When truth may be stranger than fiction?

Record Office volunteer Roger Jennens sets the scene for a Victorian melodrama.

Consider this rich Victorian narrative. Does this accumulation of events seem plausible? The story begins with the birth of the heroine: a collier’s daughter born in a small village located on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. As a young woman she is employed as a domestic servant, moving to live in the big house on the outskirts of the village, the home of an elderly widowed barrister.

Over a period of twelve years the heroine gives birth to seven children. All remain in her care, living with her in the big house where as well as caring for her children she continues to work as a servant. The narrative offers no information about the paternity of the children nor is there any indication of how, shortly before the birth of her seventh child the heroine has the resources to buy from her employer a property in the city of Derby. Following the subsequent death of her employer the heroine receives from his estate a bequest of land and cottages. Thus, now living in Derby, she is able to describe herself as a landed proprietor. The subsequent story of the lives of our heroine and of her children reflects a remarkable world-wide compilation of achievement, tragedy, cruelty and intrigue.

At least three of the heroine’s sons benefit from an education at a prestigious school. There’s nothing humdrum about their subsequent occupations.   One prospers as an architect and one becomes a solicitor. Remarkably for one brought up in landlocked Derbyshire a third moves to Liverpool to become a ship’s mate making voyages across the Atlantic.

The story reveals, however, that for the heroine and her children life is not all plain sailing. Three of her children die during her lifetime and others suffer distress and shame. Her eldest daughter dies at home when aged just seventeen. One son dies while still a schoolboy: the narrative has him falling to his death while looking for birds’ eggs, climbing rocks during a school outing to Dovedale. The son who goes to sea perishes during a voyage along the coast of North America.

This sailor son is by no means the only one to go abroad. After working for a time in England the architect son emigrates to Canada. The solicitor son practises in Derby for a few years but then abandons his wife and children and settles in New South Wales, Australia. The circumstances of his emigration remain unexplained; although the story does have him admitting in court a charge of disorderly conduct in a public house, including threatening a police officer with a poker.   In Australia he starts a new career as a mining engineer; and starts a new family, too, claiming at his marriage to have been born in Leeds, perhaps seeking to minimise the chance of being recognised as a bigamist. He is not the only one of our heroine’s children to reach New South Wales. One of her daughters tells the divorce court a harrowing tale of violence suffered at the hands of her drunken, unfaithful husband; then takes her children to Australia where she marries a farmer. Hers is not the only divorce in this elaborate story. One of her sisters, while still aged sixteen or seventeen, marries an engineer, but within a few years the engineer presents the divorce court with evidence of his wife staying at an hotel in Paris with a man not her husband, a bottle manufacturer whom she subsequently marries.

And what of the heroine herself? Having reached the age of fifty years she marries a man more than twenty years her senior, in poor health, who is none other than the widowed father of the drunken husband of one of her daughters. The narrative avoids having to describe the impact on the heroine’s marriage of her daughter taking her husband’s son to the divorce court by having the elderly husband die before the divorce court proceedings.

No doubt that while reading this you have realised that this is not a work of Victorian fiction. It is indeed the factual story of Elizabeth Hill of Pinxton, and later of Full Street and Duffield Road, Derby. As a young woman she became a servant at Brookhill Hall, one of the homes of the barrister D’Ewes Coke (1774-1856). [He, incidentally, was an energetic diary writer. His diaries are currently on display here at the Record Office until 1st May as part of the 50 Treasures exhibition, although none have survived from the time when Elizabeth Hill’s children were alive.] It seems likely that in his lifetime D’Ewes Coke was not publicly acknowledged as the father of Elizabeth Hill’s children: they were given their mother’s maiden name. But after the death of D’Ewes Coke the children assumed the name Coke as a second forename or as part of a double surname; and when each of the children married the name of D’Ewes Coke was entered in the register as father.


Diary of D’Ewes Coke, 1835 (D5369/15/39)

The story of Elizabeth Hill and her children can be followed through documents here and through internet records available here at the Record Office and at Derbyshire libraries. Such records include census returns every ten years between 1841 and 1911 and parish registers showing baptisms and marriages. There is much of relevance in the British Newspaper Archive. The deeds of Elizabeth Hill’s purchase in 1854 of property in Derby are here (D4058/8), as is her will (Elizabeth Jay: D96/1/48/p339 – available on DVD 400 and microfilm M823). D’Ewes Coke’s will is held at Staffordshire Archives but is freely available at this Record Office on the Find My Past website: (note that the length of the will means that it is divided into two sections). Some details of Elizabeth Hill’s sons can be seen in The Derby School Register 1570-1901, available on line. The Ancestry website offers divorce records of Catherine Maud Jay and of Eleanor Coke Banks. The Ancestry site also gives some records of those who went to Australia: Thomas Coke Hill and Catherine M R Jay, later Catherine Coke Minter. Confirmation of Alfred Coke Hill’s qualification as a ship’s mate is also available on the Ancestry website.

