A look back at the earliest editions of Derbyshire Life
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 August 2020
Richard Bradley looks back at the very first editions of this publication - all the way back to the 1930s.
Whilst the Coronavirus lockdown has been tough for the majority of us, the enforced slowing down has not been totally without benefits.
For me personally it has offered time to work my way through some of the books I have amassed over the years which have ended up crammed onto the bookshelves unread, awaiting a rainy day (or in this case, a few months).
One such example is a bound volume of the earliest editions of Derbyshire Life dating from 1931 – 1934, a lucky find I picked up a couple of years ago for the bargain price of 50p in a book sale at Chesterfield Library (having worked in libraries, I know how many books end up discarded to make way for new titles, as every library faces the same recurring problem – a finite amount of shelf space).
The glossy magazine you are now reading began life in January 1931 under the title The Derbyshire Countryside - a quarterly magazine published by the Derbyshire Rural Community Council. The journal’s cover in the early days featured a woodcut of a farmer enthusiastically sowing seeds from a basket.
The first editor was the magnificently-named Lawrence du Garde Peach, who also wrote radio plays for the BBC and educational children’s books for the publisher Ladybird. Peach founded an amateur dramatic troupe, the Village Players, at Great Hucklow, who converted a building formerly used as a lead smelting cupola into a small theatre. Peach often devotes space in the early magazines to his passion for amateur drama, with features like ‘Some Practical Notes on Play Production’.
These early editions offer a fascinating glimpse into life between the two World Wars, when many of the modern comforts we now take for granted were beginning to be introduced to Derbyshire.
Several of the early volumes report on the progress made in bringing electricity to rural districts. ‘The advantages offered by the use of electricity are many and varied’, the magazine enthused, ‘It is adding to the pleasures and comforts of home life; easing the drudgery of housework and cooking; helping shops and factories do better work under better conditions – bringing health, happiness and prosperity wherever it is used.’ Electrification was seen as a way of keeping jobs (and therefore people) in rural areas and helping to establish businesses which could compete with those in towns and cities, as well as streamlining many jobs on the farm.
Electricity also meant Lawrence du Garde Peach’s theatre troupe out at Great Hucklow could expand their operations – in the days before electric street lighting, they had originally only performed in the winter months on nights with a full moon, so the audience could see well enough to safely find their way to the venue.
Electricity wasn’t the only utility changing the pace of 1930s life. ‘The Telephone Comes to Chelmorton’, trumpeted the April 1934 edition of the magazine. The article explained that at nearby Peak Forest, making a call was a communal affair: ‘If you want to speak to anyone in Peak Forest you ring up the call-box. A loud sounding bell on the school-house wall rouses the village, and everyone down to the elder school child has been taught to answer the telephone, take a message, or fetch the person you want’ – perhaps not an ideal set-up if you wanted to telephone a resident about a matter which you didn’t want potentially the whole village to know about!
Chelmorton wanted in on the telephone action too but, in a move which would make any member of the Peak District National Park Planning Department’s heart swell with pride, rejected the General Post Office’s standard bright red kiosk designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott as too garish for their upland village surroundings. As the GPO had no alternative models to offer them, the residents of Chelmorton took the matter into their own hands and designed their own unique rustic telephone box constructed of concrete blocks with a roof of grey slate and door and window frames of English oak. A four inch step was incorporated to allow the door to open during the winter snows which the hill country surrounding Buxton is notorious for. The box still stands today, a mini-memorial to the independent-minded and aesthetic villagers of the 1930s.
Even bucolic pursuits like folk dancing were being jazzed up through employing the latest 1930s technology in the form of the portable gramophone. According to the magazine, ‘parties are often seen out in the countryside dancing to the strains of a ‘portable’.’
I find it a very quaint image to mentally picture chancing upon this genteel 1930s precursor to a rave in the middle of a Derbyshire field. Meanwhile, during the winter of 1931/2 six experimental wireless listening groups were established across the county: ‘At Heanor the County Library is the rendezvous, at Kirk Langley a young men’s club, at Hartington the schoolmaster’s house, at Eyam the evening school, while Foolow listens attentively in a barn, and Edale makes use of the school.’ Following the broadcast there was a group discussion, often heated: ‘These folk have pronounced views of their own and they do not hesitate to express them, or to disagree with the B.B.C. lecturer or each other.’
