PHOEBE BOWN: A BIOGRAPHICAL NOTICE.
PHOEBE BOWN was a person of some note in her
day. She lived nearly opposite to the High Tor at Matlock ; and
strangers who to came to gaze fit the magnificence of that renowned
rock, seldom failed to visit the cottage, and smile or wonder
at the oddity of Phoebe. Her character is an instance of ill-directed
and imperfectly developed powers. We see sometimes how a plant,
having considerable strength of root, but growing under unfavourable
circumstances, pushes itself into sunshine and notice, but without
symmetry and beauty, and indicates, by its misshapen luxuriance,
what it might have been with cultivation and care. Phoebe was
a human plant which grew under somewhat similar influences, with
somewhat similar results. She was gifted with a strong mind and
some genius. These curbed and well directed might have made a
character of excellence and usefulness ; uncurbed and untaught,
they resulted in eccentricity. Her great desire was for notoriety,
and her eccentricity probably brought her into more notice than
her talents, however cultivated, would, or could have done. For
one effect of growth in knowledge, is self depreciation and modesty;
according to the well known symbol of the ears of corn, which,
when young and empty, hold themselves high in air ; but when ripe
and full, bend low. Many persons, too, are pleased with eccentricity.
The mind, to appreciate ability, must itself be able ; but all
have talent enough to laugh at oddity. Therefore it is scarcely
doubtful, whether Phoebe
the educated, even with more genius than she possessed, would have
drawn to her cottage as many wondering visitors as Phoebe
the eccentric drew.
She lived with her mother, who was very proud of her, in Matlock
Dale, in a cottage on the site of the present "Dale
see more information below, AA] built above
forty years ago, by W. Chinnery, Esq.. It consisted of one room
on the ground floor; but when a lady presented her with a harpsichord,
she added - partly by the labour of her own hands, for among her
other oddities she had a fancy for carpentry and masonry - another
room to hold it, Phoebe's tastes appear to have been all masculine.
She had some skill in music, having learned the elements of it
from a travelling harper ; but she did not play on the harpsichord.
Her instruments were the manly flute and violoncello ; both, but
especially the latter, rather awkward subjects for female handling.
She could, however, take a part in a quartet, and she was occasionally
called upon by visitors to do so. Her execution, we may suppose,
was not very artistic, and whether her taste were very refined
may be doubted ; for, on one occasion, a gentleman haying played
a simple air upon the flute, she took it out of his hands, telling
him that she understood the instrument better than he, and produced
from it some notes remarkable only for their loudness. Phoebe doubtless
was sincere when she preferred her own performance, for the pleasure
received from art is not in proportion to the excellence of what
is heard or seen, but to the educated capacity and power of appreciation
of the hearer or beholder.
In order to be as unlike to a female as
possible, Phoebe adopted the most extraordinary habits. In addition
to the work of a mason and carpenter, she mowed and reaped, was
hostler, farrier, groom and horsebreaker. She was said to be one
of the best judges of the qualities of a horse in the county, and
wagers respecting horses were often decided by her opinion. Her
dress consisted generally of a man's woollen coat, a petticoat,
several handkerchiefs on her head, tied under the chin, and a man's
hat over all. She had great vanity, and liked attention. Proud
of her peculiarities, and tenacious of her independence, she yet
did not scruple to receive money from her visitors. Her bluntness
to those whom she disliked was very offensive. Her attentions,
to those whom she took a fancy for, were often equally obtrusive.
She pretended to be an excellent judge of character. Her conversation,
when pleased, denoted observation and reflection. On one occasion,
as related in Mrs. Robert's " Sketches of Youth," from
which these particulars are borrowed, she was found with the remains
of her dinner on the table, reclining on a wooden bench against
the wall. She did not deign to rise from this position till she
had formed her opinion of her visitors. Having received a favourable
impression of them, she began to talk, accounting, but not apologising,
for her impoliteness, by remarking that she had returned from the
hayfield, and having taken dinner, was resting, She alluded to
the amusements of the place, and spoke with acrimony and bitterness
of the behaviour of some families in the neighbourhood ; quoted
from Locke, and talked of Lord Chesterfield and his son, using,
with reference to the latter, and to his
father's endeavours to make him a fine gentleman, the expression, " whitewash
a red brick as much as you will, it is a red brick still, and at
times will show itself to he one," Music having been mentioned,
she washed her hands at a mountain stream, and introduced her visitors
to the apartment containing her harpsichord.
Notwithstanding her boasted
penetration, she betrayed great simpleness. A lady from Liverpool
had jestingly given her an invitation to her house, not expecting,
doubtless, that it would be accepted. But Phoebe took it in earnest,
travelled on horseback to her inviter's home, and threw the lady
into some embarrassment as to how she should dispose of her strange
guest. Phoebe, however, was made a sort of show of, and although
the season was winter, walked all the way home. It is hardly necessary
to remark, that Phoebe Bown never changed her name. When her hands
could no longer handle the trowel or the spade, she became very
poor. Her judgment failed, her opinion was unsought, her music
was untuned, and her only visitors were friends who came to minister
to her wants. She lost not, however, the use of her tongue, and
having lived to an advanced age, Phoebe and her peculiarities passed
away together. JOHN ALLEN.
