A Sense of Place

DRO visitors will have seen our latest vitrine wall exhibition, A Sense of Place, focusing on the Local Studies Library’s Local Authors collection.  Inspired by a booklet published by former local studies librarian Ruth Gordon, we highlight Derbyshire-connected writers from Erasmus Darwin to Richmal Crompton to Stephen Booth, and the varied depictions in print of the Derbyshire landscape (both rural and industrial) and historic Derbyshire events.

Back Tor, Edale, c1980, courtesy of Albert Hugh Robinson and www.picturethepast.org.uk

Back Tor, Edale, c1980, courtesy of Albert Hugh Robinson and http://www.picturethepast.org.uk

Our county also provided inspiration for settings in such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Adam Bede, and the backdrop to a short story featuring Sherlock Holmes.  Did you know that cricket fan and Marylebone Cricket Club player Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have amalgamated the names of wicket-keeper Mordecai Sherwin and Derbyshire bowler Frank Shacklock for his famous character, and that Sherlock’s brother’s name was perhaps inspired by another Derbyshire bowler, William Mycroft?  All three played in the match between Derbyshire and the MCC, reported on in the Derby Mercury, 17 June 1885.

A Sense of Place runs until Saturday 22nd November.


WW1 Centenary

One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany and entered a conflict which would claim millions of lives and affect millions more.

To mark the centenary, we have an exhibition – The Last Summer – which you can come and view in the Record Office reception area until Saturday 27th September.  Looking at Derbyshire people and places, pastimes and events during the summer of 1914, it documents our county during the last few months of peace.

Buxton 1914

The Broad Walk, Buxton, 1914

(Joseph) Arthur Hodgkiss  of Baslow

(Joseph) Arthur Hodgkiss of Baslow


This Thursday 7th August, we are also holding an event ‘Archives Aloud: Voices from the Front’ – using letters and diaries to bring to life the voices of those who served during the First World War.

Starting at 2pm, it is free to attend but you will need to book either by e-mail (record.office@derbyshire.gov.uk) or phone (01629 538347).  You are welcome to bring your own family letters and stories to share with us too.



Registering a Complaint

As someone who spends a fair amount of my time searching through parish registers, I have been known to silently (or not so silently) curse the handwriting of a long-dead vicar or parish clerk.  They should have foreseen that a few centuries later I would need to decipher their scrawl to find Great-Great-Great-etc-Grandfather Fred!  So I was rather amused to find this note in one of the Castleton registers:

(unless the Parish will provide better Parchment, it is impossible to write on it legibly   

Castleton parish register

Perhaps I shall be a tad more charitable in future, though it’s a poor workman who blames his tools…

National Libraries Day


This Saturday, the 8th of February, is National Libraries Day – an opportunity to celebrate libraries and library services across the UK.

Visitors to the Record Office will have seen the exhibition in our reception –  ‘I Didn’t Know You’d Got That!’ – showcasing the range of material held in the County Local Studies Library collections.  From sale catalogues to stereo cards, periodicals to postcards, the display will be available to view until 8th March.

There are also talks and workshops happening in libraries around Derbyshire – see the ‘National Libraries Day Events’ listing available here for more information.

On This Day: ‘Man Killed In A Lead Mine’; ‘A Candidate For Transportation’

From the Derby Mercury, 16th December 1857:

Man Killed In A Lead Mine

On Friday last, a poor man named Thos. Thorpe, went from his cottage at Bonsall, to Mr. Greaves’, Cliff-house, Matlock, to beg a handful of mint, and not returning on that night or the next, his wife and family became seriously alarmed for his safety.  On Sunday morning some neighbours went in search, and ascertained that Thorpe had left Cliff-house with a quantity of mint, about six in the evening of Friday.  They then tracked his course homewards by leaves and sprigs of mint, to a mine shaft on Masson, then recently run in, but there the traces of the mint ceased.  On removing the rubbish in the hole the poor fellow was discovered about six feet from the surface, of course quite dead, and the body was removed to a farmhouse near to await a coroner’s inquest.

