Jane Austen’s donkey carriageText by Tom Carpenter, Former Trustee and Curator, Jane Austen’s House
This carriage is believed to have been made locally probably to Jane’s brother, Edward’s, order soon after they arrived at Chawton. It was the simplest and cheapest to run form of transport not needing stables and grooms like a full size carriage and horses would. The donkey was able to graze in the orchard field then beyond the garden. A donkey’s walking pace is a brisk 4 mph and the journey into Alton for shopping would take about 20 mins.
Jane Austen’s niece, Caroline Craven, who often stayed at Chawton as a child, writing in her later years remembered “I think my Grandmother [Mrs Austen] seldom used it, but Aunt Jane found it a help to herself getting into Alton…”
Jane herself refers to the carriage in four letters including on 24 Jan 1817 (after a harsh winter): “…our Donkeys are necessarily having so long a run of luxurious idleness that I suppose we shall find that they have forgotten much of their Education when we use them again….” The roads were compacted gravel, often wet and muddy, and with many horse droppings, so using the carriage was preferable to walking.
The carriage was restored in 1998 and has been filmed by the BBC with ‘Derby George’ – England’s medal winning Champion Driving Donkey – in harness, providing the motive power.
Main dimensions: Length 9ft/152cms, Width 4ft7ins/139cms, Shaft length 5ft/152cms, Shaft width 19ins (48cms), Height of seat 3ft3in/100cms, Wheel diameter 2ft/62.5cms. Wheels: 2 x 10 wooden spokes with metal tyres and plain bearing hubs on a fixed wrought iron axle. Colour: matt black with red lining on panels – which implied a family of status. Seating capacity: two, with small space for luggage under the seat. Hooks are provided underneath for a bag of fodder for the donkey. Two pairs of hooks also provided on the shafts for coupling the harness so that the carriage stops when the donkey stops, as there are no brakes for the wheels. When in harness, the seat is centered exactly above the axle thus minimising the weight the donkey has to pull. Carriage builder: not known.