It is entirely through the thorough researches undertaken by Gladwyn Turbutt that we have a good, comprehensive history of this lost house and its occupants. Derbyshire historian Stephen Glover wrote in around 1832 that the house overlooked ‘one of the finest valleys in the county’ and if you were to go to our excellent Museum at Derby you will see Joseph Wright’s painting The Rainbow, which is understood to have been painted by the river Amber just below the house which, in its heyday, was set in a small park of unusual beauty. And indeed, Joseph Wright had strong connections with the house (as he had with lost Yoxall Lodge in Staffordshire through his long friendship with Derby’s slavery abolitionist Thomas Gisborne).
When I wrote about Derwent Hall, we encountered a house that was lost to the building of a reservoir, and Errwood Hall was also a secondary casualty in Derbyshire of a house lost to the desire of local authorities to flood valleys of incomparable beauty to quench the thirst of the citizens of adjoining towns. Regrettably, Ford House and its predecessor, Ford Old Hall (or House), were also casualties of this ecologically unfriendly aspect of having to deal with a burgeoning population.
Some time in the Tudor era, a family called Curtis held a modest estate at Ford, but they enjoyed the status of yeoman farmer rather than of gentlemen. In the seventh century John Curtis married a daughter of their near neighbours, the Revels of Ogston Hall, subsequently became a Quaker and in 1680, with the encouragement of a Revell kinsman, migrated to America where his progeny still flourish.
The Curtis family must have built the old hall, a single range of which survived into the twentieth century, and which was the subject of a postcard issued by a local firm at Alfreton. What one sees is a lowish two storey range of coal measures sandstone with two light mullioned windows set with cast iron casements and topped with a stone slate roof. To the right was a later range, and the whole functioned as a farmhouse until it met its nemesis.
Swathwick, in Wingerworth, who initially added the range to the right of the Old Hall around 1700, allegedly as a malthouse, although the formality of its architecture rather suggests increased accommodation for Holland who had married three years before. Yet he was a maltster, and a successful one, but one feels that the epicentre of his trade would more likely have been in Alfreton, three miles away. In 1713 George was succeeded by his son Thomas, whose accounts partially survive, entries from which suggest that he spent £100 building stables in 1721 and a few years later spent £336 for ‘building the house at fford’ which is usually taken to be the Ford House that survived to be photographed.
Yet there are reasons to doubt this. The three photographs I have been able to dig our (three of them locally printed postcards) show the house as a three storey stone building, of coal measures sandstone, ashlared to the main (east) front and of random rubble brought to course at the sides. It had a hipped roof, a cornice supporting a dwarf parapet and three bays of paired sashes to the main façade, a most unusual arrangement for the date. The pediment at the centre of the ground floor was clearly not intended as the main entrance, as it spanned two bays like the rest, of which only one serves as a door, almost certainly to give access to the garden. The entrance was clearly in the courtyard behind and to the left. To the left too there is a single bay of superimposed paired mullioned but sashed windows, roughly the same height as the main range and beyond that a courtyard connecting to a very pretty stable block consisting of a pediment over a triple arcade.
The main house is most emphatically not in the style of George I, nor is the stable block for that matter. Looking at the two storey range to the left (the south wing) I suspect this is all that was suffered to remain after a later building campaign, of the original house, possibly a rebuild of an earlier building (Mr. Turbutt suspects that earlier stable block of the Old Hall which stood behind to the north). This remnant, latterly the kitchen wing, included an inscribed pane of glass to
‘Thomas Holland de Ford in Com. Derb. Gent. Decimo Quarto die Aprilis
Anno Dni 1729’
This must surely be a commemoration of the completion of the building, for which the £336 payment was part.
What was there latterly looks remarkably like a late eighteenth century house, although the paired windows are still a rare feature. Furthermore, the stables look a little earlier if anything; the arcade under a plain pediment closely resembles the summerhouse built by Joseph Pickford at Ashbourne Mansion around 1763 and in the early nineteenth century was embellished with stone balls to the gateway and wall in true Palladian tradition, these details known only from a contemporary painting. Finally, although the 1720s accounts break off, incomplete, £336 for a substantial house (unless a payment on account) is not a lot of money.