A Candidate For Transportation

Police Office, Derby  George Marshall, a youth of 14, was charged as follows:- Police-constable Davis stated: Prisoner came to me this morning and said, “Mr. Davis, I shall find you a job to-day.”  I replied, “What shall you do?”  He said, “I shall commit a robbery.”  I endeavoured to persuade him to go home, but he would not, and said, “I shall go to the first watchmaker’s shop I can, break a window, steal a watch and run my chance, as I mean to have seven years.”  I knew that prisoner had been twice convicted at the sessions, and also that he had been twice summarily committed, and therefore I thought it best to lock him up.  Prisoner, in reply to questions from the Mayor, said that he would rather be transported than live in Derby; that he had a comfortable home and neither his father nor his mother-in-law behaved ill to him, but he did not like to stay at home.  The Mayor doubted whether sending prisoner to gaol again would be productive of any good, as it was evident he had a propensity for stealing and leading an idle life; but on the mother-in-law saying they had done all they could for him, and that if he did not return home (and he said he would not) something worse was sure to happen to him, the Bench committed him, as a rogue and vagabond, for three months with hard labour.

We hold the Derby Mercury on microfilm  – just ring to book a microfilm reader.

On this Day: ‘The Week’s Sports’

From the Alfreton and Belper Journal, 2nd December 1892:

The Week’s Sports

The football shown on Saturday by the different clubs was surprising and goes to show that football (like cricket) is a game upon which you cannot place much confidence as to the results, as the different matches lately played tend to show…

…Last Saturday Alfreton leapt out of the bucket and put another win to their credit, and this came when the least expected.  No one could have thought the Town would score two more points than their opponents last week who saw the teams previous to the commencement.  There were four of the Alphas team playing with the first, and whether it is owing to these four being included in the team that they gained their victory or no I cannot say.  Certain it is they had something to do with the result.  It was a pity the day was so unfavourable as the club are not having the best of gates, and it seems rather hard that they should receive so little support when they are proving themselves conquerors.  Many of the supporters thought there would be no match, as did also some of the first team players, in fact some were in bed while the play was on, and did not know anything of the affair until some considerable time after the match was over.  However, the Alphas were at hand and proved themselves equal to the task by their tactics and dash.  The Basford team were a tricky lot of fellows and played a fast game, but their defence is far from good, and it is chiefly owing to this defect that they were defeated on Saturday…

…Clay Cross journeyed to South Normanton and beat the home team by 4 goals to 2.  I have been in the company of the visitors lines man (Mr. Whitworth), and he tells me the language of the spectators was most disgusting I think the spectators ought to control their tongues a little…

…I am pleased to state that Chesterfield and Clay Cross have dispelled all the bitterness of rivalry that has existed between them , and Clay Cross are due at Chesterfield on Christmas Tuesday to face the “Crooked Spireites” in a friendly .  May the best team win.  Chesterfield have guaranteed Clay Cross £4 for the match.

Riddings received a severe beating at Ilkeston on Saturday.  Owing to the wet morning only nine of the team turned up, Wimbush and Brown being absent.  Starting with nine men, their misfortunes did not end there, Street straining his thigh after five minutes play and being of no further use to his side.  Partridge, the Riddings centre half-back, played a champion game, and was the best man on the field.  Burton also played a very good game.  Next Saturday Riddings visit Clay Cross, and have re-organised the team.  We shall see by the result whether it will be a success or not…

Lost again!  Belper Town three, Langley Mill four.  The best excuse to give for a losing team is they met better players.  I doubt it in this case.  Four to three leaves very little margin.  The ground at Langley Mill was in a terrible plight, pools of water and mud being plentiful.  Still I have a little excuse for Belper.  They had not the full team.  When the half-backs are absent it is like taking away the prop and down comes the whole structure.  Horrobin had promised up to Friday night to resume his place in the team.  Derby Junction got at him and he was tempted to Rotherham.  Jack Lynam could not go, and Green is on the sick list.  These three men would have won the match for Belper.  When the return is played I think there will be less croaking at Langley Mill than was the case last Saturday…