As well as documentary sources there are in Derby tangible reminders of this story. Amongst buildings designed by Arthur Coke Hill is the church of St Barnabas in Mackworth. Elizabeth Jay, nee Hill died in Derby in 1905: her grave in Nottingham Road Cemetery in Chaddesden is marked with a memorial stone.

Roger Jennens, Record Office volunteer

Free talk: Derbyshire Diaries

Join our Local Studies Librarian on Tuesday 3 March at 2pm here at the Record Office in Matlock for a free talk in which you’ll delve into Derbyshire’s past by eavesdropping on some of the personal diaries written by its residents and visitors. There will be readings from some of the published diaries held in the Local Studies collection.

Book your place now on our Eventbrite page.



Historical handwriting exhibition

If you do any type of historical research you will no doubt have encountered the challenge of trying to read old handwriting. If you’ve ever wondered why handwriting looked so different a few hundred years ago, we have a new online exhibition on Google Arts and Culture that tells that story: 800 Years of English Handwriting.

The exhibition gives an overview of how handwriting has developed over the years from 1100 to 1900 using examples from our archive collections.  See how handwriting transitioned from documents that look like this:

Medieval manuscript

To something more modern – but not necessarily much easier to read:

1890s letter

Take a look at our 800 Years of English Handwriting exhibition to find out more.


“He shall be happy to facilitate an interview with you whenever it may be convenient to both parties”

There is something endearingly Romantic about the fact that the Arctic explorer John Franklin came to meet his first wife, the poet Eleanor Anne Porden, through the medium of poetry. It was not the traditional Valentine poem that either of them caught the other’s attention. In some senses it would not have been unexpected if Eleanor had written one as a way of introducing herself to him, as she was an inveterate writer of Valentines, usually for safe consumption within the circles of her own family and literary friends. No, the poem which brought them together was the poem Eleanor wrote with the rather prosaic title “The Arctic Expeditions”.

Arctic Expeditions

ref D8760/F/FEP/4/5

Following the announcement early in January 1818 by the Admiralty that ships were being sent to find the legendary North West Passage, it became quite the fashionable thing to do to take a trip out to Deptford to visit the ships and to be shown around by accommodating naval officers. It was certainly something that Eleanor Porden and her friends did. On 30 March 1818, to be precise they were shown around the H.M.S. Isabella and H.M.S. Alexander, which were commanded by John Ross and William Edward Parry, respectively. She did not actually go on board the H.M.S. Trent, the ship due to be captained by Franklin. Coincidentally enough, Jane Griffin, the woman who would go on to be Franklin’s formidable second wife, better known as Lady Jane Franklin, had also undertaken a similar outing to Deptford the week before without actually meeting him either.

Her visit to the ships inspired Eleanor so much that on returning home to London she immediately wrote a poem expressing her own personal interest in the Arctic regions and her hopes for the success of the expeditions. Just as she had done in the poem which first brought her to public attention in 1815, “The Veils”, which displayed her extensive knowledge of scientific matters, she added extra information in the form of foot-notes, on various related topics such as the existence of a Christian colony on Greenland, icebergs and the Magnetic North Pole. Although Eleanor states in her preface, somewhat disingenuously I think, that it was “not originally intended for the public eye”, the work was soon published by John Murray, who later went on to publish Franklin’s own accounts of his two Arctic land expeditions.

We know that the couple first got to know each other through a mutual acquaintance, Dr Thomson. There are two letters which show that they would have dined with Dr Thomson on Tuesday 5 January 1819 had a note from him setting up such a dinner not arrived late with Franklin. In the first letter sent on the 6th (document reference D8760/F/FSJ/1/14/1) Franklin makes it clear he would have much rather have spent his time making the acquaintance of a lady who expressed such an interest in the expeditions instead of being at the party he had actually ended up going to. The lady is not named there, but it is definitely Eleanor he is writing about, referring to her as “arranging and preparing her Poem”, being with the voyagers in spirit.


Letter from John Franklin to Dr Thomson Jan 1819                           ref D8760/F/FSJ/1/14/1           Note that he spelled the surname Thompson, so it was obviously not a close acquaintance

Confirmation is provided by the second letter, which gives the other side of the story. The letter (reference D8760/F/FEP/1/8/14) is written by Louisa Thomson to Eleanor Porden on the Thursday, enclosing Franklin’s letter as proof that it was not the fault of Doctor T. that Franklin was deprived of the pleasure of her company; she goes on to add that he is certain to make another voyage to the Polar regions and will be happy to “facilitate an interview” with her.


