Posted on

Paper Ships: An Austen Inspired Flotilla

Paper Ships: An Austen Inspired Flotilla

In October, 1809, Jane Austen was busy entertaining her nephews, Edward’s children, after the death of their mother. She wrote to Cassandra with a round up of their busy schedule, which included games, constructing ships from paper, and walks about town:

“We do not want amusement: bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable; spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, with watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed; and we mean to avail ourselves of our kind papa’s consideration, by not returning to Winchester till quite the evening of Wednesday.”

Anne Elliot entertains her nephews with paper ships (Persuasaion, 1995).
Anne Elliot entertains her nephews with a paper flotilla (Image from Persuasaion, 1995).

No doubt, this time with her brother’s children was excellent practice for writing the character of Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Paper ships are quite easy to make and can become addicting. The directions, however, are easier shown than described. Watch the following video, or visit wikihow for detailed instructions. Continue reading Paper Ships: An Austen Inspired Flotilla

Posted on

Locked In: Regency Prisons, Gaols and Hulks

One of the Regency Prisons

What Were Regency Prisons Like?

Edward & I had a delightful morng for our drive there [Canterbury], I enjoyed it thoroughly, but the Day turned off before we were ready, &  we came home in some rain & the apprehension of a great deal. It has not done us any harm, however.–He went to inspect the Gaol, as a visiting Magistrate, & took me with him.–I was gratified–& went through all the feelings which People must go through, I think in visiting such a building.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Godmersham Park
Wednesday, November 3, 1813

Prison, during the late Georgian and Regency eras was a grim prospect. In an age when it was possible to be imprisoned and even executed for stealing an article worth a shilling, prison was likely to be a very uncomfortable place, indeed.

Jane Austen, it seems, was familiar with the prisons of her age, visiting Canterbury Gaol in 1813 with her Magistrate brother. A closer opportunity for incarceration had arisen 1799, when she faced the prospect of keeping her aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot company while she awaited trial for the theft of some lace. Mrs. Leigh-Perrot claimed innocence of the theft, feeling she was the victim of a blackmail attempt, and remained in custody (in the jailor’s home, however, as a courtesy to her…and her husband’s deep pockets) until her trial where she faced the threat of the gallows or transportation if convicted.  Jane’s services were not required, however, and her aunt was cleared of wrongdoing, but it was a narrow miss.

The Marshalsea Prison for debtors.

Anyone owing money was also liable to be arrested and sent to a debtor’s prison until the money was paid. It was often difficult, if not impossible, to obtain enough money to repay even a small debt. Some of the unfortunate debtors remained for months or even years in conditions unworthy of a civilized country.

In stories by authors such as Charles Dickens, we may read accounts of the shocking state of such prisons in London and elsewhere during the first half of the 19th century.  Prisoners guilty of serious crimes often had iron rings fastened around their ankles and attached to a chain around their waists. These terrible ‘irons’ as they were called, were riveted together and the unhappy wrong-doer wore them, day and night, until he or she was released or died.  Sometimes the chains were attached to an iron ring cemented into the wall, and it required a blacksmith to remove them.

Not all prisons were so bad. In about 1820, it was not as dreadful to be a prisoner in Manchester as it was in Carlisle: Edinburgh prisons were probably a little better than either of them. In York, wretched prisoners were heavily loaded with irons and were almost entirely without clothing. In some prisons, the inmates had to live, if they managed to survive at all, on less than two-penny-worth of bread a day: in others they could eat an occasional meal of soup and beef and potatoes. It all depended on the governor of the prison.

Old Newgate Prison in London

A closer look at life in Regency prisons can be found in Kristine Hugh’s, Everyday Life in the Regency and Victorian England, “Throughout England, prisons before the nineteenth century consisted of either local gaols or, fewer still, houses of correction capable of housing a larger prison population. An idea of the treatment received by prisoners in these local jails can be gotten by looking at London’s Gaol, the main criminal prison in the city.

