The rediscovered past of Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

A collaboration with one of the country's most-loved stately homes is enhancing our understanding of the history of the building, the estate and its people.

When James Towe, the archivist and librarian at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, introduced a group of academics from the University of Sheffield to the Devonshire Collection a little over a year ago, the foundations were laid for what has become a remarkably fruitful partnership between two very different, but hugely complementary, institutions.

Chatsworth, now one of the fastest-growing paid-for visitor destinations in the country, is also home to a treasure trove of rare books, pamphlets, letters and essays – the equivalent, as James told his visitors, to a kilometre of material contained in more than 6,000 boxes.

For English scholar and project lead, Dr Jane Hodson, it was not just the physical scale of the archive that impressed, or even the quality and range of written material contained within it, but the fact that here was an opportunity to develop a partnership that would enable researchers to understand how a collection such as this had evolved over the centuries.

"Here is a chance to find out how a library is created," she said. "For instance, the collection has more than a thousand pamphlets, handbills and broadsides dealing with themes ranging from the drinking of chocolate in the Americas, to political polemics during the English Civil War."

By understanding more about these collections we learn more about the history and context they represent, we learn more about Chatsworth, the history of the Cavendish family, and the history of those who have lived and worked on the estate

James Towe, archivist and librarian, Chatsworth House

For Dr Hodson, her colleagues and students, it was love at first sight. "We live in a digital age, but there is nothing like the thrill of turning the pages of a rare manuscript, or reading the private letters of an historical figure to find new insights into the culture and issues of the time."

From the scientific papers of one of the greatest experimental scientists of the eighteenth century, through to the diaries, inventories, account books, travel plans and scrapbooks of the Cavendish family down the centuries, the scope for research projects seems limitless.

However, the focus has narrowed down, and a number of projects are now in development, including:

  • work on the travel books and diaries in the collection
  • research into the language of political pamphlets
  • probing deeper into the life of Georgiana Cavendish, a socialite, political campaigner and the first wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, with a particular emphasis on her writings in French, and
  • a study of the life of the horticulturalist and politician, Joseph Paxton drawing on largely unseen documents.

For James, the new relationship brings benefits to both partners: "The current and upcoming projects we are undertaking with the University represent an exciting opportunity for Chatsworth. They will allow us to learn much more about the collections in our care, making accessible and examining the provenance and content of parts of the library and archives which have, until now, remained largely unexplored. By understanding more about these collections we learn more about the history and context they represent, we learn more about Chatsworth, the history of the Cavendish family, and the history of those who have lived and worked on the estate."