The fascinating account of Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe’s encounter with a family living on Brassington Moor.
The prolific author and political activist, among many other things, visited the Peak District sometime in the early 18th century.
His observations were written up in the third volume of his ‘A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain’ published in 1727, not long before his death in 1731 aged 70.
Defoe was surprised – and moved, he said - to find a family of seven living in relative comfort and happiness in a cave at, apparently, Harborough Rocks.
The husband – ‘lean as a skeleton, pale as a dead corps’ – was a lead miner.
Defoe and friends met the man as he hauled ‘three quarters of a hundred weight of oar’ (38kg) from a hole, ‘as deep in the earth as the cross upon St. Paul’s cupolo is high out of it,’ as Defoe put it (at 60 fathoms or 360 feet).
Combined, the husband and wife could earn up to 8 pence per day mining and washing the oar, around £3 in today’s money (according to the National Archive converter).
A whip round saw the man ‘move off immediately towards the alehouse’ though Defoe beat him to it and bought the drinks himself.
At only around 2500 words, Defoe’s account is definitely worth reading in full (read the entire entry, including a visit to Wirksworth and Buxton, at A Vision of Britain Through Time):
‘A little on the other side of Wirksworth, begins a long plain called Brassington Moor, which reaches full twelve miles in length another way, (viz.) from Brassington to Buxton. At the beginning of it on this side from Wirksworth, it is not quite so much. The Peak people, who are mighty fond of having strangers shewed every thing they can, and of calling everything a wonder, told us here of another high mountain, where a giant was buried, and which they called the Giant’s Tomb.
This tempted our curiosity, and we presently rod up to the mountain in order to leave our horses, dragoon-like, with a servant. and to clamber up to the top of it, to see this Giant’s Tomb: Here we miss’d the imaginary wonder, and found a real one; the story of which I cannot but record, to shew the discontented part of the rich world how to value their own happiness, by looking below them, and seeing how others live, who yet are capable of being easie and content, which content goes a great way towards being happy, if it does not come quite up to happiness. The story is this:
As we came near the hill, which seemed to be round, and a precipice almost on every side, we perceived a little parcel of ground hedg’d in, as if it were a garden, it was about twenty or thirty yards long, but not so much broad, parallel with the hill, and close to it; we saw no house, but, by a dog running out and barking, we perceived some people were thereabout; and presently after we saw two little children, and then a third run out to see what was the matter. When we came close up we saw a small opening, not a door, but a natural opening into the rock, and the noise we had made brought a woman out with a child in her arms, and another at her foot. N.B. The biggest of these five was a girl, about eight or ten years old.
We asked the woman some questions about the tomb of the giant upon the rock or mountain: She told us, there was a broad flat stone of a great size lay there, which, she said, the people call’d a gravestone; and, if it was, it might well be called a giant’s, for she thought no ordinary man was ever so tall, and she describ’d it to us as well as she could, by which it must be at least sixteen or seventeen foot long; but she could not give any farther account of it, neither did she seem to lay any stress upon the tale of a giant being buried there, but said, if her husband had been at home he might have shown it to us. I snatched at the word, at home! says I, good wife, why, where do you live. Here, sir, says she, and points to the hole in the rock. Here! says I; and do all these children live here too? Yes, sir, says she, they were ail born here. Pray how long have you dwelt here then? said I. My husband was born here, said she, and his father before him. Will you give me leave, says one of our company, as curious as I was, to come in and see your house, dame? If you please, sir, says she, but ‘tis not a place fit for such as you are to come into, calling him, your worship, forsooth; but that by the by. I mention it, to shew that the good woman did not want manners, though she liv’d in a den like a wild body.
However, we alighted and went in: There was a large hollow cave, which the poor people by two curtains hang’d cross, had parted into three rooms. On one side was the chimney, and the man, or perhaps his father, being miners, had found means to work a shaft or funnel through the rock to carry the smoke out at the top, where the giant’s tombstone was. The habitation was poor, ‘tis true, but things within did not look so like misery as I expected. Every thing was clean and neat, tho’ mean and ordinary: There were shelves with earthen ware, and some pewter and brass. There was, which I observed in particular, a whole flitch or side of bacon hanging up in the chimney, and by it a good piece of another. There was a sow and pigs running about at the door, and a little lean cow feeding upon a green place just before the door, and the little enclosed piece of ground I mentioned, was growing with good barley; it being then near harvest.
To find out whence this appearance of substance came, I asked the poor woman, what trade her husband was? She said, he worked in the lead mines. I asked her, how much he could earn a day there ? she said, if he had good luck he could earn about five pence a day, but that he worked by the dish (which was a term of art I did not understand, but supposed, as I afterwards understood it was, by the great, in proportion to the oar, which they measure in a wooden bowl, which they call a dish). Then I asked, what she did? she said, when she was able to work she washed the oar: But, looking down on her children, and shaking her head, she intimated, that they found her so much business she could do but little, which 1 easily granted must be true. But what can you get at washing the oar, said I, when you can work? She said, if she work’d hard she could gain three-pence a day. So that, in short, here was but eight-pence a day when they both worked hard, and that not always, and perhaps not often, and all this to maintain a man, his wife, and five small children, and yet they seemed to live very pleasantly, the children look’d plump and fat, ruddy and wholesome; and the woman was tall, well shap’d, clean, and (for the place) a very well looking, comely woman; nor was there any thing look’d like the dirt and nastiness of the miserable cottages of the poor; tho’ many of them spend more money in strong drink than this poor woman had to maintain five children with.
