A History of Buxton in Museum Objects
How much do you know about Buxton? If you have been to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, you may have seen its famous Wonders of the Peak gallery which delves into the history of the Peak District but there are also many curious artefacts from the town itself. From fossils that reveal an entirely different landscape thousands of years ago to its first ever human inhabitants, from foreign invaders to the growth of several unique industries, Buxton has a past comparable to nowhere else. For the first time ever, the team at the museum present the story of Buxton, told in objects.
1. Cave Lion hind leg bones found at Hindlow Quarry
Some of the most remarkable local discoveries have been made possible by the unintentional excavation of limestone quarrying. Arguably the biggest star is a cave lion from Hindlow Quarry on the outskirts of Buxton. 20,000 years ago, the landscape was a bit like the African savannah, although the animals were EVEN BIGGER. This early Buxtonian would have been almost 2m high at the shoulder.
2. Bank note produced for the Buxton and High Peak Bank
Did you know Buxton once had its own bank with its own money and one of the shareholders was Jane Austen’s brother? In 1813, the Buxton and High Peak Bank issued bank notes for £1. This represented about £200 in today’s money. The 19th century was a boom period for the town, inviting investment into its status as a spa resort for the wealthy.
3. Tennis Trophy
Lawn tennis really took off in Buxton as a fashionable new sport in the late 19th century. There were croquet lawns and courts for lawn tennis laid out in the Pavilion Gardens for a regular tournament in August from 1884, with gentlemen’s singles and ladies’ singles and the All-England Ladies’ Doubles championships. In 1953, a ticket to see a match between Fred Perry and Dan Maskell cost 2s 6d.
The first tournament was arranged for visitors who happened to be staying in the town. It was held in the Gardens, but attracted little attention. The second, which started in August the next year consisted of mixed doubles only, and did not finish until well into September because there was scarcely throughout the former month a day which could be described as fine. The wet and cold were sufficient to give people rheumatism who knew not the agony of its aches. The shopkeepers lost money instead of making it. The carriage drivers were in despair and the Bath-Chair men on the verge of committing suicide in their own perambulators.
Buxton Under the Dukes of Devonshire by R. Grundy Heape
4. Pocket Sun Dial found in Poole’s Cavern
Poole’s Cavern is one of the best show caves in the UK and Buxton’s top attraction. In the 18th century, visits to the cavern were far more casual, with ill-intentioned locals often leading unsuspecting visitors into the darkness and threatening to leave them there unless they parted with more coin. We can suppose that this wonderful object dropped from the pocket of one these unsuspecting tourists.
5. Photograph of prisoners of war clearing snow on Fairfield Common
The winter of 1947 saw heavy snowfall. There were still prisoners of war barracked in Buxton and they were employed to help clear the roads across Fairfield Common. This image is striking for two reasons; it brings home the harsh realities of war and reminds us how mild our winters are in comparison.
6. Stone Axe Head from Cumbria
This volcanic ash axe head was found at Tunstead Quarry near Buxton, but it was made in Great Langdale in Cumbria. The distribution of such beautiful axes around sites in Britain and beyond shows that people were manufacturing them in some quantity and that they could be transported, traded or awarded to people. The new owners must have valued and respected the tools because although they are highly functional, the blade shows no evidence of use.
7. Prosthetic hip joints from the Devonshire Royal Hospital
The Devonshire Royal hospital in Buxton is known commonly as ‘the Dome’ due to being the largest free-standing dome in Europe. It was a leading establishment in treatments of hip replacement as well as hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, The Devonshire Royal Hospital closed in 2001. It won its Royal title in 1907 when King Edward VII visited.
8. Amethyst found at Waterswallows Quarry
There are beautiful minerals amidst the limestone of the Peak District. This amethyst specimen was found near Waterswallows outside Buxton. There you can see evidence also of volcanic activity, with a basalt hill dominating the skyline.
9. Bowl found at Lismore Fields
The remains of this bowl were found at Lismore Fields. Surrounded by a quiet suburb, there is no indication that this was the site of the first human settlement in Buxton. About 5,500 years ago, people sat down to a festive drink of soured milk which may have given them tummy ache! This is one of the oldest pots ever found, not just in Buxton but in the whole of the UK.