Letter from Louisa Thomson to Eleanor Anne Porden Jan 1819 ref D8760/F/FEP/1/8/14

Franklin had also added in his letter that he would be pleased to provide her with “any information respecting the circumstances or incidents of the voyage which may assist her views”. He did actually get round to doing this in writing, as he set down his “observations” on the poem, making comments on particular topics directly referencing the numbered lines as they appeared in print. This particular paper is held under reference number D8760/F/FSJ/2/1/2. In addition we also have the “observations” made on the “observations”, written by Eleanor’s father, William Porden (D8760/F/FSJ/2/1/3).

We have been able to find out a little bit about this Dr Thomson. We know from letters in the collection that Dr Thomson was the physician who regularly attended on Eleanor, who had never been in particularly good health since her childhood. His name also crops up on a number of occasions in the correspondence between Eleanor and Franklin. When she dying of tuberculosis in February 1825, Dr Thomson was one of the doctors present to help her through her final days, and his name makes its way into more family letters later on. We were able to find more information on him in our research once we had found the inscription on his grave memorial in Tunbridge Wells churchyard in Kent, which had originally been set up for his wife Louisa, who had died on 26 April 1844. The inscription names him as Thomas Thomson.

Thomas (1775-1853) enjoyed a distinguished career as a doctor in the army during most of the Napoleonic Wars. Details of his career can be found in “Wellington’s Men Remembered Volume 2” by Janet and David Bromley, which records the memorial inscriptions of soldiers who served in the Peninsular War and Waterloo and which is available to see online. One intriguing piece of information recorded in it was that he had been present at New Orleans during the war in North America (1814-1815). New Orleans was where John Franklin had gallantly fought during a diversionary raid and been wounded in the shoulder. This led me to think somewhat fancifully that Thomson may have been the one to actually tend to Franklin’s wound, and this was how a friendship began. Unfortunately, I suspect that the truth is likely to be more prosaic: Thomson was by then a deputy inspector of hospitals and might not have been so closely involved with the actual treatment of patients.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars Thomson decided to pursue a medical career outside the army. Ironically enough, he graduated as a doctor in February 1816 in Paris, capital of the country which he had been fighting for almost twenty years. Back in England he was admitted to the College of Physicians in 1817, in which year he also married his cousin Louisa. He then sought to set up a practice in the fashionable Hanover Square area of London, where he soon made the acquaintance of the Porden family of Berners Street. He would go on to be appointed Inspector of Hospitals and retired to Tunbridge Wells, where he died on 4 August 1853.

After that initial set back for the proposed meeting of Eleanor Porden and John Franklin, it obviously take place not too long afterwards, although exactly when is not known – it would be nice to think it was actually Valentine’s Day! It seems they formed an instant liking for each other: a friend of hers is said to have seen at that first meeting which way the wind was blowing. However mutual the attraction, nothing was done to put their relationship on more than a “just good friends” footing before Franklin set off on his first and somewhat infamous Arctic expedition on May 1819.

Eleanor Anne Porden, Flaxman portrait

Portrait of Eleanor Anne Porden by Mary Ann Flaxman          Hopton Hall sale catalogue 1989

It would be three years and more before he returned home to England in October 1822. Franklin wasted little time in renewing their acquaintance. On the ship home he had written a letter informing her he had named a group of small islands off the north Canadian coast after the Porden family. She had to write back telling him that her father, William Porden, had died only a few weeks before. I do wonder whether her father’s death did play a part in the marriage eventually taking place. He had been her constant support as she grew up, encouraging her in her education and literary pursuits in a way very few fathers would have done at that period in history. Perhaps the re-appearance so soon after his death of a kind, considerate and good natured older man offered hope of a reassuring future for her.


William Porden                 ref D8760/F/LIB/8/3/1


As it happened, it might have been easier for Franklin if the father had still been alive, as Porden had approved of the naval officer and might have been a valuable ally in his courtship, helping him to avoid the mistakes he made in his courtship. As far as we are aware, Franklin had never had any experience in matters of the heart before, and he seems to have been particularly maladroit in his attentions to her during the next few anxious months. Behaving awkwardly in her presence at times and thoughtlessly saying things that really upset her almost ruined his chances. There was indeed much mutual misunderstanding on a number of issues, such as his apparent resistance to Eleanor’s literary ambitions and their views on religious observance and practice. These misunderstandings, however, were largely overcome, mainly because Franklin was prepared to back down. They got engaged in the spring and were married on 19 August 1823.

