Home Lost Houses Derbyshire’s Lost Houses – Darwin’s House

Derbyshire’s Lost Houses – Darwin’s House

Derbyshire’s Lost Houses – Darwin’s House
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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Full Street in Derby was known as the most fashionable place in Derby to live, the trend having been set by the construction (and serial enlargement) of Exeter House at the south end (see Country Images February 2016 or check-out on line). With the sale from 1768 of Nuns’ Green, however, Friar Gate began to overtake it, and indeed, nemesis descended upon Full Street in 1855 when Exeter House was demolished and in 1893 when the Corporation built a vast electricity power station where the Devonshire Hospital – originally Bess of Hardwick’s Almshouses – had once stood. The only positive thing that happened since is that the power station came down in 1970, and the Council had the foresight to leave the site grassed over with an attractive view to the river and Silk Mill, embellished from 1995 by the erection of Anthony Stones’ fine equestrian statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In 1720 – the date in confirmed by the survival of a lead rainwater head in the collections of Derby Museums Trust – the locally based family of Samuel Heathcote (1653-1723) decided they needed a new house, and Heathcote, an alderman and former mayor of Derby, was the man who commissioned it.

The house he built was of two and a half storeys in height, four bays wide and much in the then popular provincial Baroque style of Francis Smith of Warwick, but with a rusticated ground floor divided by Doric pilasters supporting a matching frieze. Another Smith-like conceit was the placing of the attic windows above the cornice, as on Franceys’ house, Market Place, of 1696. Indeed the fenestration on the upper floors was much more closely akin and similarly disposed to that surviving on Franceys’ House and the former Lloyd’s Bank on the corner of Market Head and Iron Gate. Possibly the architect was George or Roger Morledge of Derby.

The entrance was placed to the right of the façade, affording space for a large ground floor reception room, panelled in oak with Ionic pilasters, as at 36, St. Mary’s Gate of 1736, and boasted a fine Wright iron fanlight grille above it, which has also survived and is in the collections of the Museum Trust; the roof was hidden behind a modest parapet. The garden, as with other houses in Full Street, stretched down to the Derwent, and all sported modest but usually rather pretty summerhouses/boat houses at the river’s edge.

Alderman Heathcote’s homonymous son was host to Lord George Murray during the ’Forty-five, when Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in Derby from 4th to 6th December 1745, and was widely supposed to be a keen Jacobite. Nevertheless, such was the disarray of the Whig opposition during the emergency, that he survived with reputation relatively intact, inheriting the Littleover Hall estate from his Harpur in-laws a few years later.

The house was let for a while to the banker John Heath in the 1750s and to lead merchant Henry Thornhill (of the Stanton-in-Peak family) in the decade following. In 1781 it was purchased by Dr. Erasmus Darwin FRS, formerly of Lichfield and more recently a rather bored resident, with his second wife, of Radburne Hall, she being the widow of Col. Pole of that place. Dr. Darwin, with Derby’s John Whitehurst, a founder of the illustrious and wonderfully informal Lunar Society, was one of the last great polymaths, a geologist with a preference for Vulcanism, an inventor of wonderful versatility and the originator of the theories adumbrated by his even more illustrious grandson, Charles.

Having acquired the house, he began to modify the interior, replacing the rather staid staircase with a curvilinear one, extending to the rear and devising the world’s first artesian well in the garden to provide fresh water for the household in lieu of the increasingly polluted water of the Derwent. To it he affixed an iron plaque which read:

TEREBELLO EDUXIT AQUAM

ANNO MDCCLXXXIII

ERASMUS DARWIN

LABITUR ET LABETUR

– approximately to be rendered as ‘the boring through brings forth water/the year 1783/Erasmus Darwin/flowing out and falling down’. Darwin’s alterations were started under the direction of Joseph Pickford, who worked extensively for the Lunar Society’s members, but he died suddenly in summer 1782 and the works were probably finished by his foreman Thomas Freeman.

Darwin also bought, in 1783, a portion of the gardens of Exeter House called Goose Green Close, which lay opposite, on the east side of the river, from John Bingham the ironmaster who then lived there. To reach his new pleasure grounds, he devised a hand operated ferry from the rear garden of his house (later 3, Full Street) to the east garden, illustrated for posterity by his son (Sir) Francis. When the Council decreed a new bridge across the Derwent at this point in 2006, an appeal for an apt name for it was launched. ‘Darwin’s Ferry’ was persuasively suggested, but ignored by whoever did the judging and the structure – an acquired taste aesthetically – remains anonymous to this day. Darwin also built a small Gothick pavilion by the riverbank in which to retire to write.

In 1801, Darwin’s eldest son, Erasmus junior, died by his own hand, much to the intense distress of his eminent father. A successful lawyer, he had previously acquired Breadsall Priory, but in 1802, Erasmus, wife and extended family decided it might be a deal more salubrious and indeed spacious to live at Breadsall than Full Street, what with the incursions of industry in the town centre, and moved there at the beginning of the year. Yet within two months of re-locating, Darwin had died, fairly unexpectedly, an unfinished letter to his lifelong friend Benjamin Franklin still on his desk.

The house in Full Street had been advertised to let in January 1802, and his executors sold it to George Bellairs of the Stamford banking house of A W Bellairs & Co., whose Derby Bank notes are today notable collectors’ items. Unfortunately the bank failed in spring 1814 and went into liquidation, which is why most surviving notes have the liquidator’s stamp on their reverses. The house therefore became Lot 2 in the sale of the assets of the company on 18th August 1814 and was purchased by another lawyer, John Curzon of Breedon Hall, Breedon-on-the-Hiill (1777-1864) of a distant cadet branch of the Curzons of Kedleston.

The Curzons used the house as an office with a member of the family living ‘over the shop’. John was succeeded by Nathaniel Charles (1829-1897) who also acquired Lockington Hall around 1870, which he promptly let to Charles Frederick Borough of Castlefields, opting to live in a new villa at Alvaston (hence Curzon Lane there). However, the Curzons died out in 1919 the Newtons of Mickleover Manor inheriting, and they let the house to the Derby Conservative Association’s Beaconsfield Club which remained there until 1933 when it moved to Green Lane and closed in 2013.

In 1933 Derby Council was busy implementing their Central Improvement Plan, devised by Borough architect Herbert Aslin CBE, and the land occupied by the house was required for the new magistrates’ court and police station, all duly completed in 1934, and saved from demolition in its turn by listing a decade ago (thanks to Derby Civic Society) and which underwent complete renovation to a high standard in 2013.

Darwin’s house was therefore demolished, and the garden incorporated into the riverside walk, but the little Gothick pavilion Erasmus Darwin had built there was demolished in the 1950s. In 2002, on the bicentenary of the good doctor’s death, a plaque was unveiled on the riverside walk in his memory, placed as near as possible to the site of the house.

Had it been suffered to survive, of course, it would without doubt have become a place of pilgrimage, now the whole world has come to appreciate the momentous changes brought about by the Age of the Enlightenment, ushered in by men like Darwin and his fellow Lunar Society members. After all, his Lichfield house has become a fine Museum. Derby, on the other hand, has not only destroyed his house, but also both the birthplace and childhood home of his grandson’s leading supporter, Herbert Spencer, and the house of his closest collaborator, John Whitehurst, is a decaying wreck.

Faced with such indifference to the possibilities presented by an illustrious heritage, it is no wonder why so many lost houses reviewed in this series have been situated in Derby!

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