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Posts Tagged ‘Mrs. Leigh Perrot’

Inquiring readers, Susannah Fullerton lives in Australia, a land Down Under, which at this moment is experiencing spring, that blessed season. Recent articles on this blog have referred to her book, “Jane Austen & Crime,” first published in 2004. Susannah presents yet more historical information from her knowledge of this era. Much of the information in this post was new to me.

On a hot Australian summer morning in February, 1844, a man was led forth, closely guarded, from the impressive gates of Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney. It was 9 o’clock in the morning, but already 10,000 people had gathered in the public square in front of the prison, eager to watch the last moments of the condemned man. He was praying as he walked and “appeared to be deeply sensible of the awful position in which he stood. A dark and frowning eternity began to press itself with fearful force upon his mind, while his apparently sincere cries for mercy became more and more earnest as the tragic scene drew on.” He was given a chance to speak some last words to the two clergymen who were present, and then he mounted the scaffold. The noose was placed around his neck, and the man “was launched into another world”.  Church bells tolled his passing nearby. The huge crowd, which included women and children, watched silently, awed by the solemnity of the spectacle and, after the body was cut down and removed to within the prison, they quietly walked away. The event was widely reported the next day in Sydney newspapers, so those who had been unable to attend, could read all about it there.

Image of A hanging outside Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney

A hanging outside Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney

Jane Austen had died more than 25 years before this horrid event. What possible connection could there be between this man, and the great novelist? Well, his name was John Knatchbull and he was the half-brother of the Edward Knatchbull who married Jane Austen’s favourite niece Fanny Austen Knight. Edward and John’s father, Sir Edward Knatchbull, had twenty children by his three different wives.  Fanny’s family and the Knatchbull family, also from Kent, had known each other for some years before her marriage with Edward united them, and it is quite possible that Jane could have heard something of the ‘difficult’ son of the family. 

John Knatchbull was probably born in 1793 (he was baptized in January of that year) in Kent. As a schoolboy he displayed “vicious inclinations” and when he joined the Navy, he soon found himself treated with contempt by fellow officers, and in financial difficulties. To pay what he owed, he indulged in petty frauds and in 1824 he was tried for the theft of two sovereigns and a blank cheque form. That was enough in value to see him hanged in England, but the judge was lenient on the young man and instead sent him to Botany Bay, the dumping ground for England’s unwanted criminals. John Knatchbull was sentenced to remain in Australia for 14 years before being permitted to return to England. His Kentish family was relieved to be rid of him.

Image of John Knatchbull

The family black sheep failed to behave any better once he was in Australia. In 1831 he was sentenced to death for forgery. But once more the sentence was commuted, this time to seven years of penal servitude on Norfolk Island, about the grimmest place a convict could be sent. In his time on Norfolk Island John took part in two mutinies and tried to poison with arsenic the food prepared for the guards. However, by 1839 he was back in Sydney. In 1844 John Knatchbull was planning to marry, but he needed money. Returning to his brutal ways, he stole from a shopkeeper Ellen Jamieson, then killed her by hacking at her skull with a tomahawk. Her two children were left orphaned and her murderer, who tried to make a plea of insanity, was described by the judge as “a wretch of the most abominable description”.  This time there was no leniency and John Knatchbull was sentenced to hang. Darlinghurst Gaol is still there today (though an art college, not a prison, now does business behind its high stone walls). The square where the 1844 hanging occurred is named Green Square, not for the colour of the grass that grows there but because Mr Green was the name of the hangman.

Image of the Gates of Darlinghurst Gaol

Had Jane Austen still been alive, no doubt she and Fanny would have discussed the shameful story and its horrific outcome. Both women were aware that another member of their family could also have ended up in the Antipodes. Aunt Jane Leigh Perrot had been at serious risk of a trip to Botany Bay, when she was accused of shop-lifting in Bath in 1799. Incarcerated for some months in Ilchester Gaol, Mrs Leigh Perrot had defended herself vigorously and, at her trial, she was acquitted. However, she knew a journey to Australia was highly probable and made plans that her husband James would accompany her if she was sent there. The entire Austen family must, at this worrying time, have speculated about what life in the colony would be like for their relations.

Jane Austen was interested in prisons. In 1813 she visited Canterbury Gaol with her brother Edward, who had to visit the institution as part of his duties as a magistrate. This was a most unusual thing for a Regency lady to do. My book Jane Austen and Crime explains what sort of institution she saw there. Jane Austen’s interest in punishment and imprisonment went into her next novel, Mansfield Park, a novel that is rich in prison imagery and a book that examines various types of imprisonment in its themes.

 

 

Photo of the gaol in Canterbury visited by Jane AustenThe gaol in Canterbury, visited by Jane Austen

Anyone who lived in Britain’s Georgian era must have had a strong awareness of crimes and punishments. Hangings, time in the pillory, and other punishments were very public events. Trials were short and brutal, prisons were being much discussed and were undergoing huge changes, and yet some crimes such as smuggling and poaching were regarded much more leniently by the general public. I started to write my book on crimes in Jane Austen’s world and fiction when a bus on which I was travelling stopped by Darlinghurst Gaol and I began to reflect on the Knatchbull story and to wonder what actually constituted a crime in Austen’s day? Was elopement to Gretna Green a crime? What about Maria’s adultery with Henry Crawford – how did the law regard such behaviour? Which of Jane Austen’s characters commit hanging offences, and how does her juvenilia reflect her interest in criminal activity? Which of her characters work as magistrates, who are the lawyers in her fiction, and how did she regard such crimes as duelling and gambling? The result of that moment on a bus was, some years later, my book. Claire Tomalin was kind enough to describe it as “essential reading for every Janeite”. I found it fascinating to see Jane Austen’s world and fiction through the lens of crime – I hope you enjoy and learn from it too.

Photo of Susannah FullertonAbout Susannah Fullerton, OAM, FRSN, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia: Susannah Fullerton is a Canadian-born Australian author and literary historian. She has been president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia since 1996, which is the largest literary society in Australia.

Image of the book cover of Jane Austen & Crime by Susannah FullertonIf you would like to buy Jane Austen and Crime, it is available from https://susannahfullerton.com.au/bookshop/ (signed copies on request) 

 

You are welcome to sign up to Susannah’s free monthly newsletter, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’. To sign up, email susannah@susannahfullerton.com.au and

your name will be entered in a draw ON DECEMBER 20TH to win one of the following prizes:
  • A signed copy of Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullterton.
  • An additional copy of the book from Vic Sanborn for U.S. and Canadian citizens.
  • A 1-year subscription to ‘Tea with a Book Addict’, an exciting programme of zoom / video talks which will take you around the world with 12 fabulous novels.
  •  1 video talk of your choice from Susannah’s website
Please quote the password KNATCHBULL to have your name entered in the draw for prizes.
To join in the fun with ‘Tea with a Book Addict’, visit https://susannahfullerton.com.au/tea-with-a-book-addict/ 

Image of Tea with a Book Addict and travel the world with great books with Susannah Fullerton

Other posts by Susannah Fullerton on this blog:

Readers: all other posts by Susannah on this blog and her writings about Jane Austen can be found at this link that tag her name: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/susannah-fullerton/

 

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