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Phœbe Bown (1771 - 1854)
People who lived in the Matlocks : Photographs, Postcards, Engravings & Etchings
 
Phoebe Bown was considered to be a most unusual woman by her contemporaries. She is shown here wearing a man's hat, but is otherwise attired in women's clothing.
Image scanned for the internet and copyright Ann Andrews


The article below, about one of Matlock's more unusual characters who stood out from the crowd and written not long after her death, has been extracted by the web mistress from
"The Reliquary, Quarterly Journal and Review Vol. II, 1861-2" pp.137-140.
Ed. Llewellynn Jewitt, F.S.A.
Published London: John Russell Smith, 36 Soho Square Derby : Bemrose & Sons, Irongate

This page now includes further information about the article, which has been found to contain inaccuracies.
It is not true that Phoebe built Dale Cottage as it was built by Dr. William Chinnery. Phoebe was not born when Cliff House was erected so she could not have built it.


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Pedigree of Boune/Bown




1751 - shows the Bown home



Chantrey's drawing, 1822



High Tor Guest House



Florence Nightingale



Mrs. Mary Whittaker


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 Cottage," [incorrect, 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[1].



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 on the 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 1854[2].

" 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."

The 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.[3] "

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.


[Footnote]
* 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]


More information and comments on the above article


Over the years several myths have come to surround the story of Phoebe Bown, not helped by some errors in the "Reliquary" article reproduced above. Below is an attempt to correct some of them and say more about what is known about Phoebe.

  • Phoebe's parents, Samuel and Phoebe (nee Mather) Bown, lived in Matlock Wood or Common Wood in Matlock Dale[4]. In his Will of 1797 Samuel Bown left his daughter a "Close called the allotment with the shop and stable standing thereon" which she was to receive after his wife's death; in 1811 her mother left her the "messuage home or tenement wherein I now dwell and the garden and that other building commonly called the Pig-Cote all the same being copyhold and in my possession[5]". The family home was on this land until 1827[6], when Phoebe sold it to Colonel Payne and he built Tor House, later the High Tor Hotel/Guest House[7].

    So John Allen was not correct when he said their home was on the site of Dale Cottage; he identified the wrong property. "The Bowns' house is shown on a number of contemporary prints including the view of High Tor shown in Chantrey's "Peak Scenery" in which the roof of the house is to be seen; the building also appears clearly in other prints. As far as I [CG] can work it out from the Award, it would probably have been sited immediately south of the main hotel building, about on the old turning place/sundial area, on the ridge just opposite the suspension bridge".[8]

    The Bown's cottage is on the right, just below the middle
    Another version of Chantrey's drawing is on the British Museum web site (external link so will open in a new window)
    If the link doesn't work, click on 'Search the collection database' and type in High Tor.
    Also see High Torr, 1751, which also shows the Bown home.

  • Phoebe is said to have built a room for her harpsichord and such an extension must have been added to her parents' home.

  • Philip Gell of Hopton wrote a somewhat blunt, but probably accurate, description of Phoebe and her family in a letter dated 13 Apr 1817. This was in response to a piece published in "Hutchinson's Romantic Beauties of Matlock" (1810)[9] which Gell believed to have been very much exaggerated. Gell continued: "Phoebe Bown is still living, and as mad as ever, for such is really the fact. Many of her family have destroyed themselves". Although he described her as large, he observed that others were larger than her. One can only assume that he meant other women were bigger in overall size than Phoebe. He went on to say that "her voice could never be mistaken for a man, but from a rough and vulgar habit of swearing and talking obscenity". He added that he had never seen her breaking horses or shooting, although at that time she did carry pistols for protection. Nor had he heard of any feats of strength. He also observed that, although she wore a man's felt hat, her dress was that of a woman[10]. She is wearing women's clothing in the sketch, above. By his own admission Hutchinson only had a very brief encounter with Phoebe Bown: "the author, unfortunately, will only be able to give an account of what came within his knowledge, during a very short stay in her cottage, one Sunday morning"[9]. He does not mention skills as a builder later attributed to her.

  • In 1843 she was reported to be living in sadly reduced circumstances, chargeable to the parish and living in a poor cottage in Matlock[11] - at the end of the Hall Leys, according to another source[12]. At the time she was obsessed with thinking she would die on 4 May and had made herself a set of grave clothes in anticipation[11]. She did eventually die in the month of May, but not on the 4th[13]. The epitaph written by Rev. Gaunt may have pleased Phoebe when she was alive, but it was not carved on the headstone of her grave[3]. To be fair to Jewitt, he does not say that it appears on her headstone, just that it was written.

  • One journalist recounted a story in 1846 about how, at one time, Phoebe thought that her mother was a Jewess and then added that "this and other wild tales, indicative of a diseased imagination, the poor old creature is in the continual habit of telling"[12]. Not kind words to write about an elderly lady who was still living in the parish. The same journalist then went on to say that he had just learned that she had planned and supervised the building of Cliff House. This seems to be the first time that the idea that had been put forward of any involvement with building the property but no source was provided to back it up was so at present it should be regarded as yet another allegation. Nevertheless, the story has been repeated and repeated.

  • William Adam, considered to be a reliable source on Matlock Bath's history, does not mention Phoebe in "Gem of the Peak" (1840) but describes Cliff House as an old house[14]. Nor is she mentioned in Bryan's "History" (1903) although he published a pedigree of the Leacroft family who lived at the property for a long time[15].

  • Finally, Phoebe's link to Cliff House was slightly different from the claim in the 1854 obituary quoted above[2]. Phoebe could not have built the property, which was erected about 1765[16], as she hadn't been born. Over 40 years after her death, in 1897, Reverend Leacroft recounted the story of how she had been "left in charge of the house where Captain Leacroft lived at the Cliff, when he went to the war. Phoebe attended to her duties, but did not forget a barrel of beer that was left in the cellar (Laughter) ..."[17]. So 43 years after she died she was still being made fun of, even if it was not meant to be unkind.


Image and article from the book collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Other information researched and written by Ann Andrews, with additional material (added Dec 2012) from Colin Goodwyn.
Intended for personal use only.

Notes and References (coloured links are to transcripts or more information elsewhere on this web site):

[1] 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.

[2] 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[12]. The obituary is incorrect in stating that Phoebe built Cliff House. It simply would not have been possible for her to have constructed the property.

[3] 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

[4] See her parents' marriage in the Matlock Parish Church Marriages B and Phoebe's baptism record.

[5] Extracted from a transcript provided by William Johnson. Also see Matlock & Matlock Bath Wills: Before 1858.

[6] 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 House).

[7] "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.

[8] 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.

[9] Hutchinson, John (1810), "Romantic Beauties of Matlock", pub. M. Wardle, Manchester, page 25. John Hutchinson was ofChapel en le Frith.

[10] Philip Gell's letter was quoted in the "Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald", 5 Sept 1874.

[11] "The Derby Mercury", 26 April, 1843.

[12] "Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal", 4 March 1846. This now seems to be the earliest reference to her supposed involvement in building Cliff House.

[13] See Phoebe's burial.

[14] 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.

[15] 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 [2].

[16] 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.

[17] "Derbyshire 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

Newspapers : Was this Phoebe?

1841 Census - Phoebe was living on Matlock Green. Her age was incorrect.
1851 Census - she was still on Matlock Green.
Matlock Biographies: see BOWN.
BOWN surname listed in the Wolley Manuscripts.

Lady Paxton was born in Matlock on 14 Jan 1800 and baptised in June.
Her baptism - see Sarah BOWN.
Strays P has a little more information.