…I am reminded by a friend of a grand prize drawing Belper Town has arranged for Christmas on behalf of the funds of the club.  There are fifty prizes ranging from £3 3s. to two dozen of bitter beer.  Every little helps.  Who can tell what a stray ticket may do.  It is always the unexpected that happens.


We hold the Alfreton and Belper Journal on microfilm  – just ring to book a microfilm reader.

Explore Your Archive – A Derbyshire Spirit Story

From the Derby Mercury, 26 September 1860:

A Derbyshire Spirit Story

The following singular story is given in Owen’s “Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World,” as being told to the writer by William Howitt and given in Mr Howitt’s own words:-

The circumstance you desire to obtain from me is one which I have many times heard related by my mother.  It was an event familiar to our family and the neighbourhood, and is connected with my earliest memories; having occurred, about the time of my birth, at my father’s house at Heanor, in Derbyshire, where I myself was born.  My mother’s family name, Tantum, is an uncommon one, which I do not recollect to have met with except in a story of Miss Leslie’s.  My mother had two brothers, Francis and Richard.  The younger, Richard, I knew well, for he lived to an old age.  The elder, Francis, was, at the time of the occurrence I am about to report, a gay young man, about twenty, unmarried; handsome, frank, affectionate, and extremely beloved by all classes throughout that part of the country.  He is described, in that age of powder and pigtails, as wearing his auburn hair flowing in ringlets on his shoulders, like another Absalom, and was much admired, as well for his personal grace as for the life and gaiety of his manners. 

One fine calm afternoon, my mother, shortly after a confinement, but perfectly convalescent, was lying in bed, enjoying from her window the sense of summer beauty and repose; a bright sky above, and the quiet village before her.  In this state she was gladdened by hearing footsteps which she took to be those of her brother Frank, as he was familiarly called, approaching the chamber-door.  The visitor knocked and entered.  The foot of the bed was towards the door; and the curtains at the foot, not withstanding the season, were drawn, to prevent any draught.  Her brother parted them, and looked in upon her.  His gaze was earnest, and destitute of its usual cheerfulness, and he spoke not a word.  “My dear Frank,” said my mother, “how glad I am to see you!  Come round to the bedside: I wish to have some talk with you.”  He closed the curtains, as complying; but instead of doing so, my mother, to her astonishment, heard him leave the room, close the door behind him, and begin to descend the stairs.  Greatly amazed she hastily rang, and when her maid appeared she bade her call her brother back.  The girl replied she had not seen him enter the house.  But my mother insisted, saying, “He was here but this instant.  Run! quick!  Call him back; I must see him!”  The girl hurried away, but after a time returned, saying that she could learn nothing of him anywhere, nor had any one in or about the house seen him either enter or depart. 

Now my father’s house stood at the bottom of the village, and close to the high road, which was quite straight; so that any one passing along it must have been seen for a much longer period than had elapsed.  The girl said she had looked up and down the road, then searched the garden – a large, old-fashioned one, with shady walks.  But neither in the garden nor on the road was he to be seen.  She had inquired at the nearest cottages in the village, but no one had noticed him pass.  My mother, though a very pious woman, was far from superstitious; yet the strangeness of this circumstance struck her forcibly. 

