It’s our birthday!

It's 72 years since Jane Austen's House opened to the public!
A press cutting from the opening of Jane Austen's House

Newspaper cutting from The Listener showing the crowds at opening day

72 years ago, on Saturday 23 July 1949, Jane Austen’s House opened to the public. Since then, the House has welcomed over a million visitors and has become one of the most important and best-loved literary sites in the world.

This year, as the House begins to feel like itself again after its Coronavirus closures, we are looking back to its first opening with particular pride, and are taking inspiration from the remarkable men and women whose passion for Jane Austen and determination to honour her made it all happen.

After the death of Jane’s sister Cassandra in 1845, the House returned to the Chawton estate and was divided into tenements for estate workers, with other rooms serving as an estate office and a club room for men from the village.

Almost a century later, in 1940, the House was falling into disrepair and a local woman called Dorothy Darnell took action to save it, setting up the Jane Austen Society with the aim of buying the House and preserving it for the nation.

The Society raised funds through membership and appeals for donations, including a notice in The Times in 1946. This attracted the attention of Mr. T. Edward Carpenter, a London lawyer, who in 1948 purchased the house in memory of his son Philip, who had been killed in action in the Second World War.  He established the Jane Austen Memorial Trust to run the house as a museum, and oversaw its restoration and management. 

The House was opened to the public by the Duke of Wellington on 23 July 1949, with a great crowd of Jane Austen Society members in attendance. It was a great day – although at that time only the Drawing Room was open to visitors as the rest of the house was still occupied by tenants.

1949-Museum-Grand-Opening.-L-to-R-7th-Duke-of-Wellington-T-E-Carpenter-R-W-Chapman-Dorothy-Darnell-Elizabeth-Jenkins-Richard-Arthur-Austen-Leigh

1949 Museum Grand Opening

L to R: 7th Duke of Wellington, T E Carpenter, R W Chapman, Dorothy Darnell, Elizabeth Jenkins, Richard Arthur Austen Leigh

Since then the tenants have gone, new rooms have been opened to visitors, the Museum collection has grown in size and importance, and over a million visitors have crossed the threshold – marvelling at the quiet, modest rooms where Jane Austen lived and wrote.

Jane Austen's small wooden writing table, with a facsimile letter and feather quill

Jane Austen’s writing table

But the work of keeping a treasured Grade I listed house in good condition is never over. Today, works to restore and preserve the House continue apace. Most pressingly we are undertaking major repairs to the roof, which was last refurbished in 1948 before the House opened to the public. This is a big project for our small team, requiring over 300,000 reclaimed, handmade clay roof tiles installed by specialist contractors, and it will require all the energy and determination that Dorothy Darnell and T. Edward Carpenter displayed 70 years ago to complete it. But we will do it!

And with that – Happy Birthday to Jane Austen’s House! We would love to see you this year – or, if you would like to give us a birthday present, why not sponsor a roof tile? 

Jane Austen's House from the garden in Summer

[Credit: Luke Shears]

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