Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2009


of the late
Of Eyam


“The race is not to the swift, the battle to the strong, nor riches
to the man of understanding.”

MEN endowed by nature with extraordinary genius, or superior intelligence, ever secure attention and respect. Perhaps there is no department in biography more useful and instructive than that which sketches the career of individuals, who, by their own unaided energy and talent, have emerged from obscurity, and taken an elevated position in the great family of man.

The life of William Wood, whose graphic pen so lately enriched the pages of the “Reliquary”; and who is recently gone to “that bourne from whence no traveller returns”, is not wholly devoid of interest, [Page vi] inasmuch as it affords additional evidence of what may be achieved by diligent perseverance, and patient industry, in overcoming penury and all the concomitant evils it casts in the way of struggling but determined genius. By his unaided efforts he educated himself, became a fair scholar, wrote several amusing and useful works, contributed numerous articles to the local papers, and, if he did not rise to the highest rank as a writer, he at least attained a respectable position, and secured the friendship of numerous literary friends.

Mr. Wood informs us that his family is not one of high antiquity at Eyam. When the Hon. and Rev. Edward Finch, D.D., was presented to the Rectory of Eyam in 1717, Wood's great-great-grandfather, then a young man, came with him from Wigan, in the capacity of a servant: he afterwards married, had a family, and kept a public-house at the churchyard side, and died at Eyam. The father of William Wood was a lead miner of the olden stamp. He owned the cottage in which he resided, rented a small field or two, and kept his cow. He was also a musician in the village choir and for several years conducted the Sunday School in connection with the Established Church. By his industry and some other small emoluments, he supported his family in decency, comfort and respect. It may also be added that his manners, conversation, and general deportment were much in advance of the working miners of that period. His family consisted of four sons and three daughters. William, the second son, [Page vii] and subject of this notice, was born at Eyam, 6th December, 1804. It is said that, “the child is father to the man”, but it does not appear that in childhood he manifested any precocity or particular bias, more than being a little wayward, thoughtful, and shy. All through life he was rather retiring, with a habitual reserve. He learnt to read, as he informs us himself, in the Sunday School, and probably his excellent father instructed him in writing. This was the full extent he received of elementary instruction, so it is obvious that he was essentially self-taught, in the most extended sense of the term.

At a very early age he was set to work, as a hand-loom weaver, at that time the principal employment of the young and adult population of the village. This sating and unremunerative vocation he followed for a livelihood until nearly forty years of age. Here, too, like poor John Critchley Prince, “the muse found him” at the loom, “and threw her inspiring mantle over him”. In the same shop, and at the next loom to young Wood, a stranger - Henry Potter, a native of Ashton-under-Lyne - plied the shuttle. Potter was a Unitarian, of refined taste, a self-taught artist, of extensive information, superior manners, and amiable temper. Being of somewhat congenial dispositions, the two became fast friends for life. Potter, ever ready to assist and instruct his apt pupil, advised him to read and study English grammar. The advent of cheap literature had not yet arrived, books were scarce, libraries a long [Page viii] distance from Eyam, Mechanics' Institutes did not exist, and to overcome the difficulty young Wood frequently undertook a pilgrimage of two or three miles to obtain the loan of a well-thumbed, dog-eared volume, from which to extract the stores of knowledge. Cobbett's well-known grammar was purchased, the open volume was secured in a frame, and suspended on the loom, so as to enable the learner to con his task and weave at the same time. It is easy to conjecture, the shuttle would not fly through the warp with the requisite rapidity while thus engaged, and it is reasonable to infer, that as the stores of knowledge increased, the amount of wages would decrease in the same ratio, and when the little weekly audit took place on Saturday night he would be scolded and blamed, which his sensitive mind would feel acutely. In a few years after he thus forcibly alludes to his position in early life - “I whom circumstances have debarred from even a glance at classic lore; whose only place of learning has been my village Sunday School; whose days have hitherto been passed amidst noisy rustic throngs; and whose early aspirations were quenched by the waters of adversity”.

