Our story

>>Our story
Our story 2016-11-23T10:23:45+00:00

Chawton House Library was founded by American entrepreneur and philanthropist Sandy Lerner in 1993, with the aim of restoring the important but neglected literary heritage of women writers.

Founder Sandy Lerner receiving her honorary OBE 2

Founder Sandy Lerner

Having already developed an extraordinary collection of works by early women writers, Sandy purchased Chawton House – with its special connection to Jane Austen – as a fitting location in which to house these books and manuscripts, and make them available for the benefit of scholars and the general public alike.

The house, built by the Knight family in the 1580s on the site of an earlier medieval building, had remained within the Knight family – passing laterally and by female descent on a number of occasions – until the twentieth century, when inheritance taxes and high running costs gradually compelled the sale of most of the outlying manor and the subdividing of the house into flats.

When Richard Knight inherited the house in 1987, he was forced to sell a 125-year lease to a property development company. The house was to be converted to a luxury hotel and golf course but the company went into liquidation, leaving the house – with some of its roof missing – to fall into extreme disrepair.

It was on learning of the fate of the ‘Great House’ mentioned in Jane Austen’s letters that Sandy stepped in to halt its decline and plan its restoration. An extensive restoration programme was carried out from 1996 to 2003. This included major work on the house, such as renovating the massive timbers of the roof and taking down a Victorian wing that was damaging the fabric of the Elizabethan building, and also restoration of the estate, including returning the land from arable use to parkland and planting several thousand trees.

The Library is now an internationally acclaimed research centre hosting research fellows at every stage of their careers, as well as a popular and educational visitor attraction awarded a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2016. Each year, we host an ever-changing series of talks, conferences and performances related to the Library collection, along with hosting more than 600 school pupils annually through our award-winning schools programme.

Founder Sandy Lerner receiving her honorary OBE

Sandy receiving her honorary OBE

In May 2015, Sandy Lerner was presented with an honorary OBE by the Queen’s Representative in Hampshire, the Lord-Lieutenant, Nigel Atkinson. This award recognised the significance of Sandy’s cultural contribution to the UK and Sandy was granted special permission to receive the award at the Library itself. Chawton House Library’s Executive Director, Gillian Dow, commented: ‘On behalf of the women writers we care for on our walls and on our library shelves – thank you from them. They wanted a room of their own – you gave them an entire estate.’