Beware the Stinking Fish - Jane Austen and Southampton
The Stinking Fish of Southampton Festival promises to be a lively celebration of Jane Austen’s presence in this south-coast city, organised to mark the bicentenary of the author’s death. The main weekend, 30th September to 1st October, will include walks, talks, exhibitions, displays and workshops, culminating in a Regency Ball at the Dolphin Hotel. Ahead of the event, Jane Austen Detective’s Izzy Budleigh went in search of Austen, to find out if her description of the ‘stinking fish of Southampton’ was the only thing the author took from the city.
When mentioning Jane Austen, many people immediately think of Chawton, site of the Jane Austen House Museum, or perhaps Winchester, Austen’s final resting place. Yet the author spent a significant amount of time in Southampton, and if you know where to look, you can still find traces of her life here today. The City of Southampton Society have put together a Jane Austen heritage trail, available both as a leaflet and from the Tudor House website (see below). Leading the visitor through a series of plaques across the city, it tracks Austen’s presence from the church she attended to the hotel ballroom she danced in. It’s a must for any Austenite wanting to walk in the footsteps of the author.
Starting in the heart of the city, near Bargate, are the sites of the school Austen, her sister Cassandra and their cousin Jane Cooper attended in 1783 when Jane was just seven years old, and the classical Georgian All Saints Church, where the Austen family worshipped when in Southampton. Unfortunately, both sites now require a little imagination; the location of the school was lost when it closed due to an outbreak of typhus only a few weeks after the girls started, and the Church was sadly destroyed during the Blitz in 1940. Nevertheless, with the plaques as your guide you can start to imagine the city Austen would have once known.
The route carries on through the site of the Spa Gardens, now home to the West Quay shopping centre, where Jane and her family frequently walked to visit the botanical gardens and the spa fountain, the latter making the city a famous spa resort in the 18th century. Passing along the city walls takes you closer to Austen’s world, reaching the site of her home in Castle Square from 1807 to 1809, rented from the Marquis of Lansdowne who lived in a mock gothic castle opposite. With no mock-gothic castle left, it takes a little while to orientate yourself, but with the combination of the trail map and the plaque, you can locate Austen’s No.2 Castle Square as the current Juniper Berry pub.
Crossing back outside the City Walls leads to the site of The Long Rooms and Hot Baths, built by John Martin in 1767 (when the shoreline came right up to the city walls) to provide the salt water bathing that many doctors of the time were lauding as the cure for multiple illnesses. Dances were also held here on four nights a week, making it the fashionable centre of Southampton. The Austens attended at least once dance here in January 1807. Passing back into the walled city, just beyond the Medieval Merchant’s House stands a block of flats which was once the site of the old Theatre Royal, built in 1798, which Austen and her family visited on 14th September 1807 to see two plays. On 15th September, they took a boat trip to Hythe, setting off from the Water Gate quay, the next stop on the trail. Fanny Knight, Jane’s niece, wrote with surprise that mama was ‘not sick at all’.
Further along the sea front is God’s House Tower, where The Platform was once situated, a tree-lined promenade along which Southampton residents and spa visitors could take their daily exercise. The Austens caught the Itchen ferry from the end of the walkway on 16th September 1807 to visit Netley Abbey, and Austen’s brother Frank skated here when the meadow (now Queen’s Park) froze over that winter. Back along the High Street, the main street of the city in Austen’s era, the trail comes to an end at the grand entrance of the Dolphin Hotel. It is believed Frank Austen took his sister to the hotel’s ballroom to celebrate her 18th birthday in 1793, and she recorded dancing here a further two times in the winter of 1808-1809.
In searching for the author’s presence across the city, it is clear that there was far more to Southampton than just the smell of fish for Austen. Although many of the sites she would have recognised are long gone, by tracing her footsteps it is possible to gain a sense of the city she would have known. It is still possible to see the bow-windowed ballroom where she would have danced, and so it seems fitting for the trail to finish here, one of the last tangible links to Austen in the city. For those readers who want to experience the Regency era for themselves in the place Austen once did, The Dolphin Hotel’s ballroom will host the Regency Ball, the conclusion to The Stinking Fish of Southampton Festival this autumn.And maybe, if you have a quiet moment during all the excitement of the festival, you can slip away and follow the footsteps of Jane Austen across Southampton for yourself.
The Stinking Fish of Southampton – Jane Austen Festival is part of the Jane Austen 200 celebrations. The main weekend of events will take place in various venues across Southampton from 30thSeptember to 1st October, with other events across the summer. Most events are free, but some will require advance booking and a fee.
For further information, visit: http://janeausten200.co.uk/event/stinking-fish-southampton-jane-austen-festival
Jane Austen Heritage Trail leaflet available from:
Southampton Central Library, The Tudor House, Southampton, and https://tudorhouseandgarden.com/planning-your-visit/explore-old-town/jane-austen-trail/
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