Military Treasures in an Unstately Home

A brief visit to Calke Abbey and gardens in Derbyshire today offered up some pleasant surprises relating to military history. Calke Abbey is billed by the National Trust as “the unstately home”, being left in the somewhat run-down state that it was found in when transferred to the charity. The house was owned by the Harpur family for nearly 300 years until it was passed to the Trust in 1985 in lieu of millions of pounds of death duties.

Consequently, a tour of the house reveals a delightfully cluttered and eccentric collection of hidden treasures gathered over past centuries, scattered across its gloomy rooms with peeling paintwork. It was in amongst all this that a number of military items came to my attention.

In one room was a huge collection of rocks, fossils, ancient artefacts and other ephemera. In amongst all these cabinets I spied some Crimean War medals presumably taken from a Russian soldier, and also a button from the Russian 22nd line infantry regiment. Also in this room were a couple of brass buckles from the early incarnation of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, a regiment I’d seen displayed in a visit to Derby last year.

buckle
Buckle of the Derbyshire Volunteer Cavalry c.1794.

I suspect that the local yeomanry had been officered by the Baronet whose family seat was at Calke Abbey. Command of the yeomanry regiments at the time of the Napoleonic wars were often given to the aristocracy. Indeed, the wonderful old library contains a number of tomes relating to the operation of yeomanry forces, all but confirming the commanding of the regiment by the Harpur family heirs. The online catalogue includes:

  • Instructions for the use of yeomanry and volunteer corps of cavalry. (1803)
  • By His Majesty’s command. Just published, Rules and regulations for the sword exercise of the cavalry. (1796)
  • List of the officers of the several regiments and corps of fencible cavalry and infantry of the officers of the militia; of the corps and troops of gentlemen and yeomanry; and of the corps and companies of volunteer infantry. With an index. (1796)
  • An elucidation of several parts of His Majesty’s regulations for the formations and movements of cavalry. (1808)
  • An elucidation of several parts of His Majesty’s regulations for the formations and movements of cavalry. (1824)
  • A manual for volunteer corps of cavalry. (1808)

Upstairs in the sprawling mansion, I located part of the uniform of the Derbyshire Yeomanry Cavalry, a jacket I believe from the late 19th century;

Made from blue wool cloth with scarlet trimmings by Stokes and Co of Derby, the gilt metal buttons are cast with the Derbyshire Yeomanry crest. The remaining red-striped dark blue trousers and black boots were due to be also displayed sometime later this year. I suspect that the uniform is similar to this one, a heavy dragoon-style, depicted in my wonderful yeomanry regiments book with plates by Richard Simkin;

simkin derbyshire yeomanry
Derbyshire Yeomanry c.1900 by Richard Simkin.

Displayed alongside the uniform was this fascinating artefact; a musical score of marches written for the Derbyshire Yeomanry by famous composer Joseph Haydn, no less, for Sir Henry Harpur the Baronet and his “Volunteer Cavalry of Derbyshire embodied in the year 1794”. The very pleasant piece of baroque classical music is on youtube.

Calke Abbey yeomanry (2)
Haydn’s marches for the Derbyshire Yeomanry!

And that wasn’t all. In a child’s playroom, of all places, I found another piece of exotic weaponry. Behind some marbles and beside a cot was a shield. To me, it was an unmistakable design which was commonly seen during the Victorian army’s campaigns in the Sudan during the 1880s and 1890s. I asked the helpful assistant in the room who admitted that she wasn’t sure about the object, but on checking the catalogue found that it was only listed as being a “Round primitive shield made of thick, light-coloured animal hide. Possibly elephant hide.” Furthermore, the assistant showed me some spears in the same room which may have been associated with the shield. To me, they looked more like assegais than the examples of the broad bladed spears I’ve seen from the Sudan. But if that shield wasn’t from the Sudan campaign, I’ll eat my hat! I do wonder how this war booty may have ended up in an aristocratic child’s playroom in Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.

shield
The Calke Abbey elephant-hide shield.

So, some interesting nuggets of militaria made for a pleasant surprise. Suburban Militarism has taken a particular interest in Yeomanry Cavalry regiments of late, so to find some items related to the Derbyshire Yeomanry was a real boon. I’ve not been idle on the painting front, however. Evidence of my modelling activities to come soon.

 

 

 

 

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