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Was our town a place for many genteel families or a hateful sight?

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: July 25, 2014

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ASHBOURNE has attracted visitors for hundreds of years. William Woolley's History of Derbyshire (c1712) described it as a good market town "much improved in buildings, which makes it well inhabited by gentry, as well as good trades. Its fairs are many and famous for horses".

Eighteenth-century Ashbourne catered for its visitors through the provision of coaching inns and guided tours, seasonal entertainment at the theatre and assemblies and a range of luxury shops.

By 1760, there was accommodation for 120 visitors, stabling for 100 horses and 43 ale houses.

Contemporary writers commented on the town's pleasing location, appearance and prosperity.

In 1778, Richard Sullivan thought the entertainment provided by Ashbourne's principal coaching inn, The Green Man, "highly satisfactory". At about the same time, William Bray noted the "very good accommodations" that Ashbourne could offer.

In 1795, John Aikin praised the deep rich valley in which Ashbourne lay. He believed that the descent from the Derby road into the town offered one of the finest walks in England.

A contributor to the Monthly Visitor and Pocket Companion in 1800 commented that it was "a town of some size and contains many genteel families".

In 1799, Sarah Murray, of Kensington, offered travellers wishing to see Dovedale the following advice: "The country round Ashbourne is beautiful. Sir Brooke Boothby's [estate] at the end of town is worth seeing. Take a chaise at Ashbourne … for which they charge 12 shillings, also take a guide, who will expect six shillings for himself, besides the hire of his horse."

Not all writers were complimentary. An article in the London Chronicle of November 1778 praised the town's wide, clean streets and many elegant houses but noted that, "there are many old houses in the very heart of the town. In some parts of England … the spirit of building is carried too far, but in Ashbourne it does not go far enough though in it there are many wealthy inhabitants".

The writer conceded that the churchyard contained two rows of lime trees under which could be found "a pleasant and spacious walk, called Ashbourne Mall" and that Ashbourne was the most populous place in the county after Derby and Chesterfield.

John Byng (later Lord Torrington) kept an extensive diary. Rarely did he praise the places he visited. Ashbourne did not escape his withering comments. In 1789, he declared: "The sight of Ashbourne is now hateful. St Oswald's church was crowded by pews, had a shabby chancel and housed a miserable organ."

The town was marked by a distinct lack of booksellers and he could find no one who remembered Dr Johnson.

In the next breath, he complained that he could not find fruit, wine or fish to match those to be found in London, venison could not be had out of season and there were no turtle doves to eat.

He had been in town for all of three days before reaching these conclusions. Yet he did not do too badly. At the Green Man he dined on beef steak and plum pudding and was 'not sparing of the liquor'.

The views of some travellers had not got much better by 1812 when Mary Hodgkinson from Lancashire declared: "They have no trade at Ashbourne except a little lace weaving."

Ebenezer Rhodes arrived at night, in 1824. "Ashbourne, as we entered it, seemed to be nearly deserted; not an inn door was invitingly open to receive us, and no lights were to be seen … We, however, obtained lodgings at a tolerably good inn near the middle of town, and recruited our spirits over a short but hearty supper."

Ashbourne became more than just a place to stop for a few hours to dine whilst coach horses were changed before travellers continued their journeys north to Manchester or south to London.

Visitors and townsfolk alike were attracted to the nine large fairs that were held throughout the year, selling cheese, cattle, sheep, horses and pigs. The fairs served a wide area and provided opportunities to participate in the town's social life and to engage in business.

On market days and during fairs, the streets would be filled with visitors, stalls, carts and wagons. Produce would be stacked in sacks, hung from hooks outside shops and piled up in baskets. Animals, alive and dead, overflowed from their market spaces and clogged approach roads.

Along with the genuine traders came the unscrupulous, the mountebanks, the footpads, the horse-stealers and the currency-utterers such as Thomas, Daniel and Honora Manion. They were convicted of trying to pass off counterfeit currency in Ashbourne Market in 1837 and given one year's hard labour as punishment.

Market days offered opportunities to meet friends and acquaintances, to strike deals, to catch up on news and gossip, to sign documents, to collect rents and to be entertained.

In May 1783, the Duke of Devonshire's land agent William Gould noted: "Received of Mr John Goodwin … one year's tithe rent… Saw a number of my old friends and acquaintances at the Fair".

In Ashbourne, the presence of wealthy traders such as maltsters, mercers and drapers, tanners and innkeepers, together with professions such as clerics, surgeons and attorneys, and also the lesser gentry, helped to attract visitors.

Ashbourne displayed no evidence of the "small-town mentality" often regarded as a feature of 18th-century life and one exhibited in nearby Burton-upon-Trent in 1782 when a German traveller noted that "all the people were standing at their doors on both sides, and I had to run the gauntlet of their curious gaze and hear behind me the sound of hissing".

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