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.

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.

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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.

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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.

From Time to Time

Volunteer Ian Gregory gives us a personal account of this week’s official reopening of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

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Manager Ros Westwood reveals The Wonders of the Peak to The Duke of Devonshire

From time to time, long-lasting establishments have to reassess themselves and make changes. Some of you will know this happened recently at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery when the Wonders of the Peak exhibition was revitalised and updated. On Tuesday 12 September, I was privileged to attend the official reopening ceremony for the display.

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Dave makes last minute adjustments to the Roman soldier

The ceremony took place in the art gallery upstairs, under a plaster ceiling from the days when the building was a hotel. It was very well attended; infact the place was crowded and so many people made the gallery rather hot. As well as staff and volunteers like myself, there were journalists, members of the public, County Councillors and the 12th Duke of Devonshire. One woman fainted but she quickly recovered and didn’t need medical attention.

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The reopening of the museum coincides with the legend that is Emily leaving for a new job

Ros, the manager of the museum, gave a speech. She outlined the history of the building, which was a hotel and then a military hospital before becoming the museum in 1928.

Ros’ speech

Then the leader of Derbyshire County Council spoke, followed by Jonathan Platt from the Heritage Lottery Fund and finally The Duke of Devonshire, who emphasised the importance of community and Buxton Museum belonging to the whole community. He also reminded us that the landscape has always changed and felt the hand of humanity, and he urged us to embrace recent changes in technology. This ties in with an app which we are developing for the museum. The Duke also remarked that he remembered telephones like the one in the first case visitors come to. Ros then spoke again. Some children were present and she told them that the bear is still here, adding that he was hungry.

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Remember these?

It was time to view the new Wonders of the Peak exhibition. We entered the new gallery which is much spacious than its predecessor. It also features videos and touch screens new to our museum. I was impressed and everyone else appeared to be too. The exhibition starts with the Carboniferous Period about 350 million years ago when the limestone which underlies much of the Peak District was formed. It picks up the history about 1.9 million years ago with bones of mastodon and scimitar-toothed cats, then goes on through The Stone Age and Iron Ages into Roman and Saxon times, then through the Blue John and Ashford Black Marble objects from Victorian times and so to the 20th century.

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The reopening is accompanied by music from Amanda Johnson of Kidology

The visitors left and the staff locked up. It had been hard work preparing for all this but it was worth the effort. I’m sure the vast majority of people who came that day would agree with me there.

Ros’ speech

You can plan your own visit here.

Curiosity of the Month

Visitors to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery are often curious about the history of the building. The Art Nouveau stained glass in the museum foyer is a hint of its past and frequently provokes the question “what was this place?”

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Built in 1880, the building was originally the Peak Hydropathic Hotel. The town’s reputation as a fashionable spa had been established since at least the 1790s, when the Duke of Devonshire had built the Crescent and Assembly Rooms. The Peak Hydropathic was never a profitable venture and it went up for sale several times in the first decades of the 20th century. This recently acquired document relates to the auction of the building in 1915. It is currently on display with a similar plan for an auction in 1909, along with some photographs and items from that era.