While she lay pondering upon it, there was heard a sudden running and excited talking in the village street.  My mother listened: it increased, though up to that time the village had been profoundly still; and she became convinced that something very unusual had occurred.  Again she rung the bell, to inquire the cause of the disturbance.  This time it was the monthly nurse who answered it.  She sought to tranquilise my mother, as a nurse usually does a patient.  “Oh, it is nothing particular, ma’am,” she said, “some trifling affair,” – which she pretended to relate, passing lightly over the particulars.  But her ill-suppressed agitation did not escape my mother’s eye.  “Tell me the truth,” she said, “at once.  I am certain something very sad has happened.”  The woman still equivocated, greatly fearing the effect upon my mother in her then situation.  And at first the family joined in the attempt at concealment.  Finally, however, my mother’s alarm and earnest entreaties drew from them the terrible truth that her brother had just been stabbed at the top of the village, and killed on the spot. 

The melancholy event had thus occurred.  My uncle, Francis Tantum, had been dining at Shipley Hall, with Mr. Edward Miller Mundy, member of Parliament for the county.  Shipley Hall lay off to the left of the village as you looked up the main street from my father’s house, and about a mile distant from it; the road from the one country-seat to the other crossing, nearly at right angles, the upper portion of the village street at a point where stood one of the two village inns, the Admiral Rodney, respectably kept by the widow H–ks.  I remember her well – a tall, fine-looking woman, who must have been handsome in her youth, and who retained, even past middle age, an air superior to her condition.  She had one only child, a son, then scarcely twenty.  He was a good-looking, brisk young fellow, and bore a very fair character.  He must, however, as the event showed, have been of a very hasty temper. 

Francis Tantum, riding home from Shipley Hall after the early country dinner, that day, somewhat elate, it may be, with wine, stopped at the widow’s inn and bade the son bring him a glass of ale.  As the latter turned to obey, my uncle, giving the youth a smart switch across the back with his riding-whip, cried out, in his lively, joking way, “Now be quick, Dick; be quick!”  The young man, instead of receiving the playful stroke as a jest, took it as an insult.  He rushed into the house, snatched up a carving-knife, and, darting back into the street, stabbed my uncle to the heart, as he sat on his horse, so that he fell dead, on the instant, in the road. 

The sensation throughout the quiet village may be imagined.  The inhabitants, who idolised the murdered man, were prevented from taking summary vengeance on the homicide only by the constable’s carrying him off to the office of the nearest magistrate.  Young H–ks was tried at the next Derby Assizes; but (justly, no doubt, taken into view the sudden irritation caused by the blow) he was convicted of manslaughter only, and, after a few months’ imprisonment, returned to the village; where, notwithstanding the strong popular feeling against him, he continued to keep the inn, even after his mother’s death.  He is still present to my recollection, a quiet, retiring man, never guilty of any other irregularity of conduct, and seeming to bear about with him the constant memory of his rash deed – a silent blight upon his life.  So great was the respect entertained for my uncle, and such the deep impression of his tragic end, that so long of the generation lived the church-bells of the village were regularly tolled on the anniversary of his death.  On comparing the circumstances and the exact time at which each occurred, the fact was subtantiated, that the apparition presented itself to my mother almost instantly after her brother had received the fatal stroke.

Heanor church burial, 4 February 1795, M465 vol 4

Heanor church burial, 4 February 1795, M465 vol 4

Derby Mercury, 5 February 1795

Derby Mercury, 5 February 1795

D4734/1/10/11 Account of murder of Francis Tantum in 1795

D4734/1/10/11 Account of murder of Francis Tantum in 1795

Derby Mercury, 19 March 1795

Derby Mercury, 19 March 1795

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt1)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt1)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt2)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt2)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt3)

D4734/16/20/3 Elegy on death of Francis Tantum by F. Skerrett for newspaper, 1795 (pt3)

Q/RA 1/3 Register of licensed victuallers, 1795

Q/RA 1/3 Register of licensed victuallers, 1795

Excerpt from Pigot's Directory, 1821-1822

Excerpt from Pigot’s Directory, 1821-1822

Heanor church burial entry, 16th February 1848, DVD 83

Heanor church burial entry, 16th February 1848, DVD 83


Explore Your Archive – Prisoners of War

I first became aware that there had been Napoleonic prisoners in Derbyshire when I came across an unusual gravestone at St Mary and All Saints church, Chesterfield, aka the Crooked Spire.  The inscription translated as ‘In memory of Francois Raingeard, thirty years of age, Prisoner of War, died 1oth March 1812’ and bore the message ‘Stop Traveller!  If thro’ Life’s journey, Sympathy Has found a seat in thy Breast; thou’ll drop a pitying tear to the memory of one who…’; the last line started ‘In Friendship…’, but the rest had worn away.

