Friday, 21 November 2014

Blue John: Britain's Georgian gemstone

Another post by my husband Andrew Knowles inspired by our visit to Derbyshire.

Blue John - Millers Vein - from Treak Cliff, Castleton  on display in Buxton Museum
Blue John - Millers Vein - from Treak Cliff, Castleton
on display in Buxton Museum
One of the less well known facts about Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and leader of fashion in the late eighteenth century, was that she collected rocks.

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (painting in the South Sketch Gallery)
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
(painting in the South Sketch Gallery)
Visitors to Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire, can view her mineral collection, along with vases and bowls made from Britain's rarest semi-precious stone, Blue John. The mineral became hugely popular with craftsmen and their customers in the late Georgian period, and coincidentally its only known source was just a few miles from Chatsworth, in the hills above Castleton.

Display case in South Sketch Gallery, Chatsworth
Display case of minerals
in South Sketch Gallery, Chatsworth
Blue John is found nowhere else in the world. It is still mined today, but only in tiny quantities as very little remains in the ground. The two remaining mines, which are mainly natural caverns, are now largely tourist attractions.

The beginnings of Blue John mining 

Lead has been mined around Castleton for hundreds of years, possibly even by the Romans, and mining records began in 1280. But there is no reference to the mining and use of Blue John before the 1760s. Trevor Ford, in his book Derbyshire Blue John, explores and debunks stories of Blue John ware being found in Roman Pompeii.

Blue John is a form of fluorspar, a common mineral that occurs in many colours. What makes it unique to Derbyshire is the particular colouring, with bands of purple and blue, yellow and off-white. Formed in the cracks within limestone, no two sections of Blue John are alike.

Blue John spar, Buxton Museum
Blue John spar, Buxton Museum
Where the bands of Blue John reached the surface, they would have been visible. Seventeenth century travellers refer to azure or sapphire spar being found in the Peak District but say nothing about it being mined or used in any way.

All that changed in the 1760s, when the name 'Blue John' appeared in guidebooks and the mineral was used in ornaments. Robert Adam inlaid Blue John into fireplaces at Kedleston Hall and manufacturer Matthew Boulton used it extensively.

In his Sketch of a Tour, dated 1777, William Bray wrote of a mine near Castleton: "They get out of it some blue-john, used by the polishers for making vases etc." (1)

Blue John urn, Buxton Museum
Blue John urn, Buxton Museum
How Blue John was mined

The lead miners of Castleton must have observed Blue John as they went about their business underground. In naturally formed caverns, loose pieces of both lead and Blue John would be mixed in with the silt that filled the caves, and which the miners dug out and searched through for minerals.

Entrance to the Blue John Cavern
Entrance to the Blue John Cavern
Digging Blue John out of the cave walls demanded some skill, as it is relatively fragile. The limestone around the mineral would have been chipped away to release it, with miners using various techniques to break into the rock walls.

One of these ways was to push wooden pegs into cracks, then soak the wood with water, causing it to swell and break the crack open further. Another approach was to light a fire against a wall, leave it to burn overnight, then throw water against the wall. The sudden change in temperature would cause it to crack.

Blue John vein in the rock, Blue John Cavern
Blue John vein in the rock, Blue John Cavern
Having been extracted, Blue John had to be dried for a year or two before it could be worked without damaging it structure. Because it is relatively soft, Blue John is easily damaged. Many objects are coated in resin to protect them and the process of applying this resin was often regarded as a trade secret.

While they are tourist caverns today, the mines held little to interest Georgian visitors. William Bray seems to be have been persuaded to go down during his tour and records: "The descent, however, is dirty and difficult, and there is not any thing at the bottom worth seeing." (1)

The popularity of Blue John

"I have found a new use for Blew John," wrote Matthew Boulton in 1768, which was to turn it into vases. His intent was expressed in a letter, in which he asked someone to enquire about the possibility of leasing a Blue John mine. He also asked that his contact not reveal the name of Boulton as part of the enquiry: "I beg you will be quite secret as to my intentions." (2)

Blue John milk pail, Buxton Museum
Blue John milk pail, Buxton Museum
A year later, Boulton bought 14 tons of best quality Blue John, from which he made vases, candelabra and other ornaments. Some survive in Britain's great houses, including Buckingham Palace.

A tourist trade developed around the Blue John mines in the early 1800s, although going underground remained difficult. It wasn't until 1836 that a new, easier path was cut through the rock into the Blue John Cavern mines, and concrete steps were not laid until the early twentieth century.

Inside the Blue John Cavern today
Inside the Blue John Cavern today
William Adam had plenty to say about Blue John in his book The Gem of the Peak, or Matlock Bath and its vicinity, first published in 1838. He noted that a tour of the mine cost  one shilling per person, and that "the descent is very rapid and over very rough but safe steps, down which a rail is carried for the passage of the mining wagon". (3)

But by the time Adam was exploring the Blue John mines, the mineral was already starting to fall from favour and the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the small industry decline sharply. The stone is still being mined today, although in very small quantities. The supply of this rare mineral, highly prized by Georgian gentry, could be exhausted within the next decade.

