This impressive Regency villa was built on an elevated site in the district of California, Derby, looking south but with an easterly vista across The Rowditch towards the town, but one later spoilt by the erection of two brickworks on the west side of the brook.
It is one of three such houses, which Stephen Glover tells us were designed by the amateur architect Alderman Richard Leaper (1759-1838); the other two being now listed grade II. Leaper was also a director of the family bank, receiver of customs for Derby, four times mayor of Derby and a partner in a tanning firm. Subsequent research has identified a group of other local villas firmly attributable to him, all of considerable interest and charm.
The client was Major John Trowell JP, DL, who came originally from Long Eaton where his family had been considerable landowners since the Restoration. Born in 1744, son of another John Trowell, he had been appointed to the Bench in 1776 and made a deputy lieutenant of the County six years later. His public service was by no means over, however, for in 1787 he was gazetted Major in the Derbyshire Volunteer Militia.
At the time Thornhill was actually commissioned he has living as tenant at Offcote Grove, near Ashbourne, where he was recorded in 1809. Prior to that he had been living in the large house in Friar Gate designed by William Strutt (now no. 65) which Roy Christian used to point out had originally been intended for Strutt’s father Jedediah, who unfortunately died before he could move in. His presence there is accounted for by the fact that he had married at St. Werburgh, Derby, on 27th September 1792, Dorothy Webster, daughter and sole heiress of William Woollatt, Jedediah Strutt’s original partner and brother-in-law, who had occupied the house on its completion. This match, needless to say, further enriched him. His wife died in December 1852 leaving a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1798, but who died unmarried in November 1876.
Unfortunately, like Jedediah Strutt and the Friar Gate house, Trowell had died by 1821 when the house, originally modestly called Trowell Hall, was completed in 1821. It was finished against a bond for £7,000 dated 27th March that year between Mrs. and Miss Trowell and Thomas Cooper (died 1850), a prominent Derby mason and contractor. This refers to the completion of the ‘remainder of the buildings’ at Thornhill. The money appears to have been in the form of a loan from Thomas Cox of 41, Friar Gate, also a banker; this was probably because the Major’s estate was still in probate.
The two storey house was built in brick and originally rendered in Brookhouse’s Roman Cement – one of several forms of external stucco, in this instance manufactured locally in The Morledge, Derby – and grooved to resemble ashlar. The main SE front, was originally of five bays set under a wide, low hipped roof. Here the ground floor windows were originally carried down to terrace level.
The NE front is of three bays and was originally the entrance front, entry being gained via a Tuscan portico, but unfortunately, that was replaced much later by a much larger brick affair on the SW front when the house became an institution. The two substantial service ranges were originally of three bays and two storeys, neither exactly alike, but lower and built side by side. They were done in a much more vernacular style, originally with unstuccoed brickwork, brick lintelled windows, dog toothed eaves cornices etc., as with other houses by Leaper.
The interior was relatively plain, partly following local tradition at such residences and partly, one suspects, because the flamboyant Major Trowell was then but recently dead, his widow probably did not feel it appropriate to finish the interior in as bravura manner as her husband might have done himself.
The main staircase, however, latterly reached right from the hall, was top-lit and consisted of a dog-leg, turning in an apse on the north side. The mahogany balustrade was supported on plain locally made cast iron square section balusters with generous spiral terminals, again all much resembling that at Mill Hill House (see Country Images article, July 2015). In 1987 a number of good quality contemporary chimney pieces in various local polished limestones survived, albeit securely boxed in.
The gardens were terraced down on the east, where Sainsbury’s car park now is, and were shielded from the brickworks by planting. Parkland, originally nearly 100 acres, stretched south towards Rowditch and east to the Uttoxeter turnpike, then newly pitched and from map evidence was partly wooded. Much of the parkland was preserved when the Borough Lunatic Asylum (later Kingsway hospital) was built to the designs of Benjamin Jacobs of Hull from 1888 being retained with little alteration to provide the unfortunate inmates with a life enhancing environment. .
The entrance was reached from the Uttoxeter New Road at The Rowditch via Trowell’s Lane (metalled and built up from 1888), which had a neat contemporary brick lodge about half way along it, which survived until c. 1930.
Mrs Trowell swiftly re-named the house Thornhill from the eminence upon which it stood. Her daughter, however, refused to sell some land to the Corporation in 1873 in order to build the Asylum, probably out of what today we would call NIMBY-ism, but on her death it passed to her nearest heir, Edward Strutt, 1st Lord Belper, and he sold the Corporation the house and land they required – about 24 acres – and more to the Trustees of the Derbyshire General Infirmary to build a temporary typhus hospital.
The house was subsequently sold to the Mosleys of Burnaston House – descendants of Sir John Parker Mosley, 1st Bt., of Rolleston Hall, Staffs; becoming the home of the eldest daughter of Ashton Nicholas Every Mosley of Burnaston House: Isabella Ashton Mosley, who died there unmarried 27th July 1912.
The family trustees, having failed to find a tenant, finally sold it to the County Brough of Derby in 1924 in order to extend the accommodation and available land of the Borough Lunatic Asylum. Part of the park was also thereby available for the building of the Kingsway section of the Derby Arterial Road (as the present Ring Road was then called) in 1930-31, following the extension of the Borough boundary under an Act of Parliament of 1929. Hence, too, the re-naming of the entire complex as The Kingsway Hospital in 1938.
The hospital authorities at first envisaged using the house as a nurses’ home, but in 1929 it was converted at a cost of £1,409 to house when were then referred to as ‘mental defectives’. This included the removal of the central bays of the garden front, the windows and some brickwork being moved substantially forward to form an asymmetrical full height and flat roofed two bay projection, to which was added within a decade a lean-to timber conservatory, recently removed. This infelicitous work was designed by C. A. Clews, the Borough Surveyor.
At the same time the huge replacement portico was built, there were additions to the service wing and the removal, to the aesthetic detriment of the building of the chimneys and boxing in (and, in a few cases, removal) of the fireplaces. The building was then re-rendered with grey pebble-dash harling, further detracting from its appearance.
In 1935 the building housed 40 female children under the care of the matron, Miss Kathleen McGrenery and Dr. John Bain. It was damaged by fire in May 1966, but required little more than extensive re-decoration, but from the 1980s it became a day care centre before being threatened with closure in 1989 and later closed and boarded up.
Thornhill was a splendid example of one of Alderman Leaper’s slightly quirky villas and retained a number of features typical of his work, notably the staircase, the only similar one having recently been destroyed in February 2006. It was sold by the NHS to a development quango called English Partnerships and I was recruited by a firm of architects at Loughborough in June 2006 to write the heritage statement for the entire site, in which we recommended which buildings deserved preservation when the planned housing was built.
In the event, the house was peremptorily bull-dozed that August before our report (strongly recommending its restoration and retention) had even been read!