Great Poor Writers

Sculpture of Penelope, daughter of Brooke Boothby, who died aged five

“Our way leads us to the market town of Ashbourne, with its rich literary heritage and a market square that has remained through the tests of time. The magnificent St Oswald’s, with a stunning memorial of Penelope, perfectly compliments the Elizabethan Grammar School.”

Mayfield to Okeover through Ashbourne : Circular Walk - Map and Directions : Google Earth Tour for this Walk

The writers on the Great Poor Writers route:

Thomas Cockayne – Aston Cockayne - Alexandre Dumas – Samuel Johnson – James Boswell – H L L – Catherine Booth - Brooke Boothby – Erasmus Darwin –Robert Plumer Ward – John Edwards

With short abridged extracts from The Literary Way, written by Terry Goble and published by The Creative Peak


We arrive in Ashbourne near to St Oswald's Church with its dominating spire and, in spring, the daffodilled graveyard. Two of the greatest names in literature, a Frenchman and an Englishman, grace this walk. One is linked with the parish church, and the other was a frequent visitor to a house, just across the road. They also share the characteristics of the title of this walk. They came from humble stock and, in their early years, wondered how they would earn any money. Pecuniary hardships, however, were not just restricted to those two writers. One woman, born in a poor terrace house in the town, went on to jointly found a major institution that is still with us today.

In the late 1700s Santa Domingo was an island in the Caribbean. Today, that same island is divided into two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The island's literary link with this Derbyshire market town comes through a prisoner who led a very risky life. His autobiography, written in Ashbourne, gives an insight into the man and his adventures.

We sadly learned of the death of Thomas Moore's young daughter on the last walk and, unfortunately, there is another young death, which has been immortalised in an amazing lifelike sculpture. St Oswald's church is quite magnificent inside and has this famous sculpture of Penelope Boothby. The poor little girl died when she was five years old. We will find a little more about her, and her father, when we pass Ashbourne Hall, at the other end of town. We also said, on the last walk, we would look at what brought Erasmus Darwin and his two illegitimate daughters to Ashbourne.

We will also consider a stage play that was dedicated to Charles Cotton and was written by his cousin. The main part of The Literary Way in this chapter is set in the historic market town of Ashbourne, which has been relatively untouched by the great expansion of industry in the 19th and 20th century, and so we are left with the gentle feel of many of its Georgian features. It is an old town and pre-dates the Domesday Book of 1086. By 1257 it had received its market charter, and over the centuries it gradually grew on either side of the stream, called the Henmore. Our route for this walk concludes at one of the small villages, just outside the main town.

We took our leave of Upper Mayfield by crossing the River Dove at the Hanging Bridge. Then we had a pleasant walk across the fields, which brought us out by the primary school. Opposite the church, is also another school which has an extremely impressive building, it is the Grade 1 listed Elizabethan Grammar School.

Hunting and Fishing

Sir Thomas Cockaine was born in 1520 during the reign of Henry VIII. He created a legacy in Ashbourne that has lasted to this day. The building of the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School was started in 1585 and was completed just after the turn of the century into the 1600s. His family coat of arms forms the school badge. Whilst the school has now moved to new premises in the town, the magnificent old building still stands opposite St Oswald’s church. The family had obtained their honoured status, when Sir Thomas’s grandfather had been knighted for services to Henry VIII, who with his army, took the Belgian town of Tournai.

However, it was not the fact that Thomas was High Sheriff of Derbyshire on four occasions, or the building of the Grammar School, that we have included him in this book. He wrote one of the first books on hunting. The small volume entitled, A Treatise of Hunting was published in 1591. The subtitle adds, ‘Compiled for the delight of noblemen and gentlemen by Sir Thomas Cockaine, Knight'.

The Cockaine family, spelled variously as Cockayne and Cokain, lived at Ashbourne Hall, which is on the other side of Ashbourne from St Oswald's. Thomas is buried at St Oswald's, and thanks to George Shaw, a diligent interpreter of the parish records, we know that he was buried at night. The supposition being that as he was Catholic. In order to perform such a ceremony it had to take place at night, in the strongly Protestant England. Mary, Queen of Scots, had been executed only a few years earlier.

