It isn’t just Bath and Chawton that can lay claim to Jane Austen, Kent also has a share in the Austen family archives. Jane Austen used to visit her relatives in Kent, the garden of England. She stayed at the village of Chevening and may well have modelled Rosings Park in Pride and Prejudice on Chevening House, now home to Foreign Secretary William Haig and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
She certainly bought a brown beaver hat in Sevenoaks, but it is her visits to Chilham that I am interested in today. Chilham is a beautiful village deep into Kent on the old Pilgrims’ Way, the last stop before Canterbury. Jane stayed at her brother’s home in Godmersham and wrote to her sister from there after “a walk to see Mr Wildman’s elephants at Chilham”.
Elephants in Kent? Possibly not as daft as it sounds, the owners of Chilham Castle, the Colebrooke family maintained strong connections with the East India Company, which in their day, ruled India.
Relatives of later owners of the Castle have an oil painting inscribed “The elephant brought from Ceylon by Mr Charles Hardy in 1875” . In the records of the Chilham Society a copy appears with the caption “Tambo with the elephant brought from Ceylon by Charles S Hardy in 1875” The Hardy family also own a collar which, according to family tradition, the animal wore; its distinctive buckle can be recognised in the photograph.
There are recollections in the village of about 100 years ago, when an elephant, (kept, according to one local resident, with the horses in the stables near the Keep) used to tow a mower over the castle lawns (presumably wearing the collar) and on special occasions such as Boxing Day, village children were allowed to ride on its back.
There is a house in the village called Elephant House in which the elephant is reputed to have lived and not far away in the grounds, until recently, were three large stones bearing names. Word on the estate was that they marked the graves of elephants, excavation might provide an answer, or perhaps it is best left a mystery.
And as for Jane Austen’s letter, it has disappeared, until we can track this letter down, Jane’s Trip to See the Elephant tale remains unsubstantiated.