Posted on

Younger Sons in Jane Austen’s England

This guest article is written by Rory Muir – a visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide and a renowned expert on British history. You can buy a signed copy of his book, Gentleman of Uncertain Fortune, in the Jane Austen Online Gift Shop.


Younger Sons in Jane Austen’s England

Like many people, I first read Jane Austen’s novels in my mid-teens when I was still at school, and I fell in love with their sharpness, their wit and their emotional pull. I was intrigued by their depiction of early nineteenth century British society, with its minute distinctions of class and status indicating degrees of good breeding or vulgarity, and I appreciated the way that Austen showed that even her heroes and heroines were flawed, or at least behaved badly on occasion, without sacrificing our sympathy for them.

I was also interested in the early nineteenth century in a different way. When I was still in primary school I had become fascinated in the battle of Waterloo and this had broadened to cover all of Napoleon’s campaigns and the nature of Napoleonic warfare. This interest in military history continued at university and led in turn to a doctorate and then a number of books looking at Britain’s part in the war against Napoleon and Wellington’s campaigns in particular. I edited a collection of confidential letters from Alexander Gordon, one of Wellington’s ADCs, which gave new insight into the way Wellington operated, and I wrote a comprehensive two volume life of Wellington which was published in 2013 and 2015. That book took me fifteen years and by the time I had finished it, I needed a change, but I still loved the period and wanted to keep on writing.

Both Alexander Gordon and Wellington were younger sons whose fathers died when they were very young. Neither inherited enough to live on, and they depended on their elder brothers – who inherited great estates – for assistance in their careers. I was struck by the obvious injustice of this: that one brother would inherit an estate that gave him an income of £16,000 or £17,000 while the other would get only £2,000 of capital (which might produce £100 income), and that everyone accepted that this was perfectly normal and reasonable. The consequence of this was that younger sons and younger brothers had to go out and make their way in the world even when their father was a wealthy lord.

But how could the younger son of a lord, or an independent gentleman, make money in Regency England? Suppose Mr and Mrs Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, had had five sons, not five daughters, how would the younger ones have made a place for themselves? And for that matter, how did Jane Austen’s own brothers fare?

I already knew the rough answer to the question. That relatively few careers were open to young men of good family without the loss of some social status: they might become officers in the army or the navy; or clergymen; or lawyers. Medicine was rather more dubious, but physicians were often regarded as gentlemen, and surgeon-apothecaries were no longer the crude barber-surgeons of the past. Some young men might follow a family connection into trade (and some business ventures, such as banking, were socially acceptable), while others were sent out to India or other colonies in the hope – a rather desperate one – that they would make a fortune and return a wealthy nabob.

But that was no more than an outline, and no one seemed to have gone any further. What did it mean to become an officer in the army, or a barrister, or a clergyman? What prospects of worldly success or of happiness did these careers offer? What sort of life would they bring?

When I dug a little further I found some fine scholarship on individual careers: the clergy and the navy were particularly well covered, while other careers had received much less attention. But even the best of these studies lacked a comparative element. How did a clergyman’s prospects compare to those of a naval officer? Was an attorney, or a curate, or militia officer more suitable as a suitor or a young woman of good family?

I set to work to try to answer these questions and I found the result fascinating. The result, Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons made their way in Jane Austen’s England, was great fun to write and I hope will be fun to read, even though some of the lives that it recounts were sad and often quite short. Jane Austen, her characters and her family figure prominently, for they provide an excellent entry point to the great majority of young men who never became particularly successful. But Wellington is there too, and so is Alexander Gordon; Sydney Smith, the witty clergyman, and a young lawyer, John Scott, whose career almost ended in obscurity but was saved by a chance opportunity. Then there are Henry Thornton, a banker; John Green Cross, a surgeon; Benjamin Smith, an attorney; Henry Roberdeau, an official of the East India Company, and many more. It is a wonderful subject, and I was delighted to find so many vivid first hand accounts describing the lives of these young men, who might easily have provided the model for a character in any of Austen’s novels.

Posted on

No. 1, Bath Street and Mary Smith

number 1 bath street

On Thursday 8 August 1799, Jane Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot, visited the Haberdashery Warehouse at Number 1 Bath Street, near or opposite the King’s Bath. She bought some black lace and was accused of stealing a card of white lace. The subsequent events are well known. (Editor’s note – read more about these events here)

The history of No. 1, Bath Street is interesting and can be reconstructed from the advertisements in the Bath Chronicle. The Bath Improvement Act 1789 provided for a number of improvements to the city, including a communication from the King’s Bath Pump Room to the Hot and Cross Bath Pump Rooms by a new street, with colonnades, through the west side of Stall Street. The first stone of the new street, to be called Bath Street, was laid on 30 March 1791. On the stone there is an inscription in abbreviated Latin which the Bath Chronicle translates as follows: For the honour and dignity of this City, these works were conducted by Commissioners by Parliament appointed for its improvement, 1791. John Horton, Mayor. T Baldwin, Architect.

