Monday 5 September 2011

Extraordinary Lives 1

An Amazon of the Peaks
This is the first in a series of biographical sketches about lgbt people I find fascinating.

During my research I often come across information which catches my attention. When I was researching the family history of my ex-partner I came across the story of Phoebe Bown (that’s Bown, not Brown). My ex-partner is descended from the Bown family and Phoebe was a cousin.

Although I don’t approve of “outing” people just for the sake of it, I think the story of Phoebe Bown needs no “outing” – her life-story speaks for itself.

Phoebe was born in 1771, her father Samuel was a carpenter in Matlock, Derbyshire. It is probably from him that young Phoebe learnt the carpentry trade which she used extensively in adult life. She was also a dab hand at construction work – she once hand-built an extension to her one-roomed cottage just to house a harpsichord she had been given because there was no room in her house.

Speaking of music, it is said that she played the flute and cello very enthusiastically but not very skilfully, and sometimes joined an impromptu quartet with friends.

Phoebe’s musical and construction skills didn’t earn her a living. She had a great passion for horses and was a master horse-whisperer and horse-breaker. What she didn’t know about horses wasn’t worth knowing. Many bets were won due to her ability to judge the racing qualities of a horse.

The most visual eccentricity Phoebe had was her attire. She wore a handkerchief over her head, tied under her chin, and a man’s tall hat. She wore a dress, but over the top was a man’s long coat. Around her home, in every drawer and tucked away in corners, were dozens of knives, daggers and guns. Phoebe was afraid of being attacked in the early 1800s during the Pentrich Riots in the Derbyshire countryside that were taking place (another of my ex-partner’s ancestors was transported to Australia for his part in the riots). Phoebe went to a friend’s house with a couple of hand-made scythes so that he would have something to defend himself as well. Phoebe was more than capable of standing up for herself and was very strong. Some sources refer to her as the “Matlock Amazon”.

Phoebe was quite often terse with strangers. If she didn’t know anyone who came to see her she would take a few minutes to eye them up before deciding whether to engage fully in conversation. She once commented on the Earl of Chesterfield’s wayward son by saying “whitewash a red brick as much as you like, it’s still a red brick”.

As she grew older Phoebe became infirm and unable to earn a living (this was before old-age pension and state benefits). Such was her standing in the community that the Duke of Devonshire gave Phoebe a weekly pension for the rest of her life. Her association with the duke comes through her cousin, whose daughter married Sir Joseph Paxton, superintendent to the duke’s gardens at Chatsworth and designer of the legendary Crystal Palace.

Phoebe herself recognised her eccentricities and played on them. She asked the curate of Matlock to write an epitaph for her. The resulting verse pleased her very much. It reads:
Here lies romantic Phoebe,
Half Ganymede and half Hebe;
A maid of mutable condition,
A jockey, cow herd and musician.”

In case you’re wondering, Ganymede and Hebe were cup-bearers to Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Hebe, goddess of youth, lost her job to young mortal boy Ganymede because Zeus fancied him more than he did her. The epitaph wasn’t actually used on Phoebe’s grave, but it does show how at ease she was with assumptions of her sexuality.

Phoebe died in May 1854 at the age of 82.

The portrait of Phoebe Bown holding her flute shown here comes from “The Reliquary: the Quarterly Journal and Review” (Vol. II, 1861-2), and is copyright to Ann Andrews at

A good biographical sketch about Phoebe, written in her lifetime can be found at - scroll down to "William Hutton's 'Strong Woman'."

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