[dropcaps]Domesday Book tells us that in 1066, Birchover, of which settlement Rowtor is part, was held by one Raven, as a berewick or outlier of Stanton-in-Peak. Rowtor was then as now a craggy outcrop of millstone grit sandstone overlying the lead-rich carboniferous limestone below. The lead that could be extracted from the latter ensured a high turnover of owners in Birchover and Stanton in the centuries to come, for lead mining brought great rewards to those who were lucky and ruined others in equal measure.[/dropcaps]
Raven was also the tenant of two other manors in Derbyshire and two further ones in Nottinghamshire, marking him out as a fairly minor player. His berewick at Birchover was supplemented by his holding one of the two manors into which Winster was divided and another quite some distance away, as a King’s thegn in Handley, north of Chesterfield. By 1086, he had been supplanted by one Sidred in Handley and by a man called Cola in Winster; we are not told who the tenant of Birchover was which leaves open the possibility that Raven was left in place at Birchover, in turn suggesting that he might well have been the ancestor of not only Sidred but also the de Birchover family. This family is on record from the time of Roger de Birchover of Birchover living c1150.
The Birchover berewick seems later to have been erected into a manor, presumably on the initiative of the de Ferrers Earls of Derby as chief lords at about this time. By the next century, the neighbouring de Aldwark family seem to have acquired the overlord-ship of it with a junior branch of the de Birchovers as their sub-tenants. This situation seems to have collapsed with the catastrophe of the Black Death in the late 1340s which appears to have killed off the de Birchovers wholesale.
Birchover’s population may have fallen as a result to about 30 people by the 1350s. In contrast, in 1670 from the hearth tax returns one can estimate that there were 29 households in Birchover suggesting a total population of about 150 people. Yet after the Black Death, we know that the Aldwark family still lived in Birchover, for an inventory of 1413 survives for Henry de Aldwark. It is clear from other evidence, that a portion of Birchover, probably at Rowtor, was linked to the Monjoye family estate at Winster, where they had been before 1190. This descended with Winster and Yeldersley to the Ireland family.
Eventually an Ireland descendant, John Whitehall, married Ellen, daughter and co-heiress of Aden Beresford of Fenny Bentley – who crops up again later – and inherited the Yeldersley, Winster and Birchover estates. He sold part of his inheritance in Birchover – namely the Rowtor estate – to Stephen Eyre of Hassop in 1564. Eyre was a prominent lead trader and the scion of an ancient minor gentry family then in the ascendant. He proceeded to build a house ‘suitable for a gentleman to inhabit, probably in the 1560s which was probably a fairly simple affair; a single great hall range, roomy and detached from any working farm functions. Stephen was succeeded by his son Rowland and he in turn settled it upon his sixth son, Roger Eyre around 1630.
Roger seems to have adapted the house to make a more modern seat of two storeys and attics, built of coarse ashlar Millstone Grit Sandstone (Ashover Grit) from a nearby quarry. He furnished it with a new wing at right angles to the original range of slightly taller proportions, the inside of the junction between the two incorporating a stair tower. The windows were mainly two and three-light mullioned ones with cranked hood moulds and the straight coped gables terminated a stone slate roof. Yet the house may conceivably have been larger when rebuilt by Roger Eyre, for the fact that his son Adam was taxed on seven hearths here in 1670 – making the house about the same size as Duffield Hall (also taxed on seven) – clearly implies the existence then of another cross-wing.
The later surviving L-plan house could never have furnished more than four or five hearths at best. This part of the house must have been demolished subsequently, probably in the Regency period. Adam was his father’s tenant, but died unmarried before Roger. Adam’s younger brother Thomas (born 1628) succeeded him. A barrister, he too died unmarried of a fall from his horse in 1681 (nineteen years after having his armorial bearings confirmed at the Heralds’ Visitation of the County. He was succeeded by the younger son, another Thomas. He had a great love for the megalithic outcrop under which his house lay and landscaped the area, carving steps, rough stone seats and arbours on the Tor where he ‘entertained his company on this elevated spot.’
Indeed, the place was much more barren then than now, the trees having been long since cut down to make charcoal for the lead smelting cupolas and boles. He also massaged the general outline somewhat and added an obelisk, creating what must have been the first purpose-made romantic landscape in the County if not further afield; it certainly pre-dated Hardinge’s at Knowle Hill. He also set about building a chapel, the ancient church of the parish, probably situated at Eagle Tor on the border between Atnaton and Birchover having long fallen into desuetude.
Thomas eventually died in 1717 without issue. His closest kin were Catholic Eyres, so to preserve his Protestant domestic chapel in the Anglican ambit, he left it, the house and estate to Henry, second son of his distant kinsman Gervase Eyre of Rampton, Nottinghamshire, on condition that he made the Hall his main residence. In the event, Henry took up the challenge with alacrity and maintained a ‘good house of sober hospitality’ and in his turn left the estate to his only daughter, Anne. She married rather grandly becoming on 25th November 1741 at St Peters’ Derby, the wife of the Hon Clotworthy Skeffington, later 5th Viscount Massareene who was created 1st Earl of Massareene (in the peerage of Ireland) a year before his death in 1757.
Once widowed, his Countess sold the Rowtor Estate to minor Birchover landowner John Bradley, who died in 1795, leaving it to his natural son, Joseph Hodgkinson. Bradley was descended from George Bradley of Birchover, yeoman, who had bought another part of Rowtor for £1,779 – hence Bradley Rocks – from Ralph Beresford of Birchover in 1624. Not long after that, the famous Derbyshire antiquary and barrow opener Thomas Bateman of Middleton Hall bought it from Hodgkinson. Professional archaeologists have more recently been of the opinion that the ‘Celtic’ or ‘Megalithic’ markings to be found at various places on the outcrop on the rocks are down to Bateman’s historico-romantic urges (or less probably Thomas Eyre’s) than to ancient man. On his death in 1835 his son, William, sold it to William Pole Thornhill of Stanton Hall, Stanton-in-Peak, just over the hill from Rowtor. By the mid-19th century it had become ruinous (its last tenant was wheelwright Francis Walker in the 1850s) and was mainly demolished in order to make way for the new vicarage which Thornhill’s widow Isabella built for the man she installed as first incumbent of the rebuilt chapel at Birchover, Arthur Wolfe Hamilton.
The new house, built in 1870, was a fair Victorian copy of the original, using the latter’s footprint and it probably incorporates some of the original’s fabric. However, the roof is pitched steeper with more pointed gables and an extension to the north forming a T-plan. The architect may well have been Henry Isaac Stevens of Derby (1806-1873) a prolific builder of churches, rectories and schools in Derbyshire and neighbouring counties at the time. It is certainly in his plainer style. The building was passed to the Church of England by deed in 1875. The house was secularised in the 1960s and one of its subsequent private residents was the stained glass artist Brian Clarke, whose spectacular glass ceiling at the restored Thermal Baths at Buxton is much admired. He also made glass for two windows in the adjacent chapel. It is now the headquarters of a building firm called Rowtorco Limited.