-
stant, 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 propor-
tion 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


Blockading Boulogne

the necessary quantity. Presuming, however,
from the tenor of your letter, that you have re-
ceived 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 know-
ing 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, such 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,

'' Francis Wm. Austen.

** 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


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

occasionally drilled holes in the ship. It was also
very bulky and difficult to stow.

Francis Austen was neither slow to enter a pro-
test, 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 direc-
tions for the Leopards 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 an-
chorage usually occupied by the English squadron


Blockading Boulogne

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 con-
ceive 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 acquir-
ing 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


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

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 publica-
tions in England at the time. '* The Tom Thumb
egotism and impudent bulletins of the Corsican
usurper continue almost without a parallel in his-
tory," 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 re-
appointed to the EndymioUy and served on her
with some distinction until October 1 804, 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


Blockading Boulogne

France about three months before, meeting with
\ki^ 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 evi-
dently 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 her-

** 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 Bal-
gonie. 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 at-
tended 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


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

untrue — that Lady Leven was not within. He
is a tall, gentleman-like looking man, with spec-
tacles, 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.

*' Belize me, if you chuse,

" Your affectionate sister."

In January 1805, j^st 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



Blockading Boulogne

•' Green Park Buildings,

" 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 pre-
pare 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 morn-
ing, exactly in the same way as heretofore — an
oppression in the head, with fever, violent tremu-
lousness, 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 Bo wen
saw him at one, he felt sure of his doing perfectly
well. But as the day advanced all these com-
fortable appearances gradually changed, the fever
grew stronger than ever, and when Bowen saw
him at ten at night he pronounced his situation


Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

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 com-
forts remain to us to soften it. Next to that of the
consciousness of his worth and constant prepara-
tion 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 pre-
paration, but it has been impossible.

*' Yours ever affectionately,

"J. A.'^

As this letter was wrongly addressed, it was


Blockading Boulogne

necessary for Jane to write a second one to send
direct to Portsmouth.

" Green Park Buildings,

** Tuesday Evening, January 22, 1805.

*' My 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 affec-
tionate 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 be-
tween 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

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Online LibraryJ. H. (John Henry) HubbackJane Austen's sailor brothers: being the adventures of Sir Francis Austen ... and ... Charles Austen; → online text (page 7 of 18)