Any reader who thinks I might have run out of substantial lost country houses to describe by now will be, I am afraid, mistaken. I may have been seduced into writing about some modest ones, but more substantial casualties are still unrecorded in this series. One of them is Stainsby House, Smalley, seat of the Wilmot-Sitwell family.
In The Derbyshire Country House (3rd edition 2001), I described this house as ‘remarkably large and incorrigibly unlovely’ and I feel that I can stand by that assessment without demur.
One always expects Classical country houses to be symmetrical, but Stainsby was anything but. Stone built of finely ashlared Rough Rock from Horsley Castle quarry, the entrance front, which faced approximately North, had a recessed, wide, three bay three storey centre flanked on the left by a two bay wing which was built slightly forward of the centre and which extended by a further three bays to the west but of only two lower storeys. To the right was a much longer four bay wing, also breaking forward, and the two projections were joined by a ground floor loggia centered by a pedimented Ionic portico. There were quoins at the angles, a top parapet and grooved cornice.
As if that wasn’t enough, the south (garden) front had a regular three bay pedimented centre, flanked by two bays either side set slightly back, although the attic storey to the right had three lights, whilst that to the left only two. The east portion ended with a full height canted bay, but this feature was absent from the west end of the façade, which stopped abruptly with the lower three bay two storey part seemingly tacked on and set back a little further. At the west end, too, was a sort of pavilion wing with five bays facing west, beyond which was the coach house and stable court with a high arcaded lantern, probably the handsomest part of the entire building.
The origin of the house and estate are equally complex. A part of Smalley came into the hands of the Morleys of Morley but, by c1250 it had come to William de Steynesby, a member of the family of Steynesby from the village near Hardwick we now spell Stainsby, and it is thanks to him that the estate acquired that name. His grandson, Sir William de Steynesby died c1300 and from him it somehow became the property of the Sacheverells of Hopwell about 1601.
Because the estate was rich in coal, it was extremely valuable and was sold on again to George, second son of George Mower of Barlow Woodseats, whose name in the context of Stainsby is more often spelled More. In 1629, aged 21 he married Mary daughter of Robert Wilmot of Chaddesden. With his son also George (died c1705), he exploited the coal. The second George More died without surviving issue when the estate was again sold to a Heanor mining entrepreneur John Fletcher (died 1734), whose newly granted (1731) coat-of-arms was a riot of mining implements. He probably built the core of the later house, being the wide three bay three storey centre portion. Indeed, the Mores’ house must have been a much more modest affair, taxed on only three hearths in 1670.
Fletcher’s son married the eventual heiress of the Smalley Hall estate (which went on his death to the eldest grandson). The youngest grandson , John Fletcher, inherited Stainsby. With his death without issue, it came to his sister, married to Francis Barber of Greasley, Notts, who like all the other families involved, were coal owners. The estate then passed to Francis’s son John (1734-1801), who lived amongst the family’s Warwickshire coal mines at Weddington and allowed his mother to remain in the house until her death. He is notable as a friend of John Whitehurst and was the inventor of the gas turbine.
When old Mrs Barber died the estate was sold, through a middle man called Samuel Buxton, to Edward Sacheverell Wilmot, a grandson of Robert Wilmot of Chaddesden Hall, Derby who had married Joyce, the heiress of the famous Whig politician, William Sacheverell, whose extensive estate included that of Morley. His aim in acquiring the estate was to unite the two portions of the original Morley family holding, half of which he had already inherited from the Sacheverells. Another Sacheverell heiress had conveyed a third portion of the estate to the Sitwells of Renishaw and George Sitwell’s heiress Elizabeth, had left it to him in her will, obliging him to assume the surname and arms of Sitwell in addition to Wilmot.
He seems immediately to have set about enlarging the house by adding the projecting wings, presumably in view of their irregularity in separate building campaigns, although the four bay one may originally have been narrower. Whatever additions had previously been made to the Fletchers’ house is beyond our ken, but it may have dictated the disparity in size of the projecting bays and the strange placing of the attic windows on the garden front. Whether he had an architect – Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter built in this plain monumental style in the 1790s locally – or used a local builder we do not know.
The new owner died in 1836 whereupon his son, Edward Degge Wilmot-Sitwell decided on a rebuild which Charles Kerry claims was done in 1839, including having the house ‘refaced and restored’. This seems to have included the west extension, the entrance front arcaded loggia and the canted bay on the right of the garden front. It may also have included the Main Road boundary wall with its strange conically roofed bastions and Gothick gateway, along with the expansion of the right hand bay of the entrance front as well.
As it would seem likely that any scheme of rebuilding would have surely included a matching bay to the left of the garden front, one is of the opinion that the alterations were actually set in train by Wilmot-Sitwell senior and not his son. His death in 1836 would logically explain what is clearly a job stopped in mid-flow. One suspects that the son thought further expansion of the main house was enough and spent his money on rebuilding the stable court, which is clearly of this date.
The next generation added a new drawing room in 1885. A surviving photograph of this shows a Rococo overmantel in plaster (which must once have contained a painting) and a rather pretty Neo-Classical chimneypiece, possibly in carved timber, but a shade too small for the chimney breast, which has clearly been inserted into an existing 18th century scheme of decoration; it all looks a trifle strange.
Other alterations stand out, but are undated in the record. After Richard Keene photographed the entrance front in the 1860s, the recessed portion of this lost its flanking first floor windows, to be replaced by a pair of Venetian windows (Serlianas), which involved a great deal of new ashlar work which, even in the house’s last days, stood out clearly. It also acquired an ambitious glazed conservatory at the East end with Art-Nouveau stained glass.
Most startling of all was the insertion, on every level, of a cluster of four immensely fat Doric columns through the middle of the house. This suggests that the building was beginning to suffer from subsidence, probably caused by the Wilmot’s lessee of their coal seams, John Ray of Heanor, taking out coal from directly under the building – the tactless fellow. It appears that at the same time, the North wall had to be strengthened, as a view of the first floor room with the Serlianas, shows these windows with reveals about a yard thick.
The question remains as to when this was done. Kerry gives us the date of c1885 for adding the drawing room, which might also represent the occasion of these changes. However, the fancy stained glass on the Messenger & Co. conservatory would suggest an Edwardian date for that at least, which might sit better with the Serlianas too. One cannot help but think that an 1880’s architect might have made them distinctly Victorian, whereas they turned out very correct. Nor is there a hint of who the architect might have been, although Maurice Hunter of Belper rebuilt Smalley Hall at about this time.
If the house was indeed sinking, it was probably doomed in the medium term but, as it turned out, events caught up with it anyway. Robert Wilmot-Sitwell inherited from an uncle in 1936 and on his death three years later, the trustees decided to sell the contents. This was conducted by Jackson-Stops on 6th June 1939, the contents going and the 3,669 acre estate being broken up. Only the colliery rights were retained, only to be compulsorily purchased by the Atlee Government in 1947.
The house was requisitioned to accommodate St Aloysius’ RC College from London and this stayed until the mid-1950s, when a local poultry farmer took it over, sharing a small portion of the building with a large number of noisome (and noisy) chickens. By 1971 the entire place was deserted and in decay and three years later it was bought by Bob Morley of Alida Packaging, his surname ironically bringing the ownership full circle from its original lords!
He demolished the house and had David Shelley of Nottingham design him a splendidly innovatory modernist house, complete with helicopter landing pad, but with neither a straight line nor a right angle in it, which was finished in 1976. This is the present Stainsby House which, frankly, I find much more architecturally coherent than its hulking great predecessor!