Jane Austen – her part in my story…

…or where was Susannah living in 1776?

The answer to this question is by no means immediately clear. Susannah noted no addresses and she only occasionally refers to places. However, after a deal of pondering and detective work, I have deduced that her little entry on Tuesday 23rd January may tell us what we need to know.

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(c) M.Nairne

On Tuesday 23rd January, 1776, Susannah wrote: “We left Bookham after breakfast. Was in Town by 3 o’clock. We went to Wansted after Dinner.”

In early January 1776 Susannah was at Bookham Grove, Great Bookham, in Surrey.  In London, her extended family owned at least two houses in Spital Square which they visit and, from late January to July 1776, the family appear to have lived in Wanstead, north-east London, perhaps renting a house, very near their cousins, the Lamottes.

Although the family were still intimately connected to other Huguenot families – the evidence being the number of French names mentioned in the diary – and were still connected to Huguenot establishments in London such as the French Hospital, the Dalbiacs had presumably long lost the desire to go back to France. In 1745, Charles’s father offered 80 men to fight for the Crown in defence against the Young Pretender – the largest number noted as offered by individuals from the weaving fraternity – proof of the Dalbiac’s wish to be part of the English establishment (against Roman Catholic France) and also proof of their wealth.

By the 1760s, Charles Dalbiac’s accumulated wealth would have enabled him to move out of the centre of London, taking advantage of road improvements in the mid-late 18th century, not for a daily commute from Surrey, but certainly able to make the 3-4 hour journey to London and back every 3 days or so.

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From “A New and Accurate Description of all the Direct and the Principal Cross Roads in Great Britain 1776”

In 1764, when Susannah would have been 2, her father, Charles, bought a property at Durdans, just outside Epsom in Surrey.

Durdans by John Hassell 1816. Image from Surrey Libraries held in the Epsom & Ewell Local and Family History Centre Collection

Durdans was originally a large house said to be on a par with Nonsuch Palace.   Having had a number of aristocratic owners, a Mr Belchier bought the property in 1747, demolished the house as he thought it was ‘melancholy’ and built a new mansion in its place. But his luck ran out when it burned down just before completion of the building in 1755. Mr Belchier, perhaps cast down by his ill-luck at Durdans, abandoned the site and built another house nearby and a few years later, in 1764, he sold the Durdans property to Charles Dalbiac. Charles employed a young London architect, William Newton (clerk of works and architect at the Chapel Royal, Greenwich), to design a new house in the modern style. This house was then apparently sold by 1777 – a year after the diary. It is therefore possible that Susannah and her sister spent some of their childhood living at Durdans.

GREAT BOOKHAM: However, Susannah specifically refers to Bookham, another village nearby in Surrey, and it transpires that a Mr Dalbiac also bought Bookham Grove in Great Bookham, Surrey.

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See reference to Mr Dalbiac, last line bottom left, from “A New and Accurate Description of all the Direct and the Principal Cross Roads in Great Britain 1776“.

This house is also noted as having been sold by Mr Dalbiac in 1775. Charles’s property purchases and his building of smart new houses show an enthusiasm to move into the world of the English country gentry, but also, subsequent to riots in Spitalfields around this time – the result of a slump in the weaving industry – the area around Spitalfields may have seemed unsuitable for bringing up a young family.  I also wonder if Durdans was the house he lived in with his first wife, Susanne, and their two little girls, Lucy and Susannah, and then after she died and he married again, he and Anne, his new wife, may have wanted to start a new household, which is why they moved to Bookham Grove.

Bookham Grove today  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If Bookham Grove was sold in 1775, it seems quite possible that they actually moved out in early 1776.  Susannah gives just a few clues to the possibility that they are leaving the house and the area. For example, in the first week of January she refers to the man coming to “take down the organ” and then, two days later, that “the man finished packing up the organ”. Initially I was rather puzzled by this but it transpires that chamber organs were popular in the 18th century (often going into use in churches in the 19th century) and I imagine this was therefore a domestic instrument being carefully dismantled and packed up to be moved to another house.  A little later on, on Thursday 5th February, Susannah wrote, “The piano came down”. Perhaps this refers to the same instrument arriving at their new home!

Two examples of chamber organs from the late 18th century. 

In the weeks before they move there were visits to be made: on 10th January, her stepmother paid a morning visit to Mrs Sumner at Hatchlands Park, and on Saturday 20th January, Susannah wrote, “Papa took a ride in the morning to Admiral Geary’s”. Mrs Sumner lived at Hatchlands and Admiral Geary lived at Polesden Lacey – both now National Trust houses – so Susannah’s parents were clearly on easy visiting terms with their grand neighbours.

But the reference I like the most is to Mr and Mrs Cooke. On Monday 15th January “Mr Cook call’d in the morning”, then on Monday 22nd January,  the day before they leave there is a further clue to them moving away as Susannah wrote “Mama went to take leave of Mrs Cook” (Susannah’s spelling is not always reliable and she often spells names according to how she feels on the day).

