Georgian monkey bones discovered at Nottingham Castle brings the legend of its most flamboyant resident to life

We shared some exciting news yesterday at Nottingham Castle – the bones of three monkeys, dating back to the Georgian period, were uncovered by archaeologists during the redevelopment of the Castle. The bones are thought to be those of the beloved pets of Miss Jane Kirkby, who was once a resident at Nottingham Castle. We asked Miss Kirkby expert Yvonne Armitage to tell us more about the eccentric lady of the Castle.

Yvonne said…

Yvonne Armitage, Miss Kirkby researcher, Marius Illie, Trent Peak Zoologist and a representation of Miss Kirkby at Nottingham Castle
Yvonne Armitage, Miss Kirkby researcher, Marius Illie, Trent Peak Zoologist and a representation of Miss Kirkby at Nottingham Castle

“The first historical reference I found to Miss Kirkby mentioned “a lady of rank connected to the Newcastle Family” living in a rented apartment at Nottingham Castle with her pet ape! Thus began a mission to piece together her full identity. It now seems fitting that the monkey bones discovered on site are bringing her story back to life.

“Good clues about Miss Kirkby came from the diaries of Abigail Gawthern, another Georgian woman living in Nottingham. Most of the entries mentioning Miss Kirkby related to parties and social events at the Castle. Other sources also referred to her oyster suppers and breakfast parties on the Castle terrace as deer were being hunted just below in Nottingham Park. It became clear that Miss Kirkby was a popular host who mixed with an eclectic group of Nottingham residents.

By tracing one of Abigail Gawthern’s diary entries about a fete given by Miss Kirkby at Burton Lodge in 1821, a convoluted route led to her full identity. Her forename was Jane and she was the eldest child of the Reverend Richard Kirkby, Rector of Gedling in Nottinghamshire. Her rank and noble connections came via her maternal grandfather, an acknowledged but illegitimate son of Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield.

All of Jane’s immediate family predeceased her, but with income from inherited land she was able to rent her apartment at the Castle and live independently in some style until she died there in April 1825 aged 80.

A representation of Miss Kirkby outside the Ducal Palace at Nottingham Castle
A representation of Miss Kirkby outside the Ducal Palace at Nottingham Castle

A wonderful recollection of a Leicestershire antiquarian who spent a miserable youth at a boarding school in Nottingham also illustrated Jane’s kindness and hospitality. He and his friends received frequent invitations from her to visit the Castle. The highlights of their much enjoyed visits were her stories of Robin Hood and the candlelit expeditions she led down into Mortimer’s Hole beneath the Ducal Palace.

Although I haven’t found any further references to her pet ape, the monkey bones which have been discovered on site do date to the time period of 1791 – 1825 when Miss Kirkby was living at the Castle. At that time, it would not have been considered unusual for higher ranking homes to contain pet monkeys though, and people in Nottingham would have been used to seeing them about. Travelling menageries were certainly a feature of the Goose Fair from at least 1807 when Polito’s Menagerie visited. Ironically, it seems that it was considered less unusual for a host to keep a pet monkey than to serve sandwiches. When that happened at a large party Jane Kirkby gave at the Castle in April 1804, Abigail Gawthern definitely made a point of recording that in her diary!”

Yvonne tells us more…