Lullaby of the Larks: The Fin Cop Massacre

New multi-sensory exhibition Lullaby of the Larks commemorates the massacre at Fin Cop, an iron age Hill fort near Ashford-in-the-Water. Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood explains more:

Haunting anthems written by award-winning composer Amanda Johnson are now encouraging visitors to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery to reflect on the events that may have occurred about 2,500 years on a hilltop in Derbyshire. Sixteen pictures by Richard Johnson are memorials to the remains of sixteen young women, children and neo-natal babies that were recovered from the surrounding ditch, and are now retained at Buxton Museum. In four exhibition cases, bashed rocks and stones from the archaeology surround scarlet rosehips and hawthorn berries, and a sole leg-bone of a tiny bird reminds us of the larks in the landscape.

Amanda Johnson

Lullaby of the Larks is Richard and Amanda Johnson’s response to archaeological remains from Fin Cop. Many artists working at the museum have been moved by events there. Visitors to the Wonders of the Peak gallery can see the work of Caroline Chouler-Tissier, and read Gordon McLellan’s moving poetry and stories, while considering the face of one of the people who was there.

Richard Johnson

But what is the story behind this?

I first learnt about Fin Cop in a letter that was sent to the director of the museum (me) over 15 years ago. The notelet was written in the hand of an elderly lady who had heard about the remains of a woman being found in a ditch. “I am appalled…”, I read, and then I had to work out where the letter continued, so that ultimately, it is these words that hang in my memory.

“I am appalled…”

I worked out that this was not a matter for the Derbyshire Constabulary Cold Case squad, since this was all too long ago, but rather for the archaeologists at the Peak District National Park, and they were already ‘on to it’.

Let me take you there

Fin Cop is a high spur of a hill overlooking the deep valley of the Wye River. If you go to Monsal Dale, and stand on the Headstone Viaduct and look downstream – Fin Cop rises on the left. It is probably a good place for a settlement, with meadows on the hills around offering level ground for modest iron-age pasturage and ‘gardens’, and fertile soils in the valley below, and fish and wild fowl from the river. From this platform, the views are spectacular (although be aware, this is private property and visiting isn’t encouraged). Back then, people would be able to see the smoke from fires from neighbouring settlements in the early dawn, and the comforting glow of distant firelight under the sweep of the Milky Way on dark nights. Communities then were not necessarily alone.

Fin Cop facial reconstruction

But something happened here, and the limestone of Derbyshire has preserved some of the story. Between 2010 and 2012, an award-winning, community archaeology project excavated at Fin Cop alongside archaeologists from the Peak District National Park. What they found asked more questions perhaps than anticipated, but the story suggested does not make comfortable reading. It is not my task here republish the archaeologists’ report; that can be seen at , but what remains there were preserved in the limestone and what is missing leave many questions to consider.

What might have happened at Fin Cop?

People had been going there for thousands of years. There is a tool-knapping floor, with the remains of chert flakes scattered around, dating from long before the iron age. But by the time of our events it seems that there was a community here, maybe not permanently, but with the security of a wall around the houses. Something happened, and the community reinforced that wall, not very well so we can imagine it had to be done quite quickly. And then…?

Let us start with the things which are missing from the archaeology. We would expect clothes and baskets and other organic materials to have disintegrated completely, which they have. But there is very, very little pottery – admittedly the pottery of the time was friable and poorly made – more like flapjack than ceramics!  No metal – well, the limestone reaction will not have helped that. No beads, no bone ornaments and tools; no spindle whorls or loom weights. If you want clothes made from wool, then these would surely survive, just round or circular pieces of stone with holes drilled through them?

It is unlikely that the archaeologists didn’t choose to collect them. They just aren’t there. Nor are the bones of animals – pigs or sheep. There is no evidence of men, or older women. There is no evidence of infection, nor of a site being raised to the ground.

So what is there?

