Collection spotlight: Cooper’s Corsets

If you’re interested in fashion, take a look at the archive of corset makers Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) Ltd.  The catalogue for this lovely little collection has just had a major refresh which has improved the descriptions and arrangement to make it much easier to delve into.

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Richard Cooper ‘Top Labels’ scrap book (D4984/F/3/1)

Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) Ltd started in the 1850s as ‘stay makers’ (the term ‘corset’ didn’t come into common use until later in the 19th century).  The business proved so profitable that in addition to the company’s main site in Ashbourne there were factories in Uttoxeter and Derby, and from the 1950s, Buxton.

Corsets are often thought of as torture devices which squashed women’s internal organs and caused them to be constantly fainting.  No doubt a small minority of women did tight-lace their garments to harmful degrees in pursuit of a tiny waist, but for the majority a well-fitted corset was a comfortable and supportive garment.  It was an essential item of clothing worn by women of all classes, from working women to the well-to-do; our female ancestors managed to wear corsets whilst pregnant, doing physical labour and playing sports, without any ill effects.

Sadly, we have very little from the early days of the firm and only one Victorian corset pattern survives.  This is somewhat unusual as it was drawn in pencil onto some calico, the fabric was sewn into a kind of book, labelled and posted to the Uttoxeter factory.  The postmark helpfully dates it to May 1889.

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Part of Richard Cooper 1889 corset pattern (D4984/D/1/1)

There are a number of pattern books from the 1920s to the 1960s with drawings and specifications of the various designs of girdles, brassieres, corsets, corselettes, wraparounds and suspender belts, mostly sold under the trade name ‘Excelsior’.  The collection also includes some lovely marketing material from the 1940s onwards.

Excelsior 1

Excelsior illustrated price list (D4984/F/6/1/3)

Excelsior 2

Excelsior girdles and suspender belts (D4984/F/6/1/5)

Coopers was a major employer in Ashbourne and for anyone interested in the workers, a few staff records survive, including a register of ‘young persons under the age of 18’ employed at the factory between 1895 and 1900.

Sadly, changes in fashion meant that the market for girdles and corsets dwindled towards the end of the 20th century and the factory closed in the 1980s.  The archive, however, means that although Richard Cooper and Company may be gone, it is not forgotten.  You can browse the full collection on our online catalogue.

Perfection in Accounting

Whilst we’re in coronavirus lockdown, one of the collections I’m working on is D517, the archive of the Miller Mundy family of Shipley Hall.  I had to nip into the office the other day (we go in regularly to make sure the environmental conditions in the stores are as they should be) so I took a quick look at a couple of items in the collection which needed some better descriptions.  These are two account books from the 1600s (reference numbers: D517/BOX/13/1-2).

Both books are large and parchment bound.  The first was an account book (1682-1697) belonging to Edward Mundy of Markeaton Hall.  I know very little about Edward but I can tell that he was an extremely neat and organised man, as his accounts are an example in financial perfection.

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Edward Mundy’s ledger, 1680s (D517/BOX/13/1)

The book is divided into a ledger at the front and a journal or day book at the back.  If you’re not familiar with accounting practices, a ledger is arranged by type of expense, or the person or business which is being paid or charged, whereas a journal, also known as a day book, is a chronological account of money coming in and out.  Edward’s ledger crosses over two pages, one page with credit and one with debit.  There are numbers at the sides of the ledger and journal entries so that Edward could check his ledger entries against his journal entries and vice versa.

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Beginning of Edward Mundy’s journal (D517/BOX/13/1)

Just look at that beautiful writing!  Edward Mundy really took his time to make the ledger and journal pleasing to the eye as well as practical.

From this book we can learn a lot about Edward Mundy’s business dealings, which include wool, sugar, and cotton, as well as his household expenses, what he spent on horses, clothes and shoes, and his ‘parish dues’.  Lots of people are named, including his servants Jarvis Woodruff and Hester Jenkinson.

The second book in this box is an even earlier ledger from 1661-1662 and relates to a textile business that seems to have been jointly owned or invested in by a John Tufnayle and Mrs Elizabeth Clerke.  Who these people are and how they are connected with the Mundys is not yet known, but the ledger is similarly well written:

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Ledger entry, 1661 (D517/BOX/13/2)

It doesn’t quite reach the perfection of Edward Mundy’s ledger, but it’s pretty good.  Here it looks as if the business is exporting textiles (baize, ‘bocking’ and ‘colchester’), possibly to Lixa in Portugal.

