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Lost Houses – Newcastle House, Derby

Lost Houses – Newcastle House, Derby

In 1635, Derby was in a bit of a stir. King Charles I was on his way to the town following some long, hard negotiations with the Scots at Ripon. He would be staying overnight in the town and the burgesses who comprised the Corporation and the two annually elected Bailiffs saw an opportunity. It was well known that the King was keen to raise money for he had been governing without Parliament for almost six years so was on the look-out for opportunities to replenish the treasury. The burgesses on the other hand wanted some concessions too. The town’s charter, although technically renewed with the accession of every monarch, needed drastic updating and streamlining to make the running of Derby smoother. Here was an opportunity for a classic trade.

The following passage from the town annals tells us roughly what happened next:
‘1635. Charles I was at Derby and slept at the great room in the Market Place. The Corporation gave the Earl of Newcastle, for the King, a fat ox, a calf, six fat sheep and a purse of gold, to enable him to keep hospitality; that is, invite them to dinner…’

Thus we learn that the host was William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Newcastle and Lord Lieutenant of the county and that not only did the burgesses of the Corporation supply most of the refreshments, but also gave the Duke gold as an inducement. That the gold would have been passed on to the King prior to the grand supper is not in doubt. By the time the king had resumed his journey to London the next day, he had a substantial addition to the treasury and the burgesses had a new charter.

The charter bestowed upon the town a number of new revenue-raising possibilities and strengthened the role of the Corporation in its legal function. Most memorably, it abolished the two bailiffs and replaced them with a single mayor and created the bench of aldermen, which survived until the messy and useless local government reforms instigated by Messrs Heath and Walker in 1974. Finally, the charter, renewed in 1682, appointed the King’s host, Lord Newcastle, as hereditary High Steward of the Borough, a post which passed by remainder to his Devonshire cousins and also lasted until 1974.

What we are not told is the whereabouts of the house in which Lord Newcastle gave this lavish entertainment – the house which contained this ‘Great Room on the Market Place’, a venue referred to at various other points in the history of the Borough. Indeed, we must be one of the few provincial towns – I speak of a time long before we were a city – which could boast no less than two grand ducal town houses: one for the Duke of Devonshire in Corn Market, still partly standing and one for his kinsman the Duke of Newcastle.

Newcastle, a grandson of Bess of Hardwick, was a grandee who also owned Bolsover Castle, Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, Ogle Castle in Northumberland and Slingsby in Yorkshire, the latter built for his scientist brother and now a pathetic ruin. As a courtier, he also had a town house in London, which sadly failed to survive. After the Restoration he built his Nottingham town house, using the remains of the slighted Castle, its renowned splendour destroyed when it was gutted by reform rioters in 1832. The family later donated the shell to the town and it was converted by T C Hine into a Museum.

In Derby, the Earl had no need to build, for he had inherited from his father a large brick Tudor house on the north side of Derby Market Place which was built either by Bess of Hardwick or by her fourth husband, George Talbot 5th Earl of Shrewsbury. Its true history was only fully revealed when it was most regrettably demolished to make way for the City’s Assembly Rooms, now hors de combat

The land adjoining the streets of the town, from its foundation in the 10th century, was divided into long strips with short frontages, which were rented out to the town’s free traders or burgesses in return for services and money. Medieval houses therefore were built with their narrow end to the road, where a shop was built and their long sides at right angles with an access up one side of the plot. Look at any old map of the town and you will see their fossilised boundaries.

Later, as the Corporation got poorer and the tradesmen richer, these plots were sold as freeholds and landed gentlemen along with the most opulent merchants bought up adjoining plots so that they could build fashionable houses with their long side to the street and eschew the shop element completely.

So it was with what (by 1635) was called Newcastle House. In the 15th century, one of the three burgage plots on which it was subsequently erected was occupied by a fairly substantial merchant’s house, timber framed, three storeys high and L-shaped. When in the 1570s or thereabouts Lord Shrewsbury (or his building-obsessed wife, Bess) built a town house to enable their attendance at functions in Derby, this plot was amalgamated with two adjacent ones and the house built, incorporating the late Medieval house at its NE rear angle, probably to act as service accommodation. Its existence is attested by a number of letters written from Derby by Lord Shrewsbury in the 1580s.

