Chatsworth’s Russian Coachman

This is the third in a series of blogs in which we have taken a closer look at some of the staff and servants of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire. Today we’re taking a look at the 6th duke’s trips to Russia and concentrating on just one man, a larger than life Russian coachman. He certainly merits his own blog.

William Spencer, 6th Duke of Devonshire by Thomas Lawrence
William Spencer, 6th Duke of Devonshire by Thomas Lawrence (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1817, William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (known as Hart due to his former title, the Marquess of Hartington) travelled to St Petersburg in Russia with a whole host of attendants for the wedding of his friend, the Grand Duke Nicholas Pavolvich of Russia (later Czar Nicholas I and Catherine the Great’s grandson). The bride was Charlotte of Prussia (subsequently known as Alexandra Feodorovna); Hart loved St Petersburg and thought it ‘more beautiful than Paris’.

The Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796); Russian School
The Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796); Russian School; The Bowes Museum

His Grace the Duke of Devonshire is about to sail for the Continent, in company with the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. His Grace has seceded to an invitation from the Grand Duke, to make a tour in Russia, and other parts of the Continent, which will occupy the whole of the ensuing summer.

During the trip, one of the duke’s attendants was his courier, Xavier Faldyer. He was ‘not agreeable, a sort of obstinate old Don Quixote, in an eternal wrangle with the Doctor, who had undertaken to regulate the expences and never ceased to exclaim, “terrible! terrible!”’ From the Chatsworth archives relating to the family’s servants, we can glean further information. Edwin Jones was the clearly long-suffering doctor who accompanied the duke.

Michael Lemm went along as a footman but didn’t think much of Russia, observing that ‘he would rather be hung in England than die in Russia’. Mr Worrall was the coachman.

Another expedition to Russia took place in 1826 when the 6th Duke of Devonshire travelled there to attend the coronation of Nicolas I. George Spencer Ridgway, the duke’s valet and ‘foster brother’ was by his side; George’s mother, Mrs Ridgway had been the duke’s wetnurse and George’s middle name, Spencer, indicates a close relationship with the family. He started at Devonshire House as a footman in 1802 and, when appointed the duke’s valet, Ridgway was his most trusted servant, acting as personal secretary, agent and steward too until 1858.

Miniature portrait of Emperor Nicholas I, 1826-1830; The State Hermitage Museum

In Russia, the duke and George were given a Russian coach by the emperor, known as a droshky. They also acquired a coachman who they brought back to Chatsworth along with the droshky. Peter Wisternoff (also Westerney, Wisternou and Ustinowica and born c.1796) was known as Peter the Russian or just the Russian Coachman; his helper was a man named Thomas Hawkins (who seems to have ended up the Porter at Devonshire House). Wisternoff stayed at Chatsworth until the early 1840s, a brilliantly eccentric character, tall and with a fine, intelligent countenance who wore his traditional Russian clothes rather than livery and sported the biggest and bushiest of beards.

Major General Norcliffe of Dalton Hall Riding in a Russian Droshky
This is titled ‘Major General Norcliffe of Dalton Hall Riding in a Russian Droshky’ although it’s very similar to a Russian print from the 1820s, ‘Dandy in a Droshky’ (see next image). Nevertheless, it is exactly how Peter the Russian must have appeared as coachman of the Duke of Devonshire’s Droshky. Portrait by David Dalry; Scarborough Collections

He is habited in the costume of his country, which consists of a large coat, generally green, which is gathered in folds round the waist, crimson sash, with an ample flow of black beard.

Dandy in a Droshky, Russia, 1820s.
Dandy in a Droshky, Russia, 1820s; The State Hermitage Museum

The Russian Coachman is one of the subjects in Bolton Abbey in the Olden Time by Sir Edwin Landseer, the original of which hangs in Chatsworth. The image below is a very good copy of the painting in tapestry; there are three men with beards but Peter the Russian is the one in the foreground, kneeling with the stag.

Tapesty of Bolton Abbey in the Olden Time
Tapestry of Bolton Abbey in the Olden Time; Massachusetts Collection Online

In 1832, Princess Victoria visited Chatsworth.

[Saturday 20th October, 1832] … we went to the stables where we saw some pretty ponies and a Russian coachman in his full dress, and the only Russian horse which remained reared at command; there were 3 other horses, English ones, but trained like the other.

A Russian Droshky (light horse-driven carriage) from the 1820s
A Russian Droshky (light horse-driven carriage) from the 1820s; The State Hermitage Museum

[Sunday 21st October, 1832] … Mamma and me drove in front in the pony phaeton and the Duke and Lady Cavendish behind; Lady Catherine and Lehzen going in another little phaeton; while Lord Morpeth and Mr Cooper went in the Russian drotchky. This curious carriage is drawn by one horse (which was the piebald one) in the shafts with a houp over its head, and the harness is golden without and winkers, and the horse in the shafts always trots, while the other, a pretty chestnut one, always gallops and puts its head on one side; the coachman, called Peter, sitting in his full dress on the box and driving the horses without any whip.

Princess Victoria by Henry Collen, 1836.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Peter the Russian married a girl named Sarah from Clowne, Derbyshire by whom he had at least eight children, one of whom was disabled. He fell foul of the duke’s Steward, George Spencer Ridgway, who forbade Peter from taking beer from the cellar, a disagreement which seems to have culminated in Peter leaving the duke’s service.

Peter, the Duke of Devonshire's Russian Coachman, portrait painted soon after his arrival in England
Peter the Russian Coachman, portrait painted soon after his arrival in England; Chatsworth.org

In the early 1840s (certainly after the 1841 census when Peter was living with his family at the Chatsworth stables), the duke broke up his Russian establishment and granted a liberal pension to Peter who subsequently lived – rent-free – on a 10 acre farm at Nether Handley near Staveley where, in 1851, he described himself as a ‘retired gentleman’. One the 1861 and 1871 census returns his occupation was that of a farmer of 10 acres. Peter died on Saturday 4th May 1878 at the age of 82 years, having been a pensioner ‘on the bounty of the Dukes of Devonshire for nearly forty years’.

South west view of Chatsworth House, 1812.
Southwest view of Chatsworth House, 1812. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Sources for all three of our blogs on Chatsworth’s staff and servants not referenced in the relevant articles are:

The Eighteenth-century Woman by Olivier Bernier (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981)

Queen Victoria’s Journals (online resource)

Chatsworth: Historic Staff and Servants database

Chatsworth blog: The Russian Coachman’s Beard

Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 18 May 1878

Carlisle Patriot, 15 March 1817

If you want to explore the database of staff and servants further, you can find it by clicking here. It lists those who have worked at Chatsworth or on the Cavendish estates going back to 1700, and will be added to over the coming years.

The excellent Chatsworth servants and staff database and associated blog posts on the Chatsworth website were created by Lauren Butler (@HistoryButler), Hannah Wallace (@hwallace24) and Fiona Clapperton (@feeclapperton) as part of a collaborative PhD with the University of Sheffield and is the culmination of many years work.

11 thoughts on “Chatsworth’s Russian Coachman

  1. Irina Klyagin

    Great story! The proper name of the coach is “drozhki” дрожки, in Russian, not “droshki”, though. From the version of the coachman’s name it is possible that his real name in Russian was “Ustinov”, “Устинов” – just a guess;

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  2. David Wisternoff

    Hi Joanne … my name is David Wisternoff … and I am the great great grandson of “Peter the Russian”. My ex-wife Victoria and I have done quite a bit of research on Peter and his descendants from the time he arrived in England until his death and would be happy to correspond with you, or indeed anyone who is interested, about him if you wish.
    I speak some Russian and have tried to find out more about him and his circumstances from various Russian archives, so far without success. Any help would be appreciated.
    Anyway thank you for an excellent article, very best wishes … Dave
    P.S. There are in existence several more illustrations of him, one of which (an original watercolour by Daniel Orme) is in our possession.

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    1. Joanne Major

      We’re so glad you enjoyed our article; your ancestor is a fascinating man and how wonderful that you still have a portrait of him! Hopefully someone reading this might have some experience of Russian archives and be able to help you, as that is unfortunately beyond our area of expertise. If you haven’t done so already, however, it might be worth contacting the Chatsworth archives to see if they hold any more information than that which has been put online? Thanks so much for your comments. 🙂

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      1. Linda

        Thank you Sarah, yes, we are always looking for snippets & pictures of him & his family. I can see my cousin David also left a post – he was the one who started me on the family history research trail! There is a picture of Chatsworth servants Circa 1850, I downloaded from Chatsworth Blog, however whilst we believe Peter left the Duke’s employ approx in1841, The tall gentleman with the huge beard & hat is a close resemblance to other clippings. Would there be a way to check? cheers & take care. Linda B

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        1. Sarah Murden

          The photo on their blog is c1850, but yes, I agree, it does look like him. I presume you mean this one?

          https://www.chatsworth.org/news-media/news-blogs-press-releases/from-servants-to-staff-blog-series/from-servants-to-staff-the-whole-community-in-the-chatsworth-household-1700-1950/

          This link should take you to the database and Peter Wisternoff is on p65 – it says he left 1843, but maybe he returned for the photo? Lauren who was one member of the team who put together the fabulous database did so as part of their PhD’s, so I don’t think they have any connection with Chatsworth now, but it might be worth dropping the archivist an email to see if they know anything further about the photo.

          Click to access servants-p-z-and-unknown-surnames.pdf

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