If you go into Waterstone’s in Derby, you will be entering a late 19th century edifice called Babington Buildings. High above your head, you will see a carved device – a visual pun called in heraldry a rebus – of two baboons either side of a barrel or tun: ‘baboon-tun’ thus Babington.
The building, now internally gutted, was designed by Methodist chapel specialist John Wills (1846-1906) for his friend the Hull-born entrepreneur Cllr. G. E. Fletcher. He was the proprietor of a national footwear chain called the Public Benefit Boot and Shoe Company and it was built to house the Derby branch of the enterprise in 1898 with offices for rent on the upper floors.
Why was it called Babington Buildings? Well, that is because the house on the site, pulled down in March 1897, was latterly called Babington House, and it was much regretted at the time, being a venerable Jacobean mansion of splendid appearance.
Babington House was an early example of a double pile house – built in two parallel ranges, of two storeys with three flush straight stone coped attic gables front and rear. It was of brick with stone dressings, and from the street – St. Peter’s Street at The Spot – the forecourt of the house was entered through a four centred (‘Tudor’) arch beneath a straight gable decorated with three heraldic beasts set in the high perimeter wall.
Behind was a two storied porch with a crenellated parapet, penetrated by another Tudor arch containing a carved ornamental oak door, approached via balustraded steps to a small platform – a perron – above which was an eight light mullioned and transomed window with a string course of moulded brick above and below continuing right round the building.
The flanking windows on both floors of this front were large twelve-light ones suspended from the upper string course and there was a lower extension containing the kitchens and service quarters to the left, with five light mullioned windows and a smaller gable above. The garden front had six light mullioned and transomed windows only on each floor at the end bays, despite facing south west. All the attics were lit by three light mullioned windows. The gables bore pointed finials and the roofline was set off by massive grouped chimney stacks.
Our knowledge of the interior is a little scanty, but it would appear that the hall was cranked in plan across the building with the finely carved oak staircase off to the right as one entered, rising through the whole width of the house and returning in a broad dog-leg. The best rooms were wainscotted with reticulated and geometrical panelling rather like the Oak Room at Norbury Manor (nowadays a rather posh holiday let), with diagonally carved fields.
The house was originally set in 13 acres of parkland and parterres bordered by Osmaston Road to the east and the gardens of old Babington Hall, where Mary Queen of Scots stayed on 13th January 1585. To the west, Babington Lane being little more than a track along the boundary until properly pitched and laid out by the Derby Improvement Commission in 1792.
The thing to remember about this rather splendid mansion is that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Babington family, long seated at Dethick and famous for terminating in the senior male line with the sticky end to which Anthony Babington came for plotting to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne of England in 1586.
The house was built as St. Peter’s House by Alderman Henry Mellor, the man who became the first ever Mayor of Derby under the 1637 charter, but who later died in office. His family were landowners, his elder brother having just built a timber framed house called South Sitch (which happily survives) at Idridgehay. Mellor, as a younger son was a mercer and a very prosperous one at that; the family had also done well in London and one of his kinsmen later built Erddig, a notable National Trust property in North Wales.
His nephew, another Henry Mellor, inherited and paid tax on a substantial 18 hearths in 1670 making his house the same size as Norbury, Etwall, Bradley and Norton Halls, none of which survive in anything like their state in 1670, Norbury being reduced and rebuilt in 1682, Etwall was rebuilt and demolished in 1957, Bradley demolished and replaced by a hunting stables (now the hall) and Norton replaced in the 1790s. In Derby only one house compared to it: Newcastle House in the Market Place, also taxed on 18 hearths.
Henry’s younger brother Robert Mellor died in 1687, when the house appears to have been sold. The only clue as to whom is in a line from William Woolley’s History of Derbyshire of c. 1715 which reads:
“…coming down from Osmaston, on the left hand stands a good house and seat of the Mellors who were a considerable family in this town, now owned by Mr. Gregge…”
Which is supported by an indenture in the Borough, recording the grant in 1718 from the Corporation of a piece of ground called St. Leonard’s Flat to Francis Gregge. This allowed the house’s demesne to be extended towards what today is Leopold Street and back to Normanton Road.
Thus we can be pretty certain that Gregge was the purchaser of the house from the Mellors. Descended from a family of Bradley, Cheshire, his grandfather John, a fifth son, had settled at Ilkeston having inherited from his wife interests in coal mining thereabouts. The eldest son, Ralph, was of Hammersmith, Middlesex, his younger brothers Francis and Robert remaining in Ilkeston.
Francis Gregge (1667-1723) was the sixth son of Ralph and in 1680 inherited the Ilkeston property and the mining interests on his coming of age eight years later, when he married Mary, daughter of John Borrowe of Castlefields, Derby. A lawyer, he was also one of the six Clerks in Chancery and he had a town house in Holborn, London, and a Derbyshire seat at Norton Lees Hall which he rented from the Greenwood family, probably because there were mines in which he had an interest near Sheffield. His younger son, another Francis, bought Norton Lees outright in 1735.
His eldest surviving son was the entertainingly named Foot Gregge (1700-1764), a solicitor whose chief interests were in London. In due course, therefore, he, with his siblings and widowed mother, all of whom had a joint interest in the property, decided in 1732; the purchaser being Henry Eyre of Rowtor Hall.
