In my book, Jane, Actually, I wrote this:
Traffic was still busy on the Cromwell Road but of course for Jane it was all silence. She could imagine the sounds of the people as they walked by but she could not imagine what motorized traffic must sound like. She could only guess that cars and trucks must be louder than the carriages she knew. She had never actually heard a self-powered mechanical device such as a steam engine, which she thought would be the closest equivalent in her time.
I still worry about that because I’m sure there’s some Austen scholar out there who can prove otherwise. I didn’t even bother to check that statement because it suited my purpose at the time, even though I knew in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon/James Burke Connections kind of way that it was possible she’d seen a steam engine.
Austen, after all, was living during the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t quite the heyday of the Victorian era yet, but it still affected her and her writing. Most Janeites know of the Enclosure Movement, when wealthy landowners got wealthier by invoking the Enclosure Act, which allowed them to consolidate what had been common use land for their own private use. Consolidating the land led to more efficient farming and bigger crop yields and that produce could feed the increasing numbers of people leaving the country to live and work in the industrial cities of the North. Of course some of those country folk were displaced because their small farms had become smaller thanks to the gentry enclosing the common lands.
John Dashwood, whom we know as a despicable character in Sense and Sensibility, was gobbling up Norland Common and presumably contributing to the growth of the cities. But how could Dashwood in Sussex get his goods up to a northern city like Birmingham?
Aha! you say, the railroads. That’s when Jane Austen might have seen a steam engine, but you’re a little early. The first steam locomotives were built in the eighteenth century, but during Austen’s lifetime, the only place you might have found a working locomotive would have been at collieries (coal mines), where they replaced animal drawn carts. In 1825, the Stockton and Darlington Railway became the first public railway to use a steam locomotive, George Stephenson’s Locomotion No. 1, to transport passengers 1, but that’s eight years after Austen’s death.
So Austen probably wouldn’t have traveled on a train, unless she visited a colliery. If she had visited a mine, let’s say Poldark’s Wheal Leisure copper mine in Cornwall, she might have seen a steam engine pumping water out of the mine. The Newcomen engine, invented in 1712, was quickly used in collieries and other mines to remove water, and the distinctive tall engine house housed the vertical piston and balance beam. In fact Poldark’s mine is filmed at the engine house of the Wheal Owles mine in Cornwall2. I don’t know if the current BBC series acknowledges that there is a steam engine there, but the tall smokestack certainly suggests it.
So where else would Austen have seen a working steam engine? Well if we go back to the question of how John Dashwood shipped his produce to the northern cities, the Georgian era solution would be by canal. There was a canal building craze in the eighteenth century and perhaps Norland Park had access to the Wey and Arun Canal, which connected the south coast with London via the Thames. From London, any number of canals would have led north.
Canals need a steady source of water and in the early days, that meant the highest point of a canal must be supplied by a river (or water was pumped up to holding ponds using a water wheel on that river). By Austen’s lifetime, however, giant steam engines were used to pump water to those holding ponds. A passenger might see those steam engines at work as she glided by on a horse-drawn narrowboat.
But probably not Austen. First, there was relatively little passenger traffic on the canals as narrowboats were mostly intended to move goods and it was still faster to travel by coach. The advantage of canal transport was that it was much more reliable and could move more tonnage than road transport, not necessarily because it was faster. Also, a woman like Austen, still on the edge of gentry, wouldn’t have traveled in the company of barge and boat men.
So how do we get Austen to see a steam engine? Clues are found in her letters and the fact that she lived for a time in Bath in Somerset, because the Kennet and Avon Canal begins in Bath. Completed in 1810, it linked Bristol to Bath via the Avon (there’s more than one River Avon), Bath to Newbury by canal, Newbury to Reading via the Kennet River and Reading to London via the Thames. The highest point of the canal is at 450 feet above sea level and the Caen Hill locks at Devizes climb 237 feet in two miles. A prodigious amount of water has to be pumped to holding ponds to supply water to the canal and two pumping stations were employed.
The Claverton pumping station was powered by a water wheel on the Avon and is very near Bath (three miles on today’s roads) and might have been visited by Austen, although it was completed in 1813, after the author’s time in Bath. There is some scant evidence that Austen took an interest in the canal. In 1801, she wrote in a letter that she was to take a “long-planned walk to the Cassoon,” which probably refers to the utterly bizarre caisson lock at Combe Hay. I don’t know whether Austen took that walk, but at least it shows she had some interest in canal infrastructure.
Neither the caisson lock nor the Claverton pumping station were steam powered, however the Crofton pumping station west of Newbury was. A Boulton and Watt steam engine with a wooden beam was installed there in 1809 and the current No. 1 engine was installed in 1812.
I have no evidence that Austen visited Crofton, but there is still another connection Austen connection to the canal. In her letters, we see mention of members of the Dundas family. Charles Dundas was the first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company and an ardent promoter of the canal. We know that Austen visited the vicarage of Kintbury, for her sister, Cassandra, was engaged to Thomas Fowle, son of the vicar. And Charles Dundas was later raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Amesbury of Kintbury, Amesbury, and Barton Court in the County of Berkshire. So in all likelihood, Austen knew Charles Dundas. Certainly the current Dundas generation would like to think so.
So in that Bacon/Burke long line of possible connections and maybes, it’s not inconceivable that Charles Dundas might have given Austen a tour of the Crofton beam engines and the line in my book might be wrong.
But probably not.
PS To be honest, this article actually recreates my attempts at the time to verify that line in my book.
PPS I apologize for the blatant use of Poldark to get you to read this article.
PPPS I apologize for the excessive number of postscripts, but I’d like to point out the serendipity of my Austen researches. I am currently reading Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future and the video above matches precisely where I am as I write this article.
2 Or you can visit Poldark Mine, a tourist attraction opened in ’70s with the approval of author Winston Graham.