Meanwhile, the motor car was making its domineering presence felt across the county. This magazine was keeping a watchful eye on the petrol filling stations which had sprung up in rural areas which could often seemingly be pretty ramshackle affairs: ‘A gold rush to Klondike might conceivably have produced some of the cheap and lurid shacks which serve as petrol filling stations in certain instances. But in a beautiful county like Derbyshire they cannot be tolerated.’
Whilst there is the strong recurring desire to embrace the possibilities offered by the new technological innovations of the age, a corresponding thread in these early magazines is that this progress should not be to the detriment of the county’s natural beauty.
A feature on the work of Derbyshire Women’s Institute groups to compile histories of their own villages noted this was a timely project, observing, ‘At the present time remarkable changes are taking place throughout England, and it is the fear of many that these changes, brought about by new economic conditions and new means of transport, are making revolutionary changes in many districts, changes of so great an extent in some cases that a district’s most attractive or characteristic features are sometimes entirely altered and not uncommonly disfigured.’
‘It is vitally important that it should be realised before it is too late that we have in Derbyshire an inheritance which, once damaged or destroyed, can never be replaced’, warned the Marquis of Hartington in a foreword to the April 1932 issue in which he commended the magazine on its campaigning work.
There were also several opportunities for the magazine’s readership to contribute to initiatives documenting Derbyshire, for example by submitting examples of local field names and place names which ‘a committee of experienced people’ at the Rural Community Council Office would ‘analyse […] and endeavour to throw more light on their meaning’.
One feature gave advice to villages who were considering building a village hall (‘It should be a centre of constructive activity in which all may take a part’), noting that Ashford-in-the-Water, Hathersage and Rowsley had all recently constructed their own halls.
The article that made me laugh the most unexpectedly sees the team at the magazine engaging in some excellent ‘trolling’ activity, long before the internet and social media were invented. In a July 1931 feature lamentingly titled ‘Oh Blackpool!’ the sarcasm fairly drips off the page, and the sparklingly snooty and humorous jazz age language employed is on a par with something Evelyn Waugh might have scribed.
The team at Derbyshire Countryside had taken umbrage at the erecting of a large billboard advertising the delights of the earthy Lancashire seaside town 73 miles from the sign’s location on the Cat & Fiddle road near Buxton. ‘We are happy to be able to assure our readers that Blackpool is still there,’ the feature begins, before revealing the staff of the Derbyshire Rural Community Council have spent the past year bombarding Blackpool’s town clerk, a Mr Harbottle, with letters complaining about the size of the notices. The Rural Community Council were actually trying to reach the Chairman of Blackpool’s Publicity Committee, but Mr Harbottle maintains a defensive wall between the two parties, claiming the Chairman was often ill (‘there was a sob in the throat of Mr Harbottle’s typewriter when he communicated this sad fact’). ‘We didn’t want much,’ claims the writer, ‘All we asked of Blackpool (Queen of the Seas – see advertisements) was that she should take away one or two of those sweet little hoardings which she has so bountifully scattered amongst our Derbyshire hills. We confess that we feel a little ungrateful about this. We know that Blackpool only meant it for our good, and that, shy, modest little flower that she is, it required a terrible effort on her part to overcome her modesty sufficiently to do us this kindness. All the same, we do think that our Derbyshire beauty spots are quite lovely enough without these aesthetic additions. It is kind of Blackpool to try and add to our hills and dales that touch of vulgarity so dear to her own heart, but we would be excused.’
It is a matter for celebration that despite the overwhelming changes the world has seen since the first issue in 1931 the work of Lawrence du Garde Peach and his contemporaries is being continued almost a century down the line and Derbyshire Life’s readership are still kept abreast of developments across the county.
We can only imagine what the next 90 years may bring for the people of Derbyshire - perhaps readers of Derbyshire Life in the year 2110 may be looking back with a wry sense of amusement at the quaint and much simpler way we lived our lives in the 2020s…