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Lost Houses of Shallcross Hall

Lost Houses of Shallcross Hall
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The Dark Peak was never a place welcoming enough, through elevation or climate, to encourage the erection of major country houses, although small stone built manor houses were built, especially in the environs of Chapel-en-le-Frith. Shallcross hall, therefore, was something of an exception, being a classical house of moderate size situated on as windy hilltop just south of Whaley Bridge but on the Derbyshire side of the Goyt.

There was once a medieval village below the ridge which may have faded away through de-population during the Black Death, a generation prior to which the county’s ancient charters record the first known lord of the manorial estate, detached from the King’s Forest of the High Peak, Swain de Shalcross (the family usually spelt their name with one ‘l’). His first name would suggest that he was probably of Norse descent rather than Norman or Anglo-Saxon.

No one knows what shape the first house took, although at that date – around 1300 – it was probably timber framed under thatch. That there was a stone built Elizabethan or early Jacobean replacement is without doubt, for it was assessed for tax on six hearths which suggests that it was of the same sort of modest dimensions as most of the surviving small manor houses of that sort of date in the area.

Houses usually get replaced when incomes go up, and John Shalcross, fifteenth in descent from Swain, seems to have expanded his estate and had the good fortune to have discovered deposits of coal thereon, too. Indeed, there was a colliery of relatively early date not far to the East of the house, later served by a rope worked tramway which connected to the Peak Forest Canal.

Therefore John set about building a new seat on a site a few yards from what we presume to have been that of its predecessor. When Mick Stanley and I wrote it up for our two volume epic The Derbyshire Country House in 1982 (followed by revisions of 1991 and 2001), the only earlier account of the house was printed in the Derbyshire Archaeological Society’s Journal for 1905, from which my exterior views (by Derby amateur photographer A. Victor Haslam) were taken. This was written by Ernest Gunson with help from the Journal’s editor, W J Andrew, and they made much of the resemblance of the millstone grit-built house to Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, designed by James Gibbs.

I said in 1982 that although Gibbs came to Derby to oversee the start of work on the Cathedral in 1723, there was no evidence that he designed Shallcross Hall, nor on close inspection does it have anything but a passing resemblance to Ditchley. However, as Derby Cathedral was actually built by Francis Smith of Warwick (who was also the contractor at Ditchley) there is some congruence with his work, although a close inspection of the surviving photographic evidence suggests that the house was probably only influenced by his oeuvre and was actually put up by some competent Manchester builder using Gibbs’s Book of Architecture (1728) which contains, as plate 63, a plan for just such a house with pavilions on curved wings.

Before Shallcross was built, though, Smith had designed Sir Charles Pye a new house at Clifton Campville, on the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border and, although only the wings were ever built (they were rescued from dereliction by Richard Blunt), the plan is virtually identical to that of Shallcross: six rooms per floor and staircases, main and staff, in the short sides. This was a fairly formulaic layout, for the time, however, as Gibb’s builders’ manual proves.

Shallcross’s entrance front faced north, seven bays wide, the central trio breaking slightly forward, of two and a half storeys over a high basement (an arrangement probably dictated by the rocky nature of the site), all of coarse ashlar with dressed quoins at the angles, plat bands and plain frieze below the roof, which was triple-ridged over the three piles of the building, an unsophisticated arrangement that neither Gibbs nor Smith would ever have countenanced. The sides were of three bays each and relatively plain. The garden front almost exactly mirrored that on the entrance side of the house with a plain door to the garden and plain architraves to the windows.

The most enjoyable aspect was the a pair of pyramid-roofed pavilions either side of the main house and attached to it by curved links, each of a single storey over a high basement and forming a neat little cour d’honneur approached through a gate in the bawn wall allowing the house to be approached up a substantial flight of steps. Gunson and Andrew declared these to be later, but, had they thought about Ditchley Park a little harder (and indeed the unbuilt Clifton Hall, or had known Gibbs’s book) they would have realized that such pavilions were definitely an integral part of the design.

The six rooms-to-a-floor plan allowed for a spacious entrance hall, with a triple arched screen containing the lateral corridor, leading through to the drawing room on the warm south front. The plan in the 1905 Journal is labelled up with the rooms’ functions, but these only reflect the way they were used in 1905. When built, the drawing room would have led left into the breakfast room and right into the dining room, with the kitchen behind it on the north side with the staff stairs in between. The hall would have led left into the library or study. The first floor had a galleried landing with four bedrooms, two with dressing rooms, whilst staff bedrooms would have been in the attic storey.

By the time the house’s interior was photographed in the 1930s, some chimney pieces would seem to have been lost as one can see two constructed of early seventh century carved timbers, probably from a tester bed, although that in the hall, Ionic and of Hoptonwood stone, seems to have survived. Some rooms were panelled with early 17th century wainscot, presumably from the previous house, and in 1905 there was a room with a late 17th century Brussells tapestry, too. There is no record of the stairs, but at that date they would most likely have been of oak.

The grounds may have once been landscaped, despite the relative bleakness of the site, as a ha-ha remains, suggesting formal gardens to protect from deer. To the SE of the house too, is a majestic semi-circle of trees – still in situ – which today look incongruous. They were either planted in the early 19th century to hide the colliery and tramway, once they became steam operated and unsightly, or else a matching sweep was intended to lie to the SW (which I suspect the more likely) is unclear, but the fall of the land is such that the screen would hardly have hidden much.

It would seem that originally there was intended to be a matching sweep to the SW to separate the small park so created from the home farm but whether that side was planted and later removed or just not done is unclear. The satellite view shows no traces, but subsequent events could have obscured the vestiges. There is a single line of trees running south from the SW angle of the enceinte so they may represent a re-think, although they appear less mature than those to the SE. The estate in the 19th century ran to 575 acres which, with a colliery, would have been lucrative enough to support the house and family.

Ten years after completing his house, however, John Shalcross died, the last of his line, although several collateral branches survive even to this day, although some descendants, like the late Sir Hartley Shawcross, bear the phonetic spelling of the name. His death may have been the reason why the screen of trees was never completed. There were, however, two daughters, and the estate descended through the younger to the descendants of Roger Jacson (sic) of Ashbourne, one of whom sold it all to Foster Bower of Taxall and Manchester and his family sold it again to the Jodrells of nearby Yeardsley Hall. They hardly needed two main houses so close to each other so Shallcross was let to Edward Hall in the 1850s.

Edward’s descendant, Col. Edward Hall CB purchased the freehold from the Cotton-Jodrells in 1925 but sold the reversion of the estate to Buxton Lime Firms (BLF) the year after, which duly took it over on his death some years later. It was apparently unoccupied when the Second World War broke out, when it was requisitioned by the ROC and had at least one searchlight mounted on the south side.

The war over, the colourful intelligence agent (whose controller at MI5 was Anthony Blunt) Georges Kopp (1902-1951) is said to have lived there for a time before going to France and dying there. Thereafter the Berry family, whose business was in Manchester, were in residence until 1954, but after their time the house seems to have been left empty and decaying until purchased from BLF and demolished by a local developer called Harry Rogerson. He built a number of straightforward looking bungalows on the site, but wisely left the superb setting alone.

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