In addition to the foregoing notice of one of
the most remarkable characters of the modern days of Derbyshire,
I cannot resist the temptation of giving the following little notices
and anecdotes of Phoebe, which among many others I have collected
together. My father knew her well, and was always a welcome visitor
whenever he called upon her, and I have heard him relate many characteristic
anecdotes connected with Phoebe's occupations and opinions. He
had perhaps as good an opportunity as anyone of noticing and forming
an opinion of her character, and a deeper or more shrewd observer
of nature than himself never existed; and it is pleasing to be
able to say, that the opinion be formed was a very high one, and
that I have heard him say that be never observed anything in her
conversation or manners that was at variance with a right and proper
principle. She was rough, rude, uncouth, eccentric, and masculine,
but she knew what was right, and in her rough way abided by it.
She was occasionally spoken rudely to and insulted in her loneliness
by those who ought to have known better, but her assailants, whether
singly or in numbers, always were worsted, either by tongue or
by sheer force ; and many a strong rough country fellow has received
a sound drubbing at her hands in return for some insult offered
her. A friend who remembers her well says in a letter to me - " I
remember Phoebe, but it is thirty-two, or thirty-three years ago.
She was a strong looking, and I should say, when young, a comely
woman. She wore a man's hat and coat - played (as I fancied) respectably
on the flute - was a little eccentric, or perhaps, we may say, slightly
cracked. She had great faith in omens and predictions - charms and
starry influences. A great feature in her character, was an impression
that people had a desire to rob and murder her, she accordingly
always carried arms ; and had a number of them of all kinds ranged
walls. She was capricious and suspicious, and some people
were afraid of her. I must have been a favourite, for there
being great popular discontent at the time, with threats of riots
and uprisings, she came to our house on Temple Walk, and brought
a couple of scythe blades, set in wooden handles, and as sharp
as razors; and I remember I durst not refuse them, but took them
and swore I would defend myself to the last."
The following obituary notice of Phoebe Bown appeared in one of
the local papers the week following her death, which occurred in
" Those who were in the habit of visiting
Matlock from 10 to 40 years since, will not fail to remember
this singular and eccentric individual, who, for more than half
a century, was considered one of the curiosities of the neighbourhood.
Phoebe in her younger days, possessed considerable personal attractions,
albeit her appearance was something approaching to the masculine,
and this was heightened by the singularity of her dress, which
consisted of a sort of compromise between male and female attire.
Her parents were of the working class, and she received the kind
of education afforded in remote districts eighty years ago ;
but not content with this, by application and diligence, made
herself acquainted with the usual round of English literature
of the period, and our correspondent has, within a few years,
heard her quote correctly, from memory, lengthy passages from
Milton, Shakespeare, and Pope. She had a great predilection for
out-of-door employments, and on the decease of her parents, succeeding
to a little property, she commenced farming on a small scale,
working with her own hands, and was considered by her neighbours
a good agriculturist, and an excellent breeder of cattle. She
also turned her attention to architecture, and a commodious and
romantically situated edifice in Matlock Dale, known as Cliff-house,
was chiefly designed, and the erection superintended by her [impossible,
see more information below, AA]. Passionately
fond of music, she, with very meagre means of instruction, successively
mastered the difficulties of the flute, violoncello, and harpsichord,
and for some years led the choir in Matlock Church. She took
particular delight in horses, was a clever, graceful, and skilful
rider, and at one time was much employed in breaking horses for
ladies' riding. The emoluments derived from this source, together
with her musical talents, afforded a comfortable maintenance
for many years ; but with advancing age her health declined,
her faculties in some degree forsook her, her little property
became alienated, and in her latter years, old Phoebe, whose
mind was wavering and unstable, became poor and nearly houseless.
At this period, a generous and kind nobleman,* who had known
the old woman in her more prosperous days, stopped between her
and want, and a weekly pension for the last few years of her
life provided her with numberless little but necessary comforts,
and enabled her to pass her last days in comparatively easy circumstances.
Phoebe had always a positive mania for warlike weapons, and was
constantly manufacturing frightful looking spears, bayonets,
and swords, out of any pieces of steel she could lay hold of;
and at one time every hole and corner in her house served as
a place of concealment for some ugly-looking musket, fowling-piece,
dagger, or cutlass ; but with all those formidable articles at
hand, she was perfectly harmless, unless when roused and irritated
by ill-usage, when - as she once or twice proved - it was not
quite safe for her assailant to remain long in her proximity."
following quaint epitaph on Phoebe Bown, was written at her request
by the Rev. Mr. Gaunt, Curate of Matlock, and is said to have pleased
her greatly -
" Here lies romantic Phoebe,
Half Ganymede and half Hebe ;
A maid of mutable condition,
A Jockey, cow herd, and Musician. "
The Portrait of Phoebe Bown, which heads this article, is taken
from an original sketch, and shows her in her "best array" with
her favourite companion, the flute. Her features and peculiar dress
will be well recognised by the "old inhabitants"
of the place, who knew her, and were in the habit of seeing her "at
home." LL. JEWITT.
