House and History
Chawton House itself is over four hundred years old, and the recorded history of the land on which it stands stretches even further back. From 1996 to 2003, extensive restoration work was carried out on the house and estate, prior to the opening of Chawton House Library as a UK registered charity in 2003. The house is regularly open to visitors, alongside library readers, for tours and during public events.
For information on art and furniture collections and their conservation, please use the link to the right.
From the Domesday Book to the 13th century
Chawton was the site of an ancient settlement dating back to the New Stone Age period. The Domesday Book of 1086 records that the manor with ploughed and wooded land belonged to Oda, a Hampshire thane, during the time of Edward the Confessor. Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror made Oda surrender Chawton to his Norman follower, Hugh de Port. De Port and his descendants held Chawton in direct male line for nearly three hundred years. Thereafter, it was held in the female line until the middle of the sixteenth century. During the thirteenth century, there were frequent visits to Chawton by King Henry III and then his son, King Edward I, the manor having become an important staging post for royal journeys between London and Winchester.
16th century: The Knights and the building of Chawton House
In April 1551, the land was sold for £180 to John Knight, whose family had been tenant farmers in Chawton since the thirteenth century and who had prospered sufficiently to wish to acquire a large estate. The medieval manor house was replaced by John Knight’s grandson, also called John, with the largely Elizabethan house that can be seen today. The building work began c.1583 and continued until the mid 1660s to create the house as it stands today. A commemorative fireback (dated 1588) can still be seen in the Great Hall from this period, commemorating the Battle of the Armada.
17th to early 19th centuries: Including Jane Austen at Chawton
The freehold has remained in the Knight family ever since the sixteenth century, though on many occasions the ownership passed laterally and sometimes by female descent, requiring several heirs to change their surnames to Knight. Sir Richard Knight, who inherited at the age of two in 1641, had no children and he left the estate to a grandson of his aunt, Richard (Martin) Knight. His brother, and then his sister, Elizabeth, inherited in their turn. During the first part of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth undertook the further development of the house and gardens. She married twice, but again no children were born, and when she died the estate passed to her cousin Thomas Brodnax May Knight, who united it with his own large fashionable property in Kent, Godmersham Park.
In 1781, Thomas Knight II inherited the house. He and his wife Catherine had no children of their own, but through family connections with Jane Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, they eventually adopted Jane’s third brother, Edward, in the year of his sixteenth birthday. Edward Austen eventually took over management of the estates at Godmersham and Chawton in 1797, living mostly at Godmersham and letting the Great House at Chawton to gentlemen tenants. In 1809 he offered a house in the village to his mother and two sisters Cassandra and Jane, and it was there that Jane Austen began the most prolific period of her writing life. Her career as a novelist took off with the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, and she went on to publish a further three of her novels while at Chawton (two more followed shortly after her death). She lived in Chawton almost until her death in 1817, only moving to Winchester near the end of her life to be nearer medical care.
19th and early 20th centuries: Victorian influence
In 1826, the house became the home of Edward (Austen) Knight’s son, also Edward, who carried out extensive work on the estate, building a new Servants Hall, a Billiard Room wing and replacing some of the wooden sash windows with stone casements. On his death the title passed to his son Montagu who spent considerable amounts of time and money continuing the restoration and modernising of the house, with the influence of Edwin Lutyens being apparent in many areas. As Montagu was childless, his nephew, Lionel, inherited the estate, followed by his son Edward Knight III. Inheritance taxes and increased running costs following the war then started a long period of decline, the sale of most of the outlying manor and the subdivision of the house into flats.
1980s to the present: Restoration and the opening of the Library
By 1987, when Richard Knight inherited, parts of the house were derelict, the roof leaked, timbers were rotting and the gardens were overgrown. The decline was halted in 1993 with the sale of a 125 year lease to a new charity, Chawton House Library, founded by the American entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sandy Lerner, via the charitable foundation established by her and her husband Leonard Bosack, the Leonard X. Bosack and Bette M. Kruger Foundation. The lease included the grade II* listed Chawton House and 275 acres of land. The Elizabethan stable block, already converted to a dwelling, was purchased outright. Following ten years of extensive restoration and repair work, the Great House reopened in July 2003 as Chawton House Library. The Library’s remarkable collection of books, which focuses on women’s writing in English from 1600 to 1830, was collected by Sandy Lerner and generously donated to the Library prior to its opening. Richard Knight, the current freeholder, remains actively involved in the project as a trustee.
