Readers will be well aware that Little Chester is a characterful Derby suburb which overlies the remains of the Roman small town of Derventio. What some may not know is that within its modest compass stands Derby’s oldest domestic residence: Stone House Prebend, on Old Chester Road, itself once the via principia of the military fort which preceded the town. The house, although rebuilt in the early 17th century and again in the late 18th, contains considerable medieval fabric.
It is so named because when the College of All Saints with St. Alkmund’s was re-founded soon after Derby itself in 921, the six canons of St. Alkmund and the seven canons of All Saints’, were granted land recently seized from the Viking invaders at Little Chester (itself re-fortified by the Norse), Little Eaton and Quarndon upon which were established farms, each supplying the needs of a canon. This is why all the three settlements were all, until 1867 parts of the parish of St. Alkmund, Derby, despite being outside the ancient borough boundary. Unfortunately, no document survives to tell us where exactly they all were, but there were at least six in Little Chester. Unfortunately, again, with the dissolution of the chantries by Edward VI in 1549, the College was wound up and its property sold.
In 1554 Queen Mary, anxious to undo some of the damage made by her father’s exactions, made some amends by re-acquiring as much of the College’s former land as possible which she gave to the Corporation of Derby as part of a charter, granted the following year, with a view to using the rental income to endow the incumbents of the main borough churches with a stipend. Not all the land in the township returned to the Corporation, however, and at least a third remained outside their control and constituted the Manor of Little Chester – mainly on the north of Old Chester Road.
The College was run on behalf of the Dean (who was also Dean of Lincoln and invariably absent) by a sub-dean, and we are pretty certain that Stone House Prebend was his farm. This is re-inforced by the substantial nature of the house, although in all conscience, the other two we know of in Little Chester were well above the average for contemporary farmhouses, although in their case, the enhancement of their status may well have occurred after the Reformation.
The other surviving one is Derwent House, lying immediately north of the sub-dean’s establishment on the opposite side of Old Chester Road. This is a brick building mainly of early 17th century date, with delightful blind brick arcading, impost band and an astonishingly wide staircase for a house of its size. The cellar was much earlier and stone lined, and was thought to be of Roman origin. We cannot check, because, despite its listed status, the Corporation of Derby shot two lorryloads of cement into it around 1980 when the tenant was having trouble with damp.
The third house, Little Chester Manor, has now vanished. It was also largely brick and of 17th century date, less elaborate than Derwent House, albeit occupying a larger footprint, and stood on the south side of Old Chester Road, about 100 yards east of Stone House Prebend, and adjacent to the east gate of the walled Roman town, excavated in 1972. This was more recently called Manor House Farm, having been re-named after a new house was built opposite to it in the late 19th century (also now vanished) itself optimistically styled the Manor House.
The Manor House (as we shall call it) was L-shaped in plan, two storeys, in brick with a tile roof. The range facing the road had coped end gables, once with finials on the kneelers, three- light mullioned windows and, when visited by the late Roy Hughes in June 1963, had a space within it subdivided horizontally, probably in the 18th century, which was probably its great hall. This was approached by a baffle entry, all suggesting that it had a medieval core and was probably a building of some status.
The rear extension was added to considerably at the south end in Regency times, but was truncated when the railway was built in the 1870s and further some time later. A fourth farm lay immediately to its West (lost to a row of later 19th century cottages erected by Sir Alfred Haslam, who built good quality workers’ housing here, close to his large Union Foundry on City Road. This too was almost certainly a prebend, and certainly the surviving deeds imply a third farm.
Each of these were let, and the tenants by the 16th century tended to be men of substance; after the Reformation their status increased to minor gentry: the Thacker, Lister, Haughton, Hope and Bate families amongst them. Working out which family occupied which prebendal farm is not easy due to the fragmentary nature of the surviving sources, but Thacker had the Stone House Prebend, in 1549, and the others were let, the tenancies being generally 25-year ones, although the Listers rented two in 1554, probably both vanished ones.
One suspects that the Manor House, which was still timber framed in the mid-16th century, is probably the prebend called The White House (greying oak timbers and distempered render in between) which passed to the heirs of Humphrey Sutton. The Listers probably held Derwent House along with that immediately east of Stone house, and the 1623 inventory of another tenant of a Prebend, Richard Scattergood, clearly indicates a hall house and probably related to the Manor House.
In 1648 Parliamentary Captain Robert Hope took the lease of ‘a messuage (house and surrounding land) in Little Chester called the Manor House with the croft adjoining called the Castle Yard’ – the latter designation suggesting proximity to the standing wall by the east Roman Gate. The Roman walls were not taken down until 1721. He probably rebuilt or re-cased it in brick.
His family had previously been tenants at Grangefield in Trusley, but henceforth became prominent people in Derby well into the 19th century; the antiquary and archaeologist Sir W H St. John Hope FSA was a descendant. In 1670, Capt. Hope was taxed on eleven hearths in Little Chester, which suggests that the Manor was indeed much larger than latterly, especially as the Stone house was taxed on but five.
It was most probably after the Hopes had moved into Derby (they subsequently held numerous mayoralties) that the manor was reduced in size. Nevertheless, it re-appears on the pages of history as the 93 acre holding of Walter Lord, who married the youngest daughter of Thomas Meynell of Langley, the heiress of whom, Katherine, ultimately inherited two ninths of the manor of Langley. She married Joseph son of Daniel Ward, then tenant of neighbouring Stone House Prebend. Again, there was an heiress, Susannah, who married Derby physician and surgeon John Meynell, bringing him her share of the manor of Langley, on which his son Godfrey later built the great house, Meynell Langley.
When the antiquary William Stukeley visited Little Chester in 1721, he noted that ‘Mr. Lord’s cellar is built on one side of the wall three yards thick’. The Wards did not renew their lease when it expired in 1781, two years after John Meynell’s son Godfrey was born there. The latter later wrote, confirming Stukeley’s view: ‘In Mr. Lord’s cellar are the remains of a Roman wall.’
Final confirmation of this was forthcoming in 1988 when Chris Drage on behalf of Trent and Peak Archaeology in advance of redevelopment, excavated the site, then occupied by Pickford’s Garage, about to be cleared for house-building. He found that the earliest phase of the Manor House had been built directly onto the foundations of the Roman mansio (travellers’ lodge) without any trace of intervening detritus, like ‘black earth’, suggesting that there was a continuity of buildings on the site between the collapse of Roman rule and the coming of the first Canons of All Saints’ College in the 920s. If so, it represents a remarkable and, in this country, rare sequence.
Unfortunately, this important little house, listed grade III, its setting compromised by the building of the Great Northern Railway western extension in 1876-78, fell vacant in the later 1950s, and the Council decided to clear it. Roy Hughes visited from the Museum, recorded and took photographs in June 1963; by the end of the following year it had gone and Mr. Pickford had erected his garage.
Now the site is marked by Derventio Close, its small semi-terraced brick houses having been built 1988-1990. A sad loss of an important little house.