Persuasions #6, 1984 Pages 16-17
SOMETHING YOU MAY HAVE OVERLOOKED IN ALTON
Patricia Jo Kulisheck
Many JASNA members visiting the Jane Austen cottage travel by rail to Alton and then walk to Chawton along Alton’s one main street with many names. At Crown Close, at the top of the hill where Normandy becomes High Street, they pass the homely Victorian brick Curtis Museum. An hour’s stop to look round would be time well spent on the Museum itself and its associations with Jane Austen. The collection was first opened in 1837 by two Quaker physicians, William Curtis, a gifted amateur geologist, and his brother John, an excellent ornithologist and botanist. They were the sons of the apothecary William Curtis who attended Jane Austen in her last illness (R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 389, 491, 494). The Museum itself was built in 1880.
The Museum is mainly devoted to rural life and displays hand tools used by such craftsmen as rakemakers, broommakers, thatchers, and hurdle-makers. Special prominence is given to artifacts of hop growing, which was unique to this part of Hampshire because of the geology of the valley of the River Wey from Alton to Farnham. The last hop field in Alton was taken out of cultivation only this year. In Jane Austen’s time, many of her neighhours were hop planters or, more accurately, investors in hop fields, a tricky gamble on a delicate crop much affected by weather and insects. On her walks into Alton to shop, she would pass the hop fields at Whitedown near the Butts.
Alton has been famous for its ales for hundreds of years. The Museum’s brewing display features James Baverstock, well known in his day as the first scientific brewer in England because he introduced the use of the hydrometer in the trade. On behalf of his wife, Baverstock sued Edward Knight over possession of the Chawton and Godmersham estates, a real threat to the whole Austen family’s financial security. Jane Austen refers to Edward’s lawsuit or cause in her letters (Chapman, pp. 383, 415, 427). Only a harsh financial reversal forced the Baverstocks to accept a settlement (Collected Reports of the Jane Austen Society, 1949-1965, Winchester, Warren & Son Ltd., 1967, p. 6).
William Hugh Curtis, author of a charming biography of his grandfather, the Museum’s founder, was its Curator when he became the first chairman of the Jane Austen Society. Elizabeth Jenkins writes, “The afternoon that Dorothy Darnell first spoke to me of her idea of founding a Jane Austen Society, with a view to making the house at Chawton available to the public, she said, ‘We must get hold of Mr. Curtis.’ … I saw that it was taken for granted, by some-one who lived in the neighbourhood, that nothing of the kind we wanted to do could be undertaken without his help. When I was introduced to him I saw why. Mr. Curtis had so much to give to the project that without him in those early days of 1942, we should scarcely have been able to translate our ideas into action …. Anyone who examines his life-work, the Curtis Museum at Alton, and sees there that wonderful demonstration of life as it was in a small country town before the Industrial Revolution – the beauty and the vigour and the ingenuity that country people put into the work of their hands even though they could not read or write – will realize how well he understood the spirit of English life when it was still inspired by imagination” (Collected Reports, pp. 113-14).
This year the Hampshire County Museum Service has undertaken refurbishing and redisplay at the 104-year-old Curtis. The present Curator Tony Cross welcomes foreign visitors and can answer questions about the everyday life of Jane Austen’s contemporaries around Alton.