Typically, prisoners were made to pay garnish, or fees, to the prison keeper for everything necessary to survival, including clean water, food, clothing, bedding, and better accommodations. This last was necessary because prisoners were housed in dank, dark cells with upward of ten prisoners in each. Much more often, cells were so tightly packed by prisoners that there was no space for beds of any sort, and they slept on a layer of straw laid over the stone floor. This straw was rarely changed. These fees were paid from any money the prisoner might have had upon him when coming to the prison, or by friends and relatives.

Regency prisons were not the only places in which to hold criminals, but a lockup for the insane as well.  There was no move to separate these two classes of prisoners, and there was no attempt at reforming or rehabilitating the criminal until a report by the Holford Committee, formed to examine prison conditions in 1811, called for prison reforms. These included the establishment of penitentiaries, with Millbank Prison in London being the first model completed, in 1816.

Earle Harwood and his friend Mr. Bailey came to Deane yesterday, but are not to stay above a day or two. Earle has got the appointment to a prison-ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having, and he and his wife are to live on board for the future.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Steventon, December 18, 1798

The transportation of criminals was legalized in 1719, and it became common practice to send crimials who had escaped the gallows into servitude overseas. The sale of convicts to both American and west Indian plantations had been going on for decades prior to this, but it was never before sanctioned by law. Prisoners were sold for ten pounds per head, though agents charged forty pounds to the government to meet their expenses in transporting them.

Convicts being rowed out to a prison hulk.

In 1776, the Revolutionary War interfered with the transportation of prisoners, and the English government was forced to look elsewhere for a place to send its criminals, a search that lasted ten years.  Finally, it was decided to house convicts in the hulks of old ships moored on the Thames at Portsmouth, Woolwich and Plymouth. However, these quickly became over crowded, and in 1786, it was decided to once again transport prisoners, this time to the Australian colonies.

Problems arose from the shortage of transport ships, and as the number of convicts awaiting sail arose, antiquated prisons became still more crowded, necessitating the use of still more hulks.

In 1816, there was a population of twenty-five hundred housed aboard five hulks. It is not surprising that the hulks became a school of vice for young prisoners, and discipline a problem. By 1841, the governments in Australia and New South Wales refused to take any more English convicts. With transportation no longer a viable housing option for prisoners, the English government  was forced to take control of the newer penitentiaries of Millbank, Dartmoor, Portland, Parkhurst and Pentonville and place them under national administration.”

Further information about life as a transported convict during the Regency can be found in the book, The Girl from Botany Bay.

Text for this article about Regency prisons from Elizabeth Fry, published by Ladybird Books (0721403379) and The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901, by Kristine Hughes; Paperback: 260 pages; Writer’s Digest Books (February 1, 1998)  978-1582972800.

Posted on

Wentworth Makes His Bones: The Battle of St. Domingo: February 4, 1806


Wentworth Makes His Bones: The Battle of St. Domingo: February 4, 1806

In Volume I, Chapter IV of Persuasion, Jane Austen mentions that Captain Wentworth had been “made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806,” (26) where he met and wooed the lovely young second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot. A tantalizing reference; the contemporary audience for whom Jane was writing would of course know all about that battle, but what about modern Janeites, reading the novel nearly two centuries later and wondering how this obscure action fits in between Trafalgar and Waterloo?

Capt. Wentworth in the 1995 version of PersuasionJane Austen’s legion of biographers have already recorded that her brother Francis Austen participated in the Battle of St. Domingo on 6 February 1806 as captain of HMS Canopus, an 80-gun ship of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth. We have the Canopus’ log book entries, which describe the battle with military terseness; we also have Frank’s letter to his fiancée Mary Gibson, assuring her of his safety and giving a more descriptive account of the action. Austenian scholarship usually stops there, if it makes any mention at all of Frank’s participation in the battle; a frustrating exercise for the Janeite seeking information about the fictional Wentworth’s career. The Battle of St. Domingo is mentioned only in passing in naval histories, while the Battle of Trafalgar, which occurred only a few months before, has entire books written about it and is celebrated to this day. It is understandable that a reader might consider the Battle of St. Domingo relatively unimportant, and return to the story without further elucidation. However, if one considers the battle in the context of the surrounding events of its time, the importance of the action can be better understood, as can the mindset of the confident young Commander Frederick Wentworth in the summer of the Year Six.

