Donegal’s love story reveals link to Jane Austin

Donegal County Museum and Donegal County Archives  has announced that the photo album associated with Jane Austen’s nieces, who lived in County Donegal, has gone on display in Donegal County Museum in time for Valentine’s Day.  
The photo album was acquired by Donegal County Archives in 2020 from its then owner Karen levers.  The album has recently been digitised and will be uploaded to the Council’s Archives website in the near future.
When Karen Ievers bought this tatty old photo album online, she was expecting photographs of 19th century landed gentry, but was astonished to realise that they featured Jane Austen’s nieces – Cassandra, Louisa and Marianne who lived in Donegal. Cassandra’s and Louisa’s stories show that the path of true love does not always run smooth and their own stories were worthy of becoming a plot of their Aunt Jane Austen’s novels.
When Cassandra was 20, Lord George Hill proposed.  As the youngest son of the Late Lord Downshire, his future was entirely dependent on the approval of his widowed mother, a formidable marchioness. Her verdict on Cassandra was “No money – all charms.”  So no marriage took place and George devoted himself to his army career.
Eight years later, he proposed to Cassandra again – this time successfully.  On giving his blessing to the marriage, her brother Charles stated: “We cannot but be most thankful that such a shocking thing was averted, and that the only person she has ever loved and who is in every way worthy of her should have got her at last”. On the 21st October 1834, Cassandra married Major Lord George Hill in a grand society public wedding at St George’s, Hanover Square, London. Her brother Charles described the scene,
“The people crowded round to see her get in and out of her carriage, and poked their faces quite close to her, saying poor thing, how handsome, how very beautiful, generally adding poor thing or some compassionate remark as if she was going to be buried alive.”
Afterwards Lord and Lady Hill moved to Dublin where he was Comptroller of the Household to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
In 1838, following his mother’s death, he inherited enough to resign his Commission and buy a large estate in Gweedore.  Their first home in Donegal was Gortlee House, Letterkenny. Cassandra had four children, Norah Mary Elizabeth (1835 – 1920), Captain Arthur Blundell George Sandys Hill (1837 – 1923), Augustus Charles Edward Hill (1839 – 1908) and Cassandra Jane Louisa (1842 – 1901). Following the birth of her fourth child, she died of puerperal fever on the 14 March 1842. She is buried in the Church of Ireland, Conwal Parish graveyard in Letterkenny.
In the week following Cassandra’s death, her sister Louisa travelled from her family’s home in Godmersham, England to care for the children. The children were brought to Godmersham and travelled over and back to Donegal, in the course of which she went over once, if not twice, to Ireland with Lord George and the children, and remained there two or three months.  Louisa devoted herself to the children and the children saw her as their mother.
Lord George Hill proposed to Louisa in 1846. This caused an outcry and much scandal, as a marriage to the sister of a late wife was considered illegal by some and immoral by others. The Downshire family had no objections to this second marriage and gave their blessing to it. Louisa’s Uncle had also married the sister of his late wife.
The subject of their marriage was raised in Parliament.  It was because of this controversy that in May 1846 they travelled to Denmark, to marry with a licence granted by the King of Denmark. Louisa was accompanied by her aunt and her brother Captain Knight.  In June 1847, the subject of their marriage, its legality and morality, was investigated by Commissioners appointed by Parliament to inquire into the state and operation of the Law of Marriage.  They had one son, George Marcus Wandsbeck Hill (1849 – 1911) and lived with the all the children at Ballyarr House (built by Lord Hill), outside Letterkenny. Lord George Hill died on 5th April 1879 and is buried beside Cassandra in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.  Louisa and her sister Marianne are buried side by side in Tully Graveyard near Ballyarr (Ballyare) House, Ramelton, Co Donegal.
The album contains newly discovered photographs of Cassandra Knight and Louisa Knight, his second wife, both daughters of Edward Knight, brother of Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Bridges and many other photos of the Downshire and Ward family relatives along with other member of the gentry. It also includes a photograph of Marianne Knight, Louisa and Cassandra’s sister who also moved to Donegal.
Also on display is a miniature portrait of Cassandra Knight – Lady Cassandra Hill, painted by Hugh Ross (1800–1873) (younger brother of the more famous painter Sir William Charles Ross) and exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1814 to 1845.
The photo album will be on display in Donegal County Museum until 16th March and admission is free.
For further information contact Donegal County Museum, High Road, Letterkenny.  Admission free T 074 9124613 E

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