Jane Austen and Broadwater in the early nineteenth century

Broadwater from the north, with the entrance to Offington House on the right
Broadwater from the north, with the entrance to Offington House on the right

To coincide with the Worthing World of Words Festival, being held between June 15 and 22, we shall, this week and next, celebrate in these pages aspects of the two most significant literary visits to Worthing in the town’s history – next week Oscar Wilde’s; this week, Jane Austen’s.

Jane Austen, her mother, her sister and their friend, Martha Lloyd, spent between seven and 15 weeks in Worthing in late 1805; and 12 years later she drew on the experience of her stay when she began writing a novel (left unfinished at her death) set in a new seaside resort being transformed by an enthusiastic developer – in Sanditon, Mr Parker; in the Worthing of 1805, Edward Ogle.

St Mary's, Broadwater, as it was in Jane Austen's time, with a short spire

St Mary's, Broadwater, as it was in Jane Austen's time, with a short spire

The many close resemblances between Worthing and Jane Austen’s fictional town are set out in the fifth chapter of my book, Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon.

One of the closest of the parallels is between Broadwater and the fictional village of “old Sanditon”, that Jane Austen located just north of her seaside resort.

Old Sanditon is first referred to – on this occasion as “the real village of Sanditon” – when Mr Parker and some of the other characters are travelling south towards the coast near the start of the novel: “They were now approaching the Church & real village of Sanditon, which stood at the foot of the Hill they were afterwards to ascend – a Hill, whose side was covered with the woods & enclosures of Sanditon House and whose Height ended in an open Down where the new Buildings might soon be looked for. A branch only, of the Valley, winding more obliquely towards the Sea, gave a passage to an inconsiderable Stream.”

Sanditon House was almost certainly based on Offington House, the magnificent manor house located just north-west of Broadwater.

Rev. Peter Wood, rector of Broadwater

Rev. Peter Wood, rector of Broadwater

Broadwater itself seems to have been an old-fashioned and tatty little place at the start of the 19th century.

John Feltham, the author of A Guide to All the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places for 1813, is dismissive of the village, which he says “looks contemptible when contrasted with the growing splendour” of Worthing.

However, John Mackoull, writing in the edition of A Sketch of Worthing he published in the same year – while acknowledging that until recently Broadwater had been an unimpressive settlement – finds evidence of recent improvement: “It is but a few years since that it had a most wretched and shabby appearance; it has now become, from a poor, mean, beggarly place, a delightful and rural village, containing many very pleasant houses.”

In the 1817 edition of his book, Mackoull explains why the village has improved so much.

Muir House in 1959 ' Jane Austen probably visited the house in November 1805, when it was the rectory

Muir House in 1959 ' Jane Austen probably visited the house in November 1805, when it was the rectory

“Like most villages out of the common road, near the sea-side, it was formerly a very poor and comfortless spot,” he writes.

However, as the result of Worthing’s having become a “watering-place of celebrity”, “there is now a sufficiency to admire and be pleased with”.

The branch of the valley “winding more obliquely towards the sea” from old Sanditon is matched in the geography of Broadwater, to the east of which there is a wide corridor of low-lying land curving in a south-east direction to the coast about a mile east of Worthing.

As late as medieval times this had been a tidal inlet of the sea – indeed it was the “broad water” that gave the village its name – and, as in the novel, an “inconsiderable stream” (the Broadwater Brook) runs through this low-lying land to the sea.

Offington House

Offington House

Broadwater itself is, like old Sanditon, low-lying, a fact easily missed by a 21st century visitor.

On the modern Ordnance Survey map, triangulation points a few hundred yards to the north-east and south-west of Broadwater church show land that is, respectively, only 13 and three metres above sea level.

The village of Broadwater was certainly well known to the Austen ladies since, with no church in Worthing at that time, the parish church of St Mary’s, Broadwater, is the church they would have attended on Sundays during their stay – for example, on September 22, when Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny, recorded in her diary that some of the party, including “Aunt Jane”, went to church.

Jane Austen was also in Broadwater on Monday, November 4, when she was one of the witnesses to an affidavit signed by Martha Lloyd in front of the rector.

The rector in question was the Rev Peter Wood, of whom John Mackoull has nothing but good to say: “His character is truly apostolical; he is not only revered and loved by the inhabitants of Broadwater and Worthing, but by the whole county of Sussex; there is a pleasing meekness in his demeanour, with a face illumined with benignity. His heart glowing with piety, he is continually going about doing good. He possesses neither pride nor avarice. The parsonage house is called the Temple of Charity, hospitality stands at its gate, and invites the stranger and needy to refreshment.”

The Rev Wood’s church, however, was less to be admired than its rector. G., the anonymous author of A Tour to Worthing, tells us that in 1805, St Mary’s, Broadwater, was “in the most deplorable condition, extremely old”.

He adds that the church’s appearance suggests that it has never been refurbished since it was built, since “the outside bears severe marks of antiquity and decay, and the interior parts are nearly demolished … the whole is in a dreadful state of dilapidation”.

By a remarkable coincidence, I was in the process of preparing this article when I received an email from a Herald reader called James Tourle, who wrote to ask me whether I knew anything about a fine Georgian house called Muir House, which used to stand opposite Broadwater Church. James had known the house in the early fifties when he was a boy.

James’s email sent me to my copy of Ronald Kerridge and Michael Standing’s superb history of Broadwater, published in 1983; and, much to my interest, I discovered that Muir House had been Broadwater’s rectory at the time of Jane Austen’s visit.

The house is mentioned as the rectory in John Evans’s 1805 guide to the town, and Kerridge and Standing suggest that it was probably built by Wood when he took up his duties in 1797.

It was a large and handsome house, with ten bedrooms and four sitting rooms.

By the time James Tourle knew it, however, it was divided up into self-contained flats, in one of which a schoolfriend of his lived.

James says that the gardens were large and unkempt. He and his friend, who were about ten at the time, used to play in the large tree that now stands in front of the chemist.

In the 1950s, the tree stood just inside the entrance gates to the house, which was circled by a high flint wall.

By 1959 Muir House was unoccupied and semi-derelict, and it was demolished to make way for the Broadwater Boulevard shopping precinct.

We cannot know whether Martha Lloyd’s affidavit was witnessed at the church or in the rectory, but – since this was not church business – it is likely that the amiable Rev Wood would have welcomed the ladies into his house.

It is therefore probable that the picture of Muir House that accompanies this article is the picture of a house inside which Jane Austen signed her name one November day 209 years ago.

• Most of the material in this article comes from Antony Edmonds’s book, Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon. The photograph of Muir House in 1959 is taken from Georgian and Victorian Broadwater by R. G. P. Kerridge and 
M. R. Standing. The view of Offington House is reproduced by courtesy of West Sussex County Council Library Service, www.westsussexpast.org.uk. Information about events during the Worthing World of Words festival can be found at www.worthingwow.co.uk.