Georgian examples of Blue John

Here are some of the places where you can see Blue John being used in Georgian decorative objects:

Chatsworth House

Unsurprisingly, given its proximity to the source of Blue John, the house contains several vases and other ornaments and even a window made of Blue John. The collection includes the Chatsworth Tazza, the largest single-piece ornament, made in 1842, and currently on display in the dining room. The house also contains the Shore vase, made in 1815, although it's not clear whether this is on public display.

The Chatsworth Tazza, Chatsworth
The Chatsworth Tazza, Chatsworth
Natural History Museum

Here you can see several Blue John vases. According to Ford, the collection includes what is probably the largest Blue John vase ever made, created by John Vallance around 1840.

Lauriston Castle, Edinburgh

This museum houses a collection of over 80 Blue John ornaments from the late eighteenth century.

Fireplaces containing Blue John can be found at Kedleston Hall and the Georgian House Museum in Bristol. Others exist, but are less accessible to the public.

(1) From Sketch of a Tour into Derbyshire and Yorkshire by William Bray (1777).
(2) Quoted in Derbyshire Blue John by Trevor Ford (2005) p64.
(3) From The Gem of the Peak by William Adam (1838).

Sources used include:
Adam, William, The Gem of the Peak or Matlock Bath and its vicinity (1838, this 6th edition 1857)
Bray, William, Sketch of a Tour into Derbyshire and Yorkshire (1777, this 2nd edition 1783)
Ford, Trevor D, Derbyshire Blue John (Landmark Publishing, 2005) Castleton Historical Society
Harrison, Peter C, Some Castleton History and Things Remembered (2010) PDF

BBC Derbyshire
Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, Vol 11, No 5, (1992)
Edinburgh Museums
Natural History Museum

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Philae obelisk at Kingston Lacy

Philae, a robotic probe, landed on a distant comet today. The European Space Agency hopes that the information that it gathers will help scientists understand the early development of the Solar System.

It shares its name with the Philae obelisk which stands at Kingston Lacy. The inscriptions on this obelisk helped Georgian scholars to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
Discovery of the Philae obelisk

The Philae obelisk was discovered by William John Bankes on his first journey into Egypt in 1815. The pink granite needle was one of a pair in front of the Temple of Isis on Philae, an island in the Nile. The island has since been flooded as a result of the building of the Aswan Dam. Giovanni Finati acted as Bankes' guide and his travel journals give details of some of Bankes’ excavations.

William John Bankes Portrait at Kingston Lacy
William John Bankes
Portrait at Kingston Lacy
Finati wrote that Bankes
“by the light of his candles at night found an inscription in it that had never been observed up to that time. It was also during this short stay that he first brought to light the granite pedestal of the obelisk, which has more than twenty lines upon it in the Greek character; this was buried altogether below the surface; but the probable position of it was conjectured from the obelisk lying near the spot, and search was made there accordingly. Some steps were taken, even then, towards the removal of this monument; but, for want of proper tackle, it was abandoned for that time.” (1)
On his second journey into Egypt in 1818-19, Bankes’ party included Henry Beechey, son of Sir William Beechey, the famous portrait painter; Dr Alessandro Ricci; Louis Linant de Bellefonds, a French midshipman; and Giovanni Belzoni. After starting out as a performing strong man at Sadler’s Wells, Belzoni had become a hydraulic engineer specialising in the excavation of Egyptian antiquities.

A disastrous attempt

Bankes employed Belzoni to take the Philae obelisk back to his family home of Kingston Lacy in Dorset, England.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Kingston Lacy, Dorset
The operation was fraught with difficulties and the first attempt to remove the obelisk ended in disaster. Finati wrote:
“Meanwhile the obelisk had been brought on rollers to the water's edge, and a boat below to receive it; all hands were at work, and five minutes more would have sufficed to set it afloat; when all at once the temporary pier built for it gave way under the pressure, and the monument plunged end long into the river almost out of sight.” (1)
A striking descent

Belzoni tried again with more success. Finati wrote:
“Mr Bankes said little, but was evidently disgusted by the accident, and set sail within a day or two afterwards, leaving me to witness Mr Belzoni's further operations respecting it. These were certainly conducted with great skill, though not quite without injury, and the scene of its actual descent down the cataract (2) (the passage being at that time narrower, and the fall more considerable, from the decrease of the Nile) was very striking, the great boat wheeling and swinging round, and half filling with water, while naked figures were crowding upon all the rocks, or wading or swimming between them, some shouting, and some pulling at the guide ropes, and the boat-owner throwing himself on the ground, scattering dust upon his head, and hiding his face. The danger, if any, was but for a few seconds, the equilibrium was recovered, and the mass glided smoothly and majestically onwards with the stream.” (1)
The obelisk arrived in England in 1821 and the Duke of Wellington offered to send a gun carriage to transport it to Kingston Lacy.