This large volume was only used as a ledger for a few pages.  Eighty years later, Charles Palmer from Ladbroke Hall in Warwickshire obviously decided it would make a useful book in which to (very roughly!) record the rents he was getting from his tenants.

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Rent for the year 1742 (D517/BOX/13/2)

It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast in both organisation and handwriting.  Ordinarily I would say that eighteenth century handwriting was a pleasure to read, but definitely not in this case.

An update on Elizabeth Appleton for Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and a few weeks ago I planned to write about mon my research about Elizabeth Appleton, a highly independent young woman of the Regency era, who I’ve previously blogged about.  Of course a lot has happened since the beginning of March, as the world has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.  Record Office staff are all now working from home and we’ve had a lot to do to make sure our staff remain safe whilst also trying to get on with some useful work .  It’s now the end of March and we’ve largely organised ourselves, so there’s just time to slip in a post before Women’s History Month comes to an end.

I first came across Elizabeth Appleton when she was mentioned in architect William Porden‘s diary of a journey he and his daughter Eleanor took to France in 1816.  Elizabeth Appleton was extremely seasick on the crossing and she drew my attention because she was a young woman in her mid-twenties going to France as a tourist all on her own.  In an age where we imagine well brought up women being hidebound by chaperones and restricted in what they can do, this seemed highly unusual.

She’s got no connections with Derbyshire (I don’t have any reason to think she ever stepped foot in the county) but my fascination with her continued long after reading about her travels with the Pordens in 1816. With the wonders of the internet and a bit of archival research, I now know so much more about her.

A search on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue uncovered a small cache of letters by Elizabeth Appleton at Lancashire Archives, written when she was a governess at Castlemere, Rochdale, to the Baylis family in London: her uncle, a printer, aunt and cousin.  Lancashire Archives kindly scanned the letters for me – they cover the period 1814 to 1820 and mention the Pordens, the publication of her books (she was an author of several educational works) and her plans to escape the life of a governess. She clearly wanted to leave the provincial backwater of Rochdale and wrote of her longing to move to London and set up a school.

I already knew from an 1822 newspaper advertisement that she did establish a school in Upper Portland Place, London:


A visit to Westminster Archives enabled me to pin down the number of the house from the rate books, and a helpful map showed the house numbering when they were first built. The numbers have since changed, but that original map led me to the house, which I was excited to see was still there, very near to Regent’s Park:

It’s a substantial house in a select neighbourhood and her neighbours included a duchess and a General – very much as she would have wished!  She ran her school here for ten years before financial problems required her to leave.

Elizabeth’s books, published under her maiden name and her married name, Elizabeth Lachlan, are of the ‘Governess Literature’ type – educational and moral works for children from an era when imaginative children’s literature didn’t really exist outside fairy tales.  They can be found on Google Books but don’t make for exciting reading!

She maintained her friendship with the Pordens long after she met them on the way to France; after William Porden’s death in 1822, Eleanor Porden stayed with Elizabeth at Portland Place for a few months before she married the polar explorer John Franklin.  Eleanor died a couple of years later at the age of only 29 whilst her husband was away on an expedition, but her friend Elizabeth was a witness to her will and so, we know, was close to her at the end.

Elizabeth’s letters at Lancashire Archives show what a determined woman she was.  The options for a genteel young woman to earn her own money at that time were extremely limited, but she combined being a governess with writing books in order to save enough money to establish a successful school which gave her the lifestyle she yearned for.  Even whilst she worked as a governess she managed to take time away from her busy teaching and writing to travel on the continent and pursue an active social life with friends and family in London.

Through her letters, and the glimpses we get of her in William Porden’s diaries, we gain a picture of a woman of high intelligence with a sense of humour and a streak of snobbery, who is occasionally a bit difficult and sometimes prone to depression.  Her anxieties about how to support herself and her wish to obtain financial security in a world which severely limited her options would have been common concerns for many women at the time.