One other family member, Sir Aston Cockaine, was born in Ashbourne in 1608. He received his baronet from Charles I in 1641. Aston was a cavalier and always supported the King. He began to write just before the English Civil War and continued his works about the time of the Restoration. His first major work was a masque, which is a play with songs and dancing, performed in front of the aristocracy, and in which they were often invited to take parts. Aston's masque was called A Masque at Bretbie. It was performed at the home of the Earl of Chesterfield on Twelfth Night in 1639. Most of his other works came in the later 1650s and early 1660s. He mainly wrote poetry and plays.

Le Pasteur D'Ashbourne

Le Pasteur D'Ashbourne was published in France in 1853, and as far was we know has never been translated into English. However, many works by the same author have become standard texts in English. Perhaps, the two of most known are The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo. We are, of course, talking about Alexandre Dumas. He was certainly an interesting character. Before we look at when he visited Ashbourne, and the novel that he wrote about the town, let's look at the man himself.

His grandparents were a French noble, Marquis de la Pailleterie, and a Afro-Caribbean Haitian slave, Marie-Cesette Dumas. Alexandre's father was a Napoleonic General, but fell out of favour and died when the future writer, Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, was young. This left his mother in poverty. It would be from that poor beginning that he rose to be one of the foremost literary figures, not only in France, but his works have been translated to languages across the globe. Despite his success, he always had problems with money and was, at one time, made bankrupt and forced to flee from France and live in Belgium. He became a successful playwright, but it wasn't until 1844, at the age of 42, that he turned to writing novels. By 1847 he had enough money to build his own Gothic style mansion, at Le Port-Marly, west of Paris, and to open his own theatre, which went bankrupt within three years.

Alexandre produced about two hundred works. He mainly wrote plays and novels, but he also produced travel and cookery books. He had a number of 'associates', often his mistresses, that helped him with translations, plots and writing. With such a profusion of works, and coupled with his flamboyant lifestyle, it means that some of the works that he produced with collaborators are not considered his finest writing. We associate him with the swashbuckling French novels of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask but, perhaps surprisingly, he did turn to England for some of his stories. The sequel to The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years On, is set on the background to the English Civil War with the musketeers, two on each side of the fighting. They even pass through Derby on their travels!

The Dictionary

Just near the Church there are several seventeenth century buildings. One the buildings stands out, as it is red brick, with a large pillared porch. This house was, at one time, owned by Dr John Taylor, who was a friend of the famous lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson. The compiler of the first English dictionary stayed in this Mansion House on several occasions. It was a friendship, started at school, that would last for a lifetime. We will be linked in many ways to this doyen of English literature throughout our journey, but let us start by understanding the type of man he was, and why he frequently visited Ashbourne.

Although he is such a well-known name now, he struggled in his early adult life to make a living. He tried unsuccessfully to become a schoolteacher, but then decided to open his own Academy in Lichfield, which only had three attendees. However, one of them was David Garrick, who became the most famous actor of his era and remained a friend of Johnson for the rest of his life. By 1737 Samuel was penniless and he decided to go to London. He gathered some income by writing about moral and religious issues, but it was some time before he received a commission to compile a dictionary of the English Language. The work was scheduled to take three years but, in the end, it was 1755, and ten years after he started, before it was published.

Fame did not immediately come to Samuel. Although he was a well known figure in London, he did not solve his financial problems until 1761, when the young King George III gave him a modest pension. This was the same year as he met James Boswell, who produced his very well known biography of Samuel. The favours of fortune did turn for Johnson when, in 1765, he met Henry Thrale, who was a wealthy brewer. They immediately built up a good relationship, which was augmented by Henry Thrale’s wife Hester, who also had a lot of time for Samuel. He was very closely associated with the Thrales for the next fifteen years and was often their guest. Samuel eventually died at the age of 75, but his dictionary would never be forgotten.