Duke of Wellington by William Salter (c1839) in the NPG
Duke of Wellington
by William Salter (c1839) in the NPG
The pedestal

The excavation of the obelisk’s pedestal was equally difficult. Finati wrote:
“The only commission left with me, was to see to the removal of the Greek pedestal belonging to the obelisk, from the spot where it had been left by Belzoni” but “the inundation (3) had already put the stone quite under water and out of sight, which rendered useless both the tackle and the boat that I had brought with me on purpose. For unfortunately, Mr Belzoni, fearing fresh disputes as to Mr Bankes's property in this pedestal, (though the original and uncontested finder of it,) had, in default of means for sending it at once down the cataract, carried it across from Philae to a low sand bank opposite, and there laid it on its so little judgment, that the smallest rise of the river must inevitably cover it, and make the transport impossible, during all those months of the year when the passage by water is the easiest, and it was owing to this, that, at length, after more than two years, it was found to be the best expedient to drag it by land, till it could be shipped below the rapids.” (1)
The Philae obelisk in the garden of Kingston Lacy
The Philae obelisk in the garden of Kingston Lacy
The platform

Finati noted that:
“This platform consists of four blocks only of red granite, and had served, without doubt, as the base to some obelisk now destroyed.” (1)
It was not until 1829 that Linant de Bellefonds, who had accompanied Bankes on his second trip to Egypt, sent what was left of the matching obelisk and the three huge steps of granite from Maharraga which were used to make the platform.(4)
Finati wrote:
“The heaviest block weighs nearly eleven tons, and was not removed till 1822, nor brought to England till 1829, when nineteen horses were required to drag it to its position at Kingston Hall.” (1)
It was damaged in transit and had to be repaired using some granite from the ruins of Leptis Magna – a prominent city in the Roman Empire situated in what is now Libya – given to Bankes for the purpose by George IV.

The inscription around the bottom of the Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
The inscription around the bottom of the Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
A monument to tax exemption!

The Duke of Wellington chose the spot in the garden, south of the house, for the site of the obelisk. He laid the foundation stone in 1827, but it was not until 1839 that the obelisk was finally erected.

The inscription written around the bottom of the obelisk reads as follows:

AUGUST 17 1827.




The significance of the Philae obelisk

Bankes studied the obelisk carefully, and found he could make out the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra. He made lithographs of the bilingual inscriptions – both Greek and hieroglyphic - and this helped scholars in their understanding of hieroglyphics.

Recently, a new study has been conducted on the obelisk. Current researchers have been able to confirm that Bankes’ lithograph, particularly of the hieroglyphs, was very accurate. Modern imaging methods have made it possible to read the whole of the Greek inscription for the first time. Much of this had been worn away by the time the obelisk arrived at Kingston Lacy.

(1) From Finat's Life and Adventures (1830).
(2) A cataract is a large waterfall.
(3) An inundation is a flooding.
(4) Finati mentioned four blocks of granite, but only three were used in the platform for the obelisk. It is not clear whether only three were transported or whether Finati remembered incorrectly.
(5) William John Bankes was the second, but eldest surviving son of Henry Bankes. His elder brother Henry died in 1806.

Sources used include:
Finati, Giovanni, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, edited by William John Bankes, Esq (1830)
The National Trust, Kingston Lacy (guidebook) (1994)
The National Trust website

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Princess Charlotte, Percy Shelley and High Treason in Derbyshire

A post by my husband Andrew Knowles inspired by our recent travels into Derbyshire.

Sometimes Regency history takes us by surprise. Only this week, I learned about a significant historical event that occurred during the Regency and my introduction was via a very modern road sign.

Road sign on entering Pentrich, Derbyshire
Road sign on entering Pentrich, Derbyshire
Driving through the small village of Pentrich, Derbyshire, I noticed that the village sign was topped with the phrase: "Revolution 1817." Perhaps you already know about the Pentrich Revolution. I didn't, and here is what I have since discovered.

"The mischiefs flowing from oppression"

Discontent was rife in England during the early nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution brought unsettling change, the Corn Laws pushed up food prices, and what many considered to be unfair taxes put a huge burden on the working population. Many ordinary people, particularly in the Midlands, considered themselves to be oppressed. 

Political agitation for change took various forms. The Luddite movement attacked industrial machines between 1811 and 1813. Debating groups, known as Hampden clubs, sprang up across the country. There was a growing appetite for reform, particularly of the way the nation was governed.

