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Jane Austen's Worthing connections

01:16 12 October 2011

Jane Austen

Jane Austen's Worthing connections

The setting and characters for Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sandton are thought to be based on her experiences of the town

Towards the end of 1805 Jane Austen then 29, and not yet a published novelist spent at least a month and a half in Worthing with her mother, her sister Cassandra, and her close friend Martha Lloyd. She arrived on 18 September, was certainly still in the town on 4 November, and may have stayed until after Christmas.


Until recently all that has been known about what Jane Austen did in Worthing was that she won seventeen shillings in a raffle on 19 September; went to church on 22 September, almost certainly at the parish church of St Mary at nearby Broadwater (pictured overleaf); and witnessed an affidavit in front of the Rector of Broadwater on 4 November.


Now, however, an important link has been established between Jane Austen and Edward Ogle, who was Worthings chief citizen at the time.


Direct evidence that Jane Austen knew Ogle comes from a letter she wrote eight years afterwards to Cassandra, then staying in London. Clearly the two sisters had kept in contact with Ogle after becoming friendly with him in Worthing in 1805.


Sweet Mr Ogle, Jane Austen writes. I dare say he sees all the panoramas for nothing, has free admittance everywhere. He is so delightful! Now you need not see anybody else.


Edward Ogle and his brother James were involved in the sugar trade with the West Indies. They had a wharf near London Bridge and owned nine Thames barges. The panoramas Jane is referring to were therefore the splendid views of London from the river, which Ogle was able to see for nothing because he could travel up and down the Thames on his barges whenever he liked.


It was in 1801, four years before Jane Austens stay in Worthing, that Edward Ogle purchased Warwick House and its estate, which consisted of a substantial amount of land in the heart of the town. His arrival in Worthing was the catalyst for its transformation into a thriving seaside resort.


Although a few terraces of lodging-houses had recently been built, Worthing was still not much more than a straggling overgrown village, largely reliant on farming and fishing. Communications were poor, the only road into the town being little more than a sequence of winding lanes, which were all but impassable in severe weather.


There was no drainage, no market, no church, no theatre and indeed no proper modern hotel, so visitors to the town had to stay either in lodging-houses or in old-fashioned inns such as the Sea House Inn. This was located at the bottom of South Street Fields, at the south-west corner of South Street.


Ogles first project was to build the Colonnade, at the corner of Warwick Street and High Street, just across the road from his house. The building consisted of three lodging-houses at the northern end, together with a library at the corner. Libraries were the main social institutions in the seaside resorts of the period. As well as reading, there was gossip, gambling and musical entertainment at these establishments, and the Colonnade Library and its rival, Staffords Marine Library, opened in 1797, would have been the main meeting-places for visitors to Worthing.


The Austen ladies were spoilt for choice, with the Colonnade Library a stones throw from where they were staying, and Staffords Library just two hundred yards away on the seafront.


In 1803 Edward Ogle was chosen to be the first Chairman of the Board of Commissioners for Worthing, and at the Boards second meeting, the important decision was taken to lay a brick drain along the length of Worthing, with cesspools every hundred feet. The next year a proper turnpike road was built between Worthing and West Grinstead, finally giving the town good communications with London.


Then, during the five years after Jane Austens visit, Ogle financed or set in motion a number of other major projects, the most important being the theatre (1807) and the market (1810), both on the north side of Ann Street a street named after Edward Ogles wife and the Steyne Hotel and Terrace (1807-8).


The house in Warwick Street where Jane Austen stayed in 1805, which still stands today, was called Stanfords Cottage. It was a charming dwelling, whose south-facing bow windows in those days had an uninterrupted view to the sea. On the Warwick Street side there was a paved courtyard with a pair of gates and an old chestnut tree in the middle.


The north side of Warwick Street had not yet been built, nor had Ann Street, which had only recently been upgraded from a farm-track. The outlook from the north frontage of Stanfords Cottage was therefore over fields and a few scattered buildings towards the houses on what is now North Street, with the Downs beyond. In spite of the improvements gradually taking place in Worthing during the first decade of the 19th century, Jane Austen and her party would have found the town very quiet and provincial.


Their pleasures would therefore have been simple ones, such as walks in the country and visits to the libraries, to Wickss warm baths on the seafront we know that Cassandra went there on 20 September and to grand houses in the locality.


Nonetheless, Jane Austens stay in Worthing clearly left a big impression on her; and when, over a decade later, in January 1817, she started writing her final novel, she set it in a small Sussex resort town she called Sanditon which is Worthing in all but name.


The novel was to revolve round the three Parker brothers, and the eldest of these, Tom Parker, was undoubtedly based on Edward Ogle. Both men were the leading figures in their towns Edward Ogle in Worthing, Tom Parker in Sanditon and both were energetic speculators and developers, with a fierce pride in the resorts they had almost single-handedly brought into being.


In addition it is clear both from its character and its location that Jane Austens Trafalgar House, where Tom Parker lived, is based on Ogles Warwick House. She named the fictional house in honour of Nelsons great naval victory over the French, news of which reached Worthing when she was in the town. There are a number of passages in Sanditon where Jane Austens account of Tom Parker strongly evokes Edward Ogle, but there is space here to mention just a couple.


[Mr Parker] was perceived to be an enthusiast on the subject of Sanditon, a complete enthusiast. Sanditon, the success of Sanditon as a small, fashionable bathing place, was the object for which he seemed to live.


This is a perfect match for Edward Ogle; and the passages in which Tom Parker holds forth about Sanditon must have been based on Jane Austens memory of Ogle enthusing about the town that was his pride and joy.


We learn also that Tom Parker made use of the library to monitor new arrivals in the town: Mr P. could not be satisfied without an early visit to the library, and the library subscription book. On one particular day, the list was disappointing, being not only without distinction, but less numerous than he had hoped.


This was almost certainly a routine Jane Austen remembered from Edward Ogle at the Colonnade Library, which was less than a minutes walk from both Warwick House and Stanfords Cottage.


Sadly, the tale of the town and people of Sanditon was never completed. Jane Austen had to abandon her novel in the middle of March 1817, as her final illness worsened; and she died on 18 July that year.


Edward Ogle died less than two years later, on 26 March 1819. Like the unmarried Jane Austen, he had no children.


Jane Austens novels are of course her memorial. Ogles legacy is in some of the buildings of Worthing which survive from his time, most notably the splendid Steyne Terrace. It is therefore a matter of regret that his name is nowhere commemorated in the town.


Densely-built modern Worthing bears no resemblance to the quiet little resort that Jane Austen knew.


However, although much of the towns mid-19th-century heart has been destroyed, a surprising number of the buildings that were present in 1805 are still standing; and it is still just possible to imagine Edward Ogle striding around the town on his mission to make Worthing one of the best resorts in England and a wryly observant young woman, watching and assimilating, and saving her experiences for use a decade later in her final, unfinished novel.


Most of the material for this article comes from the authors fully-referenced 33-page article, Edward Ogle of Worthing and Jane Austens Sanditon, published in July this year in The Jane Austen Society Report for 2010.


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