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Derwent Bank at Darley Abbey

Derwent Bank at Darley Abbey
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Last month I wrote of an extraordinary house designed by the Derby amateur architect, banker, tax official and serial Mayor of Derby Alderman Richard Leaper (1759-1838), Mill Hill. Poor Leaper’s oeuvre has suffered rather badly from 20th century demolitions, however, so I thought we ought to look at another of his lost houses whilst the tale of Mill Hill was still fresh in our minds.

Derwent Bank, which was originally called Darley Grove, was built by an emergent Derby industrialist on an eight acre park that had been carved by sale from part of the parkland of Darley Hall, Darley Abbey. This had originally been landscaped by William Emes, a locally based follower of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1778 for Robert Holden, so this new house enjoyed a ready-made mature mini-park from the hand of an acknowledged master.

Derbyshire historian Stephen Glover, writing in 1831, could only describe the house itself as a “stone mansion with a portico”, but sale particulars of 1834 refer to it as a “delightfully situated and commodious freehold residence”. It was situated a little further up the Duffield Road out of Derby from Highfields (a surviving work by Leaper, currently for sale) and on the other side, on a scarp overlooking the river. The land was sold in 1824 to silk manufacturer Thomas Bridgett (1766-1833), who engaged Leaper, a friend and a fellow parishioner, to design it.

Bridgett (despite of the spelling, which he himself had changed) was a scion of the house of Bridgart, long builders in Derby. In the late 18th century, the building business of Joseph Pickford’s long-time associate Abraham Denstone had passed to his grandson John Bridgart, son of his daughter Keziah and Seth Bridgart, a framework-knitter.

John, carried on the building business founded by the Denstones, buying a former bowling green by the Wheel Inn, Friar Gate, in March 1839 where the firm’s headquarters were thereafter set. The business passed – on the extinction of the Bridgarts – to Joseph Parker, an ex-employee in 1887. This firm continued on the site until the retirement of its last proprietor, Howard Parker in 1969, embodying over two centuries of tradition of high quality building and craftsmanship, a remarkable survival from the era of the Midlands Enlightenment.

Of this family, builder William Bridgart had had a rich uncle. This was Thomas Bridgart, who started, like William, as a humble framework-knitter. Yet, by his own efforts, he became first a hosier then a silk-throwster and a phenomenally successful one at that. His Brook Street Mill was founded in 1807 and the pedimented eight storey ribbon mill equalled Strutt’s fireproof calico mill in size. He also added a seven storey throwing mill, and a lower weaving mill. The ribbon mill is probably the first fireproof and undoubtedly the first steam powered silk mill in Britain. The complex continued as a silk mill before being adapted in the 20th century as a narrow tapes mill, which closed about 1995.

It can hardly be doubted that Thomas Bridgett’s nephew was the building contractor who erected Darley Grove/Derwent Bank. He also managed to outlive no less than five wives, the first two being solicitors’ daughters, linking him to a mayor of Derby. His only son received a bronze medal for the firm’s products at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and one of his grandsons carried the business on. Another, the Very Rev Thomas E. Bridgett OSB (1829–1899) became a prominent Catholic theologian; a third, Ronald, was a diplomat.

The house presented a five bay façade to the west, rusticated lavishly up to the first floor sill band, and centered by a Doric portico. Panelled Doric pilasters rose from the rustication supporting entablature, cornice and low parapet. By being two and a half storeys, it looked quite two decades out of date, but the sale particulars state unequivocally that it was completed in 1825. The side facing the river was asymmetrical, having a very wide shallow canted full height bay to the left, again enclosed by pilasters, with a plainer recessed portion to the right embellished with a full height deeply curved bow and a later, lower, two storey wing beyond which broke forward again, the whole being set on a rocky terrace overlooking gardens which cascaded down, almost to the Derwent.

The same source tells us that the two main reception rooms, opening off the hall (which ran right through the house), were 25 by 20 feet with 12 foot ceilings and that the staircase was a cantilevered one of Hoptonwood stone with an elegant cast iron rail, probably supplied by the local firm of Weatherhead, Glover & Co., of Duke Street (later taken over by Andrew Handyside). Both the hall and stairwell had “richly ornamented” ceilings. The main rooms boasted “rich cornices, fine marble chimney-pieces and mahogany doors”. From the galleried first floor landing there opened four bedrooms with dressing rooms and two water closets (no doubt working along the lines set out by John Whitehurst FRS at Clumber Park in 1774 and ‘improved’ upon by William Strutt, a neighbour at St. Helen’s House to the south, and Sheffield-born engineer Charles Sylvester. Leaper also provided the park with a delightful octagonal summerhouse embellished with cast iron trellis work (long vanished), a gardener’s cottage (now 208, Duffield Road and much mauled) and a lodge house.

The house failed to sell at the auction, triggered by Bridgart’s death, in April 1834, but was bought by private treaty by Edward Strutt, MP (later 1st Lord Belper), William Strutt’s son and heir, in 1839. He re-named it Derwent Bank House, enlarged it to the North and East (in matching style), connected the parkland to that of St. Helen’s House and used the house as a roosting place for his unmarried sisters. To aid this, he had the house extended to the North. After the last sister Miss Frances had died in 1877, the house was offered by Lord Belper to Derby Corporation at £1,000 per acre (a very reasonable price then for building land), which declined to accept it. Instead it was let and later sold (1880) with seven acres to brewer W. H. Worthington, whilst the Strutts sold all the remaining land privately (the original 8 acres plus about 60 of St. Helen’s Park) for building purposes, thus creating the late Victorian suburb of Strutt’s Park, now a leading Derby Conservation Area..

Worthington’s daughter sold the house to Edward Chadfield, who very rapidly sold it on again in 1894 to Henry Freckleton Gadsby (son of former Derby Mayor John Gadsby) who moved it on again in 1903 to lace manufacturer William Fletcher. On his widow’s death in 1922, it lay empty until sold to a medical charity two years later. The Medical Society seem to have had an idea to turn it into what we would today call a care home, as they did with Florence Nightingale’s old home, Lea Hurst, but eventually had second thoughts. It was therefore sold to James Millward & Co. of Belper, building contractors, who demolished it in 1926, to enable houses to be built on the site. A small part of the park was acquired by Derby City Council and became Derwent Park, later being re-incorporated into Darley Park, ironically representing a return to the situation between 1778 and 1824.

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