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(c) M.Nairne

Bookham was a very small place and given that Susannah mentions going to church – or reading and studying a Bible passage if they fail to get there – every Sunday, it is highly likely that they would have been on close terms with the local vicar.

New Rectory, Great Bookham

The local vicar of St Nicolas’s Church, Great Bookham, was one Samuel Cooke who was married to a Cassandra Leigh. Cassandra was a 1st cousin of Jane Austen’s mother, and her husband, the Reverend Samuel Cooke, was Jane Austen’s Godfather. Jane Austen was born in December 1775 in Hampshire so would have been a new-born at this date, but her large extended family were close and in regular touch by letter. Jane herself stayed with her cousins in Great Bookham in around 1799 and again in 1814 and is said to have modelled Highbury from Emma on Great Bookham

Fanny Burney, the novelist, also later lived in Great Bookham and mentions the Cookes in her letters as follows:  December 1797: “We quitted Bookham with one single regret – that of leaving our excellent neighbours, the Cookes…. The father is so worthy, & the mother so good, so deserving, so liberal & so infinitely kind, that the world certainly does not abound with people to compare with them..”

St Nicholas’s Church, Great Bookham

If this is the same Mr and Mrs Cooke, in 1776 they would have been in their early 30s, the same age as Anne, Susannah’s stepmother.  As Anne was pregnant, at this potentially stressful moment in her life (being a stepmother, looking after a toddler, expecting another baby, moving house) she would have surely enjoyed the friendship of a woman said to be so “infinitely kind”. And that is my rather brilliant connection to Jane Austen!

Susannah and her sister Lucy, and little half-sister Harriet, along with their father and step-mother, appear to live in Wanstead for the remainder of the diary that is written up to July 1776. Perhaps Charles and Anne thought it would be better for the expectant Anne to be nearer central London where Charles worked, and to be neighbours to so many cousins living in Wanstead who could help look after the girls. But if Susannah and Lucy had already lived in various houses and also lost their mother, apart from the benefit of constant loving attention from aunts and cousins, complete stability was illusive as in July they set off on a journey abroad.

By 1777 Charles Dalbiac had sold both Bookham Grove and Durdans. Next for him was demolishing an old Elizabethan house at Hungerford, Berkshire, and building another brand new mansion in the modern style ….     [not an SPAB member then. Ed] Continue reading

“Portrait of a family”

“Portrait of a family all standing in a garden” 1730s, attributed to Charles Phillips.

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My aunt passed on this black and white copy of a family portrait painting along with the names of those depicted. Unfortunately she does not know where she first got it from and, up until recently, I had no idea if the original painting still existed and, if so, where it might be.

In what seemed likely to be a fool’s errand of an attempt to track the painting down, a couple of months ago I posted the black and white picture on Instagram. Thanks to the quick attentions of a friend who understood better than me a trick of the internet, a “Google Images” search instantly produced a coloured version of the painting! Suddenly Susannah’s father’s family were brought to life in front of me – with their lively pet spaniel – Amazing! Along with the colour picture came the information that it was sold by Sothebys in New York in 2004 as “Portrait of a family all standing in a garden”.

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This slightly naïve portrait depicts my 6 X Great Grandparents and their children – dating from the early-1730s – all looking a little stiff, formal and pointy, standing in front of quite a grand landscape. Susannah’s grandfather, James (originally Jaques – see signature below), who came over in the hamper, is on the right and his wife, Louise de la Porte, is sitting down with a protective arm round her youngest daughter, Martha.  Susannah’s father is the smaller boy standing in the middle.

Rather beautiful signature of James [Jaques] Dalbiac Senior, Susannah’s Grandfather who was smuggled to England in a hamper.
James Dalbiac Senior and his two sons became highly successful silk weavers and silk and velvet merchants. They are all wearing wonderful early 18th century clothes and, if the Dalbiacs specialised in silks and velvets, here they all are wearing gorgeous examples.

Charles Phillips, the painter to whom it is attributed, painted a number of family portraits (see here: https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/actor:philips-charles-17081747/page/2), placing the families in landscapes attached to their properties. Although at around this time the Dalbiacs were living in 7 and then 20 Spital Square, London, it is possible that they owned a house in the country at this time which I have yet to track down. It is a large painting and it is easy to imagine it hung over the fireplace in a panelled drawing room in their Spital Square house. The National Portrait Gallery website says that Charles Phillips was “a successful portrait painter who was popular with the nobility” and their employment of Phillips is therefore symbolic of the Dalbiac’s climb to success and social integration in the English capital.

2o Spital Square, London. Demolished c.1964.

It did feel amazing to have tracked the painting down to this century – but also a bit strange to think that someone has this painting and has no idea who all the people are.

If you don’t know who the picture shows, you cannot know what lay ahead for them. James and Louise had at least 28 grandchildren, but to us the number who died can only seem shocking as many of them did not survive to adulthood. For example, Susannah’s uncle James, the taller boy, had at least 9 children; 5 were boys, but out of these 5 sons, only one seems to have had children and they were all girls.

