It is very difficult to imagine, when looking at Derby’s Babington Lane with its endless tail-backs of ’buses, that less than a century ago it was virtually rus in urbe: the countryside in town par excellence. Indeed, the last owner of Abbot’s Hill House, that stood for just on two centuries between Babington and Green Lanes, W. H. Richardson, was a keen huntsman and kept his hunters in the stable block there.
Architecturally, Abbot’s Hill was one of Derby’s more important mansions, being one of a small group of early 18th century town houses which all appear to have been designed by the same architect. We have no certain idea who he was except that he worked in the style of Francis Smith of Warwick, architect of Darley Hall (1727). Another similar house was Castle Fields, nearby (demolished 1838) and The Friary.
The house was built in about 1720 on a large area of elevated semi-parkland that lay east of Green Lane and west of the grounds of Sitwell Hall (later Babington House), at The Spot, now the site of Waterstone’s. This was once the park of Babington Hall, a Tudor (or earlier) mansion belonging to the Babingtons of Dethick. That venerable building, wherein Mary Queen of Scots passed one night in January 1586, was demolished in 1811, and the land itself was by then bounded by Babington Lane, a new street pitched by Derby’s Second Improvement Commission in 1789. This left a wedge to the east of Green Lane (then more picturesquely, and accurately, called Green Hill) on which Dr. Simon Degge, FRS, FSA began to erect Abbott’s Hill.
The name has no obvious resonance with any of Derby’s six whilom monastic establishments and may have been a conceit of Degge’s, for he was a keen archaeologist and indeed was the first man to have excavated the necropolis in the vicarage garden at Repton, subsequently opened in much more scientific style by Professor Martin Biddle in the 1980s. Degge was the great-grandson of Staffordshire born Sir Simon Degge, who was a notable Recorder of Derby, who is locally famous for having spared the life of the waterborne gentleman counterfeiter Noah Bullock in the 1670s. Dr. Degge also had a country estate at Stramshall in Staffordshire, so Abbot’s Hill was, strictly speaking, a town house, or occasional residence.
The house itself was typical of the period, being brick, of two-and-half storeys, with a flat roof hidden by a parapet set on a modest cornice. It was five bays wide with the central bay breaking forward by a brick’s width and the sides were of four bays. It and an entrance set within a bolection moulding topped by an entablature supported on brackets with a central keyblock. The windows had cambered heads with gauged brick lintels again centered by keyblocks with small cornices on them, rather like those on The Wardwick Tavern of 1708. The south side (of which no illustration appears to survive) was presumably similar, with grounds coming to an apex where Green Lane and Normanton Road met Babington Lane and Burton Road began.
The dining room was panelled with oak which was said to have been rescued from Babington Hall. As the latter co-existed with Degge’s house for almost a century, and bearing in mind that Georgian dining rooms were invariably panelled in order to facilitate the removal of tobacco deposits, there must have been some earlier panelling which was presumably moved elsewhere c. 1811. The room itself was 25ft 8in by 16ft 3in, opening off the entrance hall from which also rose an impressive oak staircase with a ramped handrail set on a balustrade with three turned balusters per tread. Also opening off the hall were the breakfast parlour, study and drawing room, the latter altered as a laboratory by a later owner, Dr. Forester French, a friend of William Strutt, to conduct medical experiments. There was also a second staircase, a private drawing room on the first floor, three bedrooms with sitting rooms and a further five bedrooms in the attic.
In 1817 the Derby builder/architect Joseph Cooper built a new stable block and extended the service wing to include a ‘fireproof safe’ and a self-flushing water closet after the design by John Whitehurst FRS for Clumber Park as refined by Charles Sylvester and William Strutt. The gardens were terraced down to St. Peter’s church yard.
