Bricks and Mortar - The Town Hall

After writing Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen started but never finished a second novel, which she never gave a name to. It has since acquired the title ‘The Watsons’. The novel starts with a ball in a provincial town in Surrey, named only as ‘D’. The passage is based on a visit to Lewes, which Austen made in 1804, to attend the sumptuous monthly ball then held for the local gentry at the Star Inn.

Inns have always played an important role in town life in England, and not just for eating and drinking. From its inception in 1500, the Star was variously a shelter for pilgrims, a prison (the 17 martyrs were kept in the undercroft there before being burnt), a site for public debate (Cobbett and Disraeli orated there), and a place to exchange corn. In 1881, when Lewes received its charter of incorporation, it was the natural building to consider turning into the Town Hall. The kitchens and stable yard were demolished to make way for new Assembly Rooms. By then it already had its busy red moulded-brick facade, which was added in 1732 by Thomas Sergison. Sergison, a Tory landowner, made the place his headquarters and installed the magnificent broad Renaissance staircase, which he had moved from his Slaugham Place mansion, and which so impressed Ms Austen. The building very nearly became a literary landmark. ‘The Watsons’ was eventually converted into Austen’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice.

Stony-faced: the original model for Lewes’ famous beard-and-
sandals look
High Street, Lewes
When? As Town Hall since 1881