10. The Old Cottage on the Macclesfield Road
This painting by Harry Kingsley captures the serene loneliness of the road to Macclesfield as it winds its way out of Buxton and across the moors, now more commonly referred to as The Old Road to Macclesfield. The trail was once punctuated by settlements and a fledgling coal-mining industry. Visitors taking a healthy break in Buxton could even been wheeled up to the Cat and Fiddle pub in a contraption called the bath chair.
11. Human skull from Fairfield Low (Skellybob Wood)
In 1896, the local antiquarian Micah Salt discovered the remains of this person (assumed at the time to be a man) in a barrow at Fairfield Low (known to locals as Skellybob Wood), dating from the Neolithic period. Micah Salt excavated several sites. Although he had his own museum, he was one of the people who advocated the opening of Buxton Museum and later, many items from his collections are exhibited in the galleries. Micah Salt died in 1915.
12. Roman Milestone from Silverlands
The remains of this Roman milestone were found at Silverlands, near Buxton Football Club. The stone announces that it is 11 miles to Navio (modern village of Brough), a road that you can follow along Bathamgate and then by foot over Tideswell Moor. The fort at Navio was occupied around 70 CE and then again in 140CE. The milestone is now in the museum but its original location is marked by a plaque.
13. Portrait of Martha Norton
Martha Norton was the celebrity Well Woman of Buxton, here in a watercolour by John Nixon in about 1795. For more than 50 years, Martha and women like her dispensed water to visitors to St Ann’s Well, opposite the Crescent, receiving no wage, nor where they permitted to sell any goods. They relied solely on the kindness of strangers.
14. Buxton Diamonds
In the late 1900s, tourists were encouraged to search for Buxton Diamonds in fields south of Grin Low. If this seemed like too much of an adventure, you could buy one from the gift shop at Poole’s Cavern. Alas, no-one was going to make their fortunes from these translucent quartz crystals.
15. Photograph of Sir Alec Guinness
Many famous actors and actresses have graced the boards of Buxton Opera House. Local photographer J.R. Board captured rising star Alec Guinness in 1938, unaware of the astronomical fame that awaited the man who would go to define roles like George Smiley and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sir Alec famously hated filming Star Wars in the desert heat of Tunisia. He looks more comfortable in Buxton.
16. Hamilton bottle used by Buxton Mineral Water Company
Buxton Mineral water was bottled in torpedo shaped, glass bottles to retain the effervescence. It was available for people to buy at apothecary shops in London by 1850. Of course, natural mineral water has become Buxton’s most famous export, taking a lengthy journey through the rock and emerging from the ground, surprisingly warm, at a temperature of 27c.
17. Silver Henry V Long Cross penny found at Poole’s Cavern
Four coins were found together in Pooles cavern near Buxton. Were they the contents of the mysterious Poole’s pocket? The verdict is out on whether the cave-dwelling outlaw even existed but the discovery is fascinating nonetheless. This coin dates from the short reign of Henry V 1413-1422 which seems like a very long time ago but compared to the age of the cave itself (2 million years) just a blink of an eye.
18. Forage cap ornament
Souvenirs of towns were made by the Goss Company around 1900. This unusual hat with its own tiny hat box carries the coat of arms for Buxton Urban District Council. The Victorians invested heavily in Buxton and the town expanded considerably, taking over control from the Dukes of Devonshire (based at Chatsworth near Bakewell) who had owned most of the land for centuries.
In the days when stalls were allowed in front of the Crescent, where spa and other ornaments and nick-nacks were sold by bauble-grinders, a noble marquess stopped at one of the stalls and, taking up a tooth-pick, enquired the price. “Half a crown, my lord,” was the reply. “half a crown!” said the marquess. “Surely tooth-picks must be very scarce in Buxton?” “No, my lord, tooth-picks are not scarce, but marquesses are,” said the bauble-grinder.
Buxton Under the Dukes of Devonshire
19. Sequoia (redwood tree) found at Hindlow Quarry
Imagine Buxton forested with huge redwood trees, like the north-west coast of America. It seems incredible but that’s what it looked like 20 million years ago, as this fossilised wood testifies.