A peace treaty between France and England was signed in Amiens on 25 March 1802, but the peace had been uneasy and short-lived, and the British declared war against France and her dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte, on 16 May 1803. Napoleon had planned to invade Britain even before the peace treaty (Parkinson 91), and when he crowned himself Emperor of France in December 1804 and began massing troops in seaside towns along the Channel, the British mobilized their naval forces to prevent the Emperor’s plan from succeeding. They organized companies of “sea fencibles,” sort of a naval militia, and Frank Austen received command of a group protecting the coast near Ramsgate in July, 1803 (Nokes 261).

Admiral Lord Horatio NelsonThe Channel fleet and the Mediterranean fleet had the French blockaded, and a few offensive sallies by the North Sea Fleet kept the French under control (Parkinson 93). William Pitt, the Prime Minister, made alliances with Russia, Austria, and Sweden, an alliance called the Third Coalition, while Spain chose to remain neutral, though they resisted pressure to take an active stand against France. According to C. Northcote Parkinson, “Napoleon came to realize that his enemies were gathering against him. The coalition took time to organize but Napoleon recognized his danger and concluded that his invasion of Britain must take place in 1805 if it were to take place at all. He could not count on naval victory but he began to dream of elaborate plans by which the British fleet might be tricked and lured away from its position in goal.” (96) Napoleon’s plan was to have two squadrons escape the blockades and sail for the West Indies; the British, fearful of French disruption of their lucrative trade in the sugar islands, would naturally follow. When the French ships reached Martinique, they would rendezvous and promptly sail back to the Channel, which would now be undefended.

With this plan in mind, Rear-Admiral Villeneuve sailed from Toulon on 30 March 1805 toward the Straits of Gibraltar. “Reaching Cadiz, the French Admiral raised the blockade of Cadiz, added six Spanish and one French ship to his squadron, crossed the Atlantic and presently reported his arrival at Martinique with 18 sail of the line.” (Parkinson 99) Unfortunately Villeneuve’s counterpart, Rear-Admiral Ganteaume, was unable to break the blockade at Brest, having been ordered by Napoleon not to engage the British fleet (Glover 39). However, Villeneuve’s action had induced Admiral Lord Nelson to take 10 sail of the line and chase the French squadron across the Atlantic, only to find when they arrived in the West Indies that the French ships had turned around and sailed back to France. One of the ships under Nelson’s command was Frank Austen’s ship, the Canopus, which Nelson had captured from the French at the Nile (the ship had then been named Le Franklin after Benjamin Franklin) and which carried Nelson’s second-in-command, Admiral Louis. (Honan 216)

Disheartened by his failure to stop Villeneuve, Nelson took a short shore leave upon his return to England, but soon was ordered back to his command. When he reached Cadiz on 28 September 1805, Nelson found the fleet needful of supplies, and dispatched Canopus to Gibraltar for water and stores; Nelson assured Admiral Louis, who did not want to miss the now-inevitable battle, that there was plenty of time for them to go to Gibraltar and return before the combined enemy fleet took action (Nokes 293).

HMS Ganges, built in 1819 as a reproduction of HMS Canopus.However, Nelson miscalculated; on 14 September, Napoleon had sent orders to Villeneuve “to break out of Cadiz, pass Gibraltar, pick up the Cartagena squadron and transport French troops to Naples.” (Glover 101) While Canopus was on its way back to Cadiz on 19 October, the Combined Fleet (French and Spanish), led by Admiral Villeneuve, left Cadiz and sailed toward Cape Trafalgar with a fleet consisting of 33 sail of the line, 5 frigates, and 2 corvettes. Two days later, Nelson gave orders for the famous signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” and the British fleet, at a slight disadvantage with 27 sail of the line, four frigates, a schooner and a cutter, sailed toward the enemy, led by Nelson’s flagship Victory. By the end of the action, the Combined Fleet had only 11 sail of the line remaining. The rest were either captured by the British or destroyed, and Admiral Villeneuve had been taken prisoner. However, the British had lost Nelson, cut down by a French sniper’s musket ball.