In April and May 1793 there were advertisements for the sale of:

That Large and Commodious New-built House,
Five rooms upon a floor. It’s being so centrical, and standing between the two Baths, and so near the Pump Room, renders its situation (beyond a doubt) one of the first in this city.
The said house is let, to very responsible tenants, on a running lease, at the yearly rent of £168.


In May and July 1795, there are advertisements for Gregory and Co, Milliners, Mantua-makers, Haberdashers, and Glovers, residing at No. 1, BATH STREET, near the King’s Bath. Apparently they had already been trading for some time. Gregory and Co may have included Elizabeth Gregory.

In January 1796, William Smith announced that he had moved from No. 13, to No. 1, Bath Street, and joined his wife, formerly Mary Gregory, the sister of Elizabeth. His advertisements in January and June 1797 end with the words: “An Elegant Suit of Apartments to let, furnished.” No doubt the lack of tenants was one cause of his subsequent financial difficulties. Mrs Smith appears for the first time in an advertisement on 11 May 1797, William Smith for the last time in an advertisement on 16 November 1797.

There is then a gap until 9 August 1798, when Mary Smith announced a sale of stock “at very reduced and low prices, such as cannot fail giving great satisfaction”. After a list of the goods for sale, she added two more paragraphs:

MARY SMITH hopes those friends who have for several years past honoured her with their commands, will continue their encouragement as it shall be her particular care to provide a constant succession of new articles worthy their attention, and her greatest wish to merit by assiduity their favour.   BATH, Aug 4, 1798.”

“All persons who have any legal demands on the estate and effects of Wm SMITH are requested to send their accounts immediately; and those indebted to the said estate are desired to pay the same without further notice to Mr L Lambe, grocer and tea-dealer, Stall Street; Mr Gye, printer, Market Place; or to Mrs Smith, aforesaid, who are duly authorised to receive the same.”

She advertised again on 8 November 1798 and on 28 March and 4 April 1799.

There is then a gap until 3 October 1799. On 1 August Wests, Milliners, announced that they were moving into No. 3, Bath Street. Competition in Bath Street must have been fierce. On 23 October 1800 Wests announced that they were moving to No. 34, Milsom Street, “Millinery Rooms Up-stairs.” And R Arnell, another milliner, who had been at No. 13, Bath Street since 15 December 1796, disappeared after 18 December 1800.

When Mary Smith returned to Bath from Cornwall, she put the following advert in the Bath Chronicle on 3 October 1799:


Haberdashery, Fur & Lace Warehouse

The Public in general are most respectfully
informed, that the LARGE STOCK of a BANKRUPT
has been just purchased in London for ready
money, and will be disposed of full FORTY per CENT
under the regular prices, at the above Warehouse, usually
carried on in the name of
Consisting of Ribbons, Gloves, etc, etc.


A second advert followed on 21 November 1799:


Haberdashery, Lace, and Fur Warehouse;

The Proprietor of the above Business most
respectfully informs her Friends and the Public that
is just returned from London, where she has laid in an
entire New Stock of the following Articles for the Winter
Trade, the whole of which she is enabled to tender at
very reduced prices; consisting of
Black, Silver, and Isabella BEAR MUFFS, from 12s. to 5gs.
etc, etc.


A third on 6 February 1800:



SMITH respectfully informs her Friends
And the Public, that she has this day commenced
In order to make room for SPRING GOODS;
Consisting of FURS of every description;


S. begs the LADIES’ particular attention to the
above, as she is determined to dispose of the whole, well
worth the attention of her Friends.


And a fourth advert on 10 and 17 April 1800, after the decision of the Taunton Assizes, and in a column next to William Gye’s pamphlet about the trial:




SMITH most respectfully begs leave to
Inform her Friends and the Public, she is recently
returned from London, where she has purchased a
very large and elegant Assortment of FASHIONABLE
VEILS, etc. etc.

SMITH assures her friends they may depend on
having every article in the FANCY WAY immediately on
their being introduced in Town, as her connections are
well established with the first Manufacturers in London.
SMITH returns her most grateful thanks to
those numerous friends who have hitherto honoured her
with their favours; and assures them every exertion in her
power shall be made to merit a continuance of the same.

After that there were 11 more advertisements in 1800 and almost one a month until 26 March 1807, making a total of 80 adverts in her name in the period 1798-1807.

Of special interest is the advert on 8 and 15 December 1803:

To be SOLD OFF, at and under Prime Cost,

All the Newly-selected and Valuable STOCK of LACES, etc.

N.B. All persons indebted to the above Estate are requested to pay the same into the hands of M SMITH, the Administration, at No. 1, Bath Street; — and all persons to whom the said Estate is indebted, are desired to send in their accounts.


