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.

D5369-15-39-000001

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

4 thoughts on “When truth may be stranger than fiction?

  1. Thanks Celia, it’s quite the story isn’t it! I’ve transcribed some of the contents of D’Ewes Coke’s diaries for the ’50 Treasures’ exhibition, but as you will have seen from the image in the post, the handwriting can be a challenge! He was an interesting fellow and quite the hypochondriac. If your great-granny had Derbyshire connections we could add your novel to our collections!

  2. Excellent article! I’m finding in my father’s family that the truth was almost always stranger than fiction, which is why I’ve produced a fictional novel about my great-granny “My Bella” – her life provided a similar ready-made plot of intrigue, secrets, lies, tragedy and triumph.

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