Until the local government reforms of 1888-1889 Derbyshire did not sit inside a single boundary; it has detached ‘islands’, mainly to its south, created in the Saxon period by assarting – clearing of woodland by men of Derbyshire in un-adopted regions. The settlements so created, once the County system had become established in the mid-10th century, tended to become detached parts of the area (county) of the people who had initially created them. Several counties had them. Derbyshire itself boasted Appleby Parva, Chilcote, Clifton Camville, Donisthorpe, Edingale, Measham, Oakthorpe, Ravenstone (the most southerly), Stretton-en-le-Field – and Willesley. Since 1889 they have been divided amongst Leicestershire and Staffordshire.
Several of these ‘islands’ had substantial country houses, and indeed most of them have vanished, some almost without trace. Willesley was probably the grandest though. The place itself was one of those granted by the Mercian grandee Wulfric Spott to the Abbey of Burton in his will, but post-Conquest it was divided between the de Ferrers Earls of Derby (later the Duchy of Lancaster) and the Abbey.
The manorial estate was initially tenanted under them by the de Willesley family who built a chapel, before passing it on to the Ingwardby family and then, also by inheritance, to the Abneys of Ingleby, who eventually united the estate. These families had few properties outside Willesley, so it is likely that there was an historic manor house, probably on the site of the house that was demolished in 1953. Unfortunately, nothing is known of its early appearance. The later house, which formed the core of the later one, was described by William Woolley in his History of Derbyshire (1713) as ‘a good seat’, with the Lysons’ brothers (1817) adding ‘The manor house which is in the form of a letter H, appears to have been built in or about the time of Charles I’ – that is the period 1625-1649. It was taxed on 16 hearths in 1670 suggesting that it was a substantial building.
The earliest picture is an engraving of 1820, showing a substantial brick house of two stories and attics, with an eleven bay façade, the projecting cross-wings at each end of the main block being of three bays. The gables were elaborately shaped, rather similar to those of contemporary Thrumpton Hall, on the County’s Nottinghamshire border, and these may well be original to c. 1630, suggesting its builder was George Abney or his son James. However, the late Professor Andor Gomme, looking at the heavily stone-clad rusticated façade with its Ionic pilasters enclosing a swagger pedimented doorcase, was confident in attributing these later features to a fairly drastic 1720s rebuilding by Francis Smith of Warwick, architect of Sutton Scarsdale, a house which it closely resembles in these details.
Smith, judging from some later accounts, also opened out the interior to create a double height hall and installed a fine timber staircase behind it, whilst at the same time endowing the gables with slim Baroque urn finials. The windows were deepened, sashed and given stone key-blocks. The rhythm of the façade has much in common with another work by Smith, Stanford Hall on the Leicestershire-Northamptonshire border, just off the M1. The rustication probably owes its inspiration to another Northamptonshire house, Lamport Hall, where a similar treatment was meted out to an earlier house by Wren’s follower, John Webb from 1655. A landscaped park of 155 acres was created, including a modest lake, and this may have been later and attributable to William Emes (1729-1803), a locally based follower of Capability Brown. The man who commissioned these works was probably not Sir Edward Abney (died 1728), a senior retired judge, who has been blind for the last twenty years of his life, but his son, Sir Thomas (1691-1750).
And so matters rested until 1791 then Thomas Abney of Willesley, the last of his direct line, died, leaving an only daughter, Parnell, married to a member of an illustrious neighbouring family, Maj. Charles Hastings, a French-born natural son of Francis, 10th Earl of Huntingdon, whose chief seat was then Ashby Castle. Thomas, who had a distinguished military and diplomatic career was raised to a baronetcy in 1806, assuming the surname and arms of Abney-Hastings by Royal Licence. During the Napoleonic Wars he entertained at Willesley numerous officers of the French navy and Grand Armée with whom he felt to a degree at home, being a fluent French speaker and the son of a Parisian actress. He was also a prominent Freemason, as trait he shared with many of them.
