Our current Jane Austen by the Sea exhibition explores the author’s relationship with the seaside. While there is no evidence that she ever visited Brighton, her brother, Henry Thomas Austen, spent some time in the town while serving with the Royal Oxfordshire Militia.
Henry’s experiences almost certainly informed the descriptions of Brighton that appear in Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel. While these passages are presented through the naive imagination of Lydia Bennet, one of the characters in the novel, it is easy to imagine the militia in Brighton to have been handsome, if perhaps caddish, men in smart uniforms. Yet military life in Georgian England was harsh, and Henry Austen would have been well aware of this. For in 1795, hundreds of his fellow soldiers of the Royal Oxfordshire Militia mutinied in Seaford as a result of poor pay and conditions, an action that eventually lead to the brutal public execution of two men in Hove.
Henry Austen and the Milita
Henry Austen was born in 1771, one of eight children. After completing a Master’s degree at Oxford University, he joined the Royal Oxfordshire Militia in 1793.
Militia were reserve military forces, a little like the present day Territorial Army. Every English county was expected to raise its own militia, with officers appointed from the property owning classes, and the lower ranks recruited from local working class men. The men who served in these milita were part-time soldiers, and not required to serve overseas. During his service with the Royal Oxfordshire Milita, Henry Austen was also able to build a career as a banker.
The primary purpose of these milita was to provide protection against French invasion. Henry Austen joined during the French Revolutionary Wars, and Britain would be at war with France for most of the next two decades.
These militia were also intended to crush any civilian uprisings that might occur. At this time the government was deeply concerned that the French Revolution could inspire a popular revolt in England.
Along with Kent, Sussex was the most likely landing place for any French invasion. As a result, milita units were frequently stationed in Sussex, and large numbers of soldiers would pass through Brighton in the 1790s and early 1800s. Indeed, one early view of Prince George’s Marine Pavilion (an early form of today’s Royal Pavilion) shows a miltary encampment to the north of the building.
Sussex also carried the advantage that soldiers from other counties would be unlikely to know many local people. As such, if the men were deployed to quell any civilian uprising, they would be unlikely to be required to shoot at friends, family or neighbours.
Background to the Mutiny
The men of the Royal Oxfordshire Milita arrived in Sussex in January 1795. They were accommodated in poor quality barracks near Seaford, and had to endure a hard training regime. Each day they were required to march to and from their training grounds in Brighton, a distance of twelve miles each way.
But the main complaint of the men was a lack of food. As a result of a bad harvest the previous year and the war with France, grain prices were inflating rapidly. The situation was exacerbated locally as shop keepers were accused of raising prices even higher to exploit the large number of men relying on the limited supply of a small town.
Tensions were further inlamed by the presence of the large tide mill near Bishopstone, a few miles north west of Seaford. The men were able to see large quantities of flour being transported away, and it was even rumoured that some of this flour was being sold to the French.
To push the situation to breaking point, some of what little flour the men could afford had to be used for their hair. British Army regulations at the time required soldiers to dress their pig tails in flour.
The Mutiny erupts
Peter Longstaff-Tyrrell’s The Seaford Mutiny of 1795 (2001) provides one of the best accounts of the uprising. The mutiny took place over three days, from Thursday 16 April to Saturday 18 April 1795. It began late on the Thursday when a group of men from the Royal Oxfordshire Milita broke into a local butcher’s shop and stole numerous goods. Officers were able to persuade the men back to the barracks on this occasion, but it had awakened an appetite for looting.
The next day, 500 soldiers fixed bayonets to their guns and marched on Seaford, seizing all the food and provisions they could find. Another group of soldiers raided the nearby mill, and seized 300 bags of flour. They took over a ship that was due to sail to Falmouth and transported the flour to a warehouse in Newhaven. By nightfall, various food stuffs were being sold and traded by the men, and a group of 60 soldiers were left guarding the warehouse.
As the milita officers and local leaders were unable to restore discipline, Captain Thomas Harben of the Seaford Volunteers sought help. By Saturday morning he had brought in troops from the Lancashire Fencibles at Shoreham and the Horse Artillery in Lewes. Accompanied by heavy artillery in the form of cannons, these soldiers marched on the Royal Oxfordshire Milita. Outnumbered and outgunned, the mutineers quickly surrendered. By Saturday lunchtime, the uprising had been crushed.
Discipline and Politics
Although the mutiny had been conducted and quashed with minimal violence, the authorities were determined that it should not go unpunished. A small number of men were identified as ring leaders and were due to received the harshest punishment. Some of these men were tried through the civilian court system in Horsham, while others were court martialled in Brighton. Of those who were court martialled, six men were sentenced to flogging, and one was transported to Australia. The most severe punishment was reserved for two men, Edward Cooke and Henry Parish. Although both seem to have been little more than accidental spokespersons, they were sentenced to death.