The Making of a Biography

The Green Man in Ashbourne was frequented by Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell. It is to the latter, that we will now pay our attention. James Boswell’s biography of Johnson is often cited as a leading example of the form. Even after over two hundred years it still makes a good read, with a fine balance of description, anecdotes and insight into the famous man.

Prisoner of War

Let's start with a prisoner of war, he was Honore Lazarus Lecompte and he wrote, Life and Travels of HLL. while being held in Ashbourne. Following the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens, in 1803, between England and France, it meant that they were at war again. One particular difficulty that France had at the time was the island in the Caribbean, called Santa Domingo. This is the modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic. Attempts by local people to take the island back from France showed various fortunes. In the overall chaos prevalent in the area at the time, the British captured a French ship and all were treated as prisoners whether they were from France or from St Domingo.

Whilst many of these prisoners were kept in the naval bases of Portsmouth and Plymouth, another way of dealing with them was to place them on parole, but a fair distance away from the sea. And so in 1803 one hundred and thirty prisoners arrived in Ashbourne. There was a jail at Walton Bank, just opposite the chapel, but many were billeted out to the homes in the area. The officers were treated respectfully and they often dined with the senior people of the town. The Green Man was one such location for dinner. After their prisoner of war status was relaxed, some settled in the area. The church records that a few of them married local people.

The Mother of the Salvation Army

Along the Belpher road is a row of terraces houses, one of which bears a sign to show that Catherine Booth was born in that dwelling. She was deeply religious as a young girl and frequently suffered from periods of poor health. It was during one such period, when she was confined to her bed, that she began to write articles for magazines about the dangers of alcohol. At the age of twenty-three, she met a Methodist minister, called William Booth. He had strong views that the church should extend out into the community and help with food, shelter and clothing. The couple married three years later. By now they were in London, but because of his work, they travelled widely. They formed they Salvation Army. Catherine shared her husband’s view that the Church should reach out to the material needs of the less fortunate in society. It is easy to think of a contented married couple devoting their lives to their church. But there was one area where there was disagreement between the two and that was on the subject of women preachers. William was opposed to the idea, but Catherine became increasingly more adamant that she should be able to preach the same as men. It wasn’t just William, who held such views. She would attract resistance from a number of different groups in their community. But Catherine would not be deterred. On one occasion she took the initiative and stood to speak in public. She rapidly became known as a powerful orator and gradually won round William’s support. She wrote and published, Female Ministry: Or Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel.

The Death of a Daughter

As one would expect, in a town that has over a thousand years of history, there are several lines of aristocracy either in Ashbourne or in nearby villages. Ashbourne Hall, which is within the confines of the modern town, had significant occupant in the 18th century. Sir Brooke Boothby, who was born in 1744, and was the sixth Baronet in his lineage, lived at Ashbourne Hall, which is just opposite from where the bust of Catherine Booth stands in the park. The building, which now fulfills a variety of modern uses, overlooks the park. What is now the graceful park that we have been walking through, with its gurgling stream, was at one time the grounds and gardens of Ashbourne Hall. The road between the hall and the park was not opened until the 20th century, by which time the hall had left aristocratic hands. Brooke Boothby was an intelligent man. He specialised in linguistics and translation. In addition, he wrote a small amount of poetry.

At the height of his engagement with the literary and philosophical communities Brooke Boothby had his portrait painted by a well known local artist, Joseph Wright. In the picture he is seen lazing back in a forest glade clutching a book. That forest setting is in the woods of Wootton Hall. The book is the autobiography of the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Brooke, although only in his twenties when Jean-Jacques took up residence at the Wootton Hall, became a friend for what is likely to be two reasons. First, he was aristocratic, which always suited Jean-Jacques temperament and second he could speak fluent French. Despite his knowledge of many subjects, Jean-Jacques had never learned to speak English.

Long after Jean-Jacques had left England, Brooke was travelling in France and met up again with Jean-Jacques, who trusted Brooke with a copy of the first part of The Confessions, his autobiography. He asked Brooke to ensure that it was published. He duly carried out his task by translating it into English. It was then published in Lichfield. It has since gone on to be published in many languages all over the world.

