Hyde Hall

Jane Austen, Frances Tilson, and the Clarkes of Hyde Hall

By Mitch Owens, Member of the Board of Trustees of Hyde Hall

“Mrs. Tilson’s remembrance gratifies me, & I will use her [dress or cap] patterns if I can; but poor Woman! how can she be honestly breeding again?” So the celebrated English novelist Jane Austen wrote in 1808 about Frances “Fanny” Tilson, an infernally fertile first cousin of George Clarke, builder of New York’s Hyde Hall.


Described by Austen as “affectionate and pleasing” and by a relative as “an exemplary wife and mother, and a kind and faithful friend,” Fanny (1777-1823) produced at least 11 children between 1798 and 1813; the infant born in 1808 was her eighth. Her father was William Sanford, a well-connected gentleman from an old Somerset family based at Nynehead Court, a maternal grandson of Sir John Chichester, 4th baronet, and a brother-in-law of the politician Sir James Langham, 7th baronet. It is Fanny’s mother, though, who provides her connection to Hyde Hall: Mary Clarke, an illegitimate daughter of Major Edward Clarke, the British naval officer and Jamaica planter who was George Clarke’s paternal grandfather and whose youthful red-coated portrait hangs in Hyde Hall’s heroic dining room. Major Clarke’s 1773 will (proved 1777) acknowledged several “natural and reputed” offspring, among them Mary, who was born around 1758, brought up by her uncle George Clarke at Hyde Hall, Cheshire, and married Sanford in 1776 at St. Mary’s Church in nearby Stockport.


Mary, though, is the only child whose mother is not identified in the major’s otherwise detailed last will and testament. It is quite possible that, like her three named younger half-siblings—Anne, Penelope, and Edward George Clarke—Mary was of mixed race, born to one of Clarke’s Jamaican lovers whom christening records label as “mulatto” or “free quadroon.” Further raising that possibility is the amount of money that she inherited from her father: “one thousand five hundred pounds Sterling Money,” approximately $200,000 in buying power today. Major Clarke left identical legacies to Anne and Penelope, his much younger daughters by the mixed-race Mary Bonny (aka Mary Christian), which either suggests he regarded the girls equally or, arguably, that he was conforming to a punitive 1761 Jamaica law that he openly opposed and which blocked white fathers from leaving their mixed-race children more than 2,000 pounds. That Mary was greatly beloved by her guardian uncle George Clarke is clear. When he died a year after his brother, the major, his will left “my dear niece” 2,000 pounds in trust (“for her own sole and separate use not subject to debts and control of her said husband”) as well as “all my Plate, China, Glasses, and household Linnen [sic] with all and singular the Furniture of my House [Hyde Hall], including the Pictures, our Offices and Cellars with Liberty to remove from the Barn Yard, Folds, [Shippons?], Stables, Gardens, and Brewhouse whatever she or her Husband may choose for their own Use …”


The birth details of Mary Clarke remain obscure but it does not seem unlikely that she had been born in Jamaica and raised in England, a trajectory that her father also intended for Anne, Penelope, and Edward Robert. Clarke’s will directed that “as soon as they are able to undergo the voyage be sent to England there to be decently brought up and Educated under the protection and governance of my Brother George Clarke aforesaid Esquire and my worthy friend Robert Cooper [Lee] of the city of London Esquire and my friend William Innes Esquire of the city of London Merchant three of their Guardians hereinafter named and appointed.” Clarke’s decision to choose his “worthy friend” as one of the trustees to oversee his Jamaica children’s entrée into English life was a thoughtful one: Lee, the rich self-made man, attorney, statesman, and slave-owner who is the subject of Anne M. Powers’ book A Parcel of Ribbons: Letters of the 18th-century Lee Family in London and Jamaica, had a mixed-race wife and children, so he would have been an admirable executor. Another sympathetic executor and guardian of Clarke’s Jamaica offspring was Malcolm Laing, a planter with several children by his mulatto housekeeper. As for William Innes, he was a Scots-born Jamaica merchant, Member of the House of Commons, and the son-in-law of Sir William Chambers, architect of the famous Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens.


