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.
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.