[dropcaps]There is still a Risley Hall in the village today, a pleasant hotel and in itself full of interest, having been built in the 18th century and expanded by the famous local entrepreneur E T Hooley. Yet before that, there was a very impressive house of much greater importance than its successor.[/dropcaps]
There is only one real picture of it, a woodcut made by the eccentric mid-Victorian carver, Joseph Barlow Robinson, copied from a lost painting which in the 1860s was still hanging in the present hall. The house depicted by Robinson and used to illustrate his Derbyshire Gatherings was of two parallel ranges running north to south joined at one end by service accommodation and at the other by a three storey gabled range which may have been a remnant of an earlier house; there are overtones of Groby Old Hall. These all formed a central courtyard, de rigeur for the grander houses in the later Middle Ages and early Tudor period. I
t was built of ashlared Crawshaw Sandstone (a type of coal measures sandstone) quarried from Stanton-by-Dale and not from stone from the demolished Dale Abbey, as locals would have you believe. The house was, after all, built a decade before the Dissolution! It had two storeys with attic dormers, the garden front being broken up by four huge attached chimney breasts supporting triple stacks, there being two bays of windows in the central portion but only one between the outer chimney breasts, which with the end bays made a façade of six bays.
The entrance range contained an off-set surviving Medieval great hall, probably cheek-by-jowl with an embedded ornamental ‘gatehouse’ entrance into the inner courtyard, as in the main front at Hengrave, Suffolk. This range was topped by a row of three hexagonal cupolas. The resemblance of the garden front to the slightly larger but exactly contemporary Longford Hall (which mercifully survives) is striking and again the garden front of Hengrave is also very similar, dating from 1525-1538. The builder was George Willoughby of Risley, eldest of the sons of Hugh, who had died in 1511. George married an heiress, Elizabeth Neale, which probably enabled him to replace the medieval house of the family which came to Risley through the marriage of justice Sir Richard Willoughby with Isabel, the heiress of the Morteyne family who had held the estate since the Domesday survey.
Hugh had died quite young and George’s marriage came later, so the date of both wedding and building must have been around the 1520s which certainly agrees with the architecture. The account of the house by William Woolley written c1713 when the house still stood, merely mentions a large, convenient building with good gardens, especially for fruit and suitable to the estate, though no exact building. The most notable feature of the setting of the house was an impressive three hundred foot terrace, partly moated, decorated with a banqueting house, obelisks, statues and balustrading, all very much in the style of the very late 16th century.
This managed to outlive the main house by a century, the banqueting house with its merlon-esque door-light and crow-stepped gables being very reminiscent of the entrance front of Grafton Manor, in Worcestershire. Nevertheless, as time went by, the obelisks and statues were either stolen or re-used elsewhere and the entire ensemble became romantically overgrown. These works and no doubt improvements to the house itself, like the pedimented mullion and transom cross windows (also in evidence at Grafton Manor), may have been done by George’s son Sir John or by his younger brother Michael. Michael built the church nearby in 1593 as a domestic chapel to the hall (it was not, curiously, consecrated until 1632) and it may be that this spectacular terrace was also his doing, although it is not clear why this younger son was doing any building at all, unless it was on behalf of the young Sir John.
It is a measure of the size of the house by this time that in 1670 it was taxed on no less than 33 hearths, putting it amongst the larger local houses; Bolsover Castle only had three more. There was also a secondary seat on the hill to the NE of the house called Risley Lodge, which had been built, probably by Michael for his own use, at exactly the same period as the church. This was taxed on a mere 4 hearths in 1670, when John Charlton was the tenant. The site, part of a secondary estate in the village called Wood Hall, long in separate ownership, was acquired in 1587.
The new house, designed primarily as a lodge – a place to retreat to from the main house in the same way that The Hagg related to Staveley Hall, Wothorpe to Burghley (Northants and Lincs) and Hardwick to Chatsworth – was three gables, of two storeys with attics and six bays wide, with the notable (and quite possibly later) addition of a tall domed lantern on the roof. Thus there was much improvement being made to the Willoughby’s estate in the last years of Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Sir John’s son Sir Henry, created a baronet in 1611, (one of only the second set of creations of this honour) died without male issue in 1649, leaving four daughters and co-heiresses.
The youngest married Sir Symonds d’Ewes of Stowlangtoft, whereby she became ancestrix of the Derbyshire Cokes, but the Risley estate passed to the husband of the eldest, Anne (d1688) who married Sir Thomas Aston of Aston, Cheshire. Sir Thomas had no need for a large house in Derbyshire, but he died relatively young and Anne resided at Risley with her second husband, the Hon Anchitel Grey, second son of the Earl of Stamford. He made some alterations, amongst which was a new coach house and stables, paying a brick-maker £4 – 12s – 6d for 20,0000 bricks for the latter, completed (according to a date stone) in 1695.
He lived at Risley until he died in 1702, as did his only daughter, Elizabeth, who died unmarried in 1723 having provided the village with many amenities including the incomparable Latin House for the schoolmaster she appointed. In 1723, the estate then reverted to the Astons. But the house, tenanted by Richard Aston, a younger son, was surplus to requirements and having failed to sell in 1743, was let to a family called White, whilst Richard’s son, whose elder brother Sir Thomas had, at his death, left the Aston estate to his sister and her heirs, lived at the Lodge. This was Sir Willoughby Aston, 5th Bt, who served as MP for Nottingham from 1754 to 1761 and remained there until his death in 1772.
He also got Joseph Pickford to replace the old Willoughby family town house in Corn Market Derby (the building which spans Lock-up Yard) in 1764 as his town residence. Sir Willoughby however, had long since divested himself of the responsibility of keeping the big house running and it was demolished in 1757, the materials from it being advertised for sale in the September. His son of the same name sold the estate in 1772, the intending purchaser being offered …the farm and outhouses, barns, stables, coach house, two dovecotes, malting office etc, three orchards, two gardens, two very fine large walks and a very fine more [moor]… The buyer was John Hancock, who later built the earliest phase of the present hall, demolishing the Lodge shortly afterwards, although his nephew and heir built a Regency replacement on a new site. Hancock did, however, leave the terrace in place along with the stable range, which has been unfortunately totally altered over the years.
Yet in 1791 Hutton, just before Hancock embarked upon building the present house, could write of the site that “The family, the noble estate and the venerable hall are all mouldered to destruction”. The estate remained with Hancock’s heirs, the Hall family until sold to J L Ffytche in 1860 and it was Ffytche who was the last known owner of the ancient oil painting of the house. It was eighteen years later that Ernest Terah Hooley bought the estate, but despite going bankrupt in 1896, managed to keep the estate from his creditors until 1927 and contrived to remain living in the house as a tenant until 1941. In his time the grounds were re-landscaped by William Barron & Sons, eliminating most of the surviving vestiges of the Willoughbys’ house (one also imagines that Hooley may have sold off the terrace statues) and Nottingham County Council owned the site until the present hall was sold in 1987 becoming an hotel not so long afterwards. The church, which became a parish church in the 19th century, is now the chief survivor of this once grand and ancient country house.