The Philadelphia Block for Aunt Philadelphia Hancock
by Bettina Havig
Philadelphia Austen Hancock (1730-1792)
Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia was her father’s sister. Of good family with few prospects, she had no hope of inheritance or dowry and fewer options than her brothers to make her own way in Georgian England. As a young woman she prepared for the future with an apprenticeship learning millinery, a not-quite-acceptable vocation.
Hat makers were assumed to be part-time prostitutes.
In her early twenties Aunt Phila chose a practical escape from her sentence of slightly shady spinsterhood. In 1752 she joined what was called the “Fishing Fleet” and sailed to India in search of a British husband serving the East India Company there. After a five-month voyage Philadelphia and nine other women landed in Madras (Chennai.) Six months later she wed Tysoe Saul Hancock (1723-1775), a physician with the East India Company.
The marriage may have been planned in advance as Hancock was a client of her Uncle Francis Austen, a prosperous lawyer.
The Philadelphia Block by Georgann Eglinski
Philadelphia's uncle Francis Austen (1697-1791)
portrait by Ozias Humphrey.
Francis's second wife Jane Chadwick
Austen was Jane Austen's godmother.
Uncle Francis, who practiced law in Sevenoaks, was a family patron, assisting Jane's father by paying for schooling and purchasing him a living at the parish of Deane. Uncle Francis may have assisted Phila by paying her fare to India and arranging for a marriage.
Miniature painted by John Smart, set in a diamond ring,
establishing Phila's improved social status after marriage.
The purpose of the East India Company (a private company with its own army) was profit through trading in everything from chintz to opium. Hancock did well, accumulating a comfortable fortune. Close friends included Warren Hastings, on his way to becoming India's Governor and a very rich man. Phila had been friends in England with his wife Mary Elliott Buchanan Hastings. Mary and Warren Hastings had two children, George and Elizabeth, but wife Mary and baby Elizabeth died soon after Elizabeth's birth in 1759.
The Philadelphia Block by Becky Brown
Two years later Philadelphia gave birth to her only child, another Elizabeth, and Warren Hastings was chosen as her godfather.
Hastings sent George back to England to the care of a newly married couple at Oxford, another arrangement made perhaps by Francis Austen. George and Cassandra Austen's first child was their foster son George Hastings who sadly caught a "putrid throat" [probably diphtheria] and died in 1764 the year before their son James was born.
Philadelphia Hancock lived in India for ten years
occupying the colonial role of British Memsahib.
About that time, the Hancocks and Warren Hastings returned to England to live well on their India money. But investments went awry and eventually Tysoe Hancock and Warren Hastings returned to India to trade into new capital. Philadelphia and Eliza stayed in England, often visiting the Austens and their children. Jane Austen was born in 1775 when Eliza was about 14, the year Tysoe Hancock died in India in his early fifties.
The French Court
The widowed Philadelphia had enough income to live at home in style, but France was cheaper and more daring than England. She and Eliza lived there from 1777 through the 1780s, enjoying the social life of the ill-fated French court of Marie Antoinette. Their connections to Warren Hastings, by then the Governor-General of Bengal, had much to do with their acceptance in such a rarefied atmosphere. After the French Revolution in 1789 Philadelphia and Eliza retreated to London.
Fashion Plate 1796
We know a good deal more about Eliza’s personality than her mother's but we can imagine that many of Eliza’s effervescent charms plus her faults---her flirtatious nature and her willfulness---were inherited from her pretty mother. Eliza also seems to have inherited a gene for breast cancer. Philadelphia died of the disease in 1792.
The Philadelphia Block by Dustin Cecil
Aunt Phila probably had more silk scraps around than calicoes.
Dustin's arrangement can remind us of her gold ring.
A second portrait ring by John Smart is thought to
be Philadelphia Hancock.
The Philadelphia Block by Becky Brown
The Philadelphia Block was named for the American city by the Chicago Tribune's Nancy Cabot quilt columnist in the 1930s. Philadelphia was not that unusual a name for a woman at the time. It's from the Greek, meaning fraternal love, a good name for George Austen's sister who remained close to him and his family.
The Philadelphia Block was named for the Pennsylvania city in the 1930s by the Nancy Cabot quilt column in the Chicago Tribune.
Cutting a 12" Finished Block
A - Cut 9 squares 2-7/8" x 2-7/8"
B - Cut 4 rectangles 2-7/8" x 7-3/4"
C- Cut 2 light and 2 dark squares 3-1/4" x 3-1/4". Cut each in half diagonally to make 2 triangles.
You need 8 triangles.
British wedding in India early 20th century.
The East India Company paid the fares of the early fleets but as
the fishing became more successful the company began
to charge single women extra fare. Husband-hunting
went on until the mid-20th-century.
Read more about the marriage market in India in Anne De Courcy's book The Fishing Fleet. See a preview here: