Philadelphia Austen Hancock was born on 15 May 1730 to a not so successful surgeon in Tonbridge named William Austen and his wife Rebecca Walter née Hampson, who had been married before and had a son, William Hampson Walter. In addition, three other children were born to William and Rebecca: Hampson in 1728 (who died in July 1730), George (father to the famous novelist Jane Austen) in 1731, and Leonora in either 1732 or 1733.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s mother died on Shrove Tuesday, 2 February 1733, and her father a few years later in 1737. After his death, Philadelphia, her brother George, and baby sister, Leonora were sent to live with relatives. William had left a trust for the maintenance of his children and they were placed under the guardianship of his brother, Francis Austen. George and Leonora lived with the Austen clan whereas Philadelphia was sent to live with the Freeman family, some wealthy Hampson relatives, who had no time for a young girl.
On Philadelphia’s fifteenth birthday, 9 May 1745, she was apprenticed to a milliner named Mrs. Cole in Covent Garden on Russell Street in London probably with the help of her Uncle Francis. Philadelphia completed her apprenticeship and quickly realized that her beauty and wit were not enough to snag a wealthy husband. She had no substantial dowry and no desire to live as prostitute or penniless dependent relying on the goodness of relatives. The only way that she might make a good match was if she went to India.
Philadelphia’s uncle served as a financial agent to a respectable surgeon, Tysoe Saul Hancock, who worked for the British East India Company, called the Company. He had been living and working in India for five years and wanted a wife. In fact, he had already “let it be known that he was not particular about a dowry, so long as his bride should be young and of a good family.”
With few options, Philadelphia sailed off to Madras on 18 January 1752 with expectations of marriage. Yet the reason she gave for her trip was to visit friends at Fort St. David, a British fort near the town of Cuddalore, a hundred miles south of Chennai on the Coromandel Coast of India. She traveled aboard the HMS Bombay Castle, a third rate 74-gun ship funded by the Company and reached her destination almost six months later, on 8 August 1752.
If Philadelphia was looking for a husband, she couldn’t have found a better place. Neither could have the eleven other single women on aboard the Bombay Castle as it had become fashionable for English women with small or no dowries to visit India in search of a husband. Moreover, Philadelphia’s trip proved fruitful because a short time later, on 22 February 1753, she married the respectable surgeon Hancock at Cuddalore.
Hancock may not have been the best match for Philadelphia, but he was a good husband. He had been born in Kent in the village of Sittingbourne in 1723 and was the son the Reverend Thomas Saul Hancock, who served as pastor of Hollingbourne. Hancock studied medicine in London, completed his apprenticeship, and sailed for India in 1745. He was said to embrace a strict moral code and described as kind-hearted, meticulous, and thrifty, but he was also constantly suffering some sort of illness and was filled with self-pity:
“He … seems to have been a melancholy man – unhappy in his medical profession, frequently ill and given to harping upon his fast-approaching decrepitude, even though he was barely seven years Philadelphia’s senior.”
After Philadelphia and Hancock’s marriage, the couple stayed at Fort St. David, which by 1746 was the British headquarters for southern India. In 1756, Robert Clive was appointed its governor, and although he had been warned about the ship “beauties,” Clive fell for and married Margaret Maskelyne in 1753. She, like Philadelphia, had been aboard the Bombay Castle when it sailed to India.
In 1759, the Hancocks moved to Fort William, Calcutta. Philadelphia Austen Hancock arrived ahead of her husband and stayed with the Clives for several months. It was also while at Calcutta that the Hancocks met Warren Hastings, a balding, small, thin man who had been born in Churchill, Oxfordshire in 1732 to a poor father and a mother who died soon after his birth. He joined the Company in 1750 as a clerk and reached India in August that same year.
Hastings quickly became known as a diligent and hardworking employee who spent his free time immersing himself in Indian culture and learning Urdu and Persian. For all his hard work, he won a promotion in 1752. He was then sent to a major trading post in Bengal and worked for William Watts and gained further experience.
While in India, Hastings met and married Mary Buchanan, widow of a lieutenant, who had been trampled to death in the Black Hole. She had been left with two daughters to raise and having a husband helped with that task. In addition, Hastings and Mary had two other children, George born in December of 1757 and Elizabeth in October of 1758, who unfortunately died about three weeks later.