In the 1830s Elizabeth became an ardent Evangelical Christian and her religious views, which were considered subversive at the time, contributed to the demise of her reputation and her school.  It’s been suggested that some women may have joined the Evangelical movement because it gave them an opportunity for self expression which they couldn’t find elsewhere, and I can believe that of Elizabeth.

She is one of countless women who struggled to achieve financial security, public recognition and self expression during their lives.  Like many, she has since been forgotten but Women’s History Month gives us a chance to remember them all.

Temporary Closure at Derbyshire Record Office

From 5pm today, the Record Office will be closed until further notice to protect staff and customers from contracting the coronavirus and help to prevent its spread. All events have been cancelled.  Although people won’t be able to visit us, we will be monitoring written enquiries and continuing our research and copying service.

Whilst we’re closed, we will still be busy working behind the scenes – we have lots of useful jobs we can be doing that will make things easier for our customers to access our collections when we reopen, particularly getting some of our unlisted collections onto our online catalogue.

These are bound to generate some interesting blog posts as we make new discoveries – I’ve already started taking a look at the uncatalogued archive of the Miller Mundy family of Shipley Hall near Heanor, for example, which unexpectedly contains three ships logs from the 1820s.  Who would have thought you would find ships logs in land-locked Derbyshire?

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Ships Log of the HMS Leander, 1821 (D517/Box/B)

We also know that many people will be bored at home as everything shuts down, so we’re considering how we could involve remote volunteers in helping us to list or transcribe documents from home.  If you’d be interested in getting involved, or have any ideas about collections you would like us to work on, let us know in the comments below.

In the meantime, we hope our customers and blog readers stay well.  You can keep in touch with what’s going on at the Record Office through the blog and our Record Office Twitter.

Shamans of the Arctic

Buxton Museum’s latest blog is about some lovely Inuit objects which are currently on display in their ‘Between two Worlds’ exhibition. They give a little peek into the beliefs of the indigenous people who live in the Arctic – which of course links nicely with our archives relating to Sir John Franklin and his crew, who perished in the Arctic nearly 175 years ago.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

I have been very fortunate to work on the exhibition, Between Two Worlds, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. This is a unique collection of work from artists affected by war and intolerance in the 20th century, much of it never seen by the public before. On the surface, much of the artwork on display is vibrant and colourful but beneath are stories of artists who were persecuted, interned and displaced. Even within the permissive art world, these individuals faced discrimination and prejudice for not conforming to society’s expectations either through religious beliefs, race or sexuality. The exhibition is also about a time when colonial governments sought to impose Western society and religion, depriving indigenous communities of their cultural identity.

The exhibition draws on artworks from Derbyshire County Council’s own collection, the bequest of Arto Funduklian, the son of Armenian emigres, as well as from the Derbyshire School Library Service…

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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.


A Fraudulent Governess

I recently happened upon some material which piqued my interest: it was a small envelope of correspondence 1896-1900 relating to a former governess to Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe’s daughters at Calke Abbey, named Miss Adams, who was involved in a court case.  If you’ve read my blog posts about Elizabeth Appleton, you’ll know that governesses have a particular fascination for me, so I felt compelled to find out more about Miss Adams.

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Reference number D2375/F/L/1/1/7

There was a suggestion that Lady Crewe might have to testify at the court case and letters from his daughter to the governess might be produced as evidence.  Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe was clearly trying to prevent this happening and distance his family from any scandal.  With a bit of judicious searching on Ancestry, Findmypast, and the British Newspaper Archive (all free to use at the Record Office and your local Derbyshire library)  I found a wealth of information about Miss Adams, also known as Sarah A’Court among other names, which paints an interesting picture of her.

Within the envelope were three notes from the governess herself to Sir Vauncey in 1896, just before she left his employ.  Sir Vauncey had obviously dismissed her, as her notes show she is unhappy to be leaving.  Her writing is difficult to read, but one letter reads ‘Believe me when I tell you I am so bitterly miserable’:


As Sir Vauncey was a notoriously difficult man, the fact that he decided she had to go wouldn’t necessarily count against her.  As it transpires, however, Sir Vauncey may have had good reason to dismiss her .