This wasn’t the first time there had been prisoners of war in Derbyshire.  During the Seven Years’ War with France, the Victoria County History (Vol 2) states that 300 French prisoners were sent to Derby in July 1759.  Apparently the churchwardens of Derby All Saints made an “absurdly boastful and vainglorious entry” in their books concluding:

Their behaviour at first was impudent and insolent; and at all times vain and effeminate; and their whole deportment Light and Unmanly; and we may venture to say from our observation and knowledge of them that in any future war, this Nation has nothing to fear from them as an Enemy.  During their abode here, the road from this place to Parliament was by an Act of Parliament repair’d; the part from St. Mary’s Bridge (which by reason of the floods was impassible) being greatly raised.  Numbers of these people were daily employ’d, who work’d in their Bag Whigs, Pigtails, Ruffles, &c., a matter which afforded no small merriment.  But to their Honour let it be remembered, yet scarce an Act of Fraud or Theft was committed by any of them during their stay amongst us.    

Whilst prisoners of war from the lower ranks were held in prisons or on prison ships, officers were placed on a parole of honour in which they promised not to leave or escape from the town they were sent to.  Derbyshire’s central geographic position made it an ideal place to hold the men.  Our local studies library copy (940.27) of part of the National Archives’ general entry book of French prisoners of war on parole shows that from December 1803-July 1812 there were 172 prisoners on parole at Ashbourne and from November 1803-June 1811 there were over 400 held at Chesterfield.  The parish registers for Chesterfield show that aswell as Frenchmen there were at least a few Polish, Swiss, German, Italian and Hungarian prisoners too.

D302 Z/W 1 Weekly accounts, December 1812

D302 Z/W 1 Weekly accounts, December 1812

We have at the Record Office a bound volume of letters, accounts and reports (to the Transport Board) by John Langford (D302 Z/W 1) who was appointed as the agent for the care of parole prisoners at Ashbourne in March 1812.  The accounts and the discharge information can sometimes record prisoner’s names, the name of the prize i.e. from which vessel or place the prisoner was captured, whether the prize was a man of war, privateer or merchant vessel, what rank the prisoner held, and in some records the date of the beginning of their parole at Ashbourne, their date of discharge and how much they were paid.  One particular list which records prisoners at Ashbourne who hadn’t been held on parole or in prison anywhere else in the country, also records details of their age, height, hair colour, eye colour, face shape, complexion, figure, and any wounds or distinguishing marks.

D302 Z/W 1 Accounts of subsistence paid, 1812

D302 Z/W 1 Accounts of subsistence paid, 1812

Whilst the papers don’t reveal that much about their day-to-day activities, there are some letters which let us glimpse into individual lives, such as one from 26th November 1812 giving the account of a Monsieur Frohart who was judged to be in a state of insanity.  He was lodging with a Mr Mellor in the town and it was Mellor who reported to Langford that Frohart, having been restless and singing and making a noise the preceding night, appeared deranged the next morning and ran into the street only half-dressed and broke the windows of several neighbouring properties.  Apparently a couple of years previously he had been in a similar state whilst being on parole in Chesterfield.

Other letters record the various escapes of prisoners, such as Jacques Perroud, the captain of the privateer the ‘Phoenix’, who ran away in the night in April 1812 and was believed to be heading to the Kent coast.  A physical description of him is included and it also reports what he could be wearing, topped by a new hat with a narrow crown, broadish brim, a ribbon and a small white buckle.  Captain Perroud left behind at his lodgings a trunk, four small French dictionaries, three pairs of cloth pantaloons, four old cotton shirts and two cotton pillow cases.