The baby’s death was followed by another unfortunate death. It happened when Hastings’ wife died on 11 July 1759. He was away on a business at the time but luckily Philadelphia was there to provide care for Mary and to tend and care for her children. In fact, later, in acknowledgement for all she had done, Hastings gave Philadelphia a rosewood Indian writing desk inlaid with ivory.
Philadelphia Austen Hancock became pregnant in 1761, but even before her child was born on 22 December 1761 rumors swirled that Hastings, not Hancock, was the father. There were several reasons everyone thought the baby was Hastings child. First, the new baby was named for Hastings’ dead daughter Elizabeth, although she was affectionately called Betsy. The Hancocks were also friendly with Hastings, which furthered the belief among many in Calcutta that Elizabeth had to be Hastings’ child. In addition, Philadelphia had been married for eight years without any children, so, when she suddenly became pregnant, it seemed highly probable to everyone that Hancock could not be the father.
The Clives had left India before Betsy’s birth in February of 1760. After they left, Mrs. Clive kept in touch through sporadic letters with Philadelphia and with another friend, Major John Carnac. The mail was slow, and it usually took six months for Mrs. Clive’s letters to arrive in India as they had to cross the sea. It was therefore difficult to stay abreast of the latest news but on 19 November 1761 Carnac wrote Mrs. Clive a note gleaned from the rumor mill in Calcutta that stated:
“Would You believe it, Madam, Mrs. Hancock is pregnant. The scandalous chronicle gives the credit thereof to Hastings.
Some biographies and historians have claimed that Betsy was not Hastings’ daughter and that the evidence for it is weak. They allege the rumor was started by a back-biting woman named Jane “Jenny” Kelsall, who was first married to Captain Thomas Latham and then later married Clive’s secretary, Sir Henry Strachey, 1st Baronet. Supposedly, she or Strachey may have been upset about a favor that Hastings did for Hancock, which is why the slander of Philadelphia began.
Others insist there are many indications that Betsy was Hastings, including the fact that Hastings eventually provided a trust fund for Betsy, who when born had a large moon-shaped face with pretty, delicate features. The Hancocks also named Hastings Betsy’s godfather and Mrs. Clive was named her godmother. Nonetheless, neither Hastings nor Philadelphia ever acknowledged Betsy as his child.
When Betsy was four, in January of 1765, the Hancocks and Hastings left India aboard the HMS Medway. Also, onboard was one of the Hancock’s four servants as Philadelphia Austen Hancock had been blessed to have four: Dido, Diana, Silima, and Clarinda, who was the most beloved and the one who sailed to England with them. The ship arrived in London in the summer of 1765. Their arrival happened a little over a year after Philadelphia’s brother George married Cassandra Leigh at the Walcot Church in Bath on 26 April 1764.
In England, although innuendos and rumors continued that Besty was Hastings’ child, the Hancocks made new acquaintances. They met Hastings’ sister Ann and her husband John Woodman, who lived on Cleveland Row, St. James. A friendship developed between the Hancocks and Woodmans that was so close Hastings once remarked that they were like one and even sent joint letters to them. Moreover, the Woodman’s son was near the age of Betsy and for some time there were great hope between the families that their children might someday marry.
By 1768, if the gossip about Philadelphia and Hastings and a possible affair was not bad enough, Hancock concluded that the fortune he had returned with to England was inadequate to support his family. Everyone knew that life in London was expensive. Salaries were ‘not lavish’ and incomes varied greatly among English residents. Moreover, Philadelphia was extravagant and no admonishments from her husband to rein in costs was she willing to follow.
As the Hancocks’ spending continued to outpace what they earned and as his investments were not doing as well as he planned, Hancock soon realized that he must return to India and try to make a new larger fortune. In the meantime, Philadelphia and Betsy would remain in London because life was difficult in India and because Betsy could receive a better education in England.
Soon after Hancock made the decision to return, Hastings likewise found that he had overspent and concluded that he also needed to return to India. Hastings second stint in India would prove financially successful for him, but Hancock would not have such luck. Whereas Hastings was eventually appointed Governor General, Hancock continued to barely scrape by, remained somewhat unsocial, and continued to suffer from various maladies and illnesses.
