The Chatsworth Serpent Pram

Archivist Ian Gregory examines an image of what has to be one of the most peculiar parenting aids ever imagined:

One of the many photographs in Buxton Museum & Art Gallery shows a rather unusual pram. It comes from Chatsworth and was made for the Dukes of Devonshire. Our photo was taken in 1930, but the pram looks older still. It was designed by William Kent in 1733. The pram is decorated with two snakes that writhe down from its hood to its wheels. The first impression is that it must’ve triggered nightmares in any babies travelling in it.

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The reason for this decoration is that a snake is part of the Devonshire family crest. First impressions can mislead; when the pram was in use, those snakes didn’t stand over its little occupant. They would’ve stretched out in front and acted as a harness for a goat, dog or miniature horse that pulled the pram (or stroller, as it has been referred to). This would’ve been less oppressive for any child inside.

Why was there a snake on the family crest? Today the creatures are objects of revulsion for many people. “You snake in the grass” is an insult implying treachery. Snakebites are a frequent cause of death in the tropics. According to the Old Testament it was a snake that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

There is another side to representation of snakes. As they grow, they shed a layer of old skin to reveal a new one underneath. This ability resulted in snakes becoming, at least in some cultures, symbols of renewal or immortality. Apex predators can become symbols of strength and courage as well as causes of terror; the lion is one obvious example. In Greek mythology, Asclepius the god of medicine, carried a staff with a snake entwined around it. Hermes, messenger of the gods, owned a staff with two serpents entwined on it.

Renaissance Baroque aristocrats were familiar with Classical history and mythology. They embarked on the Grand Tour to Italy and Greece They had country houses built in the Classical style, then filled them with ancient sculptures. Bearing this in mind, perhaps it isn’t so odd that they worked a serpent into the emblem of one of their greatest families.

Dylan’s Blog: Derbyshire Blue John

The staff recently enjoyed the assistance of a young man called Dylan who gave up his Saturday mornings to sample life in a museum and art gallery. We strive to give placements to students aspiring to a career in the arts or heritage and hopefully, we don’t put them off!

We asked Dylan to write about his favourite objects in the museum and he chose one which attracts a lot of curiosity in this part of the world:


Blue John crystals are only found in two places in the whole world: the Treak Cliff and Blue John caverns in Castleton. And is hailed as “Britain’s rarest mineral”, it is a mineral called fluorite. Yes I have nabbed this straight from the ’Wonders of the Peak’ exhibition, but none the less a fascinating crystal. It is still being mined and sold today but their peak in popularity was throughout the 19th century and Regency period with people making vases, columns, tables and even windows in many of the finest houses in Britain, most notably Buckingham Palace and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.


They also played a role in World War One; there was a rising need for supplies and machinery to help assist with the ongoing war effort. This meant that fluorspar also became in high demand as it was often used in blast furnaces. Blue John being a rare form of calcium fluorite was mined purely for this purpose throughout the war period. During this time tons of Blue John material had been extracted and transported to the nearby city of Sheffield. Leaving many of the recognised Blue John veins in very short supply and in some instances fully worked out, which meant that the larger Blue John pieces required to produce ornamental items had been lost during this period but at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, there is a collection of Blue John ornaments bowls, urns, cups and even souvenir eggs. You can plan your visit here.

The Ecton Mine Child’s Shoe

Sometimes, even an object as simple as a shoe can tell a story. Once again, we’ve raided the brain of new collections assistant Bret Gaunt for a glimpse in to a murky part of Peak District history.


In the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is a small, rather unassuming, battered leather shoe once belonging to a child. The shoe dates to the 18th or early 19th century and was found in Ecton Mine in the Staffordshire part of the Peak District. Despite its battered appearance the shoe forms part of the story of atrocious working conditions for children in the mines of Britain.

The mines at Ecton are unusual for the Peak District in that they predominantly produce copper, rather than lead and zinc, as so often seen at other mines of the area. There is evidence to show that Ecton has been mined for copper since the Bronze Age.

In the 17th century Ecton mine was the first in Britain to use gunpowder for extraction, and the engine house is believed to be the earliest surviving example in the world used for winding out ore.

The mines were owned by the Dukes of Devonshire and it was in the 18th century that the site was fully exploited; records show that the Duke made £300,000 profit in the latter half of the 18th century, the money being used to finance the building of Chatsworth and the Crescent in Buxton.

Children often worked in a range of dirty and dangerous jobs, such as chimney sweeps, or in mills, as they were essential to contributing to the household income; in the case of mining often whole families worked together in appalling conditions; children as young as five years of age would start work in the mines. The mines were cramped, poorly ventilated and highly dangerous and children were often injured or killed by explosions, roof falls or being run over by carts.

ecton mine
Ecton Mine entrance

Children performed a number of tasks in the mines such as ‘door keepers’, who operated the ventilation doors to allow carts through; ‘drammers’, who pulled carts to and from the work face; ‘helpers’, who assisted with the actual cutting of the stone, usually alongside fathers and older brothers; and ‘drivers’, who led horses which pulled the wagons along the main roadways. The working day for a small boy would start at 2am, when the ‘caller-out’ came round. By 3am they were expected to be in the pits working and did not return home until the evening.

