When Jane Austen died in Winchester in 1817, she was attended by Dr Giles Lyford, nephew of the family’s Dr John Lyford in Basingstoke. There is a memorial to Giles in the little church of St Lawrence near the Buttercross in Winchester.

Steventon was of course Jane’s birthplace, but that Rectory, low-lying and damp, was not favoured by Jane’s brother James when he became Rector, and it was eventually demolished.

Many books about Jane Austen had footnotes, which were very negative about Basingstoke. They suggested that the entire town had been flattened in the 1960s  and that there was nothing to see here.  Basingstoke Heritage Society decided to produce a leaflet.

Basingstoke Gazette: Dr Giles King Lyford monument, Winchester St Lawrence

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The trail began with what is almost certainly a myth. To the rear of The Angel Inn in Market Place (Barclays Bank today), was an Assembly room belonging to the inn, which had been one of the town’s significant coaching inns.  It was also one of those which did not survive the coming of the railway and was bankrupted. In the sales brochure, the Assembly Room was described as a fine room.

In the early 1900s, Constance Hill and her sister, avid Jane Austen fans, set out to track places in her life. They arrived in Basingstoke. Where was the Assembly Room where Jane had danced? They popped into The Angel (by then a café) and had a talk with the wife of the proprietor.

She told them that at the back was a large room in use as a hayloft but which she had been told had been a ballroom. Off they went to inspect it. Despite its then use, it had fireplaces; a chandelier; a fine wooden floor. The two ladies put two and two together and made at least five!

They found similarities with the exact description of The Crown in ‘Emma’.  The book written by Constance Hill was published in 1902 with this story.

Nowadays, it is thought unlikely that Jane would have danced in that ballroom as it has been considered to be ‘beneath’ her. Maybe her brothers did but we don’t know that either.

Basingstoke Gazette: Winchester St, The Angel Inn

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However, the story stuck and was generally known in the town. When the old Angel Assembly Room was demolished in the 1970s, there were objections on the grounds that it had been where Jane danced.   

We know that Jane shopped here because she writes about Mrs Ryder’s shop and she bought flannel at  2s 3d a yard from Miss Wood, but we don’t know where these shops were.

On a long journey home from her brother Edward’s home in Kent, Mrs Austen collapsed in Basingstoke and Dr Lyford was sent for. Our leaflet suggests the Red Lion, but although this has elsewhere been published it may not be correct. However, Jane and her mother had come on a coach which used the Red Lion as a stop.

We do know that the Reverend George Austen, Jane’s father, frequented a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ at The Crown Inn (now Joices Yard). Here men would have read newspapers and gossiped about politics and the likelihood of invasion by Napoleon’s army.  It was The Crown who mainly arranged the balls at the town hall.

Basingstoke Gazette:

Dr Lyford lived in Cross Street, possibly in one of the houses on the south side. He was more than a doctor and dined with the Austen family in Steventon where he ate “pease-pudding, sparerib and a pudding”.

Goldings (now the Registrar’s office) was probably visited by Jane, but no evidence. We know that her father visited and that little dances were held there hosted by Mrs Russell.

We know that Jane’s writing slope was sold by John Ring to the Reverend Austen as this businessman’s sales records are extant in the Record Office at Winchester. He supplied almost everything needed by the middling sort and gentry around the town.  John Ring lived in a house which survives to this day in Lower Church Street. It was a fine house, lately vacated by Office Angels.

The writing slope is in the British Library but was loaned for an exhibition to The Willis Museum in 2017.

The trail is to be found in The Willis and in the Library (Discovery Centre) or here. Jane Austen Leaflet (bas-herit-soc.org)

This story was written by Debbie Reavell from the Basingstoke Heritage Society.