Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe of Calke, 10th Bt. was a true eccentric; unpredictable, obsessive and solitary. One of his pastimes was the catching of specimens various types of fauna and having them stuffed, mounted and parked in the great saloon at Calke Abbey. Smaller creatures, including butterflies he dried and pinned to boards. One summer morning in July 1893, he was spied, with his trusty gamekeeper and companion in all outdoor matters Ag Pegg, on the lawn of a villa on the Calke estate, south of Repton called Repton Park, set romantically amongst trees above a modest but beautiful lake. It was a good place to find the odd Fritillary.
Unfortunately, the resident of the house, his cousin, John Edmund (Harpur-) Crewe did not view their intrusion with approval, he felt affronted and thought that common decency would suggest that the pair might have asked his consent, prior to appearing in front of the house in full cry after some hapless specimen of lepidoptery. A heated argument ensued, during which Sir Vauncey pointed out that John was his tenant and had no right to complain.
The upshot was that poor John was summarily evicted (moving a short distance away to Bramcote House at Milford, on the Foremark estate), whilst the estate foreman was sent in to pull the house down. In a few years, dense bocage had taken over the site and it was as if the house had never been.
It was like that, too, when Mick Stanley and I went there in 1981, in the process of compiling our two volume epic, The Derbyshire Country House. The land by then had become attached to the policies of Repton Hayes, a few hundred yards across the shallow vale, and the late Miss Theresa Woolley very kindly allowed us a visit. We had seen a small oil of the house when visiting Charles Harpur-Crewe at Calke earlier, hung between two of the windows of the saloon (which he kindly allowed me to photograph) and thought we ought to visit.
We approached southwards along a delightful avenue of trees and thence into the woodland that surrounds the site and once surrounded the house. The site was featureless except for a single mullioned stone window at ground level, clearly part of a cellar, but 75 yards before encountering this we had passed a fairly substantial ruin of Keuper sandstone with a fine Jacobean classical arched entrance and more mullioned windows, left like a forlorn sentinel at the approach to the house.
The house was Repton Park, formerly Repton Park Lodge, built on that part of the ancient Repton estate that had come to the Harpurs from the Fynderne family. Probably in the early years of the 17th century, about when the Swarkestone Stand was built, the first baronet, Sir Henry, built a hunting lodge here with a small separate stable block, recessed between two stubby wings. We only get confirmation of its existence in the hearth tax return for 1662, which records ‘Sir John Harpur Bart., his lodge…’ All we get from William Woolley in 1713, ‘Sir John Harpur has a very pretty park here’ – no mention of a lodge.
Neither do we know exactly what the building looked like, but a lithograph of it after it was rebuilt in the Regency period shows that the stable block was castellated, and this suggests that the main house was also treated in this way. Indeed, Professor Mark Girouard has suggested that it may have been designed (if not built), like the Swarkestone Stand, by the architect of Bolsover Castle, John Smythson. Smythson was a master of the chivalric revival style, which emphasised details like battlements and towers. Thus the original house, probably a very modest 48 by 24 feet and two storeys high, may have resembled old Wingerworth, Highlow or Holme Hall, Bakewell and as a result, in its bosky setting must have look very romantic, as a lodge, like Wothorpe in Lincolnshire.
Dr, Bigsby, the mid-19th century historian of Repton averred that the lodge was erected
‘…upon the foundations of an ancient structure that formed the manorial residence of the Finderne family…beneath the later fabric are extensive subterranean remains of the former edifice.’
In 1252 the manorial estate of Repton (excluding the Priory’s demesnes) had been split four ways, but most of it was either given to the Priory or came to the Crown, from which the Fyndernes of Findern bought it. They sold most of their estates to Sir Richard Harpur of Swarkestone in the 1550s and hence its descent to the Calke branch of the family.
On a plan drawn by Samuel Wyatt (cousin of the architect, and a local surveyor) in 1762 the house appears as a rectangle with a narrower wing to the SW, probably a later addition to house the offices. The lake, bordered to the west by Hartshorne Road, was only of a modest size in 1762, but by 1800 had been considerably enlarged, probably as part of a deliberate exercise in landscaping, probably at the hands of the incomparable William Emes, who was working at Calke in the 1770s.
The earliest view of the house, a lithograph from the lake taken in the later 1840s, is confirmed by a dreadfully faded Calotype photograph, possibly taken before 1851 by Canon Abney and W. H. Fox-Talbot on one of their tours by carriage from Markeaton Hall, the latter’s in-laws’ house. This shows a two and a half storey house with three bays facing north embellished with an outlandishly Gothic porch, complete with four crocketed pinnacles, and a five bay west front with towers at the angles. They are impossibly romantic towers too, not really octagonal, more square with chamfered angles, and the two that flanked the entrance opened into loggias at the foot.
