Today we know Seale, in Leicestershire until transferred to Derbyshire in 1897, as two places, Netherseal and Overseal, but this was not always the case, for at the time Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, the chief lord was Henry de Ferrers and under him it was held by a man called Robert. It is thought by some commentators that this man was the son or at least next heir of the pre-Norman holder of the land, Wideline. Be that as it may, Robert was the ancestor of the de Seale (otherwise de Seyl) family, which continued there until the death of Ralph de Seale when the estate was divided between his two daughters and co-heiresses, who had married William de Wivell and William de Stretton (of the family that were at Stretton-en-le-Field, coincidentally also transferred to Derbyshire in 1897. Today’s Sale family claim descent from a junior branch of this ancient family.
Netherseal fell to the Strettons around 1180 but they allowed their rights to be acquired by Sir Walter de Ridware of Boylestone in the 13th century. In the early 15th century it passed with the Ridwares’ other estates to the Cottons, who also ended in heiresses, from the descendant of one of whom it was bought by London merchant Gilbert Morewood in 1620. He was a Derbyshire man, however, second son of Rowland Morewood of Oakes Park, Norton, on the NE edge of the county (but now, ironically, seized by Sheffield in 1936).
As most of the lords of the manorial estate following the Seales had more important manors elsewhere, it is not certain that there was a capital mansion at all on the estate before Gilbert Morewood started building Netherseal Hall in the 1620s. The house he built was orientated east – west next to St. Peter’s church in a small park, bounded by Main Street to the west and Church Lane to the south. It was originally two storeys high with attics, seven bays wide but only one range deep and raised on a semi-basement. The main west front was probably dominated by three gables and there were string courses above the mullion-and-transom cross windows, but that over the central entrance dipped down over it, like that at Derwent Hall (see Country Images last July).
This stone built house was reputed to be panelled and of symmetrical layout with a fine oak staircase in a well, but it turned out that it was one of those houses that underwent alteration with almost every generation of owners who had it.
As with the Seales, the Ridwares, and the Cottons, Gilbert Morewood died in 1650 leaving only heiresses, of whom the youngest, Frances, brought the house and estate to her husband, Sir Thomas Gresley of neighbouring Drakelow, a house at which we took a look in May.
The couple settled it on their second son, Thomas, who inherited it in 1699 and set about making alterations. He swept away the gables and replaced them with a half-storey attic, above which was a substantial parapet, giving the narrow house a strangely tall and gangly look. Thomas’s grandson, also Thomas, was not only squire but also rector of the adjoining church. He was also a keen improver. It was probably he who built a quirky little octagonal domed roofed summer house close to the house just to the left of the entrance, rather like the top of the Prospect tower at Croome Court, plonked down on the lawn.
He also added a single extra matching bay to the west end of the house, continuing in that direction for a further four bays under a conventional tiled roof as a service wing. Although also of three storeys, it was slightly lower and set back a foot or so from the main line of the façade and screened from the park behind trees. Not content with that, he set about planning an even larger house, still three storeys high, but with a five bay centrepiece flanked by full height domed bays, apparently with Pantheon-style oculi in the tops, a favourite conceit of architect James Wyatt who, although documentary proof is lacking, almost certainly was the architect.
The domed bay on the south east angle turned the corner to a four bay north front, but the other, oddly, had a single further bay beyond before turning, the north front containing the service wing. It would have been oddly grand and had much of the flavour of James Wyatt’s nephew Jeffry’s 1802 proposals for a new house for the FitzHerberts at Tissington.
Gresley had already turned his attention to the gardens in the late 1750s, but twenty years later started on the parkland, which he extended northwards, producing a bucolic vista ending in a thatched rustic cottage eye-catcher, which also acted as a shooting lodge, set against trees. It was designed by a friend, the dilettante architect and landscape guru William Combe (1741-1823). Much to everyone’s surprise, this turned up, long forgotten and semi-ruinous, sequestered in woodland in 2004, perceptively recognised for what it was by Philip Heath, then the local council’s heritage officer. Subsequently it has been neatly restored, although the intervening landscape is lost
The Revd. Thomas Gresley died in 1785 leaving a son, William (1760-1829) who was not only his father’s successor as rector, but also an improver of the house, too. He re-ordered the interior, sashed the windows of the main house and improved the entrance with a boxy porch round 1810, before being succeeded by his eldest son, who also succeeded his distant cousin as 9th Baronet and to the main family estate at Drakelow.
The younger half-brother, Revd. John Morewood Gresley, had the house settled upon him, and once again served as rector of the church. His wife, Penelope, née Vavasour, also recorded the delightful landscape for posterity. He died in 1866 and was succeeded in house and living by his nephew, the 9th Baronet’s younger son Revd. Nigel Gresley, father of the celebrated locomotive engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley (his fourth son), designer of Flying Scotsman and Mallard, who was born at the house. Unfortunately, the Blue Plaque set up by the County Council on the rectory wall at Netherseal, declares that he was born at the rectory, but his father of course lived at the hall, leaving his curate to enjoy the new-built rectory. People (and several of his biographers) have always assumed he was born in the rectory because his father was the rector, whereas in reality he was the ‘squarson’, resident at the hall.
Sir Nigel’s father set about improving the house yet again starting about 1870. This time it was a major transformation. Yet another bay was added to the west end of the façade, from which the parapet was stripped to be replaced by a series of six small sinuously shaped merlons, each topped by a ball finial and pierced by a blind oeuil-de-boeuf and none matching the rhythm of the eight bays below them. At the west end, the old service wing was removed and a new north-south facing wing added, also of three storeys, of four bays, with matching string courses over the fenestration and paned sash windows all under a dwarf parapet and looking rather old fashioned for its date. A new, two storey service wing was built beyond it and Barrons re-landscaped the grounds. It is presumed further alterations were made within, if only to accommodate the demands of the new extension.
After Revd. Nigel Gresley’s death in 1894, the house was let, first to the Robertsons of Chilcote (of a distinguished Scots family) who left in 1904, so that secondly, another member of the family, Revd. George Gresley, could move in, fashionable country house architect Sir Reginald Blomfield (then working at Drakelow) making alterations to the new wing, lowering it and adding a full height canted end-bay. The original hall had been converted into a sitting room in the 1870 rebuild, a new one being provided by a fresh entrance closer to the west wing, but this arrangement was again revised with much re-arrangement of oak panelling, by this time becoming rather well travelled.
Yet by 1912, financial pressure on the Gresley fortunes had forced George to move away and the house was empty for a while, before again being let, this time to Col. Kilner Brazier-Creagh, RFA (1869-1956) but he left in about 1925, after which the house remained unoccupied until its sale by the Gresley family in 1927. The house failed to sell at auction, but it was acquired through later negotiation by E. J. Manners of Netherseale Old Hall, who lived there for a while, before the Great Depression forced him to move back to the Old Hall and it lay empty, with no takers. In 1933, therefore it was summarily demolished.
Today the grounds are occupied by post-war housing and a much more modern care home, but all set discreetly behind the rather fine 18th century brick park wall, but of the house itself, not a fragment remains. Even the Gresley family died out, the last baronet expiring without a male heir in Bournemouth in 1977.