Further On Natural vs. Artificial Rockeries

As noted in a previous Derbyshire installment, a certain R.B.L. of Boston, in an article dated 1851, took a dim view of artificial rockeries in general, and the Chatsworth Rockery in particular. R.B.L. threw down the gauntlet from the first sentence:

Among the numerous natural embellishments which are so abundantly scattered over the surface of this country, and the natural facilities afforded for beautifying the private pleasure-ground of the wealthy proprietor, there are but few instances where these natural facilities have been advantageously turned to account in artificial decoration. [citation]

Our interlocutor went on to opine:

It would appear the taste of the Puritans, which swept everything bearing the semblance of grace and beauty, from their religious and civil architecture, inspired their descendants with a taste no less justifiable of sweeping everything from ornamental grounds that has the shape and form which nature gave it, and if a cropping rock or jutting ledge or projecting precipice, happen to come within the sacred limits of the so-called improvements, it must of course, be blown to pieces, (to build stone walls, perhaps, though plenty more may be found within a dozen yards of it,) nor is this pretext of utility itself always given, for who would have rocks in their garden or shrubbery, when they may be seen plentifully in the fields and uncultivated wilds, so in accordance with this taste? [citation]

R.B.L. was just as blistering about adding rocks as about removing them:

The practice of imitating the rude works of nature by making artificial rockeries has been attempted in England, on an extensive scale, and in some instances has been carried to an extreme, nearly as ridiculous as the famous rock of Semiramis, with all the rocks that lay in the shape of tributary kings around her. The object in most of these rock builders seems to be, who will have the largest pile, as if mere bulk were the only method of producing effect. Some of these noble stone gatherers have been pretty largely imbued with the same notions that filled the minds of the builders of the Pyramids, or the Tower of Babel, or the great wall of China, collecting from all parts of the country, at enormous expense, boulders and conglomerates, large masses of spar and basalt, as if determined to leave behind them a lasting memorial of their extravagance and bad taste, in the shape of a huge unsightly pile of stones. [citation]

I don’t know whether R.B.L. would consider the Peak District’s wild rockscape a natural “rockery,” but on our walk to Stanage Edge, we couldn’t help but think that Paxton drew inspiration for the Chatsworth Rockery from the District’s landscape unadorned.

There is, however, a certain irony attendant on what in the Peak District is artificial and what’s not: the District’s symbol is a millstone, rather than a peak or rock. Millstone production was a key Peak District industry in medieval times, until, according to some accounts, the advent of white bread caused a precipitous decline:

A fashion for white bread reduced demand milled by gritstone stones. Composite stones, using pieces of chert embedded in a hard cement, were preferred because, in spite of being much more costly, they produced a whiter flour (believed to be less likely to be adulterated) and were slower to wear. Composite stones were known as “French” stones because the original (and best) composites were assembled using blocks of chert quarried near Paris. They were assembled in Derby and London, but no doubt their makers were happy to let foreigners take the blame for the reduced demand for traditional millstones. [citation]

A 1906 account describes the Millstone Riots that occurred at the time:

The years 1755 and 1756 brought poor harvests in the north Midlands; the price of corn rose beyond the reach of the people, and discontent became general. The millers were accused of grinding peas and beans, and even lime and plaster, with the corn; and it was said that Mr. Evans’s miller at Darley boasted that he could grind ten pounds’ worth of corn into twenty pounds’ worth of flour. Moreover, there was a strong feeling against the French millstones, lately imported by way of the Derwent, as they ground finer than the old-fashioned millstones, and were believed to facilitate this adulteration of the flour.

Early in September, the miners around Wirksworth broke into riot, when several mills were seized, and the obnoxious French millstones were destroyed. The authorities at Derby, foreseeing further trouble, sent to Nottingham for assistance, and some troops were despatched, although, unfortunately, too few to preserve the peace. On Saturday, September 4th, about ten o’clock in the morning, the Mayor was informed that the miners in great numbers were marching on Derby to attack the mills. The troops were thereupon called up, and a detachment was sent off to Darley to protect Mr. Evans’s mill, which lay in the line of march of the rioters; and, fortunately, the soldiers arrived before the mob, who found the bridge leading to the mill stopped by a line of bayonets. The crowd attempted to force a passage by pelting the soldiers with stones, and the troops eventually replied by firing on the people. Although no one was hit, the musketry fire had the desired effect, for the crowd gave up their attempt upon the mill, and pressed forward for Derby.

Arrived there, they first made for Snape’s mill on Nun’s Green; but finding on entering that the French millstones had been taken away, they retired without doing further mischief, and proceeded over the hill to the mill at the foot of St. Michael’s Lane. Here they soon found work for their hammers; the French millstones were smashed to pieces, and the bolting-mill was wrecked and destroyed. Elated with this success, they next attacked the flour-mill in the Holmes; but there the miller had summoned his friends to his assistance, and for some time the rioters were kept at bay. Presently, some of the soldiers arrived on the scene, and succeeded, whilst daylight lasted, in holding the mill against the enemy; but as darkness came on, the authorities considered it advisable to withdraw the troops, whereupon the mob burst into the mill, and finding the French stones, effected their purpose. The soldiery succeeded in arresting six of the rioters, whom they escorted to the gaol, the crowd following, stoning and wounding the captors, who, after much provocation, fired on the mob, one man being badly wounded in the knee.