Dr. French, a brother-in-law of F N C Mundy of Markeaton Hall, had bought the house from Dr. Degge’s heirs, and in 1844 his heirs in turn sold it to Alderman Robert Forman, an exceedingly rich 53-year old Chellaston-born maltster who went on to serve as Mayor of Derby in 1848. His maltings were nearby and in 1823 he had somewhat compromised the setting of his new house by building a terraced row of 28 cottages on the opposite side of Babington Lane with a malting floor set above the living accommodation and all the windows facing away from the street, presenting therefore an intimidating windowless aspect to Babington Lane.
Alderman Forman’s son Robert inherited less than a decade later and died in 1862, leaving it to his brother, Cllr. Frederick Forman. He, though, built himself a new house (to the designs of Edward du Sautoy, great grand-father of the late Cllr. Martin du Sautoy), on the grounds, at the edge of Green Lane opposite Wilson Street. Completed in 1869, this was called Green Hill Villa and was a fine house unpardonably destroyed in 2006 to build an exceedingly intrusive hostel. Thus in 1869, the remaining grounds of Abbot’s Hill plus house and stables were sold to lace magnate Walter Boden, brother of Henry Boden of The Friary.
In 1888 Boden added a rather odd looking new wing and formed a new drive from Green Lane, now Degge Street. He also sold part of the land to the Council to build the Art College and more just south of St. Peter’s church, to form Gower Street. The architect for the new extension, rather incongruously done in brick-nogged timber framing, was Alexander MacPherson (architect of the Derby Co-op in East Street/Exchange Street) who also did much work at the Bodens’ Mill of London Road.
The new wing included a ‘massive oak staircase’ (in ‘Jacobethan’ style) three extra bedrooms and a further four staff rooms and added 12 loose boxes to the stabling. Yet, having spent much money on these improvements, in 1898 he sold up and went to live at The Pastures, Littleover (now the Boys’ Grammar School) taking with him much of the original panelling, freed up by MacPherson’s extension. He died at The Pastures in 1905.
The house and grounds, which included land on both sides of Babington Lane were sold to William Millward Richardson (1839-1922), proprietor of the well-known tanning emporium in Eagle Street, Cockpit Hill and later at Sinfin Lane. The house was to be a residence for his son, William Henry (1871-1932), who enlarged the estate subsequently, acquiring three streets of terraced houses behind Babington House, which were made available at very favourable rents to the Richardsons’ employees. 17th century Babington House was redeveloped as retail, the site being acquired by Hull shoe entrepreneur George Edward Franklin (1849-1913) with new premises going up to the design of John Wills, junior. Abbot’s Hill itself was at first let the house to Hepworth Tropolet Alton, of the brewing firm, who died in 1903. W. H. Richardson then moved in with his family and installed his hunters in the loose boxes. Later he bought a large tract of land around Mugginton from Marquess Curzon which was added to the country of the Meynell, of which he was a leading member.
The Richardsons found the encroaching town too much by the 1920s, and they left Abbot’s Hill in 1926 and moved to The Leylands, Penny Long Lane, Darley Abbey (happily not a lost house), taking the Babington Hall panelling with them, where some of it may still be seen in the former drawing room, re-configured to make a chimneypiece and overmantel. Other, 18th century, panelling was also rescued, stored and much later built into a large house in Quarndon.
The house was then knocked down and the grounds built upon with what was then an elegant and smart shopping complex in local stone designed by Naylor & Sale and built by Joseph Parker of Friar Gate. The spur had been the Council’s decision to widen Babington Lane, thus much increasing its potential but sharply diminishing its potential as a residential area. Houses were also built between the Trinity Chapel on Green Lane and the pub at the end, the Babington Arms, Lenham Villas and Lenham Terrace.
In the Goodey collection at Derby Museum there is a sepia painting by S. H. Parkins of a house labelled Abbot’s Hill House. Yet it is of a rather larger villa of the same vintage (c. 1720/30) but with similarly characteristic detailing. No one has yet identified it. The artist tended to paint, at the behest of his patron, Alfred Goodey, retrospective views of houses already lost, using oral accounts and any other evidence, so the painting might be misleading. However, it was painted whilst Abbot’s Hill still stood, so has to be of somewhere else, later mis-identified.
Answers on a postcard, please!