Hastings soon realized that that Hancock probably did not have long to live and then provided £5,000 that was later increased to £10,000 as a trust for Betsy. The interest derived from the trust was to be paid to Philadelphia and Hancock while they were alive, but once they died, the balance would go to Betsy. Hancock mentioned Hastings’ gift to his wife but told her that it must remain a great secret. Thus, this is another reason people suspect that Betsy was Hastings’ child. Of the money, Hancock wrote bluntly to Philadelphia stating:
“Let me caution you not to acquaint even the Dearest Friend you have with this Circumstance; tell Betsy only that her Godfather has made a great Present, but not the particulars.”
Hancock would never return to England not even in death. He died in Calcutta on 5 November 1775 at the age of 51. He was buried in the Great Burying-ground at Chowringhee with a gravestone that misspelled his name as Tyso and erroneously stated his age as 64, perhaps because of his haggard looks.
Unaware of his death, life went on in London. Philadelphia seemed to have no concerns. She lived in the most fashionable house and bought her daughter the most fashionable dresses. She also ensured that Betsy was given music and riding lessons and that she had the best tutors.
News of Hancock’s death was slow in reaching Philadelphia Austen Hancock. When it appeared on her doorstep on 7 June, it came in the form of a letter from a friend in India. Fortunately, her brother George and his wife were staying with her when she learned of her husband’s passing. Less than two weeks later Hastings confirmed it and with his confirmation he also mentioned Hancock’s debts.
Philadelphia was worried about her future after her husband’s death. Snobs surrounded her in London and she and her husband had never quite fit into London society. Almost everyone considered money earned in India low class unless an amazing fortune had been amassed. That was clearly not the case with Hancock. Thus, the Hancocks did not have the requisite old money, a wealthy relative to brag about, or an illustrious heritage.
When it came to Hancock’s finances, there was little left after his debts were paid. Philadelphia knew her expensive London lifestyle that she loved so much could not last and she worried constantly about money. Ultimately, it took a year for all the financial aspects to be disentangled and for her to understand that she and Betsy were left with an annual income of around £600.
Philadelphia’s brother George probably thought she possessed a fortune partly because his financial situation was not good. Although the amount Philadelphia Austen Hancock was living on was about three times that of her brother, she thought of it as practically pauperdom. It was not nearly enough for her and Betsy to live fashionably in costly London, and therefore, the only thing Philadelphia could think to do was leave.
She believed that she and her daughter could live more elegantly for less money anywhere but London, so around late 1777, she, Betsy, and Clarinda departed for the continent. Betsy though was now calling herself “Eliza” having decided to use a diminutive that she felt more age appropriate and sophisticated for a 15-year-old girl. Thus, armed with letters of introduction and letters of credit, Philadelphia and Eliza went off to seek a better way of life.
Mother and daughter first visited Germany. They then went to Belgium and reached Brussels sometime in the summer of 1778. However, by October of 1779, they women had settled in Paris. While there they came face-to-face with the fashionable French Queen, Marie Antoinette, and her Superintendent of the House, the Princesse de Lamballe. In the meantime, Philadelphia stayed busy attending social functions and writing to relatives and friends about their travels.
While in Paris, Eliza also met Jean-François Capot de Feuillide. Contemporaries described him as bold, captivating, and dashing with a reputation for being one of the handsomest men of his time. He titled himself the Count of Feuillide even though he was merely the son of a provincial lawyer, who served as mayor of Nérac in south-western France. However, Feuillide had established himself as one of the dragoon’s finest officers and was serving as captain of the Queen’s Regiment of Dragoons.
Eliza was introduced to him as an heiress of immeasurable wealth. Apparently, Philadelphia had let it be known throughout Paris that they were connected to “la famille du fameux lord Hastings, ancient gouverneur de l’Inde.” Everyone was also under the impression that the women were expected to receive more money from Hastings. Nonetheless, neither Feuillide or Eliza were as illustrious or rich as portrayed because Feuillide was not really a count and Eliza’s financial situation was good rather than great.
Believing the other to possess wealth was probably the reason for the couple’s initial interest. Philadelphia, of course, was intrigued by Feuillide’s title and consider how that might elevate her and her daughter in society. Moreover, she continued her habit of freely spending money and probably thought that the count might help their financial outlook. She therefore encouraged the marriage, which happened in late December 1781.