Sir John Franklin 1823

Sir John Franklin in 1823            ref D8760/F/LIB/8/1/1

Unfortunately, there was no happy-ever-after ending, as we know. The marriage itself seems to have been a happy one, made complete by the birth of a daughter, Eleanor Isabella. In June 1824. The letters are affectionate and show no sign of tension between them. The only blight on their relationship was the ever increasing signs of ill health caused by her tuberculosis. Franklin famously was not there on the day she died, 22 February 1825, as he was on his way to North America to lead his second Arctic land expedition. He had vacillated about whether he should stay or not, but she was the one who really took the decision, telling him he needed to go and set in motion everything he had been preparing for during the last year. It is tempting to wonder how different things might have been had she not died.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

A treat from our Franklin collection: the Valentine poem Eleanor Porden wrote in 1823 for her fiancé, John Franklin. We’re very lucky to have two versions – here’s the original draft:

draft frontdraft recto

And here is the letter she sent him on 14 February 1823, with her handwriting ‘disguised’:

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The symbols on the letter (presumably purporting to be Inuit) tie in with the mention of Coppermine River, the river in North Canada John Franklin had traveled down during his Coppermine Expedition of 1819 to 1822.  Eleanor seems to be writing as if she is an Inuit woman – see the post about Miss Green Stockings to find out more!




Time to Talk Day 2020

This Thursday is national Time to Talk Day when thousands of people around the country will be coming together in their communities, workplaces and schools to get the nation talking about mental health.

Time to Talk Day is a chance for all of us to choose to talk about mental health and to encourage our friends, families, neighbours and colleagues to do the same.

Colouring inIn support of Time to Talk Day the record office is holding an lunchtime ‘Colouring in for Adults’ session.  A chance to take some time out of your busy day for some mindfulness. Relax with a cuppa, have a chat if you like, and while away an hour colouring in designs taken from our collections.

This free session runs from 1pm-2pm this Thursday and is drop in, so no need to book.

For more information on Time to Talk day and for advice on mental health issues, visit time-to-change.org.uk.

My Personal Connection to Rhyl Miners’ Holiday Camp

I’ve known about Rhyl Miner’s Camp in North Wales for most of my life. A photograph of my mum aged about 4 with my grandma whilst on holiday there has been on our wall since forever. The picture must have been taken in around 1951 or 1952. Whilst the pair look happy and my mum cradles a cat, the sad part is that around a year after that seemingly happy holiday that my grandparents took my mum and uncle on, my grandma died from cancer. This of course was something my mum talks of with utter sadness that she never got to knew her own mum well enough.

However, when my parents and I decided we’d like to go to North Wales on our own holiday, not long after my mum’s brother was also given a terminal cancer diagnosis, we decided to try and find where the Miner’s Camp in Rhyl had once stood. Google didn’t provide much detail as not many people wanted to remember this long lost place that once allowed many mining families a chance for a seaside holiday. The Skegness Miner’s Camp seemed to be a more popular search term as well, so it became hard to figure out what had happened. That was until we came across a small post online detailing the new street names of the housing estate that now sits on top of the former Miner’s camp land and strangely enough, they all had a Derbyshire connection.

Upon arriving at Marsh Road, my mum instantly recognised some older buildings at the entrance to the Miner’s Camp. In fact, she remembered a lot more than she thought when standing in the place she hadn’t seen for over 60 years. The miniature railway close by was one of these things.

Rhyl Miners Camp

Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre Rhyl brochure [Mid 20th cent]. N42/6/7/1

Not much was remembered about the site, but from the brochure pictured below, it reminds me of similar caravan holiday camps we went to when I was younger! Lots of on-site entertainment and food in the canteen. At the time my mum stayed there it wouldn’t have been a large site as the Rhyl Holiday Camp had only been set up during the Second World War, compared with the one in Skegness, which had opened in the 1920s. Still, it provided many families with the opportunity to go on holiday to the seaside, my family included. In the holiday season of 1952, it was full. Perhaps this was the year my grandparents took my mum and uncle. This had been helped by the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, ensuring that workers were entitled to a certain amount of holidays with pay, ensuring that working classes could manage to get away from the dirt and grind of their jobs. It had to be accommodation suitable to their budget but was still comfortable to feel like a holiday. This meant that for mineworkers, the Miner’s Holiday Camps were the best solution.

Rhyl Miners Camp 2.jpg

Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre Rhyl brochure [Mid 20th cent]. N42/6/7/1

Holiday camps were a wider part of the welfare offered to coal miners during this time. The National Coal Board had inherited a welfare system of providing housing, sport and leisure activities from the private coal companies who ran the miners prior to nationalisation. The type of activities usually differed in each area but the premise of creating a sense of community for the workers and their families remained the same whichever mine you worked for. This can be seen in a wage agreement booklet discussing the terms of the Derbyshire District Colliery Workers Holiday Savings Scheme, stipulating that all Derbyshire collieries, excluding the South Derbyshire area must abide by the same wage and holiday pay rules.

holiday pay

Wage agreement made between the colliery owners of the Derbyshire District and the Representatives of Workmen working at the collieries excluding South Derbyshire, Nov 1937. N3/B/66/2


Barton, S., Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Hayes, N. and Hill, J. ‘Millions Like Us’?: British Culture in the Second World War (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999)

Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners.