Latitude and Longitude

As young men, my friends and I used to challenge ourselves to link one person with anyone else, the more unlikely the better, in no more than five steps. After researching the Austen pedigree for many years I've found that it's possible to make connections between them and very many people and events of English history, sometimes in fewer than five steps. Often, as in the two cases here, I'd long known about the Austen family members, and independently about the historical figures, but some impetus to explore the line further turned up the links. I'm constantly amazed, but no longer surprised! The two men in this article are persons of note, involved in ultimately tragic events, who not only were related to the Austens, but most notably in one case was remembered in the naming of sons of later generations.

North-west Passage

Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen, the elder daughter of James, married Ben Lefroy. Their only son George Benjamin Austen Lefroy married Emma Cracroft, in November 1853. Emma was the niece of Sir John Franklin - his sister Isabella was Emma's mother.

Sir John, born in 1786, was younger than Frank or Charles Austen. When the Royal Navy was largely laid off in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was still a lieutenant. In 1818 he secured a commission in command of the brig Trent, to accompany a naval expedition to explore for routes along the Arctic coast of Canada. That expedition was forced to turn back by an impenetrable barrier of sea ice; he was sent again in 1819, staying for three years in which he and his men barely survived the elements, and returned home in 1822.

In January 1821, in his absence, he was made a Commander, and in November 1822, post-captain. The third mission, from February 1825 till September 1827, was more successful. He received his knighthood in 1829, but by then the Admiralty had lost interest in finding a route across the Arctic. Followed by time ashore, Sir John was given a more routine naval posting in the Mediterranean; and then the Governorship of Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) from 1837 to 1843.

He returned to find that the Admiralty had renewed its interest in the north-west passage, and he was commissioned to lead an expedition leaving in May 1845. His ships were powered by high-pressure steam engines with the latest boilers, and victualled with the latest technology in food preservation and canning to last three years. They penetrated further along northern Canada than had ever been achieved, but were never heard from again. It took all of the next decade to fully establish their fate. Sir John had died on 11 June 1847, in the icy wastes of the Arctic; not one of the 129 members of the expedition survived.

[Update, July 2019: I have just been informed that another of Sir John's nieces, Emily Sarah Sellwood, the daughter of Sir John's sister Sarah (and so, Emma Cracroft Lefroy's first cousin) was the wife, secretary, and manager for her husband, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson,]


In the introduction to his edition of The Letters of Jane Austen (1884), Edward Lord Brabourne relates a story concerning Jane's brother Frank: 'Another anecdote of "Uncle Frank" occurs to me, bearing upon the exact precision which was one of his characteristics. On one occasion he is said to have visited a well-known watchmaker, one of whose chronometers he had taken with him during an absence of five years, and which was still in excellent order. After looking carefully at it, the watchmaker remarked, with conscious pride, "Well, Sir Francis, it seems to have varied none at all." Very slowly, and very gravely, came the answer: "Yes, it has varied eight seconds!" ' (Letters of Jane Austen, edited by Lord Brabourne in two volumes, 1884; Vol. 1 page 38)

It's difficult to ascertain when Frank may have been away at sea for five years, and the tale may have been embellished. (I would like to think that his grave precision was leavened with wry humour.) Frank could have been entrusted with such an expensive instrument only while commanding ships, in the period between 1799 and 1814, though he was never away for so long. That time frame would place the event only four or five decades after John Harrison perfected his marine chronometer - and the rest of this article concerns the reason for the development of the chronometer.

In October 1707 Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the Admiral of the Fleet, was returning home leading a naval force which had participated in the attempt to take Toulon. On 22 October, approaching the English Channel, the fleet encountered hazy weather and lay to, setting off again at nightfall. For want of any reliable method to determine longitude, he thought that they were further into the Channel than they were. Lookouts in the lead ships spotted rocks, then the loom of the lighthouse at St Mary's, on the Scillies. It was too late to save Shovell's flagship, and two other men-o'-war; of 1315 men in the ships, there was just one survivor.

In 1714 the Longitude Act was passed by Parliament, offering £20,000 for a solution which could establish longitude to within half-a-degree (2 minutes of time). Various theories were put to the test, and even Sir Isaac Newton became involved, but the most practical method proved to be John Harrison's marine chronometer. His first successful model, the H4, wasn't ready till 1761 - four decades before Frank took command of the Peterel.

A link connected Sir Cloudesley Shovell with a branch of the Knatchbull / Knight line of the Austen family. His naval patron, Sir John Narborough, died in 1688, leaving his widow Elizabeth with four children. Sir Cloudesley married Elizabeth in 1691, and she bore him two daughters, who married well; but this story continues with the Narborough offspring. Accompanying Sir Cloudesley in his doomed fleet - and indeed to the grave - were Sir John's sons John and James Narborough. Their sister Elizabeth married Sir Thomas d'Aeth, 1st Baronet, and their eldest son was christened Narborough. Their great-grandson George William Hughes RN married, in 1816, Harriet, a daughter of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 8th Baronet and Frances Graham. (Harriet was the half-sister of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 9th Baronet, who married Fanny Catherine Knight.) George and Harriet's son Narborough Hughes, who took the additional surname of D'Aeth, married Agnes Charlotte Knight, a granddaughter of Jane's brother Edward Knight, and Fanny Catherine's niece.

In the first paragraph I mentioned that the naming of boys appeared to perpetuate the memory of Sir Cloudesley's tragic demise. Narborough's 5th brother was named Cloudesley. The two names appeared regularly through the generations, and one can see in the Record Office's index of births in the 20th century that the custom hasn't been abandoned. My belief is that more than simply being unique names perpetuated down the generations, the family hasn't forgotten the event that they commemorate.

© Ronald Dunning 2012 and 2019