* The late Duke of Devonshire, who allowed her for
life, an annuity of five shillings per week, which was, through the
hands of her relative, Lady Paxton, paid to her to the time of her
death, by Mr. Chinnery.
[End of the article]
Notes and References
(coloured links are to transcripts or more information elsewhere
on this web site):
 John Allen had been a schoolmaster
in Bonsall before moving to Matlock. He was also a well know local
poet in his day. See, for example, his entry in Pigot's
1828-9 Directory when living in Bonsall. He moved to Matlock
Bath shortly before the
1851 census and was also listed in the
1861 census. He was buried at Matlock Bath Church - See
his MI. Allen was not correct when he said the Dale Cottage
site had been the Bown's home.
 The newspaper obituary notice quoted
by Jewitt was published in "The Derby Mercury" on
Wednesday, May 24, 1854. It was originally thought that the writer
is could have been Benjamin
Bryan, snr, but is now believed to be unlikely and seems to be
based on an article published in 1846. The
obituary is incorrect in stating that Phoebe built Cliff House. It
simply would not have been possible for her to have constructed the
 The epitaph
quoted above by Jewitt, and composed by the curate of Matlock,
Rev. M. Gaunt, does not appear on Phoebe Bown's gravestone in Matlock
Churchyard. It was written before she died. Unfortunately,
it is widely believed that it is on her memorial and the information
has been mentioned as "fact" in
several books about Matlock, including the Ward Lock Guides.
Her MI is now on this site, with photograph. Go to
MI's, St. Giles' Church, Matlock:
in the Churchyard, areas N - R
 See her parents' marriage in the Matlock
Parish Church Marriages B and Phoebe's
 Extracted from a transcript provided
by William Johnson. Also see Matlock & Matlock
Bath Wills: Before 1858.
 Phoebe's Christian name appears in
the 1827 version of Barker's "Panorama
of Matlock" (scroll down to page 19). She was still
living in Matlock Dale at that time, some seven years after Dr.
Chinnery had built Dale Cottage, but her home was about to be
demolished to make way for Tor Cottage (later the High Tor Hotel/Guest
 "Plot 324 consisted of 20 perches,
allocated in Matlock Enclosure Award of 1874 to Thomas Brentnall,
and the adjacent plot 323a was of 10 perches, which was awarded
to Samuel Bown. Brentnall sold his plot to Samuel Bown on 2 February
1790. The plots are shown on the Award map. This whole area
was known as Common Wood and was part of Matlock common land being
enclosed by that Act" - from CG.
 With very grateful thanks to Colin
Goodwyn for his help with this. He mentions the image in Chantrey's "Peak
Scenery or Views in Derbyshire" (1889), a
version of which is now on this web site. This book
was reprinted in 1974.
 Hutchinson, John (1810), "Romantic
Beauties of Matlock", pub. M. Wardle, Manchester, page
 Philip Gell's letter was quoted in
the "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald",
5 Sept 1874.
 "The Derby
26 April, 1843.
 "Derbyshire Advertiser and
Journal", 4 March 1846. This now seems to be the earliest
reference to her supposed involvement in building Cliff House.
 See Phoebe's
 Adam, William (1840) "The
Gem of the Peak", London; Longman & Co., Paternoster
Row. See the onsite transcript, specifically the section about The
north entrance to Matlock Dale.
 Bryan, Benjamin (1903) "History
of Matlock - Matlock, Manor and Parish", London by Bemrose & Sons,
Limited. The Pedigree of Leacroft,
mentioned above, is on the site. He mentions the builders of
other large properties, but not who built Cliff House.
Bryan was the son of the cavern guide Benjamin Bryan,
whose first wife was a Bown. Whilst I have not gone further
back than three generations to trace Mary Bown's ancestry,
no obvious link has been found between the families so far.
Benjamin senior is referred to in reference .
 See the date for Cliff House amongst British
Listed Buildings. External link, so will open in a new tab
or window. This may not quite be accurate, but is an indication
that the "old" house identified by Adam was built
before the family of Thomas Leacroft moved in ca.1797-8.
Times and Chesterfield Herald", 17 Nov 1897. Also see Pedigree
of Leacroft. The war that Thomas Leacroft is supposed to have
fought in is not known.
Additional Links: Phoebe and her relatives
: Was this Phoebe?
Census - Phoebe was living on Matlock Green. Her age was
Census - she was still on Matlock Green.
Biographies: see BOWN.
surname listed in the Wolley Manuscripts.
Lady Paxton was born in Matlock on 14 Jan 1800 and baptised in
baptism - see Sarah BOWN.
P has a little more information.