Thomas Holland died in 1776 and, I suspect, at a much later date than his youthful building programme, he had the stables enlarged and embellished, probably in the 1760s, using an architect not unfamiliar with Palladian motifs, perhaps Edmund Stanley of Chesterfield, who oversaw the building of the new hall at Ogston nearby to the designs of Joseph Pickford of Derby. Thomas was succeeded by his son John, an altogether more sensitive man than his father. He married in 1777, his wife Mary being sister-in-law to his equally cultivated neighbour William Turbutt. The couple entertained at Ford an important network of enlightenment friends including painters like Wright and his friend William Tate, the abolitionist and collaborator of William Wilberforce, Revd. Thomas Gisborne and Revd. William Mason, himself a close friend of Thomas Gary of Elegy in a Country Churchyard fame.
Wright gave Holland lessons in painting, for which he had a real talent and their friendship, like Wright’s with Gisborne, became close. Holland copied some of Wright’s portraits, including two self-portraits, and Holland was one of Wright’s executors. He was also a connoisseur and literary man of some refinement of taste who died in 1807 aged 73.
One greatly suspects that it was John who replaced his masterful father’s probably rather frugal house with the substantial villa which one sees in the old postcards. Gladwyn Turbutt suggests that he acted as his own architect, which may explain the paired bays; the general austerity of the facade reflects the Neo-classical architectural conventions of the day though. Nevertheless, it would seem likely that he employed an architect at least to realise his design. It is worth noting the aggressively plain façade of nearby Marsh Green Hall, Ashover in this context. The main front is a ringer for the garden front of Ford, but with the paired bays spaced out more conventionally as single superimposed windows. Well, almost, for the first floor bay over the tripartite entrance is paired exactly like those at Ford and if one imagines the fenestration with sashes instead of the later casements at Marsh Green, the two facades match in proportion and style remarkably well.
Marsh Green Hall was built by Lawrence Bourne in the 1780s, at about the time Ford was probably being replaced, and there was a strong connection too. John Holland’s sister Anne had married Revd. George Fidler, rector of Shirland, whose first wife Jemima was the sister of Lawrence Bourne; indeed their son-in-law Joseph Nodder ultimately inherited the estate. The implications of this connection are inescapable; the two houses, of remarkably similar design and proportion were built at about the same time, and both are stylistically linked. Either John Holland designed them both, or they enjoyed the services of the same architect, perhaps someone like the competent Thomas Sykes of Chesterfield (1739-1816).
John Holland’s widow Mary lived on at the house until her death in 1847 without having had any children, with the result that house and estate passed to a cousin, who sold them to Gladwyn Turbutt of Ogston, Mary Holland’s great-nephew, who lived there until he inherited Ogston Hall in 1850 (which he rebuilt) and his widowed mother moved in, dying in 1855. The house was thereafter let to a succession of well-heeled tenants: Thomas Langhorne, who was followed by Mr. Hankey, the Cantrell-Hubberstys, formerly of Wirksworth, the widowed Mrs. Huish, formerly of Smalley Hall, who was succeeded by her daughter and the last family to live there were the Merrys.
The house and much land were compulsorily purchased from the Turbutts in the mid-1950s when it was decided that Ogston Reservoir should be built. The water was never going to encroach upon the reasonably elevated site of the house, but in spite of this, the engineers knocked both it (by then listed Grade III, a listing grade long obsolete) and the old hall down and replaced the former with a row of four ‘reservoir houses’, which could have been erected anywhere nearby. If ever there was an example of wanton destruction of a historic Georgian villa in good order of maintenance, this was surely it.
Needless to say, the parkland and valley were utterly lost, but at least we can still go and admire The Rainbow at Derby Museum.