Above: The Fernilee Gunpowder Mill band pictured in the early 1900s.

There’s a photo on my contact page showing the Chilworth Gunpowder Works Band from Fernilee with blackened faces – like the Black and White Minstrel Show I remember on TV back in the ’60s and ’70s. I asked whether anyone had any ideas what the event could have been, and what it could have meant. Peter Brighouse has just sent this message:

The Chilworth band would use charcoal in their work, making if easy for them to black-up. Perhaps they were nodding in the direction of the Lancastrian clog dancers of Bacup. See this info on Wikepedia. (Really like your site. It zooms to the top of my list of walks and views around this part of Derbyshire.)

Thanks Peter. I was interested to read on Wikipedia about the link between minstrel shows and mining communities. Like you say, the Chilworth workers would have used charcoal in the manufacture of gunpowder. And it must have been as dirty and dangerous a job as coal-mining.  (Click here for info on the gunpowder works.)

It was also interesting to read that Bacup’s local MP, Jack Straw, caused controversy when he was photographed with the coconut dancers in 2014. He bravely defended the custom; “It’s traditions from the past which give communities a sense of common identity for the present and the future. May the Coconutters continue for many years to come.”

The Chilworth Gunpowder Mill closed down in 1920 and now lies deep beneath the waters of Fernilee Reservoir. This is one community which is now lost forever, along with their unique customs and way of life. Time moves on…

Topic tags (click for similar posts): Gunpowder Mill | Valley folk