20. Painting of Bath Road and West Road by Robert Brunt
This painting shows a very early view of two well-known roads in Buxton in the mid-19th century. If you stand in the same place today, you get roughly the same perspective, although the green fields and hares are long gone. Dominating the centre of the painting is Knock’s Rock where Rock Terrace is. Brunt also provides us with the oldest depiction of Buxton Market Place.
21. Treatments Available
The local authority ran the Thermal Baths at Buxton where customers could avail themselves of an array of treatments, some which seem quite routine although a douche may not have been an altogether pleasant experience. The Thermal Baths were popular with Liverpool and Manchester’s football teams coming here to use them.
22. Bear Skull
It wouldn’t be Buxton Museum without having a bear in the timeline. In 1889, two boys named as Millett and Hobson went into Thirst House cave in Deepdale and found a bear skull which they prised from the stalagmites. It came to the attention of local antiquarian Micah Salt who undertook further research in the cave. This bear is about 70,000 years old. He was probably in a lot of pain from a bad tooth abscess. We are waiting on research to find out more about it.
23. Vet’s Tools
The rich grass of the White Peak has allowed people to farm around Buxton for generations. The vet was a regular visitor with animal welfare responsibilities as well as daily healthcare, arriving with an array of very serious-looking equipment.
24. Lady’s Shoes
This pair of lady’s shoes were sold by Harris and Sons, 16 Spring Gardens, Buxton in the 1930s. Imagine the lady: hat, coat, slender fitting skirt cut to show off her ankles and these pretty shoes on her feet. She must have enjoyed the thrill of buying them.
25. Painting of Fairfield Racecourse
A highlight of the late Georgian season in Buxton was horseracing on a course that is now the Fairfield and High Peak Golf Course. A two-day meet had top prizes including a Gold Cup in 1831 and the running of the St Leger in 1827.
26. Heacock’s Pistol
Philip Heacock was the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s agent in Buxton from 1801 to 1851, charged with running the town’s affairs and collecting the rents. Carrying quantities of money, he probably was reassured to be armed with a pistol.
He thought Buxton perfection, and would not have a sod cut or tree chopped down if he could help it, and truly happy must have been the life of this place before the iron horse brought hurry, worry and bustle to it. Like most ducal agents, Mr Heacock was all-powerful. In Mr Heacock, the shadow of ducal greatness loomed large over everything. If anyone wanted to do something of which Mr Heacock did not approve, they were told that their proposal would be submitted to the Duke, which meant Mr Heacock’s wastepaper basket.
Buxton Under the Dukes of Devonshire by R. Grundy Heape
27. Conductor’s Baton
Music has been at the heart of Buxton with the Duke of Devonshire providing a band to play in the park until the opening of the Pavilion in 1871. The first town bandmaster was Julian Adams. This baton was owned by Mr Frank Roberts Dodman who was engaged by the Buxton Operatic Society in the early 20th century, probably leading the orchestra in the Opera House completed in 1903 to the designs of Frank Matcham.
28. Postcard from the Micrarium
This image from the museum’s postcard collection are the only evidence of the town’s most unusual attraction; a museum of microscopic creatures called the Micrarium. The Pump Room (now the tourist information centre) housed 50 microscopes that revealed live specimens unseen to the naked eye. The Micrarium enjoyed a brief existence from 1981 to 1995 but it is remembered with fondness. The engineer who maintained the microscopes at the Micrarium built the one in the Wonders of the Peak at Buxton Museum.
29. Selim Bright set
The Victorians loved decorative jewellery and Ashford Marble provided a black palette to make some very beautiful items. This set mounted in gold and in its jeweller’s retail box was sold by jewellers and bankers, Selim Bright, who had business in Buxton and Sheffield. It dates from about 1850.
30. Buxton Coin Hoard
Last but by no means least is the superstar of Buxton objects, the coin hoard. In 1975, workmen excavating the Great Bath (now in the Crescent Hotel), Buxton, discovered a votive hoard of Roman coins and jewellery. The earliest coin dates to the reign of the emperor Claudius in about 50CE, and people continued to throw coins into the well until after the Roman legions officially left Britain in 410CE. Almost every Roman emperor is represented in the hoard so it can be used as a Who’s Who.