What this house then looked like can only be guessed at. In 1971, during demolition, it was noticed that the bricks of the building were certainly Tudor. Presumably it was three stories high, six bays of mullioned and transomed windows set between decorative brick string courses, with attic gables to the street front. The main rooms, as usual with prestige Tudor houses would have been on the first floor, attested by the enhanced ceiling height still discernable in the building’s declining years. The great room, we know from its partial survival to 1971, stretched the whole 38ft width of the building on the first floor and was 16ft wide. The architect might even have been the renowned Robert Smythson, who designed Bess’s houses, Hardwick Hall, Oldcotes and Blackwall not to mention her tomb in the Cathedral, and who had been the architect of Wollaton, Worksop and Longleat.

During the Civil War the Earl backed the King who was a personal friend, went into exile with Charles II and lost a large part of his estates and fortune in consequence, receiving a marquessate for his pains for, after all, the impoverished king could bestow peerages at no cost to himself. At the Restoration, the new Marquess of Newcastle was in debt and was forced to let his Derby house to the locally born upper class doctor, Sir John Shore (an ancestor of Indian nabob, Lord Teignmouth), who paid tax on a whopping 18 hearths in 1670.

Newcastle had received some of his estates back at the Restoration, but not all and was compensated for this by Charles II raising him to a dukedom which was also in recognition of his loyalty during the exile. He was in consequence known as the ‘Loyal Duke of Newcastle’.

With his losses and debts under control by the 1680s, the new Duke was embellishing his country seat, Bolsover and building Nottingham Castle.  At Derby he already had a town house, and resolved merely to up-date it. He removed the gables, substituting a parapet, balustrade and attic dormers, inserting classical-style windows which broke through the old string courses. The great room was re-panelled in cedar and acquired unusual stencilled decoration, whilst the ceiling was decorated with lavish plasterwork in five recessed panels centered on a vast oval of fruit and leaves with the family armorials at the ends. This was much in the style of two stuccadori and carvers of national standing, Edward Goudge and Edward Pearce (then working at Sudbury), who might well have been involved, especially if the Duke used the same architect as at Newcastle and Bolsover to re-front the building, Samuel Marsh.

By 1741, the house had descended through the Holles, Harley and Cavendish-Bentinck families, although somewhere along the line it had ceased to be used as the family’s town house. The hereditary high stewardship and Lord Lieutenancy passed after 1691 to the Cavendish Dukes of Devonshire, whilst the later inheritors of Newcastle’s estates re-focused on Nottingham. Thus the house was probably let. In 1745 it was the home of Alderman and ex-Mayor Joshua Smith, a rich apothecary with whom Bonnie Prince Charlie’s general John Gordon of Glenbuchat (1675-1750) lodged 4th- 6th December 1745.

Later it was the printing works of Richardson & Handford who went bust in 1826, although the freehold remained with Joseph Handford. He was foreclosed on by the banker Archer Swinburne in 1838 and it was sold to Alderman John Sandars a grocer, two years later, being subdivided (to the detriment of part of the ceiling of the Great Room, which became two, losing 2/5ths of itself in the process) and shop-fronted, moving into the twentieth century as Kay’s shop by which time it had lost its dormers and later the balustrade went too.

It survived, listed grade II as a much mangled remnant, until pulled down for the erection of the present Assembly Rooms in 1971, but was unrecognised to the last. When the building was being demolished it was not fully recorded photographically nor by note nor measurement (as the Council were theoretically obliged to do). Yet it became clear that the shell was indeed Tudor, two light mullioned windows appearing in the rear upper fabric.

The 15th century timber framed merchant’s house, left to its rear as a service wing, was rescued by the Museum and partly re-erected in Old Blacksmith’s Yard, but was emasculated by the planners. The grand ceiling (or what remained of it) was put up in the Darwin Suite of the new Assembly Rooms.

Truly this was a lost treasure and, had its import or even existence been recognised before 1967, a re-listing to grade I might have averted its destruction.

Alistair Plant



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