An Austen Relation in the War of 1812

Francis Motley Austen and his wife Elizabeth, of Sevenoaks, had four daughters, the last of whom, Frances, was baptised on November 21, 1783. In 1788 Mr and Mrs Austen took Jane and Cassandra to visit the Sevenoaks family, and though there is no record, it is inconceivable that the young cousins didn't meet. Little record of Frances's youth survives; the next, from 1805, finds her sitting with a family group for the artist, Walter Stephens Lethbridge. Then, commenting in a letter of June 30 and July 1, 1808, Jane wrote to Cassandra: 'Fanny Austen's Match is quite news, & I am sorry she has behaved so ill. There is some comfort to us in her misconduct, that we have not a congratulatory Letter to write.'

Fanny's Match was with Capt. William Holcroft, an officer in the Royal Artillery; they married at Woolwich on June 20, 1808. There is no record of her offence. It may have been a shotgun marriage; nevertheless their first child, William Francis, was not born until December 1809, at Québec.

Immediately before their marriage Capt. Holcroft had taken command of a company of the Royal Artillery's Fourth Battalion, based at Montréal. In June 1812 the company transferred further up the St Lawrence River to Kingston, and comprised the only Royal Artillery force in Upper Canada. This was timely, since in that month the United States, aggrieved by trade restrictions, impressment of American sailors, and British support of Indian tribes against American expansion, declared war on Great Britain.

Holcroft's battalion was tasked with giving artillery support across the whole frontier of Upper Canada, where the land action of the war was concentrated. He based himself at Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake, training local militia artillery units and sending small groups of men to various scenes of action. When American forces attacked the Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, Holcroft and his Artillery were instrumental to the successful British defence, and he was promoted to Major. He stated in his log, 'His Majesty's arms gained a complete victory over those of the United States yesterday in a very brilliant affair.'

American advances in May 1813 overwhelmed the British; during their retreat the Royal Artillery formed the rearguard. Progressive British successes drove the Americans back, and eventually across the Niagara River, culminating in the capture of the American Fort Niagara in December. This was Holcroft's last action; he immediately returned to England on sick leave. Both sides declared themselves victors at the end of the war - the Americans had won concessions, and the British had kept them out of Canada, and burnt the White House.

The Holcrofts' second son Thomas was baptised on September 17, 1815, at Sevenoaks. In May 1816 William joined the Third Battalion at Tournai, France, returning with them to Woolwich in November 1818. He stood down on half-pay in 1821.

The next sighting dates from 1834, in records at the National Archives of Canada, when he took advantage of a subsidy on the purchase of Crown lands, by military veterans. He chose to reside at Ingersoll, in Oxford County, Upper Canada, and served there as a Justice of the Peace, and as the Colonel of a county militia regiment.

William Francis, the eldest son, had stayed behind in England, marrying Frances Charlotte Powell from Woolwich, and working as a solicitor in Francis Austen's legal firm at Sevenoaks. The second son, Thomas, settled in Ingersoll, where he and his descendants were prominent in local affairs for the next sixty or seventy years. There is evidence of a daughter, Elizabeth Catherine, known only from a faded grave marker at Old St Paul's church, Woodstock, Ontario. The 1851 census of England finds William and Francis living at Sevenoaks once more. William died there on January 30, 1858, and Frances in the spring of 1864.

Versions of this article have appeared in the 2014 edition of Austentations, the journal of the Kent branch of the Jane Austen Society, and an abridged one in the spring, 2014 edition of the JASNA Newsletter.

© Ronald Dunning