1st Jan 1776
Tuesday 2nd January, 1776: “Papa & Cousin James Dalbiac went to Town before Dinner”. Cousin James, one of the 5 boys mentioned above, married Maria Barnard in 1779 and they had at least 9 children.

Susannah’s Aunt Louise, on the far left of the picture, who was married to Jean Lagier Lamotte for 57 years (!) and lived in Wanstead, north east London, had 12 children, 5 of whom died and only two of whom produced families. And, of course, Susannah’s father’s first child, Pierre, died as a baby and his first wife, Susannah’s mother, died at the age 35, quite possibly in childbirth, when Susannah was 6.

What lives they led and what griefs they bore.

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For what it’s worth, I have been in touch with Sothebys in New York to see if they can contact the purchasers of the painting in case they are interested in having further information about the portrait and the people it portrays.


Who was Mrs Martin?  I don’t think we will ever know – but we will come on to Mama, Papa, Lucy and Cousin James at the end of this entry. 


A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.  Late 17th century: from French réfugié ‘gone in search of refuge’

In October 1685, Louise XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which from 1598 had allowed the French Calvinist Protestants to practice their religion in France without persecution. Leading up to this the King had authorised the Dragonnades whereby Dragoons or soldiers were billeted in Huguenot households to harass and persecute them in an attempt to force them to convert to Catholicism.

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[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After the revocation, Protestant priests were given two weeks to leave the country but ordinary Huguenots were forbidden from going anywhere. There was horrific persecution as Huguenots were further forced to give up their beliefs or flee. New laws meant that sea captains could be fined huge amounts for helping to smuggle Huguenots out and by 1686, they could potentially be sentenced to death for helping.  At the same time, any Huguenot men caught trying to leave France were sent to work as galley-slaves and any Huguenot women were incarcerated in a religious order – these things happened. However, escape routes could be found, no doubt with bribes smoothing the road, and around 200,000 Huguenots successfully got away from France and approximately 50,000 of them found boats to take them safely across the English Channel into the arms of what they hoped would be a welcoming Protestant country.

Perhaps each of the 18th century refugee Huguenot families had a legend recounting how they escaped the terrible persecution in France, and Susannah’s family did not get away lightly. In my great aunt Helen’s folder is a document (perhaps copied from somewhere else) which says that after the Revocation:

The D’Albiacs of Nismes were almost exterminated by the fury of the Roman Catholics; the father, mother, four sons & three daughters were murdered. Two sons were saved, one of whom abjured Protestantism to retain the family estate. The other sent his two sons to England, concealing them in hampers. They arrived safely, founded two families who wrote their name “Dalbiac”.

Account of the Dalbiac family fleeing Huguenot oppression in France in the 1680s, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Photo: M Nairne

The Dalbiacs must have thought hard about whether to give in and become Roman Catholics or, instead, abandon centuries old homes and livelihoods, and make new lives alongside other Huguenots abroad.  Susannah’s Great Grandfather, Scipion (my 7 x Great Grandfather) had suffered the murder of his father and mother, his three sisters and four of his five brothers. In a desperate situation, with his only remaining brother feeling he had no choice but to abjure, it was perhaps these horrific murders that finally propelled Scipion and his wife to throw in their lot with those fleeing the country. They may have sent their two little boys, aged around four and five at the time, on ahead of them. Perhaps they hid the boys in hampers in order to travel quickly to the coast, to smuggle them secretly on to a boat and get them out of the country as fast as possible – from a port such as Bordeaux or La Rochelle on the west coast of France – risking their lives as they sailed north and round to England.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Expulsion from La Rochelle of 300 Protestant families in November 1661, Jan Luiken (1649–1712). 

My research leads me to believe that Scipion and his wife also came to London. Knowing they would be unlikely ever to return, they would have packed whatever they could manage, and their main import when they arrived and then settled in Spitalfields in London would have been their knowledge of silk-weaving.

1st Jan 1776

Scipion’s family survived and then thrived in Spitalfields, and his Great Granddaughter, Susannah, wrote her first diary entry 91 years later.

Papa = Charles Dalbiac, the grandson of Scipion and the son of Jaques Dalbiac, one of the boys in the hamper;

Mama = Anne Le Bas, in fact Susannah’s stepmother, as her own mother had died in 1768, perhaps in childbirth, when Susannah was 6;

Cousin James = was 26 in 1776 and could claim the same grandfather smuggled out of France as a small boy in a hamper.

And Lucy? = Lucy was her beloved sister, Louise, only one year older than her, her constant companion in the diary and with whom she lived for the rest of her life.

Papa (Susannah’s father, Charles James Dalbiac, born 1st March 1726) appears in the old portrait painting illustrated on the About page. When I first saw the picture, in black and white, via email, I knew nothing about it at all… But I have been hot on its case and am hoping to write an update on it soon!