In directing his early studies, it must be obvious that the friendship and advice of Potter greatly accelerated the progress and improvement of the young student; it has also its shady side. It was rumoured and believed that he had imbibed the Socinian opinions of his perceptor, he was sneered at, suffered much petty [Page ix] annoyance, if not persecution, and it in some degree militated against his material interest and future advancement in life. We may cite one among other occasions. He was, along with others, a candidate for an important office in a Poor Law Union, for which he was eminently qualified by his general knowledge. There was keen competition for the place. One of his rivals actively circulated a report that he was not strictly orthodox in his opinions, the point was mooted by the guardians, and, whether true of not, was fatal to his election.

When rather more than twenty years of age a subscription library was established in Eyam. From this well of instruction he drew largely; he not only read with avidity, but studied with attention the best works on science and literature in our language. A powerful and retentive memory being a peculiar characteristic of the man; much lasting and permanent information was thus acquired. He now became anxious to try the incipient strength of his pinions, [sic] and as Lord Byron says, “to see his name in print”. The firstfruits [sic] of his muse found their way into the poet's corner, and a few prose articles were inserted in the columns of the local newspapers.

He was a member of an essay and debating society in connection with the library, designed for the improvement of its younger members. A subject was proposed for discussion, and an essay to be written and read at the next meeting and afterwards debated. The papers [Page x] produced by him were distinguished for originality and literary composition. In discussion he was in advance of most of his fellows; and the society awakened in him, and brought into action, a dormant principle, for which his mind was particularly adapted. Through life he delighted in reasoning and argument. The wide scope of his reading, and singularly retentive memory, enabled him to garner and store up in his mind the opinions and ideas of others, and when engaged with an antagonist they were easily pressed into his service, and mostly used with telling if not crushing effect.

About this time the late Mr. Samuel Roberts published some articles on Political Economy in a Sheffield newspaper. He rather mistook his vocation, being better fitted for the philanthropy which he so extensively practised, than for studying and writing upon cause and effect - the abstract principles and subtle disquisitions of advanced philosophy. His ideas were too limited, and his stock-in-trade too antiquated, to lead to eminence on that line. Wood attentively studied the articles; the opportunity to shiver a spear with the oracle was too precious to be lost. He replied at great length, showing not only the weakness and futility of the premises, but the inaccuracy of his conclusions. After several passes in the paper, the aged philosopher abandoned the lists, and left the field in possession of his astute and anonymous adversary.

While engaged in weaving cloth, writing poetry, and making collections for his future “History of Eyam”, [Page xi] he was far from being satisfied with his position, which he bitterly laments in the following passage in one of his works:- “To amuse myself with those trifling effusions during the tediousness of a sedentary employment, to stifle the thoughts of my obscure and humiliating condition in life; to transcribe the various feelings, the hopes, the fears, the thousand painful and pleasing sensations of my too wayward and sensitive mind - these were my motives for worshipping at the shrine of the muse, and in these I found an antidote for despair, a counterpoise to the troubles of a sneering and unfeeling world. How often while plying my humble and sating trade have I soared on fancy's wings to regions of vision, and basked in the uncreated rays of ideality; how often plunged into the fathomless abyss of boundless fiction; when the entangling of a thread in warp or wool, or the sudden jumping of the shuttle from its stated course, has instantly dissolved the pleasing dream away”.

He had taste for and cultivated music; he was a member of the parish choir, and, like his father, a performer on the hautboy. At a later period he organized and instructed a village band, of which he was the director and president for many years. But if he showed a decided preference for any science in particular it was Geology. He devoted much attention to the works of St. {?}Fond, Lyell, Miller, and other modern geologists, who had given the result of their valuable researches to the world. He thus made [Page xii] himself familiar with the practical discoveries and speculative theories, also the general principles and different systems into which this inexhaustible and interesting subject is divided. Surrounded as is the place of his nativity with lofty hills, deep sunk mines, and rugged rocks, rich in varied strata, and abounding in fossil organic remains, the great volume of nature was spread open before him, thus affording peculiar facilities for the study of his favourite science. His acute remarks on the geological formation of his own locality, particularly the mountain limestone and amygdaloid or toadstone, are embodied, and form an instructive chapter, in his “History of Eyam”.