Between 1803 and 1815, around ten prisoners (all men on parole at Chesterfield) appear in the Quarter Sessions Calendars of Prisoners, though I’m sure the actual figure was much higher.  Half of them are being tried on charges of breaking or exceeding their parole and the other half are up on bastardy charges for fathering illegitimate children.  There are at least twelve prisoners of war, including Francois Raingeard, buried in the Crooked Spire churchyard.  From 1806 onwards there are approx. ten marriages of prisoners of war to local women and about eighteen baptisms of children of prisoners, either with wives who were also taken as prisoners or women they had met and married in Chesterfield, and also a few illegitimate children.  

The Ashbourne St Oswald registers seem to show that one local family was particularly welcoming:  15th August 1808, Vincent Pierre Fillion, a French Prisoner of War, married Hannah Whitaker, spinster; 7th May 1810, Louis Hugand, a French prisoner, married Mary Whittaker, spinster; 30th December 1811, Peter/Pierre Dupre, Prisoner of War in Ashbourne, married Elizabeth Whittaker, spinster; 26th November 1812, Otto Ernst d’Heldreich, Prisoner of War, married Margaret Whittaker, spinster. 

Whilst a few remained in Derbyshire, most of the prisoners of war, and their families, eventually returned to mainland Europe.  But aswell as the legacy of a method of glove-making which carried on and thrived in Chesterfield during the nineteenth century, as the story goes it was a French prisoner who first introduced the recipe for what is known as Ashbourne Gingerbread, which is still made and sold in the town two hundred years later.


Explore Your Archive – Pride and Pugilists: Round Two

D5459/4/32/2 A Milling Match, Thomas Rowlandson, [1811]

D5459/4/32/2 A Milling Match, Thomas Rowlandson, [1811]

Jem Belcher had been left partially blind since 1803 after the ball struck his left eye during a game of rackets.  All too familiarly, he carried on after his 1805 defeat to Henry ‘Hen’ Pearce ‘The Game Chicken’, and suffered further losses against the future champion Tom Cribb in 1807 and 1809.  He seems to have been arrested after his last fight, and the Gell letters chart his misfortune that year.  

I have been fagging myself to death to settle the business of my ally Jim Belcher & what with Windham, Lord Archibald, Jackson, & Adam the Lawyer, I have at length got a letter for him to Mr Nolan the great Lawyer who attends at Guildford quarter sessions, who is to defend him for nothing.  That Brute Tom who ought to have gone with him is not only gone to Newmarket to Captain Barclay himself, but has taken with him or rather is taken by a Mr Shelton who should have been bail or security, but I will blow them both well up when they return, d— them.  If you have any of the guts of charity in your r*ctum send me some money for him and I will give it him from you, for he feels a great difference in not being the winning man.

D258/50/22, [2 July] 1809

An August letter to Phillip Gell provides an update on legal proceedings and financial woes, aswell as the latest news.

I hope to be with you by the first of October, for a fortnight.  Pray write to me at Lord Oxford’s, Eywood near Presteigne, Radnorshire directly.  If I had time I would get acquainted with all the young pugilists at Bristol, of which there is a fine young flock who will probably arrive in town in a year or two.  I have directed Jackson to get you a Barclay handkerchief.  Thank you about Mr Kinderley & James Belcher, but the people were so kind to me about it that he would have had all he wanted in court but it was put off till October at Kingston when by the blessing of God I will rout the beasts by the assistance of Mr William Adam & Mr Nolan at Kingston.  Why the devil don’t you write to Henry Raikes.  He does not object to the country & would have bought your living before this time had you managed properly.  I stopped the boat in my way here & landed at Boyle farm to know if Old Raikes had heard of you, no damn me no, so you will lose you living & I & Jim Belcher our regalo.  Lady Elizabeth Forbes has got some good naughty for you when you meet again…There is a fight this day between Richman the black & Maddox who is as you say a slow chap.  People think Richman will win & I have just sent James Belcher by the coach to second that Lilly hero hoping he will put a guinea or two into his pocket by it.     

