Unlike Army officers, members of the Royal Navy could obtain commissions without purchasing them. This difference created opportunities for the penurious sons of gentlemen like Jane Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen. Two of his younger sons, Frank and Charles, joined the Navy when they were barely into their teens.
Getting ahead in the Navy was another matter. That required connections and an occasional greased palm. The Austens did not hesitate to use both to advance the cause of their sons.
To help Frank, Mr. Austen in 1794 wrote Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of India and godfather of Jane’s cousin Eliza. Hastings wrote to First Naval Lord Affleck. On Jane’s mother’s side, the Leighs, were two captains, Stanhope and Chamberlayne, who became rear admirals after Frank and Charles entered service. Jane’s cousin, Jane Cooper, married Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Williams, who became Charles’ patron.
Of all the relatives, the strongest connection came through Anne Mathew, the first wife of Jane’s oldest brother, James. Married to James only a few years before her death, she was the daughter of General Edward Mathew. Mathew had two nieces; each sister married a Gambier brother: James, future Lord of the Admiralty; and Samuel, Secretary of the Navy Board.
James Gambier was instrumental in Frank’s early promotions and Frank served him in several captaincies. Gambier was also called upon to help Charles. In a letter of 18-19 December 1798, Jane jokes to Cassandra that Gambier “will be delighted” to have another Austen to help. Jane adds that Charles “would be very right” to address Sir Thomas Williams as well.
A week later, Jane updates Cass to say that Gambier has replied that Charles will be transferred to a larger ship “when a proper opportunity offers & it is judged that he has taken his Turn in a small Ship.” As for Frank, Gambier says: “I can give you the assurance that his promotion is likely to take place very soon.” Later in the letter, Jane adds that Charles has told her that he has directly written Lord Spencer of the Admiralty. Spencer has now received so many applications from the Austens, Jane says, that he “might order some of our heads to be cut off.”
Just two days later, she exults at the success of the letter-writing campaign: “Frank is made.—He was yesterday raised to the Rank of Commander, & appointed to the Petterel sloop … and Lieut. Charles John Austen is removed to the Tamer frigate.” (Jane misspells the name of the Peterel and Tamur. But the navy itself spelled the Peterel four different ways until settling on Peterel. In a later letter, when Charles is reassigned to his earlier ship Endymion under Captain Thomas, she corrects that name to Tamar.)
Through the Gambiers, the family also became connected with Lord Moira, a senior military figure and an influential companion to the future prince regent and king, George IV. Brian Southam, in his 2005 book Jane Austen and the Navy, documents the ways that Moira helped Frank.
The conventional belief is that Charles moved up largely because of Sir Thomas Williams. Stuart Bennett, however, in a 2013 Persuasions article, reveals correspondence at the Huntington Library that also ties Moira to Charles’ advancement. The letters illuminate a quid pro quo in which Henry’s bank lent Moira money in exchange for letters of support to naval authorities. In 1803-4, Moira received loans totaling at least £2,000 from Henry, with Moira’s patronage leading to Charles receiving his first command, the sloop Indian in Bermuda. Another exchange of loans for letters in 1805 attempted to obtain Frank a frigate—the most potentially lucrative ship for winning prize money—but that effort failed.
Eventually, Lord Moira and James Gambier both fell out of favor politically and ceased to be able to provide much help. Also, Moira’s inability to repay the original loans left Henry unable to lend more. His financial negligence was a major cause of Henry’s bankruptcy in 1816, which devastated the finances of the entire Austen family. Conservative Jane lost only £13; most of the £640 she had earned as a writer was invested—where else?—in safe Navy stock paying 5 percent annually.
Most of Frank’s commands involved old, slow vessels, and he didn’t make much prize money from capturing enemy ships. Typical of these was the Canopus (above, by headline), which was so slow it was the last to engage the enemy in a major battle at San Domingo in the West Indies. But once there, Frank’s broadsides dismasted two enemy ships.
Only once did Frank receive a modern ship, the Caledonia, the newest and finest in the fleet, a first-rater with 120 guns. This was the flagship of his patron, now Admiral Lord James Gambier. (On a flagship, the admiral would command the fleet while the flag captain would command the ship.) When Gambier was replaced a few months later, the new admiral took the captaincy from Frank and gave it to his son-in-law.
Jane’s letter of 18-20 April 1811 shows her alarm at his loss: “Saturday.—Frank is superseded in the Caledonia. Sir Edwd Pellew succeeds Lord Gambier … & some Captain of his, succeeds Frank; … what will he do? & where will he live?” Frank ended up in command of the seventy-four-gun Elephant, a solid warship but no prize-taker. It was his last sea command for nearly three decades.
Next month: What happens when the sailor brothers take command.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.
The Trilogy is also available as a Kindle “boxed set”: