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.

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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

Adopt A Piece of History discount extended

We’re extending the 50% off discount for our Adopt A Piece of History scheme to Thursday 14 December, so there are still two weeks left to choose that perfect gift. Our Treasures include our oldest document from 1115, a delicious Bakewell Pudding recipe from 1837, an artist’s tool roll, the Eyam Parish Register, a medieval dance notebook (as seen on the example certificate below), a railway plan and many, many more.  And each one of our other records is available for adoption via the Unique and Become a Part of History options – have a look on our catalogue and search for a place, person, date, parish, school or any subject you can think of to see what gems we hold!

Christmas delivery deadlines:

  • Thursday 14 December for Unique Certificates and Become a Part of History
  • Thursday 21 December for one of the Treasures

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Christmas shopping made easy

Have you started shopping for presents yet?  It’s that time of year again when we’re all racking our brains, trying to come up with something original for loved ones who already seem to have everything.  To help you be super-organised, we’re offering 50% off our Adopt A Piece of History scheme throughout November. That means that during November:

  • You can adopt any one of our 50 Treasures for only £10.00. They include our oldest record from 1115, a railway plan, a gardening book, a parish register, a beautifully hand-drawn map, ramblers guides, a Rolls Royce photograph, an artist’s tools and many more (see the full list on our 50 Treasures page).  Simply fill in the form, tell us whose name to put on the certificate and we’ll email it to you.

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  • You can adopt anything at all from our collections for only £17.50. The parish register that mentions great-great-grandparents, an old map of a well-loved area, your favourite of our Woodward cartoons, an old school log book – feel free to browse our catalogue for inspiration.  Again, simply fill in the form giving us the reference number and a brief description of the item, as well as the name to put on the certificate, and we’ll email it to you.

 

  • You can let someone become a part of Derbyshire’s history for only £50.00.  Choose any item from our collections and tell us the reason for the adoption.  We will add your reason to the certificate and the adoption itself will be recorded in our official Register of Adopters, thereby immortalising the recipient, you and the reason for the adoption.

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Full details of the scheme are on our Adopt A Piece of History page.

 

Treasure 50: Walter’s gift of land in 1115

The very last of our 50 Treasures (D77/1/23/58) is believed to be the very first, chronologically: the oldest document we hold. Dating from approximately 1100-1115, during the reign of Henry I, this deed records the gift of a virgate of land by Walter of Ridware to Robert Mellor. The land in question was in Seale, more familiar to us today as Overseal and Netherseal. The term “virgate” was not used with great precision – but it means about 30 acres.

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Treasure 49: a letter from Congreve Butt, 1839

This letter (D5605/2/6) was written by a medic, Congreve Butt, to his brother Revd George Butt, who was vicar of Chesterfield from 1851 until his death in 1888.  It was nominated as one of our 50 Treasures by Vicky, a Record Assistant at Derbyshire Record Office, who picked it out for our “Thank You For Your Letter” outreach project in 2009. “I was surprised to find the content of this letter much richer than described in the catalogue entry”, says Vicky. “Although George went onto become a much respected Vicar of Chesterfield we don’t hear directly from the louche doctor again. Relatives say in much later correspondence that he became a ship’s surgeon bound for Calcutta – I just wonder what he got up to there?”

The letter is an entertaining read, but the handwriting is not easy – Vicky’s transcript follows beneath the scanned copy.

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Martley [Worcestershire] Nov 4th 1839

My Dear George,

Enclosed in some rough envelopes I have sent you a ham – which I trust will turn out well- and if it will not be unacceptable to you – I have received your two last letters which gave me great satisfaction as I wanted to hear from you having been kept in a long continued state of ignorance as to your state of health and progression in other matters. In fact I have not had any family communication since we met. With the exception of seeing Ewen whom I heard address a jury the other day. He performed his part far better than I could have expected, from the little I heard only at the fag end of the learned counsel’s speech –and I should not be surprised to see him worming his way to some eminence “nator fit” we all know & the youth possesses perseverance – Speaking of orators – what do you think of the poet Kilpins production? I have not yet read it but I have heard some persons speak of it in high terms – Kilpin says you are very amusing and find him matters for his wit – Did you find matter for “the man in the moon ?”

I heard of Lovery lately from the hearths of Wick – I think the second sister is staying in Oxford – Pray tell me if she is, and what you think of her – she took wonderfully with me not so much for her personal appearance as for her good qualities – which were remarkable – I found a strong contrast to some other members of her family . If old Conway Lovery (or rather, young ) is in Oxford pray tell me & remember me to him as I should like him to come a & spend two or three days at Xmas.

As I am now getting established in the opinions of many of my neighbours – and I am progressing as this thinly populated and poor neighbourhood will admit of – I am making enough to keep myself in pocket money & boot leather & not of any fresh debts – having received perhaps £20 altogether – and If I get the remaining £10 in my books paid by Xmas – I think I can strain a point to see an old friend for a day or two – especially as I have been requested to take my friends to some neighbouring families – where I always have a knife & fork & a welcome. Old Captain S when he sees me always sneaks away like a canine animal in a quandary – leaving my circle of acquaintance almost confined to Mrs Sparkes, Mr Kenton, Eginton,& Archy[…]

We have a pleasant curate just arrived. He was at East Garlton in the summer months cooking at the curacy – His name is Davis – he is very gentlemanly – keeps two carriages & preaches extempore in a manner not unwitting of a metropolitan pulpit – I have not visited Price recently – I rather think that he has voted me a bore, as he has hinted two or three times on the expense of going to Worcester to see Mr Lechmore, so I trouble him as little as possible – I suppose you know old Sir Winnington is translated to another world – I do not know his son.

[The curate referred to was Revd Edward Acton Davies M.A., who was rector of Areley Kings by the time he died in 1880, aged 74.]

It is a great difficulty this to lie by and let my “wanton zeal mould in roosted sloth” – but I groan & endure & read books of a voluminous size from the library being relieved from my monotony by being visited by about one patient a day – & an occasional bit of cheating at vingt un with some of the fair agricultural nymphs of this vicinity – among whom I am sorry to say that I cannot help maintaining my ancient character for being fond of a bit of “getting upstairs and playing the fiddle”. I say sorry, because all the world expects a medical man to be always wrapt up in an odour of gravity – in fact to assume a humbugging puritanical deportment which it is my misfortune to lack – time, however, which will soon turn me bald, may perchance give me a due share of that other inestimable quality.

[Vingt-et-un is the French version of the card game known as blackjack or pontoon – but somehow I don’t think this is what he is alluding to.]

In your letter of October 4th – you describe my letter as a non descript one – What will call this? – Something of the same sort. My hand is quite out – I have written to no one & for no one. I am obliged to take up with the subjects of conversation I meet with, instead of enjoying the company of any rationally educated people – It is therefore marvelous that the product of my brain should be a rambling hodge podge , a pot pourri as the Gauls have it. Besides when I take up my pen in your behalf I have so much to ask you & so much to say that I scarcely know where to begin far less where to end. I thought therefore that your reverence will not measure my feeble epistolary power by your own signature ones – but will be taken into your generous consideration that, however great a jumble & even concentration of ideas – distinct or otherwise there may be in my cranium – yet I am not weekly exercised by the utterance of them in writing of humour (not that I mean to say you with your own nor anything to the contrary) as you are. Nor am I in a classical soil – Genius within this country – men whose talk is of bullocks abound here to the exclusion of all others.

I wish you would lend me your pistols for a short time when you don’t want them – they would afford me a small variety in my retreat & I want to shoot a dog or two which always fly at me – & in kicking of whom I hurt my toe – you shall have them back honor bright.

The day after I sent your box , Perrott sent me a new copy of Coleridge – all three vols which is the one you have – as I may as well keep the other I send you the two. You did not tell me whether all the books were right – I think my “Bacot on Syphilis” is amongst your books – Please take care of it. [John Bacot’s “A Treatise On Syphilis” (London, 1829).]Can you tell me how long Henry will be in Paris ? I would like to commission him to get some bougies [A thin flexible surgical instrument] if I knew his address – Bloxham knows a gentleman in the customs at Dover who would pass anything for him – It is the india rubber bougies & catheters which I mean and which are made so much better in Paris than anywhere else. Plague upon it – I just see by referring to your letter that Henry is in London – when we get the penny postage I’ll write him a letter. Apropos Remember me to Penny – and B.M.