What there was, found seemingly tossed into the ditch below the wall, and with the wall tumbled above, were the remains of young women, children and unborn babies, including a woman carrying twins. No clothes. No ornaments – not a bone pin that might have held a cloak, or beads that may have braided hair. The soles of the feet had been beaten, to such extent that the marks remain even now in the bones. A drinking cup, broken and friable was thrown away too, like a modern emptied takeaway coffee cup; this was the only artefact other than the rocks from the wobbly defences above. Sixteen skeletons or partial remains were removed from the trenches. There may be four hundred more – let them rest there.

skull from Fin Cop

The removed bones have been subject to a variety of investigation. Amongst my favourite pieces of information is of the woman with caries in her teeth: clearly she liked honey, the best and easily available natural sugar. My imagination wanders with her as she steals it from the pots, licking her fingers and the residual taste on her lips; as she follows the bees back to the hive so that she can plan to harvest the comb.

But ominously, as I say, these are all women of child bearing age and children. With Liverpool’s John Moore’s University, we have tried to capture the face of a teenager who died, whose early life had been blighted by injury, illness and hunger.

What happened?

We can never know. We can surmise, but there will always be doubts.

However, as discussions for the deposition of these remains continued at the museum, I had occasion to be listening to the radio. Likely it was Woman’s Hour, because the conversation was topical, sympathetic and a women’s story. Two women from the Balkan states, refugees now in Britain (and I apologise here for my sloppy memory) were recalling horrific events they had witnessed during the war there at the end of last century. One day, their female relatives – was it mother … aunt … sister, even – were forcibly pulled away from them, walked onto the bridge, made to perch on the parapet … at which point the two surviving witnesses watched the drunken soldiery shoot these women, and their bodies falling into the river below.

How do they reconcile this memory with their grief?

Is this what happened? A falling out amongst communities? The men and older women, all the possessions – animals, looms, utensils, clothes, everything – cleansed from the site, just leaving this youthful generation, and possible evidence of a genocide. Did these women and their children have any protection, any clothes? Unlikely – clothes, blankets – they can all be reused. But just as the new male lion does, these offspring and potential offspring were wiped from the record. The killers’ will have their own children, their DNA lines, with their women, only.

After that, from what we can see, no-one except the ghosts returned to Fin Cop. But oral memory is long; the footpath to Ashford is known in Old English as the Way of the Young.

The birds still sing; hazelnut shells, rosehips and hawthorn berries bear witness of to the berries these iron age women may have gleaned. It is a meadow of extraordinary beauty, whose history can only really be imagined.

You can see Lullaby of the Larks, admission free, until Saturday 24 November. Plan your visit here.

You can listen to Amanda’s composition here.



Buxton High Street: Past, Present and Future

Archivist Ian Gregory ruminates on the history of trade in Buxton and whether anything has truly changed:

My latest task at Buxton Museum is to photograph and catalogue photos from an exhibition. The one in question took place years ago and one of its sections was called Local Trades, Many of the shops and businesses recorded are long gone but one has continued to the present day. It is called J.W. Potter and is a shop selling clothes, towels and bedding. Our picture of its exterior dates from around 1890.

shop 02
J.W. Potter Terrace Road Buxton around 1890

As I worked on this image, I wondered why some businesses carry on while others fail. Then I thought about changes in the wider world, from which Buxton couldn’t have always been shielded.

There was a time not so long ago when many believed that Britain’s future lay with heavy industries like coal mining, ship building and. locally to Buxton, quarrying stone. Then many of these industries collapsed for one reason or another. After that, people were encouraged to set up small businesses and especially service industries like shops and cafes. Next came the recession at the end of the 1980s and many though perhaps not all of these enterprises failed. Today, we are told the High Street is dying and big businesses operating online are the future.

shop 01
Corner of Spring Gardens and Terrace Road Buxton around 1870 showing Lawson’s Wine Vault and Ibetson the Watchmaker

Is this the whole story or have we always had features associated with one era or one decade? Buxton was full of small businesses and independent shops long before we became fixated on the yuppies of the 1980s. People still new enterprises from time to time though not often enough to fill every vacant space. The Potters shop mentioned earlier is adapting to the digital age by setting up a website . I wish them luck. I do some of my shopping there and I have always been happy with their goods and services.