The most important event in his life now occurred. He had not only paid court to the muses, but also to Sarah Pursglove, who became his wife 9th June, 1835. She was the eldest daughter of a neighbour, was industrious, and in every way suited for domestic duties. In due time two sons and two daughters were the issue of their marriage. he now, as Lord Bacon truly observes, “gave hostages to fortune”. We may justly question the prudence of this step, when we calculate the loss of time taken up in his studies, and the very limited amount of his earnings; in either case they would seriously clash with his newly self-imposed duties, and greatly abridge his own comforts and those dependent on him for support. Perhaps this is the worst phase in his history, and the darkest shade of his character, it is that of time wasted, which clearly ought to have been [Page xiii] devoted to a more important and useful purpose. The duty of providing and catering for the family in a great measure devolved upon the exertions of his industrious and excellent wife and her relatives, who were ever ready to render substantial aid and willing assistance. It is pleasant to be able to state that with all his short-comings Wood did not run into debt - his credit was unimpaired, and the family, at all events, maintained in integrity. For some time the hand-loom had been all but superseded by its powerful competitor the power-loom; other employment of a suitable kind was not then to be had in the village, and the only mode of improving his condition was to migrate to a distant part of the country. The idea of a removal was inimical in his thoughts and feelings, he neither could nor would leave; his mind was settled on that point, he would stay and suffer. So emphatically was he a Derbyshire man, and so thoroughly identified with the land of his birth, that, like Ossian's Counal[?], his spirit was ever on his hills, or steeping itself in the dewy freshness of its valleys. The wastes and the wilds, the rivers and the rocks, were ever present with him; they were the gods of his idolatry, and were interwoven into his existence. His love of country was so predominant and lasting that it only ceased to exist when the vital spark fled from its mortal tenement. Even in his darkest hour, had the most lucrative situation been offered, it would certainly have been rejected, had it been coupled with the condition of a removal from Eyam.

[Page xiv] It is painful to have to record another infirmity to which he was subject, that of intemperance. For many years his visits to the public-house were “few and far between”, but later in life the evil expanded into a regular and confirmed habit. His extensive information and shrewd remarks made him a general favourite, he was a triton among the minnows, who were ever ready to listen, to laugh, and applaud. Like many of his self-taught brethren, he became the victim of admiration. That a man of sound judgement and good understanding should compromise his own happiness, and neglect the natural duties due to his family, for the gratification of such a habit, is one of those anomalies in human nature, for which it is difficult, if not impossible, to account. In sketching character, it is always delightful and refreshing to exhibit the bright side; yet the laws of Truth are immutable, and compel us not only to show the lighter tints, but also the darker shades. Still I hope the compassionate readers of the “Reliquary” will, like Sterne's “recording angel, drop a tear” on his weakness, and blot it out for ever!

With the exception of some fugitive pieces which had appeared in the local papers, he first became known as an author in 1837, by the publication of his “Genius of the Peak and other Poems”. It is a thin unpretending volume of eighty-three pages. Five hundred copies were printed, and sold at one shilling per copy. The preface is well written - contains some excellent remarks, and as is usual in virgin attempts in verse, [Page xv] explains his motives for sending it into the world. The longest and principal poem in the collection is the “Genius of the Peak”. In this poem the poet wanders on the mountain, “Sir William”, and is suddenly seized with a deep sleep, when the genius, in female form, appears in a vision. The point of time is soon after the Creation, and he beholds the first tide of the Derwent threading its way through the valley. The shade points out the Druids at a sacrifice. The Romans, Saxons, and Danes rise on the scene in succession, followed by the battle of Hastings, and the Normans. Next in point of time and order appear in view those poets connected with Derbyshire - Darwin, Seward, Cunningham, Newton, and Furness, each of whom receive their mood of praise. There are also copious foot-notes on the poets and their productions, with remarks explanatory of the archaeological remains that abound in the vicinity. One stanza, relating to Miss Seward, is here given as a fair specimen of the author's style -

“Another, now, that onward heads,
With angle step and grace;
Around her low a robe descends,
And veiled is her face;
She was my fondest darling muse,
Her bard these hills can claim,
She's sung my mountain's loveliest hues,
And spread afar their fame.”

The following sonnet was written on the eve of [Page xvi] sickness...

