Deborah Yaffe

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SOS for Chawton's horses

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 2 2017 01:00PM

Although the Shire horses of Chawton House Library have been dispersed to new homes, the local campaign to reverse that decision apparently lives on. The latest development: An online petition calling for the horses’ restoration, which was posted at Change.org last week, had drawn more than 500 signatures as of last night.


The petition, created by a group that calls itself Save Our Shires (SOS), says the decision by Chawton trustees to rehouse the four horses and lay off their two human supervisors “treated the local village community with disdain” and “violated one of [the library’s] guiding principles.”


The Chawton House Library mission statement, available on the website of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, lists among the library’s aims “creating and maintaining a working manor farm of the late eighteenth-century at the property,” which was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. But Chawton House is better known as a research library housing a valuable collection of early English writing by women.


As I’ve written before (here and here), Chawton’s trustees have explained the elimination of the Shire horses as a cost-cutting measure necessitated when Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley multimillionaire who founded the library, announced that she was withdrawing her ongoing financial support.


A look at Chawton’s financial statements for 2015, the most recent year available, makes the problem clear: According to the records, a family foundation run by Lerner and her ex-husband donated more than £459,000 (about $615,000) to the library in 2015 – nearly 61 percent of Chawton’s £754,000 ($1 million) in income that year. Meanwhile, maintaining the Shire horses (see the last page of the statement) cost more than £47,000 ($63,000).


In its petition, SOS asks supporters of its cause to boycott the library as a tourist destination and to refuse contributions to the fundraising campaign launched over the summer to replace Lerner’s contributions. Although no one can fail to regret the departure of Chawton’s beautiful horses, it’s hard for me to see what end is served by an effort to starve a cash-strapped cultural institution of needed funds.


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