Four French sail of the line, commanded by Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, escaped south. They were unable to sail for Toulon because of the presence ofCanopus and the other British ships returning from Gibraltar, so they sailed north and encountered the frigate Phoenix. They chased the frigate, which led them back to the British squadron blockading Ferrol under the command of Captain Sir Richard Strachan, which engaged and eventually captured the four French ships. The French had 730 killed or wounded in the action while the British had only 135 casualties. (Parkinson 114)

The decimation of the fleet meant that Napoleon was forced to abandon his plan of invading England for the time being, so he decided to try to disrupt British trade in the West Indies, trade that helped finance the British war effort. Two French squadrons, commanded by Rear-Admiral Willaumez and Vice-Admiral Leissegues, were able to break the blockade at Brest and sailed for the West Indies. “When news of Leissegues’ operations reached Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth, who, with six sail of the line and two frigates, was blockading Cadiz, he sailed with six sail of the line for Madeira. He finally caught up with the French squadron off Santo Domingo in the West Indies. Here the five French ships were all captured or driven on shore, only the smaller vessels escaping. There were heavy losses again, over 1,500 men in all, over 500 of them aboard the three-decked flagship Imperial.” (Parkinson 114)

The Battle of St. Domingo
The Battle of St. Domingo.
On fire are the French ships Diomede and Imperial.

Frank’s official description of the action is reported by Nokes: “‘Five minutes before seven,’ Frank wrote in his log, ‘Enemy’s ships are of the line.’ At a quarter past ten, he noted, ‘the Superb commenced to fire on the enemy’s van’. By half past ten, he was in action himself; ‘opened our fire on the first ship in the enemy’s line…with one broadside brought her masts by the board…ten minutes to eleven, the dismasted ship struck…Engaged with the three-decker…ten minutes to twelve, gave her a raking broadside which brought down her mizzen mast…'” (299) Frank’s letter to Mary Gibson was a little more descriptive: “(H)is first broadside from the Canopus ‘brought our opponent’s three masts down at once, and towards the close of the business we also had the satisfaction of giving the three-decker a tickling which knocked all his sticks away.'” (Tucker 173-174)

Capt. Francis William Austen, 1794 miniature. By kind permission of the owner. All reproduction prohibited.Canopus returned to Plymouth in early May, whereupon “Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund presented (Frank) with a silver vase valued at 100 pounds as a memento of St. Domingo, and he also received a gold medal as he left theCanopus. This accession of honours and prize-money evidently encouraged him to think that he could now afford to marry Mary Gibson, and so the date of 24 July was chosen.” (Austen-Leigh 137) It was not uncommon for first lieutenants of ships involved in a successful action to receive promotion, and a few years later, when Jane Austen created her fictional naval officer, she drew upon her brother’s experiences. Commander Frederick Wentworth, who had been promoted but had not yet received a command, made his way to Somerset to spend the summer of the Year Six and pursue a romance of his own.

Between Trafalgar, the capture of the four escaped ships by Strachan, and the Battle of St. Domingo, the French navy was severely crippled. Only 32 ships of the line remained, although the French were busily building 21 more, and could capture or ally themselves with other countries and make use of their navies. But the lessening of French naval power meant that the fear of imminent invasion of England was past, as well as establishing the prominence of the Royal Navy; it is easy to see why Captain Francis Austen received medals and prizes as a result of his participation in the action, and why an able young lieutenant who took part in the action was promoted to commander rank.


Margaret C. Sullivan is the webmistress of Tilneys and Trap-doors andThe Cult of Da Man and has a childlike fascination with big wooden ships and the men who sail them.

Minature portrait of Capt. Francis Austen, by kind permission of owner. All other reproduction prohibited.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ed. by R.W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923.
Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur. Jane Austen, A Family History. Revised and enlarged by Deirdre LeFaye. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989.
Glover, Michael. The Napoleonic Wars: an illustrated history 1792-1815. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1979.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Parkinson, C. Northcote. Brittania Rules: The Classic Age of Naval History, 1793-1815. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1994.
Tucker, George Holbert. A History of Jane Austen’s Family. Sutton Publishing, 1998.

Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape into the world of Jane Austen for more Regency recipes.