Innovation Placement at Hardwick Hall (Part One: Research), by Lauren Butler

“My initial instinct was to stare at the faces, willing them to say their names, like Matilda attempting to levitate pencils with her eyes.”

In the first of a two-part post, Lauren Butler tells a wonderful tale of her post-PhD research at Hardwick Hall, thanks to her WRoCAH- and AHRC-funded Innovation Placement.

Lauren Butler

WRoCAH Alumnus (2015 Cohort)

University of Sheffield

‘Lauren, come through here! Have you seen this one?’ One of the veteran guides at Hardwick Hall leads me through the entrance hall and disappears behind a column. ‘Look!’. His torch casts a raking light over the surface of the stone. It picks out the shadow of a crudely-scratched name, ‘JERVAS WATS’. There is no date, but from the style of writing and the spelling of the name I guess that it’s 17th or early-18th century.  It is another tantalising glimpse into the rich but hidden social history of an extraordinary property. Jervas was one in a long line of workers, tourists, staff and children who wrote their names on the walls of Hardwick Hall, taking their cue from the building’s first owner, Bess of Hardwick, who crowned the building with her own initials during its construction at the end of the 16th century.

The front of Hardwick Hall, ‘more glass than wall’.


Hunting for graffiti on fireplaces, over doorways and on window ledges, even if it has earned me a few odd looks, has been one of the many unexpected joys of my AHRC-funded Innovation Placement. The PhD project I have just completed, a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Chatsworth House, was a journey of exploration through a remarkable archive, but I am ashamed to say that in 3.5 years of researching the servants there, I never once stepped foot inside the old kitchen (which, in my defence, is now a busy workshop). Although the focus of my research at Hardwick has been the same (servants, workers and tenants in the nineteenth century), the research methods have been, by necessity, very different. The Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth holds Hardwick Hall’s archival records, many of which I stumbled across while conducting my PhD research. This was why a placement at Hardwick seemed like the logical next step. The documents I read and transcribed at Chatsworth formed a useful contextual basis for my research at Hardwick. Without the weekly archive access that I used to have, however, I was forced to think creatively about where else servants left traces of their lives.

Historical graffiti has provided fascinating tangible evidence for the presence of ‘ordinary’ people at Hardwick, not only in the working spaces, as might be expected, but on every level of the house. In the Long Gallery, for example, the ultimate showcase of the Cavendish family’s wealth and power, John Gregory Cottingham, the son of a nineteenth-century housekeeper and land agent, has irreverently scrawled his name on the fireplace.  Another source that I have been interested in is a series of watercolour paintings by William Henry Hunt, which show the comfortable rooms that John Gregory Cottingham lived in with his parents and siblings, undisturbed by the mostly-absent 6th Duke of Devonshire, who had many other (warmer) houses at his disposal.

Thanks to an oral history and family connections project that Hardwick Hall ran a few years ago, I have also been able to use photographs donated by descendants. My favourite, an undated and unannotated group shot of the servants, has been a source of much frustration. I was quickly able to date the photograph to the early 1890s, thanks to my limited knowledge of Victorian fashion and to a visitor who identified her grandmother, Sarah Clarke, standing on the back row. Sarah married and moved away from Hardwick in 1896, so this narrowed down the timeframe of the photograph considerably. But other than Sarah, and head gardener Edmund Wilson, most of the faces remained stubbornly anonymous.

Hardwick staff, c.1893


My initial instinct was to stare at the faces, willing them to say their names, like Matilda attempting to levitate pencils with her eyes. In the end, it turned out to be quite an effective method. Studying the clothing, positions and ages of the people, and comparing to other photographs they appeared in, conveyed some indication of their role and status. When pieced together with sources like staff wage lists and the census, this built up a persuasive case for some of the individuals’ identities. It was through this method that I discovered that the Queen Victoria lookalike sitting on the bench was not the head gardener’s wife, as previously thought, but housekeeper Mrs Jane Marriage.

Jane Marriage has become one of my favourite characters to research. The daughter of a poor carpenter and his wife, Jane lost her mother when she was twelve, and she and her four siblings were sent away by their widowed father. She then lost her younger brother in the workhouse, then her father, and then her sister Eliza. Despite these personal tragedies, Jane built an impressive career, beginning as a housemaid and working her way up by hopping between the Cavendish family’s properties. When she reached the top and became housekeeper, she summoned her surviving siblings to Hardwick Hall, where they lived together as a family for the first time since they had been separated as children. They are all buried at Ault Hucknall church, on the estate.

Bess of Hardwick’s cloak in the collection today, looking a little worse for wear.

Jane Marriage’s resilience and resourcefulness are evident in her quick progression from housemaid to housekeeper, and in the small fortune that she accrued along the way. Jane took full advantage of her privileged access to Hardwick’s treasures, giving away souvenirs to tourists and allowing them to try on Bess of Hardwick’s 250-year-old cloak in return for generous tips. ‘The housekeepers had apparently complete authority over the contents of the building’, wrote Duchess Evelyn fifty years later, ‘Bess of Hardwick’s cloak used to be shown regularly and tried on by the tourists till I stopped the practice’.

My research into Hardwick Hall’s nineteenth-century community has unearthed a rich seam of new stories. The next step of the project was to decide how to release them onto the visitor route, a process which I will write about in my next blog post.


©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel