WRoCAH CDA Series: Lucy Brownson 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



Lucy Brownson

School of English, University of Sheffield

2019 Cohort

No matter how many times I witness it, I’m always spellbound as Chatsworth House, its gold leaf windowframes accentuated by the bright winter sunshine, sails into view first thing in the morning. It’s a sight to behold even in thick fog, hemmed in by spire-like pines ascending into the low-hanging clouds. When I first arrived here back in October last year, equally excited and nervous to start my collaborative PhD, the place was resplendent in oranges and reds as autumn reached a blazing crescendo. It’s easy to wax lyrical about Chatsworth – ancestral seat of the Cavendish family for over four centuries – because its exquisite Baroque architecture, unrivalled private collections and well-known public history make it so, but there’s much more to this iconic historic house than splendour and scandal.

Chatsworth House and the River Derwent on a particularly frosty December morning


As such, my PhD research focuses on the resource that lies at the heart of Chatsworth’s rich history: the Devonshire Collection Archives, vast but relatively under-researched archives charting the lives of many who have visited, lived and worked on the Chatsworth Estate over the last 450 years. As the home of the Duke of Devonshire, narratives about Chatsworth’s public history have, in the past, often pivoted on the aristocratic men who inherited this title; this is reflected in the Archives’s substantial tranche of family papers, namely organised by ducal reign. What I’m interested in, then, is how and where women figure as agents of this history – how have they shaped what’s known about Chatsworth today? How might we recover their contributions to the Archives and the histories they tell? How might a feminist reading of the Devonshire Collection Archives – and historic house archives more broadly – reshape how we enact public history narratives? All of these questions are at the forefront of my research, and I’m hoping to find some answers (and likely many more questions) over the next three years. Drawing on a broad range of documentary sources, I’m trying to piece together the gendered labour involved in the creation and maintenance of collective histories; I want to know why the work of constructing and preserving historical traces has so often been feminised.

Postcards, projects, and Peggy Guggenhound

How do you begin searching for the history of – well – history? This isn’t an easy task, but as an archivist by training, I’d like to think I know where to look better than many. In the exploratory phase of my research, I’m homing in on several women who played a significant part in consolidating some major archival collections and advocating for their long-term care, specifically throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the most part, this involves seeking out marginalia in historic finding aids, collection guides and annotated bibliographies, exploring correspondence collections, along with developing my broader contextual knowledge through Chatsworth’s ample Library collections, photographic archives and – my personal favourite – scrapbooks and postcard albums. One resource that’s proved especially useful for illuminating the lives, interests and collecting habits of non-elite people on the Estate is the Grafton Papers, an extensive collection comprising scrapbooks, news cuttings, letters and postcards spanning the 1870s to the 1990s. Much of this material was brought together by various members of the Longden family, many of whom worked at Chatsworth and lived locally, and passed down through several generations until it was bequeathed to the Archives in the 1990s. This collection offers a window on the material labour that goes into selecting and constructing history. Through an annotation on the reverse side of a photograph that reads, ‘Maybe gardeners can identify where this is?’ or a football league table cut out of the Sheffield Telegraph, the process of threading a narrative together is made tangible.

Aside from the access to frankly incredible collections, expertise and resources that this studentship affords me, I’ll also get the opportunity to undertake project work with the Chatsworth House Trust. Along with my fellow CDA student Louise Calf, who is researching the Victorian theatre at Chatsworth, I’ll be widening access to the Archives by adding catalogue metadata, compiling research guides, and cataloguing as yet uncatalogued material. Ultimately, my research will inform the strategic vision of the Collections & Exhibitions department of which I’m now a part, as well as feeding into Chatsworth’s visitor engagement. Louise and I have also been thinking about concrete research outputs – especially given that the bar has been set so high by the previous network of WRoCAH-funded CDA students at Chatsworth,  whose research on the social history of employment at Chatsworth fundamentally shaped the organisation’s historic servants and staff database. So far, our daily route through the North Wing’s labyrinthine corridors has seen us dreaming up a live-action murder mystery – though this is arguably more of a personal pursuit than a research-driven one…

Our research assistant, Peggy Guggenhound


By far, one of the best things about my collaborative studentship is the fact that I get to research together with another PhD candidate. Although Louise is based at the University of York, she lives down the road from me in Sheffield and so we drive in together with her dog, Peggy Guggenhound (pictured above). Each morning before settling down to work, we take Peggy up through the woods behind the House to the old Hunting Tower (now a holiday cottage), looping the manmade lakes that feed Chatsworth’s water features and trundling back down to the House. This routine focuses my mind for the day ahead, and it provides time for us to bounce ideas around. Likewise, a conversation over a brew in the staff kitchen can yield a fresh perspective or unearth new research leads. By its nature PhD research is highly specialised, and it can often feel isolating to study something that may only be deeply understood by a handful of people – so I’m grateful to be embedded within a team that provides ample opportunities to sound out ideas and follow new avenues of thought.

View over Chatsworth House and the Derwent Valley, from above the Cascade

What’s next?

As I find my feet, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and thinking about ways to share my research. On Wednesday 4th March I’ll discuss my project at an International Women’s Day PubhD special in collaboration with Sheffield Feminist Archive (where I’m a volunteer), while on Friday 6th March I’m presenting at a University of Sheffield iSchool research seminar. This May I’ll deliver my first solo conference paper at the annual Historic Houses Network Conference – wish me luck!

What else is in store? There’s quite literally always something new to discover at Chatsworth, from secret diaries to secret doors, so I’m looking forward to delving further into the Archives’s amazingly rich collections and getting to know some of the women who shaped them.


To find out more about Lucy’s PhD project, ‘Archive as practice, space and identity at Chatsworth‘, visit the WRoCAH Research pages.