These towers were crenellated and the upper storey of the house defined by a sill band and a string course above, whilst the parapets were also embellished with crenelles The windows, however, where standard four over four pane Regency sashes, albeit ensigned by cranked hood moulds. The effect though was arrestingly engaging, and in the lithograph echoed the outline of the earlier stable block splendidly.
The sides one could see were different. The house had the disadvantage of having its entrance front facing north (never a good idea in the centuries prior to central heating) and its main front, behind which lay the main two reception rooms, facing west. The south, unusually, had the service accommodation and the east, somewhat buried in the rising ground behind the carefully levelled site, had a Regency extension containing a grand staircase, the kitchen and butler’s pantry with bedrooms over.
Mark Girouard wondered (in Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House, 1983) if the house had always had corner towers, like Ruperra, Glamorgan and Lulworth, Dorset, both of which he connected with the chivalric romanticism of the younger Smythson. This impression was consolidated when a plan of the house emerged by Derby architect/builder Samuel Brown, who worked extensively for Sir George Crewe Bt. showing the house with the towers and extensions but with shading where extensions had been (or were to be) made. This suggested that the quadrilateral shape and the towers were original and that the additions to the east and south were added by him in 1812-1813.
Thus for three decades we all believed that Repton Park was a neat hunting lodge with four angle turrets, covered with Brown’s favourite render, Brookhouse’s Roman cement (made in Derby on the Morledge from crushed Chellaston alabaster), enlarged and Gothicised by him in 1812. Then, when he was Heritage Officer for South Derbyshire Council, Philip Heath gathered some enthusiasts together in 2009 and cleared the leaf mould from the site and undertook a modest amount of simple archaeology. This revealed that the angle towers were built of brick and not closely integrated with the rest of the building, and that the rectangle had been expanded southward to 56 feet in brick and stucco. Furthermore, there was really not that much 17th century ashlared stone work left that could be detected; the overall impression was that the house had been rebuilt twice within a few decades.
The first phase, at an unknown date between 1762 and 1811, had been to add the corner towers and re-order the interior. This may have coincided with the works to the parkland in the later 18th century, in which case the architect could have been Joseph Pickford or even Samuel Wyatt. The porch may have been added then. It was incongruously Gothick, possibly even a relic of the hunting lodge phase from the 1630s or else perhaps taken from some other building entirely. The ground plan was also altered, for one suspects that the entrance was originally to the west into a great hall. By 1811, though, the entrance was probably in the centre of the north front and the house may then have been intended, not for genteel living, but for a factor or agent.
The 1811 alterations turned it into a proper villa or small seat, provided a new main stair (where its predecessor had been is difficult to work out, but probably on the east side), and gave it two decent rooms for entertaining, just as Brown’s plan reveals.
That was the house that the younger branch of the Harpur-Crewe family lived in until Sir Vauncey’s spleen was vented. Parts of the portico and other Gothic details were moved across the lake to Repton Hayes (a Regency stuccoed house by John Smith of Repton for Sir George Crewe, 1823) which was rebuilt in somewhat eccentric fashion to accommodate them.
Ironically, after Sir Vauncey died in 1924, the baronetcy became extinct (or quite possibly dormant) and the Calke estate (and Repton Park) passed first to his son-in-law Godfrey Mosley of Burnaston House and then when he died, it passed to his cousins the Jenneys, who took the name and arms of Harpur-Crewe. When Miss Airmyne Harpur-Crewe succeeded her two brothers in 1991 and, like them, died without issue at the end of 1999, the estate passed to a more distant cousin in the USA. By then Repton Park had been sold off and Calke (with much of the estate) given to the National Trust.
The great irony of the American heir Andrew Johnson, is that he is the descendant of the man whose delightful house Sir Vauncey had peremptorily demolished that summer in 1893.
Illustrations for this story in the order of appearance.
1. Repton Park in the mid-19th century, from an anonymous oil painting [Harpur Crewe estate]
2. The house and (left) the stables, just visible) rising through the trees, from the lithograph of the 1840s. [M. Craven]
3. The lake and part of the boat house looking NW photographed by Richard Keene [G. Cash]
4. Re-drawn version of Samuel Brown’s plan of the house dated 1811. The dark shaped part are the extensions. North to the left. Key to rooms: 1. Parlour, 2. Dining Room, 3. Housekeeper’s Room, 4. Closet, 5. Pantry, 6. Hall, 7. Kitchen, 8. Butler’s Pantry, 9. Servants’ stair. [M. Craven]
5. The ruins of the stable block in 2009 [M. Craven]
6. Remains of a stone mullioned window of the house visible below ground level, 2009 [M. Craven]