Sunday, October 28, 2012

Could we be related to Jane Austen?

The question is fairly tongue in cheek, but it's vaguely possible. While I was updating my notes on the children of Thomas Ward and Frances, I came across an interesting story about Peter Warburton Lowe, the husband of their daughter Margaret.

Peter generally seemed to be a fairly respectable character. He had his own contracting business and in 1861 applied for a patent for "improvements in the construction of steam boilers". In later life he was elected a Guardian of the Poor for Salford (1871). So I was surprised to find that he'd been in prison for 3 months in 1844.

What seemed even stranger was that he was tried in Warwickshire. After a bit of digging I found that Peter had been one of 32 people who were arrested for storming Stoneleigh Abbey, near Coventry, in support of a John Leigh who claimed to be the rightful owner.

The full story can be read on this Rootsweb archive. Briefly, Stoneleigh was originally the property of Thomas Leigh, the first Lord Mayor of London, whose family came from Cheshire. He became 'Sir' Thomas Leigh when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. One of Thomas' descendants, also Thomas, was made Baron Leigh after he provided shelter to King Charles I during the civil war with Oliver Cromwell.

Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire
(photo courtesy of barnyz)
The title and property were passed down through the Leigh family until 1786, when the last Baron died without an heir. The Abbey was left to his sister, who died in 1806. It then passed to a more distant relative.

Inevitably a number of people later claimed to be descended from the original Thomas Leigh, including a George Leigh from Wigan in Lancashire. George claimed descent through Roger Leigh of Haigh, supposedly a grandson of Thomas Leigh by a younger son Christopher.

The case went to court in 1826, and included allegations by George's supporters that the Leigh family currently living at Stoneleigh had deliberately removed or tampered with evidence (such as parish records) which would have supported George's claim. It then went to the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords, where it was defeated. The clinching argument against George was that although he might  indeed be related to Roger Leigh of Haigh, Roger had a daughter born when Christopher, her supposed grandfather, was only 32 years old.

John Leigh obviously decided to use more forceful means to press his claim in 1844. As a result he went to prison with hard labour for two years and most of those who accompanied him (including Peter Lowe) were sentenced to three months in prison. I haven't yet discovered how Peter was related to the Leigh's (if at all), but he must have felt strongly about the affair. He and Margaret's next child, born in 1847, was named Roger Leigh Lowe.

Where does Jane Austen fit in? Well, Jane's mother was a descendant of the original Thomas Leigh. The Austen family sometimes visited Stoneleigh and it's thought that Sotherton Court in "Mansfield Park" was based on Jane's memories of the Abbey. So IF Peter Lowe was related to the Leighs, and IF the Leigh's of Lancashire were really descendants of Sir Thomas Leigh, then we'd be distantly related by marriage to Jane Austen. But it seems unlikely.

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