Darkness stopped the rioters for the night; but on Sunday, whilst the Mayor was holding a meeting in the Town Hall to enrol special constables, the crowd again assembled in the Market Place, presenting a threatening demeanour. The Mayor, being a corn-merchant, was naturally the object of much resentment, one man going up to his Worship and emphasising some insulting remarks by shaking his hand in the face of the Mayor, who struck him and ordered him to be locked up. To restore the peace, it was necessary towards evening to read the Riot Act, and to order everyone to be indoors by nine o’clock, on pain of penalties. During the ensuing week, there were signs of further disorder, but the arrival of a reinforcement and the liberation of the prisoners on light bail, gradually restored quiet. The authorities followed the wise course of omitting to prosecute, the temper of the people being evidently understood. [citation from Derby, Its Rise and Progress, pp. 102-105 (1906)]

While the millstones could, I suppose, be regarded as artificial landscape features, they’ve surely earned their place as artifacts redolent of gritstone’s history. I wonder what R.B.L. would have thought.

Postscript: On the way home from our walk, we stopped in at Tideswell, which all of us found a “proper” English town. The church was quite splendid—little did we know at the time what a proud pedigree it had.

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Listening List

Benjamin Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes: A time there was . . ., Op. 90 (1974)

All five movements are based on either English folk tunes, including the finale’s “Lord Melbourne,” or country dances, the latter selected from John Playford’s seventeenth-century anthology The Dancing Master.

Complete program notes on the Suite, from which the excerpts above and below are taken, may be found here.

Cakes and Ale

Marked “fast and rough,” Cakes and Ale is kick-started by timpani, launching a bouncy string motif based on the dance tune “We’ll wed.” Brass, punctuated by side drum, then take up the theme, followed by a scherzando episode for woodwinds before the return of the strings. Over the still scampering strings, woodwinds and horns then introduce a second, almost choralelike theme, “Stepney Cakes and Ale,” broken up with a solo flourish from each member of the string family—violin, viola (after which trumpets join the merry making), cello, bass, then violin again. Finally, a muted brass recapitulation of the “We’ll wed” theme, and the movement peters out with an ascending solo violin.

The remainder of the pieces in the Suite may be found at the links below:

The bitter withy

Hankin Booby

Hunt the squirrel

Lord Melbourne

With Lord Melbourne, marked “slow and languid,” we reach the heart of the suite, and, on solo english horn, we hear the melody collected by Grainger. As the late English critic Michael Oliver perceptively noted, the suite’s “longest movement is subdued, dark, and desolate, with something of protest to its climax.” The movement finally gutters out with a low flute which tentatively finishes the melody.


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, the photographs are mine.

8 thoughts on “Further On Natural vs. Artificial Rockeries

  1. Josie

    I’m always happy to read another story of righteous dissent in the face of tyranny and disruption. The Millstone “Riot” makes for a really interesting story.

  2. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – thanks for this – what an incredibly interesting post you’ve written … definitely a post to remember … Mill Stone Riots – who would have thought … and that church … fascinating – so glad you had good weather … and your ‘handy-dandy’ spread sheet … I’ll take a quick squizz at that … I’m sure it deserves more attention, as too the post – I won’t mention the music! Brilliant post – thank you … cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: We did have extraordinarily good weather–a big surprise! You’ll enjoy that spreadsheet, I think. It’s amazing what one can find poking around the internet–though it took a while to get further information on the Millstone Riots. I had a clue from somebody’s blog post, but it took quite a number of searches to get the additional information.

  3. David N

    Your next trip, if you haven’t been already, must be to the tors of Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor. The Cheese(w?)ring is astonishing.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: J will have to remind me, as it was long ago now, but we’ve been to Dartmoor and maybe Bodmin Moor, though I’m not sure about that. Oddly, we’ve been to a number of places in the UK, and of course J has been all over, but even she had never gone to Derbyshire. The draw, of course, was her relative who was one of the three Pentrich revolutionaries who were hanged and beheaded!

  4. Steve Schwartzman

    If millers using French stones were in fact adulterating their flour, then people had a right to be angry. On the other hand, I sense a lot of resentment in the crowd caused by the shift in fashion toward white bread and the concomitant drop in demand for gritstone stones. It’s a fact of life that new technologies do often make old ones obsolete. That’s unfortunate for the purveyors of old technology, but such is the price of progress.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Progress is complicated, isn’t it? Putting up a stop sign doesn’t work; rather, what’s needed is to be cognizant of the impact of change and to try and ameliorate its negative effects as best as one can.

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