The last advert, on 26 March 1807, is as follows: 


M SMITH respectfully offers to her Friends
and the Public the Remaining Part of her
(In order to make room for SPRING GOODS;)
Consisting of millinery, etc.

To which (as Great Bargains) she begs the attention of her Friends.


Mary Smith

In all previous accounts of the affair Mary Smith has been a shadowy figure. She was the wife of William Smith, milliner and haberdasher, who went bankrupt and absconded. She ran the warehouse briefly herself. In 1799 she went down to Cornwall and never re-appeared. It seems to be assumed that Elizabeth Gregory kept the shop, with Charles Filby, until the trial, after which “the Man is off and the Shop I hear must be ruin’d” (Jane’s letter of 14 April 1800).

The truth is very different. She was clearly a brilliant businesswoman, who ran the warehouse successfully herself from 1798 to 1807, apart from a short period in August 1799. Our information ends on an optimistic note, a sale of the winter stock in order to make room for the spring goods.

That leaves a lot of questions. When she returned to Bath in September 1799, she took the business back in hand, trading in her own name as proprietor. Did she sack Filby? He pretended to be very ill (MacKinnon, 28). That may have been to explain why he was no longer in the shop. Did she sack Elizabeth Gregory, her sister? When Mr Dallas cross-examined her at the trial, she said she knew of an advertisement having been made in Smith’s name, for selling off the stock (Pinchard, 11). That presumably refers to the advertisement of 6 February 1800. It is an odd question to ask a member of staff, who would have been involved in the sale itself, but a reasonable question for someone who was no longer a member of staff. The evidence at the trial is about who was keeping the shop and carrying on the business on 8 August 1799. There is no mention of who was doing so on 29 March 1800.

What did Mary Smith think about the prosecution? Did she simply decide to have nothing to do with it, on the basis that she was not there at the time?

Where was Mary Smith on the day of the trial? Did she stay in Bath, running the shop?


This article was written by guest contributor, David Pugsley, who is the Honorary Archivist of the Western Circuit.

Posted on

Writing Without Ego = Jane?

Jane Austen News

Writing Without Ego = Jane?

writing-a-letterWriting for the Financial Times, Jan Dalley spoke this week about the artist and their ego. She laid out the idea that in order to create and put our work out into the public domain we have to have some ego – at least enough to believe that what we are creating is good, and in most cases, enough ego to support the need to have others recognise our artistic achievement.

Continue reading Writing Without Ego = Jane?

Posted on

An Evening of Emma in Fort George

Jane Austen superpowers in Emma

An Evening of Emma in Fort George

Jane Austen Summer BallAt the Jane Austen News we love hearing about celebrations of Jane that happen all around the world. Because as much as we might wish all of Jane’s fans could come to Bath for our Jane Austen Festival in September, we know that there are many who can’t. So it’s wonderful to know that there are events dedicated to Jane Austen taking place in countries around the world. On that note, for any fans of Jane Austen who live near Ontario, Canada, this coming event on May 26th might be a good one to go to.

Continue reading An Evening of Emma in Fort George

Posted on

Pride and Prejudice vs. Jane Eyre

Jane Austen News

Pride and Prejudice vs. Jane Eyre

1463668501091.0As two of the most popular novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre have an incredible number of spin-off books written about them. Two of the books tipped to be summer bestsellers this year are Eligible – a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Steele – a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. But do they both work in the modern era?

Continue reading Pride and Prejudice vs. Jane Eyre

Posted on

Lady Susan Gets the Ending She Deserves?

Jane Austin News

Lady Susan Gets the Ending She Deserves?

3000Now to a retelling of a different kind. Lady Susan, the epistolary novella Jane Austen wrote in her youth, will soon be coming to the cinemas in the form of Whit Stillman’s new film Love and Friendship, and John Mullan, author of the book What Matters in Jane Austen?, has been looking at whether the story lives up to Austen’s other work.

Continue reading Lady Susan Gets the Ending She Deserves?

Posted on

Jane and Fringe Theatre and Puppets

Jane Austen News

Jane and Fringe Theatre and Puppets

NORTHANGER-ABBEY-Box-Tale-Soup.-700x455As part of Brighton’s 2016 Fringe Festival, the theatre company Box Tale Soup performed their adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s not like your average stage adaptation though. This one has been done with puppets. Which for some people will be a really interesting and fun change, but the show is a bit like Marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it.

Continue reading Jane and Fringe Theatre and Puppets

Posted on

Fashion and Mourning in Lady Susan

Jane Austin News

Fashion and Mourning in Lady Susan

love-and-friendship-image-16Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, the costume designer for the film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, has been speaking about the choices she made to show Lady Susan’s transition from mourning widow to social butterfly.

Continue reading Fashion and Mourning in Lady Susan