KNOWL HILL CHURCH
St Peter’s Church, Knowl Hill, Berkshire and the Rev. James Edward Austen-Leigh
By Mrs Ann Griffin
The dwindling congregation of a drab Berkshire Victorian Church at Knowl Hill, on the busy Bath Road had no idea that its’ founding Vicar, James Edward Austen-Leigh (JEAL) was the favourite nephew of Jane Austen. When Chris Brindle, a film maker, visited St Peter’s Church to make a documentary to provide atmosphere for Jane’s last unpublished work, he revealed the amazing history of the Church.
Jane had only written the first part of her new book ‘Sanditon’, before she died. James was just twenty but as a child he had sent his poems and stories to her, and she responded with much encouragement. Jane’s early works were received with great acclaim, even the Prince Regent permitted her to dedicate a publication to him but three years after her death in 1817, she was forgotten and the publisher destroyed unsold copies of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
James Edward attended Jane’s funeral at Winchester Cathedral, took Holy Orders and in 1840 used his inheritance from a Berkshire estate to embellish the new, plain building of St Peter’s Church and School on the main Bath to London road. Once this was established in 1852, he left his curate to continue the good work at Knowl Hill and was allocated the wealthy, adjoining Parish of Bray. He completely remodelled this Church too and founded small chapels, schools and charities in his parish. He was even on the board of the Royal Berkshire Hospital. In later life, he repaid his debt for his early inspiration from his aunt and wrote ‘The Memoir of the Life of Jane Austen’ in 1870. This revived interest in Jane’s work and her books have not been out of print since.
The story of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s life written by his daughter, Mary Augusta in 1911, is as colourful as one of his Aunt Jane’s stories. The genteel poverty of the first born Austen vicars over three generations is revealed as manipulation by a wealthy, long lived aunt who only bestows her vast estate on JEAL when he marries well and adds Leigh to his surname. The use of this wealth is explained, not only to rebuild the estate where he lived grandly throughout his twelve years as Vicar of Knowl Hill, but to embellish the Church where his wife sold her diamond earrings to buy the organ and his butler led the choir from the gallery. Today there are several clues remaining in the decoration, glass and monuments in St Peter’s Church from those early JEAL days.
Sadly, today the congregation is small and the building is in need of major restoration. Recently, a path from the School to the Church has been installed on the south side, to avoid the main Bath Road, and regular use by the children has been initiated. Much could be done to make this building a valued resource for the School and the Knowl Hill Community. Some of the JEAL era could be preserved while providing modern facilities and safety features. Sources of funding are being investigated and support from local community groups is being requested. JEAL's story will be told to continue his work in Knowl Hill.
St Peter’s Church, Knowl Hill, Berkshire by Rev P. W. Abrahams 2007