D258/50/27, 11 August 1809

Unfortunately the court’s verdict did not go Belcher’s way.

Only think, I took Jem to Kingston, no causes tried that day.  He went the next Mr Nolan defended him 3 hours.  He was had up to day Oct 5 2 hours.  He was indicted on 4 charges.  Only guilty of fighting “verdict”.  But one of the jury stuck out & the rest wanted to lick him.  The consequence is that he is come home but is to go on Novr 5 to hear the Judge’s decision.  It is a d—-d shame I wish he had the thrashing of them all.  He is very grateful for your regalo, & Tom who has been sparring to night for Bittons benefit asked after you very kindly.  When you come a-Parliamenting I hope you will come to Benham.  Craven comes here on 11. I came on 1st.  Damn the Judge & Jury for he cannot see about a house with a sign while this hangs over him poor fellow.  

D258/50/29, 5 October 1809

The damned sons of B*****s have confined Jem for 28 days in the County goal Horsemonger lane from 2nd of November blast them.  I sent him a letter saying you, I & Keppel would be answerable for Jem & Mr Frowman has promised the license so on the 2nd or 3rd of December Jem will be out & in his old situation I hope.  I went twice to see him as I passed through Town.  He is very cheerful & merry poor fellow though only to be seen from 12 to 2.  Tom lives almost next door which wir virry good hearing for me.  I don’t think he wants anything, but he is so modest I cannot found out except by a trap so I have sent Richmond to find out.  Said Richmond has received forfeit from Cropley who won’t fight…Jem had a very poor benefit previous to his confinement there being nobody in town…Tom Belcher has a benefit soon after that, at which I shall be if possible…The Covent Garden gets worse & worse.  I saw the Lord Mayor’s show as I returned from seeing Jem in prison.  County gaol Horsmonger lane.  There is a man in the same place with him confined for some small offence of very genteel appearance who does every thing for Jem even to cooking as if he were his servant so well liked is he by every body.  I am very glad tis no worse, he sends his grateful regards to you and as I knew you would like to hear of him I write.               

D258/50/30, 11 November 1809        

Despite Gell’s efforts ( D258/50/31, December 1809 “…Jem is out & I am working to get him re-established.  I think I shall succeed…”), the elder Belcher brother slipped further into decline and died in London in 1811. 

Cropley & Power are to fight & they have matched T Belcher against Lilly White but as I was told the black would prove the best man I have given Tom a lecture about his brother losing his fame by over fighting & convinced him that unless he is sure of winning he ought not to try having left off with 5 victories since his defeat by Sam over Dogherty, Farnborough & Cropley.  He is convinced by my arguments & as 50£ is wanting in the purse Hi doant think it wull be a fite.  

D258/50/39, 16 July 1810

Tom Belcher seems to have fared better than his older brother.  Despite fighting a few more times after this, he was at one point owner of the famous boxing watering-hole the Castle Tavern in Holborn, and eventually died in 1854. 

As one of her chamberlains, Sir William Gell left England in 1814 to accompany the former Princess of Wales, now the exiled Queen Caroline.  He remained in Italy, continuing to publish topographies, with continual money problems, until his death in 1836.  His letters (D258/50/1-155) are available to view at the Record Office on CD 152.


Explore Your Archive – Pride and Pugilists: Round One

Sir William Gell (1777-1836), archaeologist and topographer, author and illustrator, enjoyed a social circle that encompassed the royal court and the square ring.