We referred to the sculpture, by Thomas Banks in St Oswald's church, of Penelope. This was Brooke Boothby's daughter, who died aged five. In her short life, she had been painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and in death adorned by Banks in the sculpture, and by Henry Fuseli in The Apotheosis of Peneolope Boothby. The death of Penelope caused the start of a decline, which would affect Brooke for the rest of his life. He was forty-seven, when his five-year daughter died unexpectedly. It was an event from which he would never recover. He lost a sense of purpose about money and finished his life in poor and meagre circumstances. Brooke died in Boulogne, aged 80. In a tribute to Penelope, he wrote A Book of Sorrows, including A Locket of Hair..

Eighteenth Century Female Education

There is a red brick building on the opposite side of the road to the park. On that building, within sight of the park is a plaque about a school, but before we explain its significance, let's look at the intellectual life at the end of the 1700's in the local region. Ashbourne is in mid-Derbyshire. it is about thirteen miles from the county town of Derby and twenty-six miles from the large provincial town of Lichfield in Staffordshire. In the eighteenth century, Lichfield and Derby were intellectual centres for philosophy and literature. Ashbourne became involved in both centres through both residents and visitors. One of leading intelligentsia of the time, we have already introduced. He was Erasmus Darwin, who earned a substantial amount of money as a physician, but his creative mind spanned many topics. His first worries, as a doctor, were about attracting patients, so that he had enough to live on. This concern about money was soon alleviated. He became the doctor of choice for many of the rich and famous, including the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and the mill owning Arkwright family.

Erasmus Darwin’s direct association with Ashbourne took an entirely different line of thought and work. He had five children through his first marriage, but his wife died in 1770. He then started a relationship with their governess, Mary Parker. They had two illegitimate daughters Mary Jr and Susannah. The children stayed in the family home and were raised in the same manner as the other children. Erasmus believed that the education of girls was lacking and proposed his own ideas.

Erasmus Darwin published, A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools in 1797 when Mary Jr and Susannah were twenty-three and twenty-five years old. They had started their careers as governesses, but Darwin then helped them set up their school in Ashbourne. The Parker’s school was in red brick building on the corner opposite the park. This building was originally on the Ashbourne Hall estate and was given to Erasmus by Brooke Boothby, for use as a school. Brooke frequently attended Erasmus' philosophical and literary meetings.

Okeover Hall

Okeover Hall boasts a writer called Robert Plumer Ward. He was both a novelist and a politician. He was called to the bar, but hankered after politics and served as a member of parliament for twenty-one years spread over the two constituencies of Cockermouth and Haslemere. During that time he held minor posts in government. He was born in 1765 and would live until he was nearly eighty. He published two politically based books and three novels, which he wrote after leaving parliament. One of his books was, De Vere: A Man of Independence, which was published in 1827. Let us leave Okeover with John Edwards in The Tour of the Dove. John Edward was a wine merchant from Derby, who wrote his topographical poem as much as a travel guide as a poem. It begins at the confluence of the Dove and Trent and he then makes his way up stream and describes the scenery as he goes.

Let us rest awhile at Okeover

No one can doubt, regardless of religious conviction, the sterling work still done by the inspired army of Catherine Booth. Religion, as we will find on The Literary Way, plays a major part in many writers thoughts and works, and it does bring us the remarkable writings of H.L.L as a social commentary of the time.

We found it quite stunning to discover such a little known work, focused on Ashbourne, as Alexandre Dumas's Le Pasteur d'Ashbourn. Samuel Johnson once famously said, “a man that is tired of London is tired of life”. And while he was always quite keen to return to the capital, he valued his visits and friendship with Dr Taylor. The aristocratic parts of this chapter, Brooke Boothby and the Cockaynes, brought us some writing ranging from deep sorrow to light and humorous verse, but as their lines died out so did their money and privilege, whilst those from humble beginnings became rich.