After St. Helen’s House, which mercifully is still with us and was the subject of the Georgian Group prize for the best restoration of a Georgian building in 2013, St. Mary’s Gate House in Derby was by far and away the grandest of the great Classical gentry town houses in Derby.
It stood towards the top of St. Mary’s Gate, set well back, and was a replacement for an earlier edifice belonging to the same family, the Osbornes of Nuttall, Notts, and Over Burrows, Brailsford, Derbyshire. William Osborne seems to have been a man in a hurry, for as soon as his father John died in 1730, he set about making plans for replacing the family town house, which he pulled down shortly after that date and set about erecting a new house in brick with stone dressings and a very fine, well-proportioned Palladian façade.
Not everyone in the family seems to have agreed with his rush to build a grander house though, for in her will his sister Joyce gives the impression that she rather deplored his actions. She also left £500 to her great-nephew and heir Hugh Bateman for him to use to build a new coach-house and stable block adjacent. Emeritus Professor Richard Osborne of Nottingham University (a descendant of the family) believes this implies that the house was not built until close to William’s death, childless, in 1752, in view of the fact that the stables were still then not done, but there is no reason why the existing ones were not perfectly adequate and perhaps newer than the previous house.
Furthermore, in 1730 there was no reason to suppose that his wife Mary (née Bainbrigge) would die childless (which she did in 1748). Newly married, one would have a good incentive to build, whereas as a childless widower, such upheavals were essentially unlikely. The house was of two storeys over a basement with a central bay breaking forward under an enriched armorial pediment in which was set the tripartite entrance with a Serlian (or ‘Venetian’) window above.
There was a deep frieze, cornice and balustrade, the parapet of which was decorated with urns. The lower widows flanking the entrance were pedimented, with blind balustrades below and the angles were defined by a giant Corinthian Order. Plainer brick wings returned to street edge on either side forming a deep cour d’honneur screened by a high wall decorated with stone balls and punctuated by pedestrian and ceremonial entrances filled with exquisite wrought iron gates by Robert Bakewell, hung from piers banded with vermiculated rustication. In all it made almost a perfect Palladian composition, matched in very few other English towns.
The interior can only be speculated about, for it was unceremoniously ripped out in 1841-42 when the building was converted into a 1,200 seat chapel by J Fenton of Chelmsford for the remorselessly energetic Derby Baptist minister, the Revd J D G Pike. The new chapel was ‘handsomely fitted up and enriched by a happy appropriation of some of the old carved oak taken from the mansion.’ The only real clue we get of the interior is from an advertisement for the sale of the house from the Derby Mercury of 8th October 1807, where it states that the ‘large, eligible dwelling house’ included ‘a good panelled dining room and parlour next to the front, breakfast parlour, large kitchen and brewhouse…the second floor [sic] contains a spacious dining room, four large bedchambers, over the same convenient servants’ apartments.’
The premises came with a private pew in All Saints’ church (now the Cathedral), to the rebuilding of which Mr. Osborne had been the most munificent non-titled subscriber in 1723, which is a pointer to the likely architect. The consensus is that St. Mary’s Gate House was built to a design furnished by James Gibbs at about the time that he designed the Cathedral and which was probably ‘sat on’ by Osborne until his father died and he had the wherewithal to start building.
It is a suggestion I put forward in 1988, mainly because one could establish the architect’s presence and possible acquaintanceship with Osborne and because all the decorative elements of the façade can be found in Gibbs’s Book of Architecture (1728), as can the general disposition of the facade. Since then Alec Cobbe of Newbridge House near Dublin, which is certainly Gibbs’s work, has pointed out a considerable degree of congruence between the two contemporary houses. Either way, Gibbs is unlikely to have done more than furnish plans, leaving the house to be built either by Francis Smith of Warwick (contractor for building All Saints’ and a collaborator of Gibbs) or perhaps more likely by William Trimmer of Derby, who was executant architect (as we would call him today) for the church.