In 1797, Mary’s daughter Fanny Sanford, aged 19, wed James Tilson (1773-1838) at fashionable St. George’s, Hanover Square, in London. An Oxfordshire Regiment of Militia officer turned merchant banker and hailed as ”remarkably handsome,” (so Jane Austen wrote a year after the marriage), the Anglo-Irish Tilson grew up at Watlington Park, an elegant Palladian country house in Oxfordshire that had been built by his father, John, a close friend of King George II, while his uncle Sir Stephen Lushington thrice served as chairman of the powerful East India Company. That James was also a first cousin of the scandalous Gertrude Mahon, a blue-blooded Irish courtesan known as the Bird of Paradise because of her brilliantly colored wardrobe, surely went unmentioned by all.


Young Tilson was also the bosom friend and business partner of Austen’s beloved brother Henry, with whom he had served in the Oxfordshire Regiment. Frances and James and Henry and his first wife, Eliza, occupied neighboring houses in London’s Hans Place and frequently dined together, traveled together, and had tea together, sometimes in the company of Jane or her sister Cassandra. The Austens also crossed paths with the Clarkes of Hyde Hall at the spa town of Bath, England, where they and George Clarke’s music-loving Irish mother, Katherine Clarke (née Hussey), moved in overlapping social and church circles. In addition, James Tilson’s mother was a friend of the Katherine Clarke’s aunt the Dowager Countess of Macclesfield, born Dorothy Nesbitt, whose family owned the powerful London merchant house Nesbitt & Co. and whose investments brought more West Indies sugar and rum estates into the Clarke orbit, namely Dukinfield Hall, Monteagle, and Orange in Jamaica, Mount Nesbitt in Grenada, and others in Tobago and Barbados.


Though little more is known about Fanny Tilson than her fecundity, her fashion sense was distinctive enough to have caught Jane Austen’s admiring eye. In one 1814 letter the novelist recorded that Fanny wore evening dresses with long sleeves, a sartorial development recently taken up, somewhat uncertainly, by Jane, though Frances “assured me that they are worn in the evening by many. I was glad to hear this.” Her friend’s millinery was fine, too, notably, Jane wrote, “a straw hat, of the riding hat shape” that she desired for herself. Furthermore, in 1811, Austen mentions borrowing an artificial flower from Fanny to ornament a “Bugle band” headdress.


The Austens and the Clarkes also ended up connected by marriage, when the Tilsons’ daughter Charlotte Sophia married the Reverend John Thomas Austen, the novelist’s second cousin. There is a literary link as well, since it has been argued that Fanny may have been an inspiration for Mrs. Tilney in Northanger Abbey. One also wonders, given Austen’s intimate knowledge of the Tilsons, if she had been inspired by Fanny’s likely mixed ancestry when she was writing her unfinished last novel, Sanditon (1817), in which a character known as Miss Lambe, a rich “West-injine” teenager that Austen describes as “half mulatto,” arrives in a fictional English seaside resort and, for a time, is considered a catch for a cash-strapped baronet. Fanny’s opinion of the novel and of her possible fictionalization are forever unknown since Sanditon remained unpublished until 1925. What we do know is that when it came to reading Austen’s books, Jane observed that Fanny—an ardent Evangelical, as Henry Austen himself later would become—preferred the moralizing Mansfield Place to the lighthearted Pride and Prejudice.

Douglas R. Kent Obituary

Douglas R. KentWith deep regret, Hyde Hall, Inc. reports the passing of long-time friend and supporter Douglas R. Kent.

Douglas R. Kent died on May 1, 2018 at the age of 93. Born on March 23, 1925 in Jordan, New York, he was educated at the University of Rochester and then Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree. His many accomplishments include service in the U.S. Navy during WWII and a long career in insurance, during which he rose to manage the automobile division for Kemper, a company in Syracuse, New York.

