Jane Austen’s father, George, was born in Tonbridge, educated at Tonbridge School, was Second Master and taught at Tonbridge School. James Cawthorne who was then the Headmaster of the school built up a great library; George Austen must have learned to love books from Cawthorne and Jane Austen relates in one of her letters that, when the family moved to Bath after her father retired, he had to dispose of more than 500 books. Jane was allowed a free range of her father’s library so it was there that she was able to educate herself.
George’s parents are buried in the parish church of St Peter & St Paul where other Austen relations and friends are commemorated. Another important ledger stone in the church is the recently uncovered stone to Sarah Weller, the younger sister of Jane’s great grandmother, Elizabeth. Elizabeth married John Austen IV of Horsmonden who died young, leaving his wife with massive debts and seven children. This remarkable Tonbridge woman with no help from the Austen’s, other than taking her oldest son to be the next head of the family, or her own family, paid off the debts and took her remaining six sons and one daughter to Sevenoaks School where her sons were educated in exchange for her work as housekeeper. Elizabeth is buried somewhere in St Peter & St Paul but we do not know where.
There is no documentary evidence that Jane Austen ever visited Tonbridge but it is highly unlikely that she did not. We know that in 1788 at the age of twelve Jane accompanied her parents on a visit to her father’s wealthy Uncle Francis, in Sevenoaks. Francis, one of the children to benefit from the education his mother, Elizabeth Weller Austen provided, became a prosperous lawyer. It is inconceivable that the family did not come on to Tonbridge to visit her father’s half-brother to whom George was very close and to whom Jane’s birth was announced on 17th December 1775. There is another record of an Austen family visit to Tonbridge when her parents came with her brother Francis.
Plaque at Tonbridge School to Jane's father
Written by Vivian Branson, Cllr, Castle Ward, TMBC