Home Lost Houses Lost Houses – Swarkestone Old Hall

Lost Houses – Swarkestone Old Hall

Lost Houses – Swarkestone Old Hall

If you drive along the road from Swarkestone Bridge to Chellaston you will notice, just as you turn east after passing the Crewe & Harpur Arms, a pair of sturdy stone gatepiers topped with large ball finials. Those not having to concentrate upon the road ahead will also see, in the field beyond the gate piers, an engaging stone two storey structure with a pair of ogee domed turrets.

The latter, beautifully restored, is now a holiday cottage for two, although I visited once, soon after commissioning, when it was being occupied by a lady barrister appearing at Burton Crown Court. It was ferociously cold and the only way to the loo (in one turret) was to cross the leads from a door (in the other turret). On the day I called, the leads were a lethal sheet of ice, making the essential transition exceedingly hazardous! This is Swarkestone Stand, still with gun embrasures on the side facing the road, evidence of a Civil War siege.


Were one to wander beyond the former bowling alley in front of the building, onto the pasture of the present 17th century Swarkestone Hall farm house, one might well notice some unusually high field boundaries, one with superimposed fireplaces still in situ.

All these component parts once made up the whole of a lost mid-Tudor great house, built by Chief Justice Sir Richard Harpur (1515-1577), a Royal legal officer who dexterously served four sovereigns – Kings Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queens Mary I and Elizabeth – without losing his head.  The Harpurs were an old Warwickshire and later Staffordshire family, seated at Pelsall. Sir Richard’s branch had become merchants at Chester, of which County Palatine Sir Richard latterly became Chief Justice.

In 1544 he married Jane Fynderne, whose family owned estates at Findern, Littleover and Twyford. Although she was her brother’s heiress, she was of a junior branch of her family, although when her cousin Michael died two decades after her in 1618, her children inherited all that was left of the family estates. Ironically, most of them had been purchased by the Harpurs years before to prevent young Michael frittering them away!


Harpur began buying up land in and around Swarkestone, from the Wilne family, some from the Sacheverells and most in 1558 from John Rolleston. Thereafter he began to build (probably on the site of its predecessor) his ‘newe mansion howse’ which was completed in 1567. From what evidence remains, it must have been quite impressive; the house was approximately 115 ft. square and with a central court yard. The best rooms were, almost certainly, from the evidence of remains, on the first floor (the piano nobile), with others facing the church to the west. The structure was built in coarse Keuper sandstone blocks with fine ashlar quoins and detailing, all from the nearby quarry at Weston Cliff.

The whole ensemble was approximately orientated north-south, the northernmost feature being the Stand added by Sir Richard’s grandson in 1632, built by Richard Shepperd at a cost of £111 – 12s – 4d and designed, according to Professor Mark Girouard, by John Smythson, creator of Bolsover Castle. The Stand, or pavilion, has a south facing arcade with a viewing room above with big windows to observe the bowling in the rectangular sward on the south side.


Opposite is a re-positioned Tudor door-case set in the surviving boundary wall. Beyond again would have been the 38 foot wide two storey gatehouse, probably also embellished with onion or ogee domes, but now entirely vanished bar a few fragments at ground level. From this a straight drive took one to the north range of the house through an impressive archway and into the courtyard. The present farm house to the south east is post-civil war and some consider it was probably adapted from the original stable block and indeed, it may have served a similar purpose, at least for a while, before conversion, prior to 1750, into a farmhouse. Other schools of thought consider it to have been a factor’s house or similar, as with the equally adjacent ‘Georgian House’ at Hampton Court, but altered later.

On the west side of the main house, where there is still a two storey stretch of wall with three chimney pieces surviving. To its west lay a large formal garden with cruciform paths radiating from a circle containing a pond, to divide the parterres, all revealed by work on the farm in 1988 and partly excavated. To the north west lies the so-called tithe barn, tactfully converted into a pair of luxury homes in 1988. Clearly it was never a barn as such, lacking the usual full height wide doors, but the suggestion that it was a malt-house has not found universal favour either. It probably formed part of a utilitarian yard with other buildings, but its five bays of south facing windows in moulded surrounds over two storeys and lack of chimneys would suggest some kind of storage was intended.   

The best way to appreciate the entire once very grand ensemble is to stand on the leads at the pavilion and look south towards where once stood the gatehouse and main residence.

During the Civil War the house, still then held by the Royalist Harpurs, held out, ultimately unsuccessfully, against Sir John Gell’s Parliamentary forces from Derby, under the command of Sir John Harpur (1612-1679) from December 1642 to January 1643. Sir John survived exile as a widower and married again after the war. In 1662 he had to pay the new hearth tax on a massive 28 hearths, one more than Sir Edward Coke at Longford (less than half of whose house survives today), two more than Sutton Scarsdale and two less than Staveley. Risley, another very similar house, was taxed on 33 hearths.

William Woolley, writing about 1713, wrote of Swarkeston that it was ‘a large, convenient stone building, seated on the banks of the Trent’, but within months the house had become empty on the death of Lady Bellomont Sir John Harpur’s widow. On his death in 1677, the Swarkestone and Calke estates had been united by inheritance and his widow suffered to remain. In 1713 the house was shut up, except for a portion (perhaps the present old hall) which was adapted as a farm house.

A generation went by, with the house remaining largely unoccupied, but from 1741 it began to be stripped of re-usable materials, and in 1746 it was begun to be dismantled a process which appears to have been completed a year or so later.


Strangely, though, that was not quite the end of the story. In 1808 Sir Henry Harpur of Calke, Bt. (1763-1819) decided to build a ‘small villa’ on the site, facing the river, which he called a ‘casina’. This was for staying in whilst fishing with friends and enjoying convivial suppers. The architect was Samuel Brown of Derby (1756-1835) who had been at work for some time for Sir Henry, extending the 17th century hunting lodge at Repton Park, and building the Grotto, Cascade, Gothic Bridge and Dower House at Calke.  Several houses on the extensive Harpur estates, Stenson House, Warslow Hall, Elms Farm, Littleover, are (or were) in his slightly ‘top heavy’ Regency style, as well as some exceptionally fine ashlared cottages at Ticknall and Stanton-by-Bridge. Brown’s most famous building was the Derbyshire General Infirmary built 1806-1810 to the general design of William Strutt FRS.

Sir Henry’s villa would have had a footprint of some 50ft by 20, perhaps slightly more, and was extended again in 1813. The interior decoration, which seems to have been fairly lavish, included a trellis room, probably a dining room like that once at Drakelow (and now in the V & A) painted in trompe de l’oeil with trellised borders by Paul Sandby. Indeed, as Sandby died only a year or so after the villa’s completion, it is possible he actually executed the trellis room on the recommendation of Sir Henry’s neighbour, Sir Nigel Gresley 7th Bt. who, ironically, died the same year the villa was completed.

This might have been something quite special had it survived but, no sooner had Sir Henry died than his son, Sir George Crewe, in 1821 ordered it be dismantled and re-erected in Calke Park as a dower house for Henry’s widow. In the event, she did not like it and the materials were promptly sold by auction in 1822.

The pavilion, ‘bowle alley howse’ or Stand was allowed gradually to decay, its elaborate painted wall-plaster stripped off and dumped in the cellar. But rescue came eventually in the shape of the Landmark Trust which, in 1984, bought it from the Harpur-Crewe estate and four years later, after careful restoration, it was triumphantly inaugurated as a wonderfully quirky but conveniently situated holiday cottage, all that remains of the Harpur’s lost great house.



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