O, Death! a moment stay thy chilling hand,
And let me pause before thou seal'st my doom;
Reluctant I obey the stern command,
Which calls me hence, ere life is in its bloom,
And shall no more these once delighted eyes,
E'er gaze on parent, or on welcome friend?
Yon orbs that day and night adorn the skies,
Their glorious light to me will cease to send.
But cheering hope now darts a ray serene,
Which leads my thoughts to realms beyond the tomb;
There waits for me a calm and pleasing scene,
A lasting spring without a winter's gloom;
In this sweet hope, I'll bid this world adieu -
Come Death! and my long journey I'll pursue.

In the preface to the “History of Eyam”, the author says - “in 'The Genius of the Peak', a small volume, consisting of a variety of short poems, written in comparative childhood, there is much which my now more mature judgement would gladly expunge”.

In 1842 he published by subscription the first edition of the “History of Eyam”, with a particular account of the Great Plague of 1666. It is dedicated to the Lords of the Manor. Of this issue five hundred copies were printed, and sold at three shillings each. This is the work by which he is extensively known, and will be the subject of further remarks in the sequel.

Brighter prospects now began to dawn on the family. The cottage where he was born became his on the death [Page xvii] of his mother. The family were now in employment and self-supporting. He abandoned his humble trade of weaving and obtained the appointment of assistant overseer, tax-collector, and other parochial appointments. The emolument from these sources might average about £25 per annum. He was also employed as a house and land agent, clerk at auctions, made wills, and various other matters, and it is only just to say that every duty he undertook was duly discharged, with honesty, punctuality, and integrity. As a tax-gatherer he was much esteemed by the poor and those who were unable to pay promptly. He put himself to inconvenience, or adopted any subterfuge rather than resort to legal proceedings. In disputes among his neighbours he was often consulted, and his opinion acted on; he mostly succeeded in ratifying a peace, where animosity and rancour had hitherto existed. These kind offices, for which his charges were extremely moderate, were highly appreciated, and gained him the goodwill and esteem of his neighbours.

In 1848 was published a second edition of the “History of Eyam”, consisting of five hundred copies, which were sold at three shillings each.

For some years a Festival was annually held at Sheffield in honour of Scotland's favourite Bard. To these gatherings Wood was always an invited and welcome guest. At one of these, held January 15th, 1849, the health of Eliza Cook, the poetess, was proposed, to which he responded at great length, in which [Page xviii] the eulogy bestowed on the poetess was only eclipsed by the eloquence of the speaker. The following is an extract -

“In glancing over the career and destiny of genius, we find, alas! some solitary instances in which poetry has enlisted itself in crusade against budding liberty, or been used as an instrument of vice. This, however, is not the natural or true vocation of poetry! when genius thus stoops it dims its fires, and loses much of its power. Such a misapplication of the Divine gift cannot be other than occasional, for even where poetry is enslaved to misanthropy or licentiousness, she cannot wholly forget her true mission. * * * * * Where, let me ask, can we find, in the whole range of Eliza Cook's effusions of spirit, one thought or insinua- tion tending to the encouragement of licentiousness, vice, or tyranny? What poem of her's [sic] is not fraught with spirit-stirring denunciation of every impediment that operates against the onward march of civilization - against the glorious consummation of liberty? In this she is fulfilling her heaven-exalted mission; in this she is waxing strong in execution of a meritorious task, that will make future generations her humble debtors! She, Prometheus-like, has stolen fire from heaven, and round about she waves the glaring brand, quickening the slumbering and torpid intellects of those who, if not mentally blind, are ignorantly or viciously reckless of man's ultimate regeneration. She delineates with a pencil of light, woman's beauty, grace [Page xix] and gentleness, and fulness [sic] of feeling, and depth of affection, and her blushes of purity, and the tones and looks which a mother's breast can inspire. She reveals to us the loveliness of Nature, brings back from the dim visits of the past the freshness of youthful feeling, raises from the ashes of mortality a pleasing relish of those innocent and simple pleasures which the plodding everyday cares of life threaten to enshrine in oblivion. And again, how energetically she labours to keep unquenched the springtide of our being; and then to enliven our interest in human nature, she presents to our vision matchless delineations of its sweetest, tenderest, and loftiest feelings, and spreads her heaven-like sympathy of spirit over all classes of the human family.”

