Peter Crosthwaite was born and bred in Borrowdale but his horizons extended beyond that most beautiful of valleys. Alongside his collaborator, the in-comer Joseph Pocklington, he foresaw that Keswick's future lay in the mass tourist trade. Together they did their damndest to put the town and its lake on the map - both figuratively and literally.
Crosthwaite entered this world at Dale Head in 1735 and as a young man was apprenticed to a weaver at Brown Beck, Naddle, just off the Keswick to Ambleside road. Perhaps Derwentwater's proximity sparked a maritime calling, as he left Cumberland for the high seas in 1758.
His destination was the Orient as he joined the East India Company at the height of its trading power.
The company's vessels carried cargoes of silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, tea, and opium through sea lanes that were swarming with pirates and Crosthwaite proved to be a highly competent commander of the gunboat "Otter". By the time he retired after seven years' service he claimed to have risen to the rank of Admiral, although, as we shall see, self-promotion proved to be one of his strongest suits, so that status was most likely unofficial.
Returning to England he spent nearly fifteen years as a customs officer at Blyth in Northumberland. Then his Cumberland roots called him home and in 1779 he brought his family to Keswick. The town's tourism industry was just starting to take off as visitors were drawn by Wordsworth, Gilpin and West to view the romantic Lakeland landscape. Crosthwaite's arrival coincided with the beginning of Joseph Pocklington's "improvement" of Vicar's Isle on Derwentwater and the two men soon found that they shared a keen sense of what the tourists wanted - and, more importantly, what they would pay for.
Setting up shop to offer publications and paraphernalia for tourists was just the starting point for the enterprenurial Peter. Guiding excursionists to the summit of Skiddaw provided another opportunity to exploit their interest in the sublime. But when the weather was wet, or when their legs were too tired for more sightseeing, they needed entertainment. Within a couple of years on opening shop Crosthwaite was welcoming visitors to his "Cabinet of Curiosities", a museum showing off natural (and unnatural) marvels and things he'd invented.
As time went on his collection expanded as it became known that he was on the look out for items of wonder. Soon a bigger venue was needed and Crosthwaite built a new Museum House in the Square. Stepping between a pair of whale bones arched over the entrance, visitors entered a bizarre house of oddities to gaze in wonder and to add to their picturesque impressions of the Lake District.
A highlight of the museum’s five rooms was an albatross from the Cape of Good Hope, proudly sporting a ten-foot wing span, a gift to Crosthwaite from Capt. John Wordsworth, poet William's cousin. Wordsworth also provided the hat of the Great Sultan of the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
There were cabinets of rocks which Peter collected from all over the North of England: samples of black lead from Seathwaite; tungsten from Caldbeck; molybdenum - a rare find by Dr. Von Opple, “a very clever professor of mineralogy from Dresden”; and a stone found in a river near Wigton which broke open to reveal inside a fine horse-shoe.
There were weapons of war: a Brigantian sword from nearby Embleton, a Tartar crossbow and Malabar spears.
There were the bones of the 21ft tall Corbridge Giant whose thigh bone alone measured six feet.
There were coins from civilisations throughout history and around the globe.
There were exotic stuffed animals and parts of animals: a polar bear, a sea unicorn's horn, a seven-foot-long alligator suspended from the ceiling, beetles and moths, and armadillo's skin, the head of walrus and that of a babyroussa.
And there were hideous freaks of nature including a pig with no legs, a three-legged goose, a four-legged chicken, a kitten with eight legs and two tails, and a lamb with claws and a tricolour fleece.
At its heyday the museum contained around two thousand exhibits. One visitor commented that the exhibits were ‘more gimcrack than antiquity'; another that 'his daughter is... more worth seeing than anything else in his house'. The general feeling was that it was more for entertainment than historical education, but this seemed to fit the bill.
Peter was not shy of promoting his own reputation for innovation and ingenuity. As was as displaying utilitarian devices such as his fire escape apparatus and non-smoking chimney tops, the museum was home to England's first lithophone - a type of stone xylophone which was fashioned from Skiddaw hornfels.
Peter adopted a unique method of enticing clients into the building or at least of ensuring they were aware of its presence. From his chair in the corner of a first floor room carefully positioned mirrors allowed him to monitor the street below. When visitors were nearby he would unleash a musical onslaught. A vigorous drum beat accompanied a tune on a mighty barrel organ. Built by the appropriately named Mr. Beloudy, it could produce 77 different tunes and was one of the finest instruments of its kind in the country. At the same time one of the family banged on a huge Chinese gong which, it was claimed, could be heard four miles away.
Once the guests had made their way through the bulk of the exhibits they came into the 'sale room' where they were encouraged to open their purses and wallets to buy souvenirs of their visit. These were typically geological specimens but other knick knacks could be had for a few shillings, including Crosthwaite's verion of an Aeolian harp, of which over 260 were sold in a single year. His own 'Accurate Maps' were also for sale, of which more later.
With the stream of visitors came a steady income, but success came at a price. Rivals sought to steal his custom with their own enterprises, particularly Thomas Hutton, another mountain guide, who was prone to ridiculous exaggeration and ran a less pretentious museum in Lake Road. Hutton and Crosthwaite squabbled continually, verbally at first, with Hutton decried as a 'dark son of envy' before retaliating, describing Peter as 'a little purple-faced pig of a man'. It appears that Hutton escalated the conflict being later accused by Peter of hiring thugs to intimidate his family and then theft of his exhibits.
Crosthwaite was not without his local supporters, most notably Joseph Pocklington, a wealthy beneficiary from Newark who bought and built properties and follies around Derwentwater. Peter got on well with the 'man of no taste whatsoever' and was soon integral to the organisation of the mock naval battles at the heart of the Keswick Regattas. He took the rank of Admiral and Commander of the fleet “attacking” Pocklington’s Island, introducing a complicated system of flags and signals to choreograph the combat. The reports of canons echoed from the surrounding slopes and gunsmoke drifted across the lake, enthralling crowds of visitors and locals alike.
Crosthwaite's time at sea had taught him the value of accurate navigation and he realised that the tourists arriving in Keswick had no idea what attractions to visit or how to find them. He set about filling this gap with fine maps of the lakes - including Derwentwater, Ulswater, Coniston, Crummock Water - and their surroundings. The maps are works of art showing the significant landmarks and properties alongside descriptions in poetry and prose. Today's students of cartography afford him respect as the pioneer of a new style of mixed-media geographical record which not only directed tourists to the most significant locations but also informed their feelings about the features that would fill their view. In 2017 academics at Lancaster University described Crosthwaite's maps as 'prototype deep maps' and 'tools for instructing not only the eye, but also the mind and the heart.'
After Peter's death in 1808 his son, Daniel, and grandson, John Fisher Crosthwaite, carried on the museum. He is commemorated today on a plaque on Main Street in Keswick which suitably sums him up: 'Peter Crosthwaite 1735-1808: A native of this town. A naval Commander in the East India Service and a man of considerable ingenuity.'
Today, it is hard to believe that there haven’t always been tourists in the Lake District. But since Crosthwaite's pioneering days people came and still come for the dishes he served up: an interesting experience, good conversation, the chance to buy souvenirs and maps, beautiful views and a grand time, whatever the weather.