Well informed readers might be tempted to say, on seeing the subject of this article, that Measham is not in Derbyshire at all, which seems all wrong in view of the fact that we try to present histories of lost Derbyshire houses. All it not quite as it seems, however, as Measham was until 1897 very definitely part of Derbyshire, one of a number of enclaves entirely surrounded by Leicestershire, which tidy-minded legislation of 1889 set out to resolve. Furthermore, the church of Measham was originally a chapel-of-ease of Repton parish church.
These enclaves were formed in the tenth and eleventh centuries by assarting (clearing of woodland for cultivation) by Derbyshire people in land that had not at that time been fully shired in the wake of the unification of re-conquered Mercia with Wessex to form the Kingdom of England. The southernmost was Ravenstone; others included Chilcote, part of Donisthorpe, Oakthorpe, Packington, Snibston, Appleby Parva and part of Magna, Stretton-en-le-Field and Willesley (the hall at which we have already dealt with). We lost Clifton Campville and part of Edingale to Staffordshire and received both Seals, Over and Nether, in return.
The ancient manorial estate was from the Conquest with the de Measham family, but in 1308 it passed via an heiress to the Bereforts and thence to the Blounts of Barton Blount, Lords Mountjoy, from whom it came in the Civil War to the Sheffields, Dukes of Buckingham and Normanby, then the Wollastons, who sold much of the land, long heavily mined for its coal, to Robert Abney in 1730.
The Abneys probably originated from the village of that name in the Peak, the first known representative being William son of John Abney of Hope, not so far away, living 1310. Just over a century later they inherited Willesley, where they remained until 1858. George Abney of Willesley who died in 1579 left three sons. The eldest continued at Willesley, whilst the second Edmund was a Leicester merchant, married a daughter of a mayor of the place and their son Dannatt Abney was also mayor there. A descendant, Paul, served in the navy on the frigate HMS Josiah and died in Virginia, where his posterity remained and flourished mightily as prominent landowners and attorneys.
The youngest son settled on an estate at Newton Burgoland, and his great grandson was Robert, whose elder surviving son became a mill owner at Oldbury, Staffs., in the Black Country (then a lot less black, of course) whilst the younger, William (1713-1800) was given the land at Measham to develop the coal.
This must have proved rewarding, for in 1767 he resolved to build a house on the land, and indeed seems to have spared little expense in so doing, being aided in this by his wife, Catherina, who he had married in 1743 and who later inherited an estate at Little Canons, Herts. from her father, Thomas Wootton. By 1767, they had four young sons and two daughters and probably needed a house of sufficient size, commensurate with their status, and to build it at Measham was probably the ideal site.
The Palladian building which resulted is not fully understood as there seems to be no proper survey surviving, but it was a two and a half storey brick house, seven bays wide on the main (south) front with the central three bays breaking slightly forward under a pediment. This contained a round carved stone cartouche set unusually low down on the cornice containing the family crest (a demi-lion issuant or holding between the paws an ogress) flanked with palm fronds. The ground floor end bays had each a tripartite window set in rusticated surrounds, whilst the rest of the windows had gauged brick lintels. There was a sill band at first floor level and a plat band between the first and second floors with rusticated quoins at the angles, all topped by a rather perfunctory cornice supporting a hipped roof with central light well. The side elevations were of three bays, where the fenestration was set in stone surrounds and the windows on the first and ground floors were embellished with triangular pediments, whilst the central top-floor window was octagonal. The entrance was to the east.
The interior was apparently of some pretension, with a mahogany staircase rising through the height of the house in the central well with three turned balusters per tread. Unfortunately, little detail has survived otherwise, although the portrait of Jedediah Strutt by Joseph Wright, now in Derby Museum, hung in the house from the mid nineteenth century, where it was recorded in 1907.
In true Palladian style, the house was flanked by two smaller pavilions joined to the main building by short single storey links. These were on one and a half storeys three bays wide under a pyramidal roof. The ground floor windows were set in a blind arcade and a first-floor sill band extended under a panelled parapet over the links. In all, it made a very satisfying ensemble. The well-wooded park extended to thirty acres.
The architect of the house is not known for certain, but in the 2001 third edition of The Derbyshire Country House I opined that it might have been William Henderson of Loughborough, a close contemporary of Joseph Pickford. Now I know more about Henderson, I do not think he was involved, but instead would suggest William Harrison (c. 1740-1794). He started in Derby, son of a joiner and was styled ‘architect and surveyor’ by the time that Measham Hall was begun. He was building the Clergy Widows’ Almshouses at Ashbourne at that same period. It is possible that working for the Abneys brought him in contact with potential clients at Leicester, for he settled there soon afterwards. His magnificent Leicester Asylum has stylistically much in common with the somewhat more elaborate Measham Hall
The eldest son, Robert Abney, died without surviving issue, when the estate was inherited by his next brother, the Revd. Edward Abney from whom it descended to the grandson, Capt. William Wootton Abney (1807-1866), who also died without surviving issue, leaving everything to his brother, another Edward.
This Edward (1811-1892) was a parson, living in a grand Regency house on Burton Road outside Derby called The Firs (still extant, albeit altered). He was long the vicar of St. Alkmund’s church, having been instrumental in its rebuilding by Henry Isaac Stevens in 1847-48. He had married Katherine, daughter of the younger Jedediah Strutt in 1833. He was also Dean of Derby and a close friend of the neighbouring Mundys of Markeaton Hall, where he met their brother-in-law, W H Fox-Talbot, who interested him in photography and, in the 1840s, he taught his élève, the young Richard Keene the art, too.
On inheriting, he seems to have added the canted bay onto the garden window of the drawing room, rusticated to match the end bays and probably also the work of Stevens. He also partly re-glazed the house with plate glass (to its detriment in my view). His son was Sir William Abney KCB FRS (1843-1920), a pioneer of scientific education and also of photography, presiding over the first steps towards polaroid photography and colour printing. His wife’s sister married Revd. Canon J C Cox, FSA, a notable Derbyshire antiquary.
It was Sir William’s son, Lancelot who moved away, selling the house to the Measham Colliery Company, in an echo of the similar and contemporary sale of the hall at Shipley to the local colliery company. From thereon, its fate was sealed.
Nevertheless, it was lived in by the colliery manager and partly used as offices, but nationalisation of the coal industry led to its being instead crudely divided as flats. The fact that the company had extended workings beneath the house from 1928 was one thing, but in the virulently egalitarian post-war world, with the well-remembered class warrior Emanuel Shinwell as Minister for Fuel and Power, it was felt that, as at Shipley, Stainsby House, Erddig in Denbighshire (and more so at Wentworth Woodhouse), to mine away the coal left beneath the house would be acceptable. Inevitably, the building soon began to suffer subsidence problems with the result that in 1958 it was evacuated.
In 1959, therefore, this fine house was cleared away in the name of progress: a serious loss in terms in landscape and heritage, things we now tend to value much more than in the age of austerity.