Your very affectionate brother Congreve

Treasure 48: Erasmus Darwin’s prescription notebooks

These notebooks are a series of medical practice records, covering the 1740s to 1780s.  Each entry deals with an individual patient, recording symptoms and treatment. It’s clear that there is more than one style of handwriting in the books, but we believe the later entries to be the work of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who moved to Derby in 1783.

They are nominated by our Assistant Conservator, Clare, who repaired them over the course of a year – all 1316 pages!  Clare says: “It was an extremely satisfying project to do even if there were occasions when I was still repairing them in my sleep…”

Here’s what was prescribed for Thomas Bamford of Ticknall, who was suffering from cramps:

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Two drachms of Gammoniacum To ss. pint of penny royal water.  Two spoonfulls occasionally repeated.  January the 15th.  When the pains return to loose some blood, and then take at one dose a Quarter of a Pint of common Sallad oil, after an hour or two if the pain continues.  Take one Pill, and repeat it every hour till the pain ceases or till he has taken four.

At the intervals of his pain he should take one of the 2nd Box Pills every nights.

Small beer posset drink made by mixing equal parts of beer and milk warm, then taking off the Curd and 15 Drops of Laudanum in it every night.  Jan[uary] 27th Six powders Rhubarb 15 grs. Ginger.  19. Infusion. z ii Marshmallow root boild to one

Treasure 47: Plan of proposed railway to Mapperley Colliery

This treasure (Q/RP/2/207) is a plan of a proposed railway to Mapperley Colliery, submitted to the Quarter Sessions Court in 1889 by the Great Northern Railway. It shows the line between the Heanor branch and the Midland Railway branch to Mapperley Colliery.

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This is one of over three hundred railway plans and books of reference in the Quarter Sessions collection – the reason we have them is that from 1792 onwards, anyone who planned to build a canal, turnpike road or railway had to deposit plans with the Clerk of the Peace for any affected county.

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If you would like to support our work by adopting this document, for yourself or as a gift, have a look at the Adopt A Piece Of History page

Treasure 46: Register of child factory workers

This treasure comes from the Belper-based cotton spinning company W G and J Strutt Ltd and is a register of children dating from May 1853 to April 1860 (D6948/14/5).  Education was not made compulsory until 1880, so the use of children’s labour in the Strutt mills in Belper was very normal.

The register records the reference number of each child’s certificate of employment, the first day of employment or re-employment and when they worked in the morning or afternoon. A column notes when they change their group or leave – or come to the end of their thirteenth year and become classified as “young persons”.

Treasure 45: Arbella Stuart’s inventory of jewels, 1607

This extraordinary document (D1897/1) is an inventory of her jewellery, which itemises the pieces given to her by ‘the Lord Cavendish’ (William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire). It dates from 1607 and is signed by Arbella herself.

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Arbella Stuart (1575-1615) was the grandaughter of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (d 1608), also known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’. At the end of the 16th century, Arbella was next in line to the English throne after King James VI of Scotland. Her father, the Earl of Lennox, was the younger brother of James’s father and a grandson of Margaret Tudor. Arbella spent much of her early life with her grandmother and this document appears to record the return to her of her jewels from her uncle, William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire, Bess of Hardwick’s second and favoured son. Arbella was regarded as a traitor by King James, (by then also James I of England), after her unauthorised marriage in 1610 to William Seymour, grandson of Lady Catherine Grey, heiress to the English throne under Henry VIII’s will. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Arbella died there in 1615.

Treasure 44: the Calke Abbey Garden Book

Anyone who has had to look after a garden will appreciate the amount of work and dedication involved in maintaining the grounds of stately homes, such as Calke Abbey.

This garden book (D2375/E/G/4) dates from 1811, and it lists what each gardener was up to on each day and how much they were getting paid – there seems to have been an awful lot of digging and mowing going on!

If you would like to support our work by adopting this document, for yourself or as a gift, have a look at the Adopt A Piece Of History page