Many people in Britain were unaware of children working in mines and it was not until an investigation by the government was carried out between 1840 and 1842 that the full extent was realised, with inspectors visiting mines and speaking to many child miners. The horrific stories of dangerous conditions and abuse at the hands of employers and fellow miners were presented to Parliament as part of the Commission of Enquiry into the State of Children in Employment and would lead to the Mines Regulation Act being passed in 1842.

From 1843 it was illegal for women or any children under the age of ten to work underground in Britain. There was no compensation for those made unemployed which caused much hardship. However, evasion of the act was easy as there was only one inspector to cover the whole of Britain and he had to give prior notice before visiting the mines. It was only until the Sandon Act of 1876, which required all children to be in education, that the exploitation of children in mines fully came to an end.

In the 19th century the ores began to run out at Ecton mine and the site was eventually abandoned in 1891. Today it is now run as a trust promoting education in applied geology, chemistry, mining and mineral extraction.

See the shoe and many more intriguing items at Buxton Museum, admission free. Plan your visit here.

The English Civil War: A Local Study

In the second of two posts, Lorna Ormiston, a history undergraduate from Sheffield University, looks at Derbyshire’s role in a tumultuous era of British history.

The English Civil War (or rather civil wars) began in 1642 with the king raising his standard in Nottingham after failing to reach a settlement with parliament.  This was because one of the fundamental causes of the war was the king’s and parliament’s inability to agree on how the state should be run. Charles I believed, as his father James I did, in divine rule which was the idea that the King was appointed by God and thus can only be accountable to God. Whereas, parliament believed that they were there to limit the king’s power and to legislate new laws. As a result, the king’s controversial personal rule (which meant the king ruled without convening parliament) included Charles I reinstating archaic laws to gain money for foreign wars in order to bypass asking parliament for money. As well as, that Charles I’s implementation of new religious policies in England, Scotland and Ireland only proceeded to aggravate parliament further, since some parliamentarians were convinced Charles I “evil advisers” were part of a “popish plot” to force Catholicism on Protestant England.


Thus, both parliament’s and Charles’ inability to understand one another contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War, which led to two other civil wars (the last one ending in 1651) and  the execution of Charles I in 1649. Therefore, it is unsurprising that historians such as Christopher Hill have noted that this dispute was a revolution and ultimately an event which “turned the world upside down”. [i] The sentence of Charles I interestingly, was carried out by John Bradshaw who came from Marple in nearby Cheshire, as the President of the High Court of Justice at the trial. Here is a painting of him which Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has in its collection.

This suggestion that the “English” Civil War had a profound impact is correct, since the whole of what later becomes the United Kingdom both influences and is influenced by the war. And thus, is why we will move on to look more generally at Derbyshire’s role within in the civil war with reference to its surrounding areas, because counties do not operate in isolation. This can be seen with historian Brian Stone noting, that along with Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire ‘whichever side first secured those two vital counties…would be half-way to winning the war’.[ii] This is because according to Stone the king could unite his army in Oxford and the Earl of Newcastle’s in Yorkshire and then ‘outnumber parliament at every turn’ which made Derbyshire a strategic place to maintain support.[iii] Although, we should be cautious with this idea that by obtaining Derbyshire it could alter the result of the war-as different circumstances often alter the course of history-, it shows the importance of why Derbyshire’s “big” personalities in terms of military commanders should be discussed.  One such key figure is Sir John Gell of Hopton Hall, who was wealthy member of the gentry because of his family’s engagement in sheep farming and lead mining and later becomes a skilful parliamentarian commander.[iv] This being the case, one of Sir John Gell’s notable achievements was the successful fortification of Derby against threats, which included Prince Rupert and the hated Spanish queen Henrietta Maria.[v] William Cavendish, who owned Chatsworth, also engaged with the civil war but was a royalist and ended up living in exile because of parliament’s victory, although he did return with the restoration and repaired Bolsover Castle (which had been demolished to stop Royalist reprisals).[vi] Hopefully, this short snippet of Derbyshire’s personalities and role within the civil war (after restraining myself from writing copious amounts) demonstrates that there is always more history to be uncovered.

For more information on this topic I recommend the following academic works:

Brian Stone, Derbyshire in the Civil War (Northampton, 1992)

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London, 1991)

Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford, 1990)

[i] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London , 1991)

[ii] Brian Stone, Derbyshire in the Civil War (Northampton, 1992), p.17.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Trevor Brighton, ‘Gell, Sir John, first baronet (bap. 1593, d. 1671)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) [accessed 28 July 2017].

[vi] Ibid.