Twenty or thirty years from now, will we still be fixated with the online giants or will something we can hardly imagine be taking their place? Or will we be obsessed with something new while at least some other things stay the same or adapt and carry on alongside the new?

The First 125 Years of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

To accompany our 125th anniversary, Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood reveals the history of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

On 28 September 2018, Buxton Museum will celebrate 90 years since opening in its new premises at the Peak Buildings. At least 35 years previously, it was established in the Town Hall, overseen by the first librarian/curator, Mr Sarjeant. But now, with the library, and under the management of the librarian, Mr Hill, it occupied a street side location in the heart of Buxton. The opening was a splendid affair, with a formal luncheon and the opening address by Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins.

Mr T.A. Serjeant

The Peak Buildings was only a little older than the museum. In June 1881, Samuel Hyde, a noted balneologist (someone who understands cold-water spa treatments) became proprietor of the Buxton House Hydropathic Co. Ltd, and opened a private sanatorium on Terrace Road. He was a persuasive businessman and negotiated a purchase of land from the Duke of Devonshire to build an imposing Hydropathic hotel. The hotel opened in 1885, with several further extensions and building programmes. Although several of his businesses on the premises failed and were reformed, Hyde remained as proprietor and lessee the Peak Hydropathic. He raised the funds to keep the business going and to improve it. In 1895 architect Charles Heathcote designed the east wing with its ball rooms and additional bedrooms, now the Green Man Gallery.

This was a time of recession. Time and again, the business failed; early in the 20th century the Leek and Moorlands Building Society repossessed the hotel on at least two occasions since the mortgage was in arrears.


In 1915, The Peak Hydropathic was taken over for military purposes, as an annexe to the Canadian Granville Military Hospital which had its headquarters at the nearby Buxton Hydropathic on the Broad Walk. Amongst the doctors who worked here was Frederick Banting; he would survive the war and in 1923 was awarded the Nobel Prize as the co-discoverer of insulin and its therapeutic potential.


After the war, in 1921, William Turner of Stockport bought the building and opened the Peak Hotel. Within three years, it was sold again. In 1926, the Buxton Corporation bought most of the Peak Buildings. Within two years, the ground floor was opened as a museum and the first floor became the public library. Many residents of Buxton remember coming to the museum and the library in these interwar years.



In 1968, the County Council took on the responsibility for the library with the museum alongside. Within five years, the library was moved to the Crescent and then to Kents Bank. Buxton Museum absorbed the vacant spaces and opened the art gallery in 1978. In 2018, the main art gallery will celebrate its 40th anniversary. More significantly, in 1979, the first professional museum curator was appointed, Dr Mike Bishop, who brought specialist knowledge and professional collection management to the collections.

The Buxton Public Library and Reading Room by Robert Lewis McLellan-Sim, oil, 1934

There have been only ten custodians of the collections. Mr Oliver Gomersal, resident of Buxton and one of the museum’s benefactors, remembers them all.  One of them, John Leach, assembled and published the history of the building, which has provided much of the information in this brief tale. Most of the custodians have worked in the challenging hotel building, where visitors admire the beautiful stained glass even before they are welcomed in the doors. But once here, visitors amazed by the collections that we have cared for over 125 years.

Mr Oliver Gomersal

I25th anniversary exhibition Collectors and Curiosities: Buxton and Beyond can be seen until Saturday 6 October. Admission free. Opening Times. 

Visitor’s Choice Derbyshire Open Art Exhibition 2018

The people have spoken and the winner of this year’s Visitor’s Choice Award goes to Ewan by Phoebe Wilman, with 104 public votes. Well done, Phoebe!


All the more incredible when you consider the oil portrait was a final piece for Phoebe’s Art GCSE at a local school. Phoebe has now moved on to college to study graphic design, photography, maths and Japanese. She hopes to go to university to continue graphic design. With her painting beating those of professional artists hanging alongside, it’s certainly a promising start.