Many wanted to bring about change without violence, but the government was fearful of the large crowds the agitators could muster. The Seditious Meetings Act of March 1817 banned assemblies of more than 50 people.

On a wall opposite the church in Pentrich
On a wall opposite the church in Pentrich
The plaque reads: "The revolution was plotted at
the White Horse Inn which stood near here."
"Their infernal agents"

In their enthusiasm to detect trouble, the government dispatched several spies. One of these, William Oliver, became involved with political meetings taking place at Pentrich (then often spelled Pentridge). It seems likely that Oliver went beyond his role as observer and actively encouraged the frustrated group to take direct action.

St Matthew's Church, Pentrich
St Matthew's Church, Pentrich
The plaque reads: "The curate hid rebels here
from the government troops."
On the evening of 9 June 1817, a group of several hundred men from around Pentrich gathered in a barn in nearby South Wingfield. Under the leadership of Jeremiah Brandreth, a 27 year old stockinger, they began marching towards Nottingham. It seems they believed a larger uprising would happen across the country, leading to political change.

As they marched, they sought to recruit others and in one encounter, Brandreth killed someone. But as the night wore on and rain soaked his band, their numbers decreased until by dawn, only a small group crossed into Nottinghamshire to face a detachment of the King's Hussars. Some were arrested, while others fled.

Pentrich plaque
The plaque states: "Near here was Widow Hepworth's
Farm where a servant was shot dead."
"That dreadful penalty"

Brandreth, along with Isaac Ludlam and William Turner, was found guilty of High Treason and were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. This is apparently the last time this sentence was given but the Prince Regent showed 'clemency' by reducing the punishment to hanging followed by beheading.

Another 14 men were sentenced to transportation, from which none ever returned. A further six were imprisoned for up to two years.

"We pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird"

But what about Princess Charlotte and Percy Shelley, as referred to in the title of this post? How are they mixed up in the Pentrich Revolution of 1817?

Princess Charlotte, the only legitimate child of the Prince Regent (later George IV), died on 6 November 1817. Adored by the public, her death in childbirth provoked a huge outpouring of grief across the country.

Princess Charlotte by William Dawe (c1817)  at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Princess Charlotte by George Dawe (1817)
at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Brandreth, Ludlam and Turner were executed outside Derby Gaol on 7 November 1817, the day after Charlotte died. Their trial and execution for High Treason also attracted national attention.

The poet Percy Shelley made an emphatic connection between these two major events, articulated in his pamphlet "We pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird - an address to the people on the death of Princess Charlotte". (1)

"LIBERTY is dead"

"Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled." A beautiful princess is dead, wrote Shelley, referring at once to both Princess Charlotte and to the notion of liberty.

Charlotte was "young, innocent and beautiful", and "the last and best of her race". Yet, said Shelley, "the accident of her birth neither made her life more virtuous nor her death more worthy of grief". He had no criticism to make of her, but sought to remind people that the deaths of Brandreth, Ludlam and Turner also provoked grief in those that knew them.

The funeral procession of Princess Charlotte at Windsor  from Memoirs of Her Late Royal Highness   Charlotte Augusta by Robert Huish (1818)
The funeral procession of Princess Charlotte at Windsor
from Memoirs of Her Late Royal Highness
 Charlotte Augusta by Robert Huish (1818)
"They had sons, and brothers, and sisters, and fathers, who loved them." Shelley was clearly upset by their execution: "Nothing is more horrible than that man should for any cause shed the life of man."

He goes on to explain how the government created an oppressive system, with the effect that "the day labourer gains no more now by working sixteen hours a day than he gained before by working eight." It is no surprise to Shelley that people want parliamentary reform and he attacks both the spies who provoked 'rebellion' and the government that dispatched them.

Percy Bysshe Shelley  by Amelia Curran (1819)  at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Percy Bysshe Shelley
by Amelia Curran (1819)
at the National Portrait Gallery, London
"It is a national calamity, that we endure men to rule over us, who sanction for whatever ends a conspiracy which is to arrive at its purpose through such a frightful pouring forth of human blood and agony."

"Our alternatives," he wrote, "are a despotism, a revolution, or reform." In that one sentence Shelley sums up the fears or hopes of so many ordinary people in 1817. It was these hopes that drove the men of Pentrich to commit what would become, in the eyes of the law, High Treason.

All this I have discovered, just because I spotted a word and a date on a road sign.

(1) The pamphlet is popularly referred to by this title, but the phrase "We pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird" was a motto and was probably never intended to be a part of the title of this pamphlet.
(2) All quotes are from "An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817).

Huish, Robert, Memoirs of her late royal highness Charlotte Augusta (1818)
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, edited by H. Buxton Forman (1880).
The Pentrich Revolution Trail
The Pentrich Rebellion website
The Percy Bysshe Shelley Resource Page

All photographs © Andrew Knowles -