But the central focus of Douglas Kent’s life and work was historic architecture and historic preservation. For more than 50 years he devoted his considerable talents and energy to a single structure: Hyde Hall.

Kent became one of Hyde Hall’s major supporters during the time when the fate of the mansion and its outbuildings was highly uncertain. After five generations of Clarke family ownership (since 1817), Hyde Hall and its 600-acre picturesque park were acquired in 1963 by the State of New York, which planned to demolish the site.

Having appreciated the historical and architectural importance of Hyde Hall since reading about it as a boy, Kent joined Friends of Hyde Hall shortly after it was formed in 1964. This small group opposed Hyde Hall’s destruction, and Kent contributed to their efforts in many ways—writing about Hyde Hall, visiting legislators, and vigorously arguing for its preservation. An article he wrote for The Magazine Antiques in 1967 did much to establish Hyde Hall’s importance as a remarkably distinctive and irreplaceable landmark. Entitled Hyde Hall, Otsego County, New York, this was one of the first scholarly assessments of the Hall’s significance, and its publication in a respected nationally distributed magazine helped convince New York State officials to abandon plans to turn the site into tennis courts. This and the establishment of the New York State Historic Trust paved the way for a partnership between Friends of Hyde Hall and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation to give Hyde Hall a new future as a house museum.

As part of a feasibility study he wrote to clarify the goals of Friends vis a vis Parks during the late 1960s, Kent developed the first comprehensive vision of a restored Hyde Hall. While it is true that the restorations visitors see today when touring the mansion are the fruits of many people’s efforts, it is doubtful that this astonishing accomplishment—the Clarke family’s home reborn as a National Historic Landmark and New York State Historic Site—would have happened if it were not for the passion, intelligence, guidance, and unshakable determination of Douglas R. Kent.    

In 2012 Kent received the 2nd annual Anne Hyde Clarke Logan Cultural Preservation Award for his unmatched depth of knowledge about the history, architecture, and furnishings of Hyde Hall. An ardent and generous supporter, he underwrote the restoration of the two extremely rare vapor light dining room chandeliers in 2012 and many other major projects there. Douglas Kent’s passion for authenticity was a source of inspiration for all who shared with him the long journey of restoring Hyde Hall, now an important, Cooperstown-area museum and cultural center.


Seward to Be Honored at Hyde Hall

The Trustees of Hyde Hall, the National Historic Landmark and State Historic Site located in Glimmerglass State Park, are pleased to announce that New York State Senator James L. Seward will be honored for his service to the community at the August 4, 2018 Hyde Hall summer Gala.

First elected to the state senate in 1986, Senator Seward serves as state senator for the 51st  District, which is comprised of all or part of nine counties. Long a supporter of Hyde Hall, in 2016 Seward co-sponsored legislation that would extend for another 30 years the public/private partnership between the State of New York and Hyde Hall, Inc., a 501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Hyde Hall as a museum and cultural center.

Jonathan Maney, Hyde Hall, Inc. Executive Director and C.E.O., cites Senator Seward’s advocacy for museums and education as the reason for this honor. He says, “Jim’s work securing state aid for local school districts and special education initiatives makes him a friend to all who care about education and preserving history and our local heritage. The work he’s done to improve education as well as his tireless commitment to giving back to the community make him an obvious choice to be this year’s Hyde Hall Gala honoree.”

“Jim Seward has done so much for our area and for Hyde Hall,“ says Gilbert T. Vincent, Hyde Hall, Inc. Board Chairperson. “The grants he helped us get have made it possible for us to spring forward with major restorations. Tin Top, the original gatehouse that is now our Visitors’ Center, the new pine floors inside the house, and repairs to the Portico would not have been completed without his support.”

A native of Otsego County, Senator Seward attended Oneonta public schools and graduated from Hartwick College with a B.A. degree in political science. He also studied at the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of SUNY Albany. In 1999, Hartwick College honored Senator Seward with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Please visit www.hydehall.org for more information about special events such as the August 4th Jane Austen-themed Gala. Tickets may be purchased by calling 607-547-5098 x8.

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