Phoebe told me:

Although the work I do now at college is more digital-based (I actually haven’t painted for over a year now), I’m really enjoying it; we’ve had a few live briefs from people out of school, and I ended up being chosen to produce some typography to promote a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat at Romiley Theatre, as well as being part of a small group that got chosen to have our mural of Florence Nightingale put up in Stepping Hill Hospital to celebrate 70 years of the NHS.

Ewan took 8 weeks to complete which consisted of Phoebe going in for an hour twice a week before school, and staying for about 2/3 hours two or three times a week after school, as well as having 3 art lessons a week. Her hard work and dedication has paid off; the intensity of a young musician’s performance has obviously struck a chord (no pun intended) with visitors to the gallery over the last few weeks. I asked Phoebe how and why her creation came in to being:

I had chosen the subject because I’d done a very small piece for my project of the same model playing the piano, and my art teacher wanted to see more of this kind of work, and it kinda lead to this whole big music-based art project. Ewan himself is actually a friend of mine that I’ve known since primary school, and we were also in the same choir as well as both being a part of Peak District Music Centre. Since he was the model in the start of this project, I thought it would be fitting if he finalised it too.

As far as the medium goes, we only really used oil paint at school, and it was helpful that it took a while to dry so I could go back and add to or change things a day or two after. I also chose to use a palette knife because it matched the style of Leonid Afremov (who I was researching at the time, and also explains my use of bright colours), and also because I actually couldn’t paint very well with brushes for the whole of my first year of GCSE!

I’m actually not sure why it’s so popular! Maybe it’s the bright colours or maybe the fact that I feel like Ewan’s rather well-known around Buxton and maybe people just recognised the painting to be of him? I was really surprised so many people voted for it to be quite honest, as there were so many amazing art pieces in this year’s exhibition, and I believe the Visitor’s Choice Award over the past few years have been given to older, more experienced and professional artists.

It’s not for sale because I’d actually like to give the painting to Ewan and his family (if he still wants it, hopefully!)

COMMENDED 88 Harry by Phoebe Wilman

You can see Phoebe’s award-winning artwork and another called Harry, which won a commendation from the judges, plus many more until Friday 31 August. Admission free.

You can plan your visit here.

A Ghost at Buxton Museum

Archivist Ian Gregory turns up another curiosity in the depths of the collections:

There is a copy of a ghost story in our collection at Buxton Museum.  It was published in 1952 in a magazine called Halfpenny Green Quarterly, which was aimed at the personnel of an RAF base of the same name.  The story is entitled A Christmas Ghost Story, by AC McDonald.



It opens with a judge narrating, to a group of friends, an incident in the history of the house where they are staying. During the 17th century, an aristocrat was murdered by one of his neighbours because he prevented said neighbour, John Mannering, from marrying the girl he loved. Mannering subsequently took his own life. His ghost can supposedly possess living men and force them to re-enact his crime. That night, Mannering entered the judge’s body and compelled him to strangle a fellow guest.

The victim had a business partner called Barron, who had embezzled some of their money and was put on trial for the killing. Our judge; the real murderer was in charge of his trial.  After wrestling with his conscience, the judge sentenced Barron to death. “There were two people inside me,” he reasoned, “it was not I but the other who was responsible for the murder.” Despite this, our judge takes his own life after the trial.  At the conclusion, the author wonders if our main protagonist committed suicide or was killed by the shade of Mannering?

Halfpenny Green Quarterly was a mix of jokes, cartoons, articles about service life and poems. I don’t know whether AC McDonald wrote anything else and, if so, how successful he was. (If “AC” was in the RAF at that date, then he was most likely male). He may not be a household name today, but some authors are popular for a time and then sink into obscurity.  Or did he write as a hobby for a while, then give it up to concentrate on a military career?

DERSB 1760

Thanks, Ian. One of my favourite artworks from Buxton Museum’s collection seems rather ghostly to me. It is an oil painting by Algernon Newton R.A. called Winter Moonrise, Yorkshire. Even though it was painted in 1945, the scene is timeless; evoking a sense of awe and maybe a little dread. It is on display as part of an exhibition called Collectors and Curiosities: Buxton and Beyond until 6 October 2018. Admission free.

Plan your visit here.

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