The wrought ironwork was dated by the late Edward Saunders to c1742, which fits perfectly well, for the shield of Osborne quartering Sacheverell on the overthrow is the achievement of William Osborne and not of his father. Osborne’s sister Joyce, his heiress, died in 1775 and by 1777 her great nephew Hugh Bateman of Hartington Hall (whose town house in Derby, 35 St. Mary’s Gate lay almost opposite St. Mary’s Gate house) had inherited the house and much else besides. Bateman’s son, Sir Hugh Bateman, 1st Bt. MP had no male heir so he sold the house in 1808 (hence the newspaper advertisement) to the banker Thomas Evans of Darley House and in 1814 it passed to his grandson Samuel Evans (1785-1874) who, not having a use for it, sold it to the Revd Mr Pike for £4,000.
In 1937, with a dwindling congregation, the Chapel closed, and at first there was talk of acquiring it for the official residence of the Provost of Derby, a wholly laudable idea of Canon R F Borough’s, who as a landed proprietor himself was prepared to fund its acquisition.
This eventually fell through and the premises were eventually purchased for £12,000 by Sir George Kenning to augment the site of the Derby HQ of his motor garage empire. At that stage, with demolition on the cards, Canon Borough, this time on behalf of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society, began a correspondence with Wilhelmina Cresswell, the Secretary of the newly-formed Georgian Group in London, to try and get some momentum into saving the house and the Bakewell Gates.
The Borough Council refused to help preserve either building or the gates, claiming that ‘they had no powers to act in this matter’ (classic excuse!) and in the end, even the Georgian Group’s last desperate ploy to Kennings that they should at least retain the façade to St. Mary’s Gate and the Bakewell Gates fell on deaf ears. The entire site, bar the easternmost return range (which was acquired by Robotham’s, solicitors of 2 St. Mary’s Gate), was therefore cleared by Kennings in the spring of 1938 leaving an ugly scar in what was up to that time perhaps the City’s finest street.
There is still a gap there to this day, occupied only by space for car parking, as was once the case with the sites of so many demolished Derby buildings. The problem of the gates was solved at first by Sir George Kenning, stating that he was considering putting them up at his house in Ashover, and then by his decision to sell them to the Derbyshire Country Council who were intending to erect them outside their new HQ in Whitehurst’s Yard at Derby. The war intervened and with the return of peace, came the County’s decision to move its HQ to Matlock.
The gates, a bar of which was found to bear Bakewell’s impressed initials RB during conservation work, were thus not going to be needed and in 1957 they were offered to the Very Revd Ronald Beddoes, the Provost of Derby, who re-erected the main pair outside the Cathedral’s west door.
They were restored, for a second time since their move, in 2012 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, thanks to the generosity of the Derbyshire Lieutenancy. The decision to paint the repoussé work gold instead of re-gilding it was as it now transpires, a serious mistake, and is a classic case of spoiling the ship for a ha’pennyworth of tar for the gold has now weathered to an odd brown hue. The only tragedy is that the original gatepiers were lost, for those provided in 1957 in Haddon Stone are quite out of keeping with the delicate gates themselves. Furthermore, in an ideal world, the Cathedral authorities would consider reclaiming some of their land now occupied by a very wide footpath and re-locating the gates further from the church’s entrance, nearer to the location of the original gates (also by Bakewell, now lost).
The pedestrian gate was incorporated into the north side screen on the Cathedral chancel. It now bears different arms than the Osborne’s, today reading: gules three escallops or arrived at over dinner with the Cathedral’s architect, Anthony New, with scallops as a starter! Other pieces of Bakewell ironwork from the house, notably another gate and the decorative balustrade on the perron, leading up to the front door, were rescued by Captain Basil Mallender of the Gas, Light & Coke Company and taken to his house, the Hall at Barton Blount where they remain to this day.
Whichever way one looks at it, the destruction of St. Mary’s Gate house was eminently avoidable and constituted a very serious loss in architectural terms. The quality its retention would have added to St. Mary’s Gate today would have been of incalculable aesthetic value and would have contributed greatly to the gross heritage assets that the City is able to present to attract visitors.