WRoCAH CDA Series: Louise Calf and Chatsworth

2019 saw the start of ten AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards – PhD projects in which students and partner organisations work together on a piece of applied research that will have immediate impact. The PhD experience these projects offer is very different from normal, bringing their own opportunities and challenges. In this series we hope to celebrate the early experiences of the students undertaking this collaborative and dynamic research.

This blog series will be regularly updated throughout the spring of 2020.

Lucy Brownson


Christopher Wakefield


Louise Calf


Katie Crowther


Elliot Holmes



Louise Calf

Department of Archaeology, University of York

2019 Cohort

Hands up if you’ve heard of Chatsworth House (clue: it features as Pemberley in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice). Ah, that’s a lot of you. Now, keep your hands raised if you knew there was a theatre inside the House. Just as I suspected, only one or two hands left. And this, despite the fact that, between 1896 and 1907, Chatsworth’s private theatre annually hosted the King and Queen of England. So this is the crux of my research: uncovering the stories and significance of this overlooked space and sharing those stories with Chatsworth’s staff and visitors.

Gold at the end of the rainbow. View of the south front of Chatsworth House from the gardens. Image courtesy of the author.


For anyone less familiar with the site, Chatsworth is a large country estate in the north-east of Derbyshire, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire and, since 1549, home to the Cavendish family. The House underwent significant development in the 1820s-30s, and it was at this time that the North Wing was constructed, housing an expansive range of staff quarters and a suite of new entertainment spaces, including what became the theatre. Before Chatsworth’s theatre was a theatre, however, it was known as the Banqueting Room or Ball Room. As part of her ‘Progress in France, Belgium and England’ in 1843, Queen Victoria visited Chatsworth with Prince Albert and is recorded as having ‘danced the country dance with Lord Leveson with much vigour’ in this very room. It wasn’t until 1896 that a semi-permanent stage, with an accompanying proscenium arch was constructed inside the space and a set of custom painted scenery – much of which still survives today – made to furnish it, transforming a banqueting-ball room into Chatsworth’s very own private theatre. Unfortunately, while it is sometimes possible to join a small tour of the space, issues with access mean that the theatre is not included on the current visitor route. As part of my research, I will be getting to grips with ways in which the (hi)story of the theatre can be included in the visitor experience.

View of the north end of the North Wing at Chatsworth House. The location of the theatre is highlighted in blue, beneath the Belvedere. Image courtesy of the author.


Working with Chatsworth as a project partner, I am standing on the shoulders of giants; Chatsworth recently supported three other WRoCAH PhDs through to completion, allowing unparalleled access to their archive and providing platforms on which the candidates could share the results of their research. Indeed, one of the best aspects of this PhD project so far has been the opportunity to work alongside another of my WRoCAH cohort, Lucy Brownson, whose research into the archives at Chatsworth frequently maps onto my own. We tend to spend three days a week on site, each day often beginning with a hike up to the Elizabethan Hunting Tower – an opportunity to walk my small dog, Peggy – before we sequester ourselves in the Study Room surrounded by old newspaper clippings, accounts books and family correspondence. As an historical archaeologist, Chatsworth’s archive is almost as important to my research as the theatre space itself, and it’s been extraordinary and, I believe, unusual to be given such free reign among what must be one of the most comprehensive Country House archive collections in the country.

View of Chatsworth from our morning walk. Image courtesy of the author.


It’s not simply the historic material that makes coming to Chatsworth so special, but the level of expertise and intellectual curiosity surrounding us. Positioned, as we are, in the Collections team, even making a cup of tea can turn into a story about how, that one time, Queen Mary (wife of George V) binned watercolours by a late-Victorian artist because she thought his work was silly and irrelevant (recent auction results vehemently testify against this view). With Development, Learning, Visitor Experience and Exhibitions all undertaken in-house, there are also plenty of opportunities that offer mutual benefit to us as research trainees and Chatsworth’s own project planning; for example, the Development team are currently trying to raise money to conserve much of the theatre collection and I hope to be able to enrich their cause with the results of my research. Believing that the work I undertake will have a tangible and meaningful impact is both empowering and motivating (no mean feat for a chronic procrastinator).

Setting winter skies over Chatsworth’s entrance. Image courtesy of the author.


Mr. Leo Trevor, Cinderella and the Magic Slipper: a Story from the Archive

I mentioned that, between 1896 and 1907, Chatsworth’s theatre played host to the King and Queen (Prince and Princess of Wales prior to 1902). They would come to ‘the Palace of the Peak’ for a week or so every January and participate in a variety of country pursuits, from shooting pheasant to playing golf. One evening of the week would be dedicated to performances in Chatsworth’s ‘bijou’ theatre, given by a troupe of aristocratic amateurs – make no mistake, even if the performers were amateur, the stage management were always professionals, often brought up from the Garrick Theatre in London for the occasion. Kicking off after supper, at around 10.30pm, the evening would consist of two or three pieces, often including some kind of short, comic number, a song and a dance – all, thankfully for me, covered by the local press and collected in the Grafton Papers (see Lucy Brownson’s blog post).

The January of 1904 was the first year that Edward and Alexandra would visit Chatsworth as King and Queen. It was an auspicious occasion, and semi-professional playwright, Mr. Leo Trevor had something good up his sleeve for the theatrical entertainment; he had conceived a short and acutely relevant version of a classic pantomime, and titled it, ‘Cinderella and the Magic Slipper’. We know from the accounts books that a specially-made stage prop of a comical motor car was commissioned for the event and brought up from London by train. However, understanding the appetite of the press for gossip, and keen that his new production remain a surprise, Mr. Trevor instead announced that his new pantomime, freshly written for the King and Queen, Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and many esteemed, aristocratic guests from across the country – to be premiered at Chatsworth’s Theatre Royal – was to be called…

…‘The Fat Boy of Peckham.’

Illustration of Mr. Leo Trevor in the specially-commission stage prop for 1904’s ‘Cinderella and the Magic Slipper’. Image from The Daily Graphic, 9th January 1904. ©The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth (CH11/1/5). Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.


To find out more about Louise and her PhD project, ‘Plays and performance in the country house: the Victorian Theatre at Chatsworth‘, visit the WRoCAH Research pages.