…as I was to dine at the Princess of Wales’s to day at Kensington Palace I thought it proper as a specimen of rising & falling in poetry to send for Jim Belcher to go to Astleys on my return down the river, as there can be nothing more picturesque than to pass at once from the society of a Serene Highness to that of a serene boxer.  I should certainly on the same principle send for Tom to go to a lark somewhere to night but that her Royal Highness eats and drinks so much that dinner will probably last till 4 in the morning.

D258/50/20, c.1808

A series of letters (D258/50/1-155) written by William – mainly to his elder brother Sir Phillip Gell MP, of Hopton Hall, Wirksworth – offer glimpses into the world of Regency pugilism.

I should have told you my friend Perry has presented Dutch Sam to me, he was very civil, is half dead, quite drunk, and how he could beat Tom I cannot conceive.  I do not patronize him for I had an opportunity of seeing that he was a great blackguard very soon, so I hope he will die.

D258/50/20, c.1808



Yesterday I went with Tom to a bull bait & fight at a green one mile beyond Hampstead.  Byrne & Dogherty were to have fought, but them there Westminster chaps brought forward a Costarmonger named Silverthorne much less than Byrne who though seemingly very stout was compleatly wasted and cowed & gave in his defect is this for the dotted line is the right shape & those whose shoulders are so flat cannot as you observe hit out.

D258/50/37, 27 June [1810?]

Boxing was one of the most popular sports of the era, with both the gentry and the general  populace, and attracted big crowds and even bigger wagers.  William Gell appears to have patronized the Bristolian boxers Jem Belcher, the former all England champion, and his younger brother Tom.  Occasionally Gell writes part of a letter in the ‘style’ of Jem or Tom, and his patronage veers towards the patronising, as in the following extract.

D258/50/34, 4 January 1810

D258/50/34, 4 January 1810

Despite its public popularity, boxing was illegal, and bouts had to be furtively arranged out of view of local magistrates.

I am ordered by Matthews to give you an account of a larking party in which I was engaged on Wednesday the 19th ultimo at Comb wood near Wimbledon.  I copy the card of notice for your information.  “Sir) the fight is at Coum hood near Kingston at 12 o clock”.  This being my notice I was at breakfast when the two Belchers came to take me there.  I resisted a hackney coach as too slow & took them both in a chaise.  As we went along I was told to look in the common at a woman whom I saw & they told me it was Jerry Abershaw’s wife, in fact she was wandering near the spot where Abershaw the noted robber was hanged.  Soon after we passed several Chay carts in one of which, they saw some clergymen whom I found to be three chimney sweepers on enquiring how they could distinguish them at such a distance.  When we got to the place which was an open space in the wood there were not many people, but I found Jackson who patronized me & Payne, Sir Henry Smith & Green an untried man & Smith whom you have seen were to fight.  At length the company increased to about 1,000 people & the ring was made.  Of course as I am to be M.O. for Westminster I soon had a great circle round me & was insisting “that the bill do lie on the table” to the great entertainment of the mob when Tom Belcher every now & then came & ordered me away, as there were more than 60 pickpockets in the place, and this species of tyranny he practised several times for my benefit & to his own risque for the light fingered gentry would have half killed him if they had known it.  In short they all took so much care of me, that I think Lord Cochrane will have but little chance next time.  Tom betted on Green who lost by selling himself as they all said, for he was not much hurt.  After this there was a second battle between Little Lenox & a person named Cowpe, a young man who got very well thrashed, & a much better battle it was than the first.  To this succeeded a Bull baiting on which I was violently laid hold of by Power (for his name is not Powell) and taken in the spirit to the top of a Hackney coach that I might see the fun…after this I returned home and supped with the Princess of Wales according to the prophecy which sayeth “when thou larkest in the morning let thy evening be in the palace”.  By the bye I dine there to day & have sent to one of my Castors or Polluxes to breakfast here for I want to set him up again in the world and have engaged Windham in the business.

D258/50/25, July 24 1809

Continues tomorrow…