Snelston was the most ambitious Gothic house in Derbyshire, renowned for its splendour, but also one of the more short-lived Derbyshire seats. The history of Snelston prior to 1813, when the builder of this prodigy house came on the scene, is excessively convoluted. In essence, there had been three separate manorial estates at the time of Domesday Book, all tenanted by the Montgomery family, usually associated with Cubley, nearby. Another portion was owned by the Abbey of Burton.
At some stage the Montgomerys divided their holding into two unequal parts, called Upper Hall and Lower Hall, these later descending to the Brownes and the Dethicks. The two portions later by sale soldiered on under two upstart houses, the Doxeys and the Bowyers. In 1777, the Upper Hall and its estate was sold to Derby banker Thomas Evans (founder a few years later of Darley Abbey mills) whilst the Bowyers let Lower Hall, letting, with the result that in 1780 it was destroyed by fire.
In 1821 a dispute broke out between the heirs of the Bowyers and the two daughters of Edmund Evans, installed in the Upper Hall by Thomas. In 1813, Sarah Evans, married John Harrison, a match that changed everything. In 1822 Harrison bought out his sister-in-law and then set about taking control of the Lower Hall estate, gaining full possession in 1826.
John Harrison was a remarkable man. Born in 1782, he was the son of the first marriage of another John Harrison (1736-1808) who appears to have been the man who established the family fortune. His father had been a yeoman in the village of Normanton-by-Derby but who by his death on 3rd January 1808 had become a successful attorney, having set up in business in 1778, taking Samuel Richardson Radford into partnership in 1804. Where young John was educated is not clear, but he was called to the bar from the Inner Temple around 1804. In 1808 he was in Derby, taking over his father’s legal practice in St. Mary’s Gate and in 1822 entered into partnership with Benjamin Frear, retiring in 1825.
Notably, two weeks before his own marriage, Harrison’s sister, Juliana, had married John Stanton, whose uncle, James, in turn had already married her elder sister Ann, twelve years before
There is no doubt that Harrison was exceedingly wealthy, however, and soon he wanted a country seat. He had by 1817 acquired a modest estate at Littleover, and proceeded to draw up plans for a house there. To this end he employed Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (1787-1847) a London based architect who had set up on his own three years before. In all nine Greek revival designs were made, all for his Littleover Villa, the finished version being built as Littleover Grange, although re-instatement after a serious fire 25 years ago has changed it considerably.
Yet he seems not to have been satisfied with his Regency suburban villa, and in 1822, Cottingham drew his first design for Upper Hall, Snelston, which was, once again, Greek revival. Harrison retired from practice in 1825 (he had clearly made a killing somewhere along the line) and having gained possession of the entire estate the following year, Cottingham was put to work yet again, producing a restrained effort in castellated Gothic, but essentially a Classical design dressed up with ‘old world’ detailing. This was quickly followed by a third, more thoroughgoing Gothic design, but a visit to Alton Towers, not far away across the Dove seems to have inspired Harrison to try and emulate the fast-rising Romantic skyline of Lord Shrewsbury’s House.
Cottingham, whose strength lay in his understanding of Gothic in any case, did not fail him. The next design, which was indeed built, was a bravura display of high Gothic. The main (east) entrance front was given nine bays separated by buttresses running up to the parapet and ending in crocketed pinnacles, with paired lancet windows either side divided by transoms under hood moulds with foliate stops. The asymmetrical projecting portico was gabled, two storeys, with an arch beneath a battlemented oriel window.
The south front was dominated by a wide full height canted bay in similar mode whilst behind arose a dominant baronial great hall, the west gable end window of which being impressively ecclesiastical, packed with heraldic stained glass and flanked by slim octagonal turrets, a high slate roof embellished with small cupolas and a forest of decorative chimney stacks beyond. The house’s main facade continued in similar mode ending in an octagonal three storey tower on the SW angle, and indeed, from the lake in the 350 acre park (also Cottingham’s work, inspired by Humphrey Repton) the silhouette was distinctly Alton Tower like and certainly impressive.
Nor did he stint himself on the interiors, which were lavishly ornate yet at the same time unexpectedly delicate, especially in the arcading in the great hall and the filigree Gothic of the staircase. Cottingham designed everything himself, including much of the furniture, the designs for which are now in the collections at the V & A, donated by the late Col. Stanton. Much of this and other ornate timberwork was fabricated nearby at the hands of a much overlooked talent, Adam Bede of Norbury a craftsman of more than ordinary talent and whose name was the inspiration for a central character of George Eliot’s, who knew Bede from her childhood at Norbury, where her grandfather had been estate foreman and is believed to have had Bede as an apprentice.
The entire project took about a decade, 1827-1837, but Cottingham continued to design estate cottages, model farm buildings and the stable block (on the site of the burnt out Lower Hall). The entire combination of house, contents, gardens, village and estate were essentially the creation of Harrison and his architect. Had the house survived, it would now be an ensemble of major national importance.
Harrison was appointed to both the Staffordshire and Derbyshire bench and in 1833 served as High Sheriff of Derbyshire. He obtained a grant of arms in 1853 to replace one he had assumed without authority some decades before and died in 1871, by which time the estate had been extended to over 5,000 acres. On the death, unmarried of his son, John in 1906, the estate passed to Henry Stanton, whose father (of an old Lancashire family), already a cousin, had married John Harrison’s sister, Anne, and his family still live at Snelston.
Unfortunately, the house itself suffered from its own, difficult-to-maintain architectural exuberance, and mistreatment after requisitioning during the Second World War. Few landowners then could see a future for large country houses in the brave new world of the late Earl Attlee’s radical government, especially with the nation virtually bankrupted by six years of war and rocketing taxation. Furthermore, there were severe restrictions on building and the materials necessary to build and repair, so any remedial works required to such houses in the immediate aftermath of the war had to go begging for over three years, making, in many cases, a bad situation worse.
In this Snelston Hall was no exception, and the family resolved to demolish. Rumour to this effect leaked out into the wider world, and in 1951 the house was spot-listed grade II. In those days, this listing carried no statutory weight as regards consent (this changed on 1st January 1969). All an owner then had to do was to notify the Royal Commission on Historic Buildings for England, who were then duty-bound to send a photographer to record the relevant building inside and out before the wrecking ball struck. Mercifully, this was done, leaving the present National Monument Record with a wonderful record of the building.
The house was duly demolished in 1952, and the family moved into the main range of the stable block which was modified to make a very comfortable house, and into which as much as was salvageable from the main house was put. This included a cut down section of Adam Bede’s spectacular Gothic staircase, chimneypieces, doorcases (cut down), panelling and, of course some of the furniture. The rest were sold in a fixtures, fittings and furniture sale in June 1952.
Contrary to expectations of anyone seeing the place from afar, the house was much more convenient and compact than its arresting profile suggested. It was probably the chef d’ouevre of its architect, who was designing buildings for the village as late as 1846, a year before his death aged 60 in 1847. Strangely, although thorough-going Gothic houses of this era – the late Regency – have survived relatively well in other counties, Snelston Hall was Derbyshire’s only classic example of the style, for although Cottingham also worked at Stanton-in-Peak and Elvaston Castle, what you see of the latter today is mainly the earlier work of James Wyatt and the later work of Derby’s Giles & Brookhouse; only the memorable Hall of the Fair Star is entirely Cottingham’s work.