This moving sight so affected us all, that, upon a short conference at the door, we made up a little lump of money, and I had the honour to be almoner for the company; and though the sum was not great, being at most something within a crown, as I told it into the poor woman’s hand, I could perceive such a surprise in her face, that, had she not given vent to her joy by a sudden flux of tears, I found she would have fainted away. She was some time before she could do any thing but cry; but after that was abated, she expressed her self very handsomely (for a poor body) and told me, she had not seen so much money together of her own for many months.
We asked her, if she had a good husband; she smiled, and said, Yes, thanked God for it, and that she was very happy in that, for he worked very hard, and they wanted for nothing that he could do for them; and two or three times made mention of how contented they were: In a word, it was a lecture to us all, and that such, I assure you, as made the whole company very grave all the rest of the day: And if it has no effect of that kind upon the reader, the defect must be in my telling the story in a less moving manner than the poor woman told it her self.
From hence enquiring no farther after the giant, or his tomb, we went, by the direction of the poor woman, to a valley on the side of a rising hill, where there were several grooves, so they call the mouth of the shaft or pit by which they go down into a lead mine; and as we were standing still to look at one of them, admiring how small they were, and scarce believing a poor man that shew’d it us, when he told us, that they went down those narrow pits or holes to so great a depth in the earth; I say, while we were wondering, and scarce believing the fact, we were agreeably surprized with seeing a hand, and then an arm, and quickly after a head, thrust up out of the very groove we were looking at. It was the more surprizing as not we only, but not the man that we were talking to, knew any thing of it, or expected it.
Immediately we rode closer up to the place, where we see the poor wretch working and heaving himself up gradually, as we thought, with difficulty; but when he shewed us that it was by setting his feet upon pieces of wood fixt cross the angles of the groove like a ladder, we found that the difficulty was not much; and if the groove had been larger they could not either go up or down so easily, or with so much safety, for that now their elbows resting on those pieces as well as their feet, they went up and down with great ease and safety.
Those who would have a more perfect idea of those grooves, need do no more than go to the church of St. Paul’s, and desire to see the square wells which they have there to go down from the top of the church into the very vaults under it, to place the leaden pipes which carry the rain water from the flat of the roof to the common-shore, which wells are square, and have small iron bars placed cross the angles for the workmen to set their feet on, to go up and down to repair the pipes; the manner of the steps are thus describ’d:
When this subterranean creature was come quite out, with all his furniture about him, we had as much variety to take us up as before, and our curiosity received full satisfaction without venturing down, as we were persuaded to by some people, and as two of our company were inclined to do.
First, the man was a most uncouth spectacle; he was cloathed all in leather, had a cap of the same without brims, some tools in a little basket which he drew up with him, not one of the names of which we could understand but by the help of an interpreter. Nor indeed could we understand any of the man’s discourse so as to make out a whole sentence; and yet the man was pretty free of his tongue too.
For his person, he was lean as a skeleton, pale as a dead corps, his hair and beard a deep black, his flesh lank, and, as we thought, something of the colour of the lead itself, and being very tall and very lean he look’d, or we that saw him ascend ab infer?s , fancied he look’d like an inhabitant of the dark regions below, and who was just ascended into the world of light.
Besides his basket of tools, he brought up with him about three quarters of a hundred weight of oar, which we wondered at, for the man had no small load to bring, considering the manner of his coming up; and this indeed made him come heaving and struggling up, as I said at first, as if he had great difficulty to get out; whereas it was indeed the weight that he brought with him.
If any reader thinks this, and the past relation of the woman and the cave, too low and trifling for this work, they must be told, that I think quite otherwise; and especially considering what a noise is made of wonders in this country, which, I must needs say, have nothing in them curious, but much talked of, more trifling a great deal. See Cotton’s Wonders of the Peak , Hobbes’s Chatsworth , and several others; but I shall make no more apologies. I return to our subterranean apparition.
We asked him, how deep the mine lay which he came out of: He answered us in terms we did not understand; but our interpreter, as above, told us, it signified that he was at work 6o fathoms deep, but that there were five men of his party, who were, two of them, eleven fathoms, and the other three, fifteen fathoms deeper: He seemed to regret that he was not at work with those three; for that they had a deeper vein of oar than that which he worked in, and had a way out at the side of the hill, where they pass’d without coming up so high as he was obliged to do.
If we blessed ourselves before, when we saw how the poor woman and her five children lived in the hole or cave in the mountain, with the giant’s grave over their heads; we had much more room to reflect how much we had to acknowledge to our Maker, that we were not appointed to get our bread thus, one hundred and fifty yards under ground, or in a hole as deep in the earth as the cross upon St. Paul’s cupolo is high out of it: Nor was it possible to see these miserable people without such reflections, unless you will suppose a man as stupid and sensless as the horse he rides on. But to leave moralizing to the reader, I proceed.
We then look’d on the oar, and got the poor man’s leave to bring every one a small piece of it away with us, for which we gave him two small pieces of better mettle, called shillings, which made his heart glad; and, as we understood by our interpreter, was more than he could gain at sixty fathoms under ground in three days; and we found soon after the money was so much, that it made him move off immediately towards the alehouse, to melt some of it into good Pale Derby; but, to his farther good luck, we were gotten to the same alehouse before him; where, when we saw him come, we gave him some liquor too, and made him keep his money, and promise us to carry it home to his family, which they told us lived hard by.’