Curious discovery from the time of Jane Austen

Sometimes it’s an unexpected glimpse of times past that I really enjoy about my job here at Gloucestershire Archives.  I had such a moment recently, with a discovery that came my way.

Part of my role as Collections Care Conservator is to protect the collection against damage from insect pests.  Our eagle-eyed staff and volunteers are super-vigilant about spotting any possible signs of infestation.  One of our volunteers was emptying out an old box when she spotted what she thought was frass (i.e. insect poop) and so brought the box to my attention.

The gritty residue she found was indeed from insect activity, likely from larvae feasting on the old animal glue used in the construction of the box.   Close examination of the box showed that happily, the poop was old and there was no sign of current pest activity.  That question answered, I became curious about the box itself.

Austen 1Austen 2

It was very worn and damaged, but I thought that when new, it must have been a very attractive object.  It was made of wood, covered in dark leather on the outside and colourful marbled paper on the inside.  It had fine brass hardware on it, including a beautiful carrying handle on the top.  And on the bottom was pasted a maker’s label.

Austen 3

As you can see from the photograph, some of the label is worn away so parts of the text are missing but what remains reads:

A COU[…]

Trunk and Portmanteau Maker

No. 5, CHEAP[……]

Respectfully informs the Pu[blic that] she makes all kinds of strong


Leather Portmanteaus [….]  for Carriages


Being the ONLY Maker in Bath, she flatters herself she is enabled to render

 them on lower terms than any other Shop, and can warrant them made of the

Best Materials, and well executed.


Given the appearance of the box and the papers used in its construction, I believe that it could date from the time of Jane Austen’s association with the town of Bath.  Does the address refer to Number 5 Cheap Street, just around the corner from No. 7 Trim Street, where Austen lived in 1806?  Did Austen ever speak to the proud lady businesswoman?  Ever purchase one of her products, similar to this elegant box?  How did the lady come to own and run this business?  Did she take over from her husband following the husband’s death, as we see in other businesses in the eighteenth and nineteenth century? Does the “COU…” stand for Cousins?  Coutts?  Coulson?

And how might the lady businesswoman have felt, had anyone been able to tell her that in 2017 (the year when Jane Austen’s face and words are gracing the new £5 note) her “strong” box “made of the best materials” was still doing its job, keeping its contents safe so we can study them and learn about the past?

11 thoughts on “Curious discovery from the time of Jane Austen

  1. What a magical moment with all the possibles that could have been maybe were. An article with a tale to read if a person has the skill as you do to be aware of the possibles Thank you so much for your monalogue but it’s too dull a word for your walk into history. Thank you. Marysilmon


    • Apologies for the mistake! It is indeed De Lancey. This box is in the collection D2025, which relates to the De Lancey family. They had connections with Cheltenham in the 19th century. Many thanks.


  2. This has just popped up again…did you ever find anymore information about the lady who made the boxes etc?


    • Hello – No, I’m sorry, but have not had any free time to research this Bath lady. I’m hoping someone in or near Bath might see this and take it on!


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