Discovering Georgian Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 09:00 19 August 2014
Mike Smith goes on an architectural tour of the county
The first day of this month marks the 300th anniversary of the replacement of the last of the Stuart monarchs by George I from the House of Hanover. Over the next 116 years, four successive Georgian Kings would preside over an era of profound change. The old reliance on tradition and superstition would give way to enlightened thinking and reason. And some of the most influential thinkers and innovators of the age would be happy to share and exchange ideas through their membership of philosophical societies, such as Birmingham’s Lunar Society, which always met at the time of the full moon so that its members could find their way home by moonlight after their lengthy discussions.
When Erasmus Darwin, one of the founder members of the Lunar Society, moved to Derby in 1783, he founded the Derby Philosophical Society, which made the city another leading centre of the Midlands Enlightenment. Later members included the artist Joseph Wright, who vividly recorded some of the exciting new developments of the age, and the engineer Jedediah Strutt, one of the leaders of the Industrial Revolution, which had its first flowering in the valleys of Derbyshire.
The new buildings that were erected in Derby and elsewhere in the county reflected the mood of the age, because their architecture was founded on symmetry, proportion and mathematical principles. Visiting these buildings is a great way of discovering Georgian Derbyshire.
St Mary’s, Mappleton
In the Georgian nave of St Mary’s there are two inscriptions devoted to the history of the little church. One is headed ‘St Mary, Mapleton’; the other, just a few feet away, is labelled ‘St Mary’s, Mappleton’. To add to the uncertainty about the spelling of the place-name, the descriptions are equally vague about the date of construction of the present building, which replaced a chapel that a Parliamentary Commission of 1650 had declared ‘fit to be disused’ – a seventeenth-century version of ‘unfit for purpose’. Some historians claim work started as early as 1710, while other sources insist that construction did not begin any earlier than 1750.
Uncertainty also surrounds the identity of the architect. It is generally believed that the designer was James Gibbs, although quite why a man who designed the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford and St Martin’s-in-the Fields in London would take on a minor commission in a tiny village in Dovedale remains something of a mystery. However, Gibbs was commissioned to re-build All Saints’ in Derby (now Derby Cathedral) and it would be nice to think that the distinguished architect may have taken on the little job in Mappleton while he was in the area. Whether or not Gibbs was really responsible, the result is remarkable. Architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner was certainly taken aback when he saw ‘a west tower crowned to one’s shock surprise with an octagonal dome with a lantern’.
Pickford’s House in Friar Gate, Derby
Born in Warwickshire in 1734, Joseph Pickford became one of the country’s leading architects during the reign of George III. He moved to Derby in 1763, having taken on several important commissions in the city and throughout the East Midlands. In Derby’s Friar Gate, he designed his own superb townhouse, where he lived with his wife Mary and their two sons, together with their servants and their dog – the children and the dog became a subject for a well-known painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. The house also served as a showcase for his architectural skills, with the grand hallway and the large reception rooms having been specifically designed to impress potential clients.
Pickford’s House opened as a museum of Georgian life in 1988. Although it is not known how the rooms were furnished or decorated when the Pickfords lived there, the re-furnishing of the rooms has been so well done that it is not difficult to envisage the family living in the house exactly as they would have done 250 years ago. The house also contains a fine collection of costumes, as well as a toy theatre, and the grounds include a wildlife garden and a formal Georgian garden. Entry to this wonderful museum is free (open 10am to 5pm on Tuesday to Saturday; Sunday from 1 to 4pm).
The Grey House, Ashbourne
Ashbourne’s Church Street ranks alongside Derby’s Friar Gate as one of Derbyshire’s best Georgian streets. Its finest house is the Grey House, built in 1750 for Francis Higginbotham, a local lawyer. The story goes that Francis was forced to leave Ashbourne four years later because he married the local squire’s daughter against her father’s wishes. The house was then acquired by Brian Hodgson, a retired businessman, who commissioned Joseph Pickford to add a prestigious new stone frontage.
Clearly taking his cue from the detailing on the brick-built Mansion House across the road, Pickford added a stone façade that features pediments, balustrades, a projecting porch, two triple-height bays and a Venetian window topped by a semi-circular window. Despite the apparent architectural overcrowding, the overall effect is very pleasing. His client must have been well satisfied.
Winster Hall was built in 1628 for Francis Moore, a yeoman farmer. By 1720, the Moore family had increased their wealth to such an extent that they decided to re-build the hall in a style that would reflect their new status. As at Ashbourne’s Grey House, the new frontage was crammed with fashionable and showy features, including rusticated quoins, Doric pilasters, a roof-top balustrade and window-surrounds with prominent keystones. However, the frontage stops just short of being overbearing because it relies, like all the best Georgian buildings, on symmetry and fine proportions.
During the 19th century, the hall was the residence of Llewellyn Jewitt, the noted engraver and author of numerous books and articles on antiquities and topography. Today, the building’s rooms are available as holiday lets for people who want to experience a taste of life in a Georgian townhouse in the heart of the Peak District National Park (Sykes Holiday Cottages 01244 352059).
The Greyhound Hotel, Cromford
It could be argued that the Derbyshire village of Cromford is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, for it was here, in 1771, that Richard Arkwright established the world’s first successful water-powered cotton mill. By constructing entire streets of new homes for his workers, the entrepreneur transformed the little village into the world’s first factory town. He also built a large inn where he could meet businessmen and various visitors who came to see his mill.
Originally named The Black Greyhound, a reference to the animal on the crest of the Gells who were the local landowners, the inn was deliberately designed to impress. In fact, the building has something of the look of a fine Georgian country house. The central section is topped by a pediment, which contains a large clock, designed to remind workers to get to the factory on time. The inn, now simply called The Greyhound, has been beautifully restored by new owner Gordon McLeod, who has added an 80-seater brasserie and is able to offer six letting bedrooms.
Cressbrook Mill, near Tideswell
Eight years after establishing his factory at Cromford, in the valley of the River Derwent, Arkwright founded a mill in the valley of the River Wye at Cressbrook. Following a devastating fire in 1785, his son rebuilt the works, which were extended in 1815 by William Newton, who added a massive new mill that stretched across the valley floor. Although the mill had a purely utilitarian function, it was given the appearance of a large Georgian country house, complete with a pediment and a lantern. Of course, there was also the obligatory clock to ensure that workers would meet their shift times.
After the factory closed in 1971, it became derelict and an eyesore in a once-beautiful valley that had already been devastated by the industrial upheavals that began in the late Georgian Period. Today, the mill has been fully restored and converted into up-market apartments, and the scars in the rest of the valley have gone too, as if the Industrial Revolution never happened.