An elaborate public punishment was devised for those soldiers who were to be flogged or executed. According to Longstaff-Tyrrell, the architect of this was Prince Frederick, Duke of York, a younger brother of George, Prince of Wales. The Duke had been made a Field Marshal earlier that year, and just a few days prior to the mutiny had effectively been made commander in chief of the nation’s army by his father, King George III.
Frederick was naturally keen to impose discipline on his army and discourage further mutinies, but he would also have been aware of growing political unrest in the country. The American and French Revolutions had inspired a new wave of English radicalism in the 1790s which the government was determined to suppress. The radical writer and former Lewes resident Thomas Paine had been forced to flee the country in 1792, after he was put on trial for publishing his Rights of Man. In 1794, the London Corresponding Society, widely regarded as the first working class political organisation, had been broken up and its leading members tried for treason. The government was even prepared to encourage, or at least turn a blind eye towards, extra-legal violence against potential revolutionaries. According to EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963), the wife of one of the leaders of the London Corresponding Society died in childbirth after her house was besieged by a ‘Church & King’ mob.
The Royal Oxfordshire Milita mutiny may have been sparked by hungry men desperate for food, but in the 1790s it was a politically charged action.
Execution at Goldstone Bottom
Goldstone Bottom in Hove was chosen as the location for a grotesque spectacle of punishment. Situated just south of where Hove Park lies today, at the time this was a shallow meadow that formed a natural ampitheatre.
The event took place on 13 June. By 5am soldiers from the 13 regiments stationed in Brighton were assembled around the meadow. The convicted men were punished in turn. First, the six men who had been sentenced to flogging were tied to a whipping post and received multiple lashings. Three received 300 lashings each, and this was only reduced on the advice of surgeons who feared they might die.
Finally, Cooke and Parish were led out to be shot. They were made to kneel on coffins and faced a firing squad made up of twelve of their fellow mutineers. The men were shot dead by their comrades, after which the Royal Oxfordshire Militia led the assembled soldiers in a march past their lifeless bodies.
The whole spectacle took some three and a half hours. With many local civilians also looking on, it is estimated that the execution was witnessed by some 8000 people.
It is said that a local shepherd cut two coffin shapes into the ground to mark the site of the execution, and these shapes could still be seen some fifty years later.
The distressing manner of execution and the severity of the punishment angered many. Numerous people, including army officers, had pleaded for clemency for the men during their trial and imprisonment. After their death, pamphlets were circulated containing the last testimony of Edward Cooke, including his appeal that:
‘I am going to Die for what the Redgment done; I am not afraid to meet Death, for I have done no harm to no person, and that is a great comfort to me.’
A handwritten letter by Henry Parish to his mother contained similar sentiments.
The execution was also used by political radicals with wider concerns, who referenced it in seditious poems attacking the cruelty of King George III and Prime Minister WIlliam Pitt the Younger. Longstaff-Tyrell quotes one poem that was posted around Sussex following the executions in Hove, including the following lines:
‘Soldiers to arms and revenge your Cause
On those bloody numbskulls, Pitt and George.
For since they no longer can send you to France
To be murdered like Swine, or pierc’d by the Lance
You are sent for by Express to make a speedy Return
To be shot like a Crow, or hang’d in your Turn’
There was, of course, no revolution in England, and both the king and Prime Minister would survive in power for several more years.
Prince Frederick continued to lead the army for almost twenty five years. Although he was forced to resign as Commander in Chief following a scandal with his mistress in 1809, he was reappointed to the role in 1811 by his older brother George, then Prince Regent. He remained in that role until his death in 1820, although he is now largely remembered as the likely inspiration for the Grand Old Duke of York in the popular nusery rhyme.
Although he was almost certainly a witness to the execution, Henry Thomas Austen also continued his miltary career. The Oxford Milita were stripped of their royal title as a result of the mutiny, but Austen served with them until 1801, by which time he had risen to the rank of captain. He continued in banking until a bank he co-founded collapsed in 1816. Thereafter he took up a career in the church until his death in 1850.
But Henry Austen’s most lasting work was his contribution to securing his sister’s literary legacy. After Jane Austen’s death in 1817 he arranged for the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. He also contributed biographies of Jane to some of the subsequent editions of her works.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager
- Jane Austen by the Sea exhibition
- View and download images relating to the mutiny from our Digital Media Bank
- Read about Brighton at the time of Pride and Prejudice‘s publication