Other extracts from this speech, equally good, might if necessary be adduced. He concluded amidst the plaudits and cheers of the assembly, at whose expense it was printed from the verbatim report, for circulation.

He also attended a literary gathering at Edinstowe, in Sherwood Forest. This ancient haunt of Robin Hood is upwards of thirty miles from Eyam. In hot weather, with staff in hand, he performed the weary pilgrimage there and back on foot.

In 1860 appeared the third edition of the “History of Eyam”, considerably enlarged, and illustrated with numerous engravings. To it is prefixed a short dedication to George Mompesson Heathcote, Esq., of Newbould, near Chesterfield, a descendant of [Page xx] Mompesson the Good. Five hundred copies were printed, and sold at three shillings and sixpence each.

His time at this period must have been much engrossed in literary labours. In 1862 was published his “Tales and Traditions of the High Peak”, in an edition of five hundred copies, sold at three shillings and sixpence each. The title of the book sufficiently indicates the nature of its contents. These “Traditions” have mostly some foundation in fact, with which he has taken poetical licence, and amplified and expanded, and are thus partly true and partly fictitious. This at first seemed to be the least fortunate of his productions - but as the work became more generally know the demand increased, and the last hundred copies were sold at a premium - as much as 10s. per copy being offered. Connected with this publication occurred a circumstance which may properly be noted here. The groundwork of one of the tales is a murder of a young gentleman and lady upwards of a century ago, at the Winnats, near Castleton, a murder almost unparalleled for cruelty in the annals of barbarism and atrocity. He imparts a sort of dramatic interest to this tale, by personifying the murderers and their victims, and detailing the imaginary conversations that occurred among the parties, before and after the sad event. Several persons at Castleton, especially the lower orders, felt highly indignant at our author, and vowed vengeance for this supposed disgrace to their village. In a short time after, Wood happened to be at the Nag's [Page xxi] Head Inn, at Castleton; some men then in the house got aware that the obnoxious author was present, and threatened to maltreat him. The landlord knowing the temper of his customers, kindly took Wood into another room, through the open window of which he speedily made his exit, and left Castleton in haste.

For two or three years preceding his death, late hours, and the use of ardent spirits, began to tell fearfully on his frame, and sap his constitution; he betrayed signs of bodily weakness in a shaking and tremulous motion of the hand, followed by a torpid state or absence of feeling in the fingers. His mental powers remained uninjured. He was now engaged in preparing the fourth edition of the “History of Eyam”. He could scarcely write, but a nephew assisted as an amanuensis. The family were now to endure severe domestic affliction. The two daughters, industrious and respectable young women, were taken ill, the eldest it was believed of incipient consumption, the youngest of fever; the latter continued ill for a short time, rapidly sank, and died. The eldest slowly got worse, the dreaded symptoms became visible, and after a year of suffering she paid the debt of nature. The bereavement he felt acutely, and “Their early doom was to him a great source of grief”.

The last effort of his muse was an epitaph for his daughters. Acting on the hint of Ebenezer Elliott, who says “it is well to make the thoughts of others breed”, he parodied Homer's beautiful simile of the [Page xxii] young olive, on the death of Euphorbus, with excellent effect, as will be seen by a comparison with the original. The inscription and epitaph are given, anticipatory of the stone being erected -

“In Memory of Elizabeth and Mary WOOD,
Daughters of William and Sarah WOOD.

Elizabeth Died April 8th, 1863, Aged 21 Years,
Mary Died July 25th, 1864, Aged 27 Years”,

“Like two young olives in some sylvan scene,
Clad in the loveliest garb of Summer green,
Were these two sisters, whose endearing love
Hath consummation gained in realms above.
Death's whirlwind came and swept the first away,
Decoying alone the other - could not stay.”