[1] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London , 1991)

[1] Brian Stone, Derbyshire in the Civil War (Northampton, 1992), p.17.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Trevor Brighton, ‘Gell, Sir John, first baronet (bap. 1593, d. 1671)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) [accessed 28 July 2017].

[1] Ibid.

Derbyshire, A Place for Poetry and Politics

This week’s blog has been written by Lorna Ormiston, a history undergraduate from Sheffield University who specialises in the 17th and 18th century.

During my four week placement at Buxton Museum, I had the opportunity to handle both Thomas Hobbes’ and Charles Cotton’s poems on the “wonders” surrounding Derbyshire.

hobbes coverThomas Hobbes’ poem De mirabilibus pecci, which was first published in Latin in 1636 and then published later in English, is a celebration of what Hobbes referred to as the seven wonders of Derbyshire.[i] These wonders included: Chatsworth House, Tideswell’s Ebbing and Flowing Stream, Mam Tor, Peak Cavern, Poole’s Cavern, St Ann’s Well in Buxton and Eldon Hole in Peak Forest.[ii]  Whilst, photographing the topographical poem for the museum’s historical records, it was clear that Hobbes’ recognition of Derbyshire was in part motivated by Hobbes wanting to bolster his reputation. Unbeknownst to Hobbes, Hobbes later becomes well-known for his political theory in his work Leviathan published in 1651.[iii]

hobbes dedicationHobbes’ use of “flowery” language and his dedication to his client William Cavendish, the second Earl of Devonshire and the person he tutored around Europe. This was a journey which many nobles took known as the “Grand Tour” often with chaperones as the journeys were meant to better educate the nobles to prove that elites should be in positions of power.  However, often nobles engaged in ill-pursuits.  One place which was known for this was in Venice and as a result became a part of its mythology. For instance, in Thomas Dekker’s ‘Penny-Wise, Povnd Foolish’ which was published in 1631, it tells the tale of an Englishman swayed by a “bewitching” courtesans in Venice.[iv] Therefore, it is also interesting that having come from touring Europe, Hobbes wanted to promote Derbyshire since domestic travel was not prized during this time and his poem is even considered Derbyshire first guidebook. Yet, Hobbes aggrandisement of William Cavendish also suggests Hobbes intended not only to paint a picture of Derbyshire but place importance upon himself as a writer and upon his clients.

Charles Cotton’s satirical poem The Wonders of the Peake, published five years later than Hobbes’ English version of the poem was brought out reaffirms that Hobbes’ poem was not entirely accurate and had other motivations than just encouraging tourism in Derbyshire.[v] For instance, Cotton refers directly to Hobbes in his poem stating that Hobbes takes “rational guesses” and does not take seriously his descriptions of Derbyshire. [vi] Nevertheless, it is clear Cotton had admiration for Hobbes’ referring to him as someone who “thinks best” and is ‘best read’.[vii] Yet, Cotton can be seen as being more at ease with Derbyshire having been born close to the county. Cotton even takes ownership of Derbyshire, which can be seen in one of Cotton’s most descriptive verses (pictured below).

cotton dove verse

This is because Cotton refers to the River Dove as part of ‘our little world’ which includes himself as part of Derbyshire’s “world”. [viii] Cotton work also contains humour as Cotton “pokes fun” at himself by depicting himself as having a lack of awareness and sophistication something which the reader can guess he has. For example, in his verse about Poole’s cavern guides where he states, ‘Your Peak-bred Convoy of rude Men and Boys,   All the way whooting with that dreadful Noife [noise].’[ix]  The use of word  ‘rude’ not only suggests the characters of the men in Poole’s cavern but also that of Cotton because his use of the word makes him seem ‘rude’ in terms of meaning something which is crude or simplistic in this case Cotton’s  use of language.[x]  Thus, this is an intentional way in which to create humour with an audience aware, that Cotton is presenting Cotton the poet as a parody of himself.

Ultimately, both poems give wondrous accounts of Derbyshire and point out some of its sights which are still very popular today including Chatsworth House, which has been referred to as a ‘pallace’.[xi] And even though, the poems are not accurate and exaggerate Derbyshire “beauties” during the Seventeenth Century, they are useful in showing what elite members of society were interested in and the way in which they presented themselves in written texts.

Further Reading:

Edwards, Jess, ‘Thomas Hobbes, Charles Cotton and the “wonders” of the Derbyshire Peak’, Studies in Travel Writing 16:1 (2012)

Buzard, James, ‘The Grand Tour and after (1660–1840)’ in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, eds. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs (Cambridge, 2002)

[i] Thomas Hobbes, De mirabilibus pecci (London, 1636).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1651).

[iv] Thomas Dekker, Penny-wise, Povnd Foolish (London, 1631).

[v] Charles Cotton, The Wonders of the Peake (London, 1681).

[vi] Charles Cotton, The Wonders of the Peake (2nd edn, London, 1683), p.27.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., p.2.

[ix] Ibid., p.18.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Thomas Hobbes, De mirabilibus pecci (London, 1636), p.10.