Eyre was a younger son of Gervase Eyre of Rampton, Nottinghamshire, descended from those of Holme-by-Newbold. He had, in 1717, inherited his Derbyshire estate with its small Jacobean manor house and weirdly set out grounds around Rowtor Rocks, embellished with carved stone seats and tables, from a kinsman, Thomas Eyre ‘on condition that he should live in it’. This was plainly something he couldn’t stand after the death of his first wife, and he thereupon decided to move to Derby.
On his re-marriage in 1745 to a Cotton of Combermere, he raised a £1,200 mortgage on the house from Samuel Crompton’s bank, vesting it in trustees, and it remained so vested until finally sold by his heirs in 1799. Eyre’s only daughter by his first wife, Elizabeth, married at St. Peter’s Derby in 1741 the splendidly named Irish Peer Clotworthy Skeffington, 1st Earl of Massareene, and they lived at St. Peter’s House for a while, Lord Massareene’s large and draughty Carolean seat beside Sixmilewater in Co. Antrim – burnt out by ‘the boys’ in 1922 – being too uncivilised for his new Countess. Their descendants retained an interest in the freehold, despite its having passed via the Cottons (who took over the mortgage on Eyre’s re-marriage) to Derby-born Revd. Richard Rowland Ward of Sutton Hall, Sutton-on-the-Hill.
Between 1792 when Babington Lane was pitched and 1811, the neighbouring property, early Tudor Babington Hall, had been demolished as un-lettable and the site added to Abbott’s Hill immediately to its NW.
Eventually the house, coach house, stables, outbuildings, cottage and grounds were finally sold to widow Dorothy Wilmot for £4,000, whose son, Edward Sacheverell Sitwell of Stainsby House, Smalley inherited it in 1825, when it was occupied by the previous owner’s cousin, John Buckston of Ash Hall. Sitwell promptly re-named the house Sitwell Hall and sold St. Leonard’s Flatt, the southerly portion of the garden, for re-development: nothing new there, then. He got £9,400 for ten acres of development land – nice going!
The purchaser was a group of men keen to build houses: John Flewker, a lawyer who did the paperwork and put up the money, William Smith (1784-1851) architect and surveyor and Edward Smith, William’s brother, a joiner and house builder. They immediately laid out Wilmot, Sitwell and Sacheverell Streets on the land and in 1830, having built some houses – Smith was the architect of North Parade and a man of some accomplishment – re-sold plots to various building clubs whose members pooled resources and built houses to be occupied on a rent-to-buy basis.
It was in one of Smith’s rather neat Regency terraced villas in Wilmot Street that the philosopher Herbert Spencer grew up. His father lived in it from new in 1826 and Spencer reminisced in his autobiography about his rambles as a boy southwards through the unspoilt countryside, which began at their back garden gate, towards Osmaston Hall.
Meanwhile, this development did little for the tenants of Sitwell Hall, and its inexorable decline began. The Irish miniaturist and author Louisa Stuart Costello (1799-1870), an old friend of Irish poet Tom Moore and of the Strutts, was frequently a guest of the latter at Thorntree House at the bottom of S.t Peter’s Street.
On one occasion, in or just before 1845, Miss Costello was ‘induced by curiosity’ to call at Sitwell Hall. She found the house inhabited only by an old artist, whom she claims as a portraitist, although directories reveal that this was actually Samuel Kirk, whose chief forte was animal painting. She goes on,
‘He conducted us over the curious old house, into numerous rooms, nooks and corners, all in excellent order, with carved walls and ceilings; a complete specimen of the buildings of two centuries back and a most excellent dwelling house for a modern family. Probably when first erected, it stood alone in gardens in a park, but now it is surrounded by houses, chiefly small and new and possessing no character in common with it.’
Kirk had moved in during 1843, when the previous tenant, Dr. William Fletcher, headmaster of Derby School from 1834, moved on to pastures new. Miss Costello duly did a beautiful little miniature drawing of the house, which survives.
In 1846, after a brief period standing empty, the house was let to Rev’d Edward Lillingston, vicar of All Saints to 1848, followed by wealthy butcher Jarvis Bancroft but, by 1852 it had been bought as an investment by hugely wealthy solicitor William Eaton Mousley of Exeter House.
In 1854, Mousley died and the property was sold to John Norton, an enterprising Lincoln draper, who extended the front out across the courtyard to the street and turned the extension into a woollen and linen wholesale and retail drapery. It was Norton who, eager to capture for his own business some of the romance lost when Babington Hall was demolished, quite vicariously renamed the mansion Babington House.
Norton, latterly Norton & Sons, continued until 1872 when the business was sold to George Linnell a Derby draper who sub-let part of the shop to china and glass dealer J. G. Potter. In the early 1880s Linnell moved nearer to the centre of the town and the final occupant, Leonard W. Brookes took over, turning the place into what he called a ‘Fancy bazaar, warehouse and repository’ with, inside the mansion ‘convenient and tasteful interior arrangements…a place aux dames…’ The building by this time boasted a ‘70 foot galleried hall’ which is difficult to conceive in the house as built and must have been fashioned from Mr. Norton’s extensions.
Nevertheless, Brookes’s widow, Annie, faced with the persuasiveness of Cllr. Fletcher’s cash, was more than content to sell up and retire in 1897 leaving this venerable and much loved old house to be demolished early in the August.
Compared with such splendour, Waterstones today looks rather slick and vapid, for all the goodies sold therein.