About two months previous to his death, he was subpoenaed as a witness in a County Court case at Bakewell. While giving his evidence, a change in his manner was noticed; he was greatly excited, and spoke loud, a thing quite unusual with him, and he retired from the Court and returned home in a cab. The shock greatly prostrated him, and all but deprived him of the use of his arms and legs. For a short time he partially rallied and took a little carriage exercise. The evening before he experienced the shock which deprived him of the use of speech, a friend visited him. He stated that his stay in this world would be very brief, and spoke of [Page xxiv] his approaching dissolution with calmness and fortitude, much the same as he used to do on any common event. His demeanour reminded his friend of Seneca's behaviour, when Nero sent the philosopher a message that he was to die on the morrow, the latter did not change colour. He then alluded to a lecture that had recently been given at Eyam, on “Dr. Johnson”, consisting principally of the little weaknesses and eccentricities detailed by Boswell, in the life of that great man. He went on to say, “talk of eccentricities and weaknesses, many good writers have imitated his style, but none that I am aware could imitate his ideas”. “The lecturer”, he further continued, “cannot have studied or appreciated the merits of Johnson, whose criticisms are by far the best ever written. He should read his comparison of the respective merits of Pope and Dryden, he will there find the best reasoning, and the noblest specimen of writing, that ever proceeded from the pen of man”. This was his last conversation. During the night he had another attack of paralysis, which deprived him of the use of speech; he remained conscious and sensible for a few days, when he quietly expired on the evening of June 17th, 1865, in the sixty-first year of his age.

In height he was of middle size, his head massive, with a large and prominent eye; he walked slowly and spoke deliberately. In conversation, pleasing and instructive, his genius and integrity uniformly commanded respect and esteem. He detested cant [Page xxiv] and hypocrisy; fraud and chicanery he ever treated with scorn and contempt. Most of his articles contributed to the newspapers bear the impress of originality, deep thought, versatility, and vigorous expression, and ever secured the ready attention of the reader.

When describing local or material objects, he had the fault of extolling or magnifying to excess; he also introduced far-fetched words and extraordinary terms to show his learning - mistakes of usual occurrence in the writings of self-educated men. A little travelling would have corrected the one, and a liberal education the other. Had his education been equal to his natural talent, his memoir would have been written by an abler pen than mine.

The fourth and last edition of the “History of Eyam”, consisting of five hundred copies, has been published since his death, and with the exception of a few sold, are in the hands of his widow. The original matter is greatly extended, and has additional illustrations - the subject appears to be exhausted. It may with moderation be called far-famed, for it has been read the length and breadth of the land, and the re-publication of successive editions is the best test of its literary merit. It pleases everyone who reads it. It is well written, and treats on the early history, antiquity, geology, and other matters of a purely local character; as also anecdotes of the rectors, and sketches of the poets and writers connected with the place. But that which imparts such a deep and [Page xv] absorbing interest to the village history, are the sad details of the plague, which nearly swept off the inhabitants in 1666. This portion of the work is full of pathos, sentiment, and feeling, and awakens in the mind of the reader the warmest sympathy for the dreadful suffering of the victims. The volume has a two-fold value, it is not only a history of the plague, but serves as an excellent guide book to those interesting nooks he so forcibly describes. Successive editions will be called for in future, and it is the work by which its painstaking author will ever be remembered.

In conclusion, I may be permitted to remark, that I have endeavoured at the request of the Editor of the “Reliquary” to give a faithful, though imperfect sketch, of the peculiar and general characteristics of this remarkable man, whose name must now be added to those poets and writers who have conferred such classic pre-eminence on the place of his nativity.

At present no humble stone marks his narrow house of rest. Beneath the shade of the tall churchyard limes rises a little mound, shrouded in its grassy pall; to the inquiring visitor this is pointed out as the last resting-place of this genuine son of the Peak, whose barren hills, rugged rocks, fertile valleys, and murmuring streams, were ever regarded by him as objects of intense interest. But more especially the antiquities, manners, customs, and the “Mighty Woe” that nearly depopulated his much-loved village, and described by him in [Page xxvi] language that will never die. The little mountain city, “The Athens of the Peak”, and its historian, will together sweetly sail down the stream of time inseparably connected, till they approach the utmost confines of posterity, and not till then will the classic village, and her able historian, be lost in oblivion and become totally forgotten.

Transcribed by Rosemary Lockie in January 2009.

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