There is still a Littleover Old Hall standing in our leafy Derby suburb, as any member of the community would be only too pleased to inform you. Yet the house that now acts as the centrepiece of the HQ of the Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service, hemmed in as it is by utilitarian modern buildings, is a building of 1891, erected to the design of Alexander MacPherson for businessman Edward MacInnes. Prior to that however, there was a house of some architectural pretension on the site that dated to the late Elizabethan era, of which few are aware.
Littleover was never a separate manorial estate, but was part of the great manor of Mickleover, as was Findern and the deserted medieval village of Potlock. It had all been given to endow the Abbey of Burton by its founder, the Saxon thegn Wulfric Spot in 1002. By the 14th century though, much land in Findern, Potlock and Littleover had been in the tenancy of the Fynderne family since the early 12th century.
In the 16th century, an opulent lawyer of Staffordshire family, Sir Richard Harpur, married Jane daughter of George Fynderne of Findern, thereby acquiring some land at Swarkestone in the settlement, subsequently purchasing much more of that family’s property both there and elsewhere, including an estate at Littleover and the Manor of Breadsall Upper Hall. When the last member of the Fynderne family died without issue, Sir Richard’s wife became the heiress, so he also acquired the remainder of the family’s estates, including Findern and Potlock.
Sometime in the 1580s, Sir Richard’s second son, also called Sir Richard Harpur (whose 1635 monument is still to be admired in the parish church), was granted the Littleover estate by his elder brother on his marriage 1588 to a daughter of Thomas Reresby of Thryburgh in Yorkshire. It was probably him who built a house there around the the mid-1590s and presumably there was a previous house on the site, in which he lived beforehand, but of it we know nothing at all.
The Harpurs flourished at Littleover until the senior male line died out with 32 year old John Harpur in 1754. His sister had married Samuel Heathcote, a Jacobean Derby alderman and successful lead trader. His descendants lived there until a grandson inherited The Pastures, a newish house situated further west along the Roman road to Burton-on-Trent. They let the old hall as a farm, retaining it and much of the estate after moving to Raleigh in Devon in the 1840s. Yet they only sold the hall in 1890 and the residue of the estate in Littleover and nearby in 1920. Indeed, it was this release of land in the village which enabled it to expand over the following two decades.
What was the house like? We only have a limited number of clues. One is the hearth tax assessment of 1670, which records that Richard Harpur (Jr) was assessed for this tax on ten hearths, which suggests a house of medium size comparable with the manor houses at Locko, Duffield Park, Barton Blount and Weston-on-Trent, only the last of which survives in anything like the form it had in that era. We also have two paintings, one ostensibly of 1873 and another done about 15 years later, both of which show the building after major changes had taken place.
Finally there are pieces of written evidence: inventories, legal documents and a few descriptions. Of the latter, the earliest is that of William Woolley (c1713) who unhelpfully said that it was ‘a large old house’, whilst James Pilkington described it as a fine old house in a ‘high and pleasant situation’. William Hutton, writing in 1791 was more critical. ‘Nothing,’ he wrote, ‘can be said in favour of this house except its antiquity: but everything may be in favour of its situation, which is charming beyond conception.’ The Lysons in 1817 call it a ‘good old mansion’ and inform us that Bache Heathcote was still living in it.
The 1873 picture, which still hangs in the house today, was copied from an original (marked ‘after J. Rolfe 1873’) which was presumably in the possession of the Heathcotes. The question here is whether the house shown was as standing in 1873 or as it was when James Rolfe painted it, probably c1820. As the 1880’s painting shows a brick two storey Regency farm house with no towers and contemporary maps, a house with a footprint which was a simple rectangle, one has to assume that the painting is of the house as it was rather than in 1873; this must be the date of the copy.
What the picture shows is a house in transition, from a glorious Elizabethan swagger-house to workaday farm. From the original build remains two square castellated three storey towers, lit by tiers of three light mullioned windows and embellished by a pair of tall brick Tudor chimney stacks. One tower boasts a quoined Gothic door in the base, which I cannot believe is in its original position, but could have been a fragment of the Medieval house, retained out of sentiment.
The house may originally have sported two further towers on the north side and each may have been capped by a domed lantern, as at Dodington in Lincolnshire, essentially a mark two Hardwick, by Robert Smythson in 1600. It gives a flavour of what Littleover would have looked like, especially as its parapets would probably also have been crenellated. Originally the entire building would have been of three storeys, the rooms of the uppermost one higher than those below, as was then the fashion. An illustration of Wingerworth Old Hall (demolished in 1723) also gives an impression of the sort of house we are looking at but of only two storeys. The only surviving house which gives one some impression of what Littleover would have looked like is Holme Hall, near Bakewell of 1636.
The structure behind the towers in the picture, however, appears as a brick two storey rectangular building, two bays deep and as we know from the other picture (painted after the destruction of the towers) probably five bays wide with a later projecting gabled wing at the west end. It looks early 19th century in date.
The demolition of the original great hall range (and the other pair of towers, if they existed) probably took place after Hutton wrote in 1791 and prior to c1825, for a fine Hopton Wood stone chimneypiece and overmantel, clearly from the Old Hall, if somewhat prettied up, was built into The Pastures nearby when that estate reverted to the Heathcotes at about that time. If the Fire Service painting really depicts the house as it was c1820, then it is anybody’s guess when the towers were finally removed, for on the surviving maps the house is shown uniformly rectangular.
The prototype for this house, assuming it stood roughly on the footprint of its precursor, has to be Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s great house at Hardwick, designed by Robert Smythson and built from 1592. There we find six towers, all studiously positioned away from the angles of the house, just as those at Littleover appear to have been. Another related design by Smythson (but probably not built) was the hall at Blackwall-in-Peak designed c1593 for Sir Charles Cavendish, one of Bess of Hardwick’s sons. It was close in size to Littleover with four towers recessed from the angles, but on a much squarer plan. Dodington was a development of the Hardwick template, and houses like Wingerworth and Holme were spin-offs copied by imitators over the following generation.
Whatever its inspiration, the rather modest mullioned windows would seem to suggest that Sir Richard used a local mason rather than Robert Smythson himself. Nevertheless, had it survived intact, it would have been one of the important group of faux castles and ‘high houses’ like those to which I have compared it, not to mention the much grander Bolsover, Wollaton, Worksop Manor Lodge and Barlborough, for which our part of the Midlands is famed.
Although a single chimneypiece survives, it is astonishing other fragments have not been re-used: the (no doubt) fine oak staircase, the doorcases, pinnacles, stained glass, panelling and other details. solus Perhaps they have and nobody has realised where they’re from!