Sarah Elizabeth Hamp Adams was born in 1868, the daughter of a solicitor, Francis Hamp Adams, in Upton Bishop near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire.  She claimed to have married on 19 December 1892, which is how her name changed to Sarah A’Court, but had separated from her husband.  The marriage apparently didn’t take place in England and she would give no further details about this mysterious husband; it’s unlikely he ever existed.

In 1900, under the name Sarah A’Court, she took a Mr and Mrs Denny to court for false dismissal and slander.  They had employed her as a governess the year before, but had dismissed her on the grounds that she had been previously employed as a parlour maid by a friend under a different name, Susan Adams.  They therefore didn’t believe any of her references that stated she had worked as a ‘high class governess’ to families like the Harpur Crewes, although as we know, at least some of those references were actually true.  She lost her case, however, when the supposed real ‘Susan Adams’ refused to testify in court.

The case caused something of a sensation in the press, as did its sequel when the governess was tried for perjury at the Old Bailey.  Newspapers reported that Sarah A’Court had tried to pay a young woman to say that she was Susan Adams.  In fact, Sarah had taken the job as a parlour maid under the name Susan Adams and had written her own reference as ‘Countess A’Court’.  She was convicted and sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour.

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Suffolk and Essex Free Press 30 May 1900

You would think a perjury conviction might be the end of Sarah A’Court’s desire to take people to court but not so!  With the help of the British Newspaper Archive it’s possible to trace at least some of her further career through her legal actions:

In August 1907 she sued the Great Western Railway Company for damaging some furniture and in December of the same year she was herself successfully sued by two former staff of her dressmaking business, ‘Madame Elizabeth’, for wrongful dismissal.  In 1908 she also sued Messrs Debenham & Co for damages to her business from their delivery of goods – a case which the judge clearly found frivolous.  In June 1911 she sued a former employer for the balance of her salary as governess in Scotland and in December 1915 she sued Lady Elsie Arrol for running her over in her car.  By this time she had a business in Great Portland Street, London as a dressmaker, masseuse, and teacher of Swedish Drill.

She finally appears in court in March 1928 when she is a boarding house keeper in Golders Green and has been accused of falsifying a cheque from one of her tenants.  She is described as hitherto of good character but somewhat eccentric.  She died in 1939.

We often have a mental picture of a governess as a worthy but down-trodden woman.  Not so Miss Hamp Adams alias Mrs Sarah A’Court alias Susan Adams alias Miss Marcia alias Countess A’Court!

Canadian Red Cross Special Hospital Buxton 1915 – 1919

A hundred years ago this year, the building that now houses Buxton Museum was just winding up as a military hospital for Canadian First World War servicemen. Buxton Museum have just posted some fascinating new research about the museum’s hospital years.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

The building that Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is housed in has a varied past, beginning its existence as a spa hotel in the 1800s before becoming a museum in the 1920s. It also had a brief lesser-known role as a war hospital. Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood sheds light on this dim chapter of Peak Building’s history:

We are often asked about the role of this building in the First World War.

Peak Buildings

The museum was built in about 1875 as a hydropathic hotel, offering cold water treatments. By 1915 the Peak Hotel was (again) up for sale. The Canadian Red Cross Society secured a lease to establish the Canadian Red Cross Convalescent Hospital, No 2, Buxton

The Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Buxton opened in May 1916, under the command of Lt. Col. H.D. Johnson C.A.M.C.  He would soon be relieved by Major F. Guest (later Lt. Col.) and in…

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Opening hours consultation

Between 11 November and 22 December 2019, we will be consulting about reducing our opening hours from 30 to 22.5 hours a week.

Derbyshire County Council’s budget continues to face huge pressures, with greater demands on adult social care and services for vulnerable children.  The council’s budget for the coming year is around £500 million, with a savings target of £33.4 million.

At its meeting on 11 September 2019 our Cabinet agreed a new Five Year Financial Plan
for the County Council and this included a range of budget savings proposals. One of the areas identified was a review of opening hours and staffing levels at the Record Office to achieve savings of £60,000.

We are now consulting over proposals to reduce the opening hours by a day a week. There is no proposal to change the current pattern of Saturday opening.

Please make sure you have your say, either by filling in a paper consultation form at the Record Office or online at: before the closing date of 22 December 2019.