Home Lost Houses Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Oak Hurst, Alderwasley

Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Oak Hurst, Alderwasley

Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Oak Hurst, Alderwasley
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As one travels north on the A6 one of the less uplifting sights in an area of stunning beauty is the wire works, covering the valley floor not many hundreds of yards south of the bridge by the former Derwent Inn, now a tea-room. Should you be caught in slow traffic – fairly likely at any time of the year – and should it also be this time of the year, when the leaves are coming off the trees apace, you might well catch a glimpse of a large, clearly ruinous house on the far side of the works, embowered in trees. This is Oak Hurst, a house of considerable merit, despite its relentless faux timbering, pointy-roofed corner bartizan and tricksy, late Victorian fenestration.

As one travels north on the A6 one of the less uplifting sights in an area of stunning beauty is the wire works, covering the valley floor not many hundreds of yards south of the bridge by the former Derwent Inn, now a tea-room. Should you be caught in slow traffic – fairly likely at any time of the year – and should it also be this time of the year, when the leaves are coming off the trees apace, you might well catch a glimpse of a large, clearly ruinous house on the far side of the works, embowered in trees. This is Oak Hurst, a house of considerable merit, despite its relentless faux timbering, pointy-roofed corner bartizan and tricksy, late Victorian fenestration.

The site was originally part of the Hurt family’s Alderwasley Hall estate – indeed, that fine house, now a special school, but erected in 1790, is perched on the hill top not very far away. In the 1760s, the family, ever enterprising, started an iron works in the valley bottom; certainly it was up and running by 1775 when Joseph Pickford ordered iron grates for some of the fireplaces at Kedleston Hall and balusters for Robert Adam’s bridge over the lake when he was clerk of works there.

One thing that marked Francis out in this enterprise was that he, as a major landowner, was making a considerable investment in the iron industry at a time when most gentry families were content to lease works on their estates to professional ironmasters at a fixed rent. Hurt, on the other hand, was acting as entrepreneur and, as with his family’s lead mining enterprises, taking the profit. The original Ambergate forge did not survive beyond 1794 before being completely rebuilt, but vestiges of the original blast furnace, set up on the earlier site, were visible amidst the sprawl of Johnson’s wire works at Ambergate until they were destroyed in 1964.

A substantial stone house was also built for the forge manager, Forge House, across the river in Alderwasley parish at the foot of Shining Cliff woods, but alongside the works, probably designed by George Rawlinson of Matlock Bath, a friend of Pickford’s and who seems to have worked extensively for both Sir Richard Arkwright and the Hurts. It was lived in by Francis Hurt’s manager, Matthew Bacon for some years.

In 1848 the works were leased to John and Charles Mould, Forge House included and one of the brothers took up residence. The upwardly mobile Moulds re-named it Oak Hurst and lived in it until 1865, when they became bankrupt, new technology by that time having made their haphazardly up-dated first generation ironworks obsolete.

For over twenty years the house reverted to being let, mainly to the Hurts, as a residence for their estate manager, and the works appear to have remained in the doldrums. In around 1880, however, the Midland Railway purchased it (or possibly did so slightly earlier) and in that year extended it, giving it a sturdy Neo-Jacobean cloak. The architect was their “in-house” man, Charles Trubshaw, a talented member of a long established Staffordshire dynasty of builders and architects. His Railway Institute in Derby has outlasted his Station façade by 20 years.

It thereupon became the residence of Richard Bird, the superintendent engineer of the railway. However, on his leaving the post, it was in 1887 let (and soon afterwards sold) to John Thewlis Johnson, (1836-1896) a Mancunian who had already bought the old forge site from the Hurts and turned it into a wire works.

Johnson, grandson of John Johnson of Pendleton, was the ‘nephew’ in the well-known firm of Johnson & Nephew, started by his uncle Richard Johnson (1809-1881), and of which the Ambergate works was a subsidiary. He lived at Broughton House, Manchester, dominating the Manchester Chamber of Trade for many years and  serving as its president in 1892. He was also a director of Nettlefolds, the Birmingham foundry. His father Thomas Fildes Johnson of Pendleton had been a successful cotton spinner.

In 1888 Johnson completely rebuilt Oak Hurst and considerably extended it so that he could dwell cheek by jowl with his latest enterprise. A new full height canted entrance boasted a tablet above with his initials and the date. It is not clear who the architect was but John Douglas of Chester has been plausibly suggested, who also built Brocksford Hall near Doveridge at about this time for a fellow industrialist. The house had a thorough Arts-and-Crafts makeover, and the interior fitted up very sumptuously with panelling and all the latest contrivances, including electric light and modern central heating. Furthermore, it was lit by electricity throughout, then something of a novelty. He also landscaped the grounds.

By two wives – Aurelia and Anne Higgins, cousins to each other – he had five sons, of whom two lived in Derbyshire, the fourth, James, being at one time tenant of Foston Hall. The eldest, Herbert Alfred (1866-1923), who succeeded his father when he died aged only 59 in 1896, had a glamorous American wife who could not stomach living cheek-by-jowl with a wire works, and they moved, taking a lease of Farnah Hall from Lord Curzon and later were the last private owners of Allestree Hall.

This began a decline for few others, apart from members of the Johnson family, could stomach living beside a noisy works, but Anne, J. T. Johnson’s widow, beefed it out until her death in 1923. Thereafter it was used less frequently, its sheer opulence militating against its occupation by a mere works manager. In the end it was dedicated on 7th November 1924 by Bishop Hoskins as a Diocesan Retreat House – the diocese in question in those days and for three further years being that of Southwell. This move may have been encouraged by the fact that the 1894 rebuilding had provided the house with a rather fine domestic chapel.

This use ended in 1939 when the house was commandeered by the army, who – needless to say – left it in a bit of a state – so much so that the Diocese expressed no interest in returning, eventually settling for the former rectory at Morley. The house was then sold and converted into flats – rather crudely it has to be said – but by the late 1970s it was empty again, and has remained so ever since. Furthermore, the wireworks closed in the 1980s, and the site is now largely derelict but officially used for industrial storage.

In 1994 consent for demolition was granted, resulting in the removal of fittings and chimneypieces, but was never unexecuted, meaning that to drop it now would require a further application to the planning authority.

Although of listable quality, Oak Hurst has escaped being added to the statutory list, which has merely helped seal its fate. Its present state would appear to be terminal, with the roof largely collapsed and egress being far from difficult, although the loss of plaster in the core of the house has revealed the essential three bay two and a half storey shell of the original Forge House, suggesting that it was not unlike the overseer’s house at Cromford mill, probably by  George Rawlinson.

Unloved and unlisted (although it might well be listable), blighted by the adjacent works (which appear to have changed function yet again) Oak Hurst would seem to be not long for this world – a pity for it was a fine, well built house.

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