After the wedding, Philadelphia, Eliza, and the Count’s lives remained a series of gay entertainments. Social functions kept them busy until early 1782 when near the end of March life got even better. It was then that Eliza mentioned that they were mingling and socializing among France’s most elite and had attended a ball where the French Royal Family was present.
Although French society might have been fun, Feuillide had business to consider. He was planning to drain some his swamplands in Nérac and create a profitable farming business. It took some time, but he eventually got the necessary permission from the King that he needed and then having obtained financial aid from his new wife’s trust fund, he set off for southern France. Philadelphia and Eliza eventually joined him there in May of 1795.
While living in Nérac, the women returned a couple of times to England. On one of these trips, Eliza gave birth to a son at Calais on 25 June 1786. The new baby boy was given five impressive names, Hastings-François-Louis-Henri-Eugène. The group then continued on their trip to England where they visited the Austen clan and spent some quality time with friends before returning home to France.
Another trip to England resulted after Philadelphia Austen Hancock had to resolve some financial issues related to Eliza’s trust. The women and Hastings Jr. returned to England in 1789 about the same time that the French Revolution broke out. It was also during this time that the first signs of Philadelphia having breast cancer appeared.
Eliza never mentioned exactly what type of breast cancer her mother might have suffered from, but she did remark on her health a year or two later in June 1791, the same month that the French royal family made their famous unsuccessful flight to Varennes. In Eliza’s letter to her cousin Phylly, (William Hampson Walter’s daughter) about her mother, Eliza stated:
“Dear Cousin, … I wished to have it in my power to inform You of some change for the better; My Dear Mother’s general health continues, Thank God, pretty good and her Breast I trust is in a more promising state than when You quitted Town. You know She had just then put herself under the care of a person who then gave and still continues to give us the most flattering hopes of a perfect cure. She however always declared her remedy would be slow in its operations nor did She expect any visible effect from it in less than three weeks, About a fortnight has now elapsed, and I think both her swelling and hardness is some degree abated so that having already reaped more benefit than we had been taught to expect in so short a time, I venture to indulge great hopes that I shall at length have the unspeakable happiness of seeing my beloved parent restored to health.”
Another letter to Phylly in October from Eliza once again brought news about her mother’s health. By now Philadelphia was under the care of a surgeon in England named Rooss and although there appeared to be no change in the tumor, Philadelphia had recovered her strength, was free from fever, and appeared to have found relief from the “agonizing pain” that she had been constantly suffering. Unfortunately, approximately three weeks later, things were much worse. Eliza became so concerned for her mother she called a Dr. Austin. When he examined her, he agreed with Rooss that Philadelphia’s condition was dire and for three days everyone feared from minute to minute and hour to hour that she might not survive. Fortunately, she pulled through.
Although Philadelphia Austen Hancock might have survived, she was not improving and on 14 December, she made out her will. It seemed as if Philadelphia prepared her will just in time because less than two weeks later, she was so ill Eliza was spending all her time devoted to her care. However, despite it all, Philadelphia remained in a good mood. Eliza mentioned her happy disposition to Phylly claiming that she thought it was a front and that the only reason her mother remained so chipper was to keep her spirits up.
Eliza also admitted that Philadelphia continued to believe that with time and patience she might be restored to health. Unfortunately, that would not happen because Philadelphia suffered another attack of “imminent danger” on 20 January 1792. She never recovered and began a slow march towards death. Eliza contacted her husband and the Count arrived in England around late February just in time for Philadelphia Austen Hancock to pass away on Sunday, 26 February. She was buried in the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead, London NW3. Her tombstone was inscribed with the following:
“In memory of Philadelphia Wife of Tysoe Saul Hancock whose moral excellence united the practice of every Christian virtue she bore with pious resignation the severest trials of a tedious and painful malady and expired on the 26th day of February 1792 aged 61.”
-  D. Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 29.
-  D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 12–13.
-  C. Mitchell and G. Mitchell, “Passages to India,” The Time Literary Supplement, accessed February 5, 2019
-  D. Le Faye. 2002, p. 33.
-  A. M. Devert, “Le Marais de Gabarret et de Barbotan,” Bulletin de la Société de Borda 340 (1970): p. 336.
-  D. Le Faye. 2002, p. 100.
-  D. Le Faye, “Jane Austen and Her Hancock Relatives,” The Review of English Studies 30, no. 117 (1979): p. 12.