The restoration work carried out on Chawton House was all done using traditional methods, in keeping with the history of the house. Before work even started, extensive research was done to establish the history of the building and the landscape, and during the restoration, a careful watch was kept for evidence of archaeology and architectural history. A historical team, including architectural historian Edward Roberts, archaeologist Christopher Currie, dendrochronologist Dan Miles and landscape consultant Sybil Wade, were able to investigate and document anything found that provided additional evidence of the history of the house and estate.
The first repair work was done on the roof of the south range of the house. This work began in 1995 and consisted of temporary holding repairs. The historical research carried out was then used to put together plans for the listed building application and planning consents. This was extensive work involving long negotiations with the local planning departments and English Heritage. At the end of October 1997, planning and listed building consent was finally granted, enabling work to begin in 1998, when the initial phase of the main restoration work began. The south range roof was stripped of the tarpaulins and major timber repairs were carried out. The Victorian billiard wing, which was causing damage to the fabric of the Elizabethan house, was demolished. The following year, work began on the outbuildings, which subsequently became the estate offices and workshop. The drive was lowered and, in 2000, work also started on the restoration of the well and pumphouse, including its machinery. In 2001, internal work began on the south range and the restoration of the west range roof was also carried out. In 2002, work began on a timber framed barn to accommodate four shire horses, a tack room and a hayloft, and in the same year, the final phase of restoration work began on the house, with work carried out on the internal part of the west range and the whole of the north range. Extensive dry rot was discovered; brickwork had to be removed, and timber was also removed so that it could be treated and rebuilt. The restoration of the house was essentially complete when it opened as Chawton House Library in July 2003.
The Great Hall was originally built in the first phase of construction of the house in 1583. Tree-ring dating has shown the wooden panelling to be original, with some panelling dating from the 1580s and some from the 1620s. The room, now used for events including evening lectures and conferences, had the wooden floorboards completely removed during the restoration, in order to lay electrical wiring and fireproofing. This process was carried out throughout the entire house.
During the restoration an additional door was added to the Hall, in order to give a fire exit to the courtyard. Around the door is a late Jacobean wooden surround, which was originally sited in front of the Servants’ Passage archway. The door surround is evidence of Sir Richard Knight’s remodelling of the house in the mid-seventeenth century, as evidenced by the carved detail giving his initials and the date 1655. It was decided to move the surround to the new fire exit to give the opportunity of displaying both it and the eighteenth-century archway to the Servants’ Passage.
The Servants’ Passage was added to the house in 1655 to allow staff to pass between the north and south ranges of the house without using the Great Hall. During the restoration, a seventeenth-century door surround was moved to another doorway (as shown on the previous page) to reveal the eighteenth-century archway leading to the passage.
The Old Kitchen was built in 1592 as part of the Elizabethan servants’ wing. Features include an early Victorian range by Flavel and Company (still in need of restoration to working order) and a work table dating back to the eighteenth century.
The Scullery features original large stone and slate sinks, which would have been supplied with water pumped from the nearby well house that dates from the 1580s.
Tapestry Gallery Staircase
The staircase up to the Tapestry Gallery, built in 1583-5, was originally the main staircase, superceded in 1655 by the hanging staircase added in the south part of the house. Restoration work to the Tapestry Gallery staircase revealed original William Morris wallpaper behind the banisters.
When restoration work began, the Great Gallery on the first floor of the house was divided by a modern partition, which was removed to restore the Gallery to its original shape.
Old Archive Room
This small room, now an office, had its floorboards raised, in order to put in wiring and fireproofing – as did the rest of the house. A hidden cupboard, concealed behind a panel, was discovered in this room, in which a telescope, dated c. 1610, was found.
Restoration work outside the house included paving the courtyard.
Gallery of Restoration Work