Of all the losses of large houses in Derbyshire one of the most grievous was the completely unnecessary – if not vindictive – demolition of the largest urban timber framed domestic residence in Britain of its date, the Old Mayor’s Parlour, 15 Tenant Street, Derby in 1948. By a cruel irony this was the same year that the first Statutory List for Derby was prepared.
Had the building survived a few more months, it would without doubt have been listed grade I. From the 18th century until the late 1930s it was a difficult house to see, for like all houses built in Derby before the modern era, it had to be fitted onto one of the long, narrow and in this case slightly curving burgage plots with which the Saxon burh was laid out in the early 10th century.
It was thus end-on to Tenant Street and in c1740 a Georgian house was grafted onto its street front, so you could no longer get a glimpse of its ornamentally timbered north front from the street. It was only when the requirements of the 1929 Derby Central Improvement Plan were being met, that Corporation Street was driven through close by the east end of the house and the surrounding properties were razed, that the house once again became visible. With the coming of war in 1939, the scheme stalled for a decade until peace enabled the Council House to be finished in 1947, after the lifting of building restrictions.
The Mayor would have occupied his fine suite of rooms (panelled with oak from freshly demolished Derwent Hall) and looked out of the window across the smart dual carriageway of Corporation Street. One can imagine the elected man of the people, seeing the decaying hulk of the Old Mayor’s Parlour before him, demanding it be cleared away forthwith as an eyesore, despite the undertaking by a predecessor to allow the Derbyshire Archaeological Society to purchase it for a nominal sum for re-erection elsewhere. No doubt ingratiating officers rushed to do His Worship’s bidding, for within weeks this fine old edifice was no more. It was a most terrible waste too, for the site has never subsequently been built upon.
How splendid the old building would have looked, fully restored and put to beneficial community use and as a draw for tourists, if only some municipal grandee had not had his head full of the imagined desire of ‘the people’ for universal newness and for the destruction of what one of his colleagues called the ‘worn-out shibboleths of outmoded privilege’! The house itself was described even in the 1880s as ‘a picture more than a place; a ballad rather than a building’. Behind its Georgian street front it stretched over four wide gables containing the attics, with two floors below.
The construction was close-studded oak framing with a heavy carved cornice below the gables. Issuing from each end of the façade on the first floor were two astonishing groups of four timber canted oriel windows, flanking a central bay that was almost blank, being lit only by an inconsequential three light mullioned window. On the ground floor each oriel crowned a four light flush mullioned window on the west end of the façade, whilst at the east the lower fenestration was only of three lights. There were no less than four doors, of which one, an impressive double-leafed affair elevated atop a flight of five stone steps, was the original entrance, whilst the others were evidence of the eastern end of the house having been turned into three tenements at an earlier date.
This magnificent old town house once bore a date of 1483 which nobody has ever challenged since I first published it in 1987. Inside there was much period and later oak paneling, a massive oak newel staircase and a jolly frieze around part of the first floor landing of Achilles leading the Achaean cavalry against Troy, probably later 17th century in date. The name Old Mayor’s Parlour, is traditional but is only met with in the 19th century, when the house was occupied by various departments of the municipality and actually owned by two mayors.
Yet its builder’s name is entirely lost to us, but from its size and magnificence it is likely to have been the town residence of one of the grandest County families, perhaps the Blounts, Lords Mountjoy, seated at Barton Blunt and at this period pre-eminent, but until some documentary evidence is found, we shall never be sure. By the time of the Hearth Tax return for Derby in 1670, the house seems to have been divided into two, with the east end rebuilt with an east facing seven bay two storey brick range under a hipped roof, clearly visible of the 1693 (Sitwell) and 1728 (Bucks’) East Prospects of the town.
This part was the home of and was presumably extended by Dr Percival Willoughby (1596-1685) Britain’s first specialist gynaecologist. He was a younger son of the Willoughbys of Wollaton Hall, and had a long career in Derby. Even without his fees, his aristocratic background would have enabled him to fund such an extension. He is buried under a slab in the side aisle of St Peter’s church engraved with his coat of arms.
The gardens stretched down to the river where once stood a fishing pavilion and a 19th century author claims that the river at this point was once spanned by a ‘bridge of crazy timbers’ although no confirmation of this bold assertion has ever emerged. It was after Dr Willoughby’s time, c1740 that the street front was rebuilt in Georgian style with a fine interior including a pretty mahogany staircase with two twisted balusters per tread. This was probably when the western part of the old house was adapted as a service wing and the eastern part divided up to make three houses – hence the multiplicity of doors. At some stage in the late 18th century, the building was acquired by Thomas Evans, the banker who founded Darley Abbey Mills.
As he was the commissioner in bankruptcy for the Heath Brothers, who owned the Cockpit Hill Pot Works and seems to have acquired almost all their property (including the site of the mills), it may be that they had been the previous owners and had acquired it under a foreclosed mortgage, which is how they came by much of their property empire. Evans let it to Henry Richardson (1736-1815), the banker. John Gadsby (1818-1883) bought it from Sir Thomas William Evans, Bt. of Allestree and was Mayor in 1858, which is perhaps how it got its name.
He let it to the Corporation, Samuel Harpur using part of it as the offices of his Surveyor’s Dept. from 1850 and the Mayor’s son and town clerk, Henry Freckleton Gadsby (d1902) occupied the Georgian part, his son selling the building to the Corporation to make way for the Central Improvement Plan in 1931. The Mayor at the time, W H Hoare, assured the Archaeological Society they would have first refusal of it and he also had an approach from the City of Boston, Massachusetts imploring him to ensure its survival, suggesting using the same stratagem they had employed to preserve their old State House. Its fame was such as to inspire W Mosley to paint it onto a china King Street plate in the late 1920s, too.
But in the harsh post-war worlds, such assurances counted for nothing and demolition began on 9th January 1948. Nevertheless, the Gadsby family managed to retain part of the staircase, the friezes and other items and many local people rescued chunks of timber. One entire house in Church Street, Littleover, originally built in 1890, was embellished with timbers from it and there are numerous cigarette and trinket boxes, turned candlesticks and other items made from its ancient oak by local craftsmen both amateur and professional; I must have seen dozens during my years at the Museum. The drawing of the façade by Edward Fryer will be in Bamford’s July fine art sale at Derby with a modest estimate. Let us hope that it finds a home in Derby.