His younger son, Francis (born at Willesley in 1794) was a distinguished naval architect and commander. He was recruited by the Greek insurgents, financed by the Byzantine grandee and banker Prince Paul Rhodokanakis-Doukas, to oversee the building and to command the Karteria, the first steam powered warship ever to see action. At her helm, he effectively reduced the threat of the Ottoman navy and, despite being carried off by disease, like his friend Byron, at Missolonghi in 1828, made a considerable contribution to the liberation of Greece. His bust in bronze may still be seen there.
Unfortunately Sir Thomas shot himself in 1823, and the estate passed to his elder son, the 2nd baronet. He later set about enlarging the house. The south front acquired a pair of small gables over the bays flanking the entrance and a coat-of-arms above an inscribed tablet was placed between them. The formerly plain west side was much extended, with similar gables, but largely lower and irregular, extending back to the small stone chapel, founded by Michael de Willesley before 1270, but later clad in stone and embattled some years before.
But the changes did not stop there. A medium sized manor house was about to become a major seat, for the north side, where there was previously a re-entrant courtyard, was replaced by a three storey square plan diapered brick tower ending in four ogee topped pinnacles at the angles, all joined by a pierced stone balustrade, looming over the Baroque south front, adding bizarre variety to the roof line, where the pinnacles were joined by grouped batteries of Tudor-style chimney stacks. The similarity between this feature and the tower at Worsley Hall, near Manchester or the porch at Pull Court, Worcestershire, suggests that the architect may well have been Derby-born Edward Blore (1787-1879) a friend of Sir Walter Scott and designer of the finished version of Buckingham Palace and the exotic palace in the Crimea for Prince Worontsov.
Reputedly the interior was much modified to suit the architect and clients’ Romantic vision, to become thoroughly Gothic, Smith’s staircase being replaced by an epic stone one in the tower which would not have disgraced a Hollywood film set. The park was also re-ordered – by whom is not known – and the modest lake extended to no less than 24 acres, lying on the north side of the house where the architect also provided a picturesque boat house.
On the death of the initiator of those momentous changes, Sir Charles Abney-Hastings 2nd Bt., in 1858, the estate passed to a cousin, Lady Edith Maude Rawdon-Hastings, daughter of George, 2nd Marquess of Hastings (who had inherited the Hastings’ Ashby estates from his mother) and heiress of her ne’er do well brother, the 4th (and last) Marquess, who had lost most of his Scottish estates with two rash bets on the 1867 and 1868 Derbys and died shortly afterwards at 26. Edith married Thomas Clifton of Clifton in Lancashire (who assumed the surname and arms of Abney-Hastings – by Act of Parliament, no less) and inherited the Earldom of Loudoun from her brother. She died in 1874, six years before her widower was raised to a barony as 1st Lord Donington. She planted an avenue of trees all the way (not admittedly that far) from the house to her ancestors’ home at Ashby Castle, and by the time her son had succeeded her as Earl of Loudon and 2nd Lord Donington, the estate had grown, despite the best efforts of her late brother, to 13,000 acres.
In 1919 Lady Edith’s son died without a male heir, and the estate was sold up. The house and some of the land was bought by Maj. J. Ashworth, a Nottingham attorney who sold the park two years later to the local golf club, and turned the house into an hotel, run by one Chapman, but on his departure in 1929, it began to fall on hard times and closed in 1936, after which the house was never lived in again.
The house even had a railway locomotive named after it, although as it was a Great Western one, the connection might seem obscure (unless Lord Donington had been a director of the line). This was Modified Hall class 4-6-0 No. 6967 Willesley Hall, built in 1944 and named two years later. It lasted until modernisation caught up with it, being scrapped in December 1965. The only other Derbyshire house to share this accolade is the very much still standing Foremark Hall.
The house remained empty and decaying until 1953 when it was – with considerable difficulty, thanks to Blore’s substantially built works – blown up with dynamite. Once the site was cleared, the immediate surroundings became (and still are) the local scout HQ and camping ground, a fragment of Blore’s substantial stable block remaining as part of the otherwise unpretentious building. The lake, happily survives, although the contours and planting of the park have been somewhat altered by the golf club.