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Lost Houses of Derbyshire – The Devonshire Hospital


Someone mentioned to me the other day that there were many other lost houses of historic and architectural importance apart from country mansions and town gentry houses and why didn’t I write about something just slightly different every now and again?

Well, often the problem is that a paucity of images prevents one from doing so, but the other day I was going through a folio of drawings and came across a re-constructed elevation of the Devonshire Hospital in Full Street, beautifully drawn by the later Edward Saunders. It occurred to me that here was a building designed and built to the highest standards to house a specific group of people which richly deserved to be chronicled.

The story goes back to Bess of Hardwick (which Derbyshire stories often do). This much married woman rose from minor gentry to Countess in a progression of four glittering marriages, and she ended up allied to royalty, fabulously wealthy and a formidable operator all round. She was a patron of the arts amongst other things and a keen builder, commemorating her projects on her epitaph in Derby Cathedral.

Her buildings – mainly paid for by her second husband, Sir William Cavendish and her fourth, George Talbot, 5th Earl of Shrewsbury – included Chatsworth, Worksop Manor, Oldcotes, Hardwick Old and New Halls, just to name the most prominent projects. Most were built under the guidance of the Tudor builder/architect Robert Smythson, and thereby gained immortality if only through his ability to build spectacularly and innovatively.

On 5th October 1599 Bess, by then Countess of Shrewsbury, decided to found a charity in Derby, the Shrewsbury Hospital, to house eight poor men and four poor women, to be endowed with a rent-charge of £100 per annum (pretty generous in 1599) raised out of the tenants’ receipt from Little Longstone, in the Peak.


The lucky dozen were to be chosen from the parishes of All Saints’, St. Michael and St. Peter, and had to be

‘the most aged poor or needy persons within the said town of Derby, being of good and honest conversation, and not infected with any contagious disorder.’

They also had, once it had come into being, to cleanse, dust and sweep over’ the large and ornate monument, designed by Smythson, to be erected to their benefactress on her death (which occurred in 1680), and that they attend (if not bedridden) divine service in the church daily. They were also to  receive £1 – 13s – 4d [£1.67p] each every quarter with £1 expenses to buy a gown in the livery of the Cavendish family with a silver heraldic badge of Bess’s arms, a ‘bedstead, bolster, two pairs of sheets, two coffers, two tables, a cupboard, two stools, four peter dishes, iron tongs, fire shovel, etc.’ They had to keep off the booze and not have strangers to stay either. They also had Richard Haywood, the resident warden, and his wife on site, too.

The building was put up immediately behind the chancel of All Saints’ and consisted of a two-storey range parallel to the street in stone, of nine bays, the central entrance being ensigned by a large carved armorial panel and giving access to a courtyard behind. There were two doors alternating with two ground floor three-light stone mullioned windows either side of the centre, with two-light windows above, providing the accommodation of the four old women and the warden. Flanking the courtyard were two ranges at right angles to the front one, each of four units in matching style, the roofs being pitched and tiled. Each person had a parlour, a kitchen and a bedroom above. Gardens led down to the Derwent.

This agreeable building, the maintenance income of which was topped up by William Cavendish, Bess’s eldest son (later 1st Earl of Devonshire), by rents from Edensor, sufficed for the twelve pensioners, until the time of William, 5th Duke of Devonshire, who succeeded in 1764. He was somewhat infected by the same desire to build as his ancestrix, Bess, and was, by the time of his death in 1811, responsible for many improvements at Buxton (including the Crescent, currently being restored), Chatsworth and many other family properties, probably as a distraction from the gloriously wayward Georgiana.

He was especially keen to improve the Chatsworth estate, and at first hired James Paine to replace the stables there with the present epic construction, along with the unfinished Palladian mill in the park. When Paine moved on to other projects, he hired Paine’s acquaintance John Carr to undertake work at Buxton, and Derby’s Joseph Pickford to continue at Chatsworth. Pickford’s greatest tour-de-force at Chatsworth was the Edensor Inn, a brick building of outstanding subtlety, the Edensor rectory (later destroyed when  the village moved), the North Lodge, Ashford Hall for the agent, and three eighths of a vast but unfinished octagonal stable block, also in Edensor, opposite the Inn.

Hence it fell to Pickford to come up with a design to replace Bess’s rather poky almshouses with something altogether rather more up-to-date, re-named the Devonshire Hospital. Pickford, whose style tended to be pitched to accord with his clients’ requirements, was Neo-Classical when employed by a Tory (as at Kedleston) and Palladian, the favoured style of the Whigs, led locally by the Duke, when employed by the governing Tories’ political opponents. Hence the new almshouses, also in stone, were firmly in the Palladian revival style: ancient Roman elements disposed according to the published precepts of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, ironically a rather older contemporary of Bess of Hardwick.

This time, instead of having the inmates living on the road frontage, they were housed rather comfortably in two wings parallel to the road, and a range connecting them nearer the river with an arch through to the gardens which went down to it, all shielded by a very grand screen facing the road with a central entrance wide enough for vehicles and a pair of pedestrian entrances. The end bays consisted of interpenetrated pediments supported by a Roman Doric order, interspersed with niches. The centrepiece, supported by pillars, was crowned, as before, by an armorial, in this case the Duke’s. A fine wrought iron balustrade by William Yates protected it from the road.

The censorious dissenter, William Hutton clearly disapproved of allowing the indigent poor to live in such style, writing:

‘Whatever convenience the interior of the present structure may now possess, the design of the front ill accords with the nature of the establishment. The simplicity and modest plainness that should exist in a structure devoted to the purposes of charity, are sacrificed to a style of architecture, that would be more in character when employed in the entrance to a nobleman’s park or pleasure grounds….who dresses a pauper in lace, instead of the modest elegance which ought to have dignified the front….we are treated to an ostentatious display of the Duke’s arms and crest as the leading objects.’

Ooh-er, missus!

Hutton gives credit to none of Pickford’s Derby buildings, and one can only assume that they cordially detested each other. The new Hospital (which we would call an almshouse) went up in forty four weeks, during which time the twelve elderly paupers had to be billeted elsewhere, as we know from the fact that Pickford had to claim for the cost of arranging this as well as the cost of the building itself!

Nor was all well from the point of view of the founder’s original intentions, for a later visitor wrote:

‘We were then informed that their abode was optional and that they had the discretionary powers of letting their apartments or gardens to others.’

Later, in the 19th century this became the norm, Bess’s pensioners going off to stay with their children or grandchildren and letting their cottages to others for profit!

None of this can have helped spare the building from the depredations of the Council, who sought to demolish the Hospital to extend H I Steven’s handsome Baths next door. Hence in 1895, the entire building was purchased from the Duke and demolished, only for the plan to extend the baths to be dropped shortly after in favour of new baths at Reginald Street, by the Arboretum. In the end, the site was built over in 1920 by an extension to the municipal electricity undertaking, a building of unsurpassed ugliness not finally cleared until 1971. Today it remains a rather municipalised space but host to Anthony Stones’s spectacular equestrian statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie presented to the City by the late Lionel Pickering and unveiled in December 1995.


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