Belper School House restoration

PUBLISHED: 11:15 16 August 2013 | UPDATED: 11:15 16 August 2013

Rear courtyard of renovated building, with solar panels on the roof

Rear courtyard of renovated building, with solar panels on the roof

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Mike Smith looks into the story behind the newly restored Old School House, now an elegant feature of Belper’s streetscene

The story of the last two centuries is written in the stones of a large Regency-style building in Belper’s Chapel Street. Early years in the building’s history reflect Britain’s role as an imperial power and leader of the Industrial Revolution. Later episodes tell of the effects of world war and the rise and fall of manufacturing industries, but the latest chapter in the life of the building, which traces the replacement of manufacturing industry with hi-tech ventures, could never have been written but for the determination and dedication of one of the town’s most enterprising couples.

The building began life in about 1830 as Perkins’ Academy, a school established by Henry Perkins for both boarding and day pupils. Some years later, the academy was taken over by Robert Applebee, who had decided to move his own school from Leicester to Belper, having been seduced by ‘the salubrious climate and picturesque scenery of Derbyshire’, which he felt would be beneficial for the health of his pupils.

Aiming to ‘lead pupils to the assiduous cultivation of their various faculties’, Mr Applebee offered a curriculum comprising ‘Classics, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, the French Language, Music, Drawing and the usual branches of commercial education’. He was succeeded as headmaster by William Anthony, who gave the Academy the new name of ‘Collegiate School’, and then by Sefton Brooke, who changed its title to ‘Belper Grammar School’, reflecting a perceived increase in status, at least in his own mind.

According to research conducted by Heather Eaton and Adrian Farmer, several of the boys who were educated at the school had fathers serving in India and the education it provided was seen as a good option for turning out future citizens and soldiers for the British Empire. However, the establishment closed in 1913, probably in the face of competition from a new school opened by Herbert Strutt, a descendant of Jedediah Strutt, the man who brought the Industrial Revolution to Belper.

It is thought that the building may have housed Belgian refugees for a period during the First World War, before it was acquired by the hosiery manufacturers George Brettle and Co Ltd. The company sold the building on to Derbel Manufacturing Co Ltd in 1938, but returned to it in the eighties, in order to set up the Brettles Factory Shop. After Brettles left the building, it remained empty and became a major eyesore on Belper’s main street as it fell into increasing dereliction.

Ashley and Tracey Sowerby came to the rescue in March 2012, when they embarked on an imaginative and sensitive restoration of the building for use as the British headquarters of Chevin Fleet Solutions, a hi-tech company that produces software for managing, monitoring and streamlining businesses which run fleets of vehicles. The development of their firm into a worldwide operation is no less remarkable than their renovation of the 200-year-old building.

Ashley was born in Derby and left school at 16 to work in computer programming. At the age of just 21, he decided to set up his own company, but the banks, and even the Prince’s Trust, did not have sufficient faith in his prospects to come up with the loan he needed. Undaunted, he borrowed some money from his father and duly embarked on his brave solo venture. Two decades on, he is the director of a company which has offices in Sydney, Brussels and Boston.

Tracey, who was born in Alvaston and is secretary to the company, told me of the couple’s early struggles. She said, ‘We bought a wonky cottage in one of the streets created by the Strutts for their mill workers. Ashley described the house as little more than a pile of bricks when he first saw it, but we put a lot of energy into renovating the place. We then moved to Pennoch Hiron Farm, which we’ve also renovated and where we’ve brought up our two children. We’ve even restored another property in Belper as a holiday let.’

With three successful renovations behind them, Tracey and Ashley decided to take on the former school on Chapel Street as the headquarters of their expanding business, even though they had not seen the inside of the building when they bought it, simply because it was too dangerous to enter. Tracey said, ‘One wall had gone, part of the ceiling had caved in, but a black cat had taken up residence in what remained of the structure, which we took as a sign of good luck.’

Recalling the magnitude of the task that faced them, Ashley said, ‘We could have taken a much easier option by moving our business from Belper’s East Mill to somewhere like Pride Park, but we wanted to remain loyal to the town where we live, give employment to local people and save a historic building that was disfiguring the main street but had the potential to be a visual asset.’

Working with builders D H Harvey and Sons, the couple set about a renovation designed to be as faithful to the old building as possible. They retained an original ‘servants’ staircase’, an old fireplace and a section of panelling which had survived, as well as exposed brickwork that had been part of the external walls before the building was extended. New additions include reproduction sash windows, which are an exact copy of those in the original building, and wooden floors that replicate the style of those in the old school. They have also replaced a crumbling external sandstone wall with a new one that nicely matches the adjacent gritstone wall in both dressing and texture.

Respect for the building’s history has been combined with a determination to make the restored structure far more energy-efficient than the original edifice. This has been achieved by inserting an air-sourced heat pump, making the most of natural light and adding solar panels which are flush with the roof rather than being raised above it in the usual unsightly fashion.

The couple’s efforts, described by Tracey as ‘taking all our energy, including energy we didn’t think we had got’, have been recognised with the very first award given by the Belper Civic Forum for ‘the very best in architecture, design, landscape and public art’. The citation for the accolade, presented in May of this year, reads: ‘The award goes to projects of the highest quality design: judged to have made a positive cultural, social or economic contribution to the local community’.

The restoration was completed in just nine months and culminated in a moving-in party for the 25 staff of the Belper division of Chevin Fleet Solutions, who now work in light and airy rooms in the rear of the building. Tracey’s ambitions for the front of the building include the possibility of letting several spaces to start-up businesses, a worthy initiative that would add yet another chapter to the long story of this fine building.

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