The Hall at Swanwick is today regarded as the delightful 18th century villa built for Hugh Wood by Joseph Pickford of Derby in 1771-1772, which in its 19th century expanded form now forms the centrepiece of the former Grammar School in the village, to which the celebrated county architect George Henry Widdows built elegant and well-thought-out additions to accommodate the school. Yet when that house was built, Swanwick Hall was a different building entirely, standing on a different (but nearby) site. It was demolished as long ago as 1812, yet was an important and opulent building which deserves to be remembered.
An estate at Swanwick belonged to the Zouches of Codnor Castle towards the end of the 16th century, but they were beset with financial difficulties and sold it to Humphrey Alsop, a cadet of the Alsops of Alsop-en-le-Dale who wanted it for its coal deposits. However, in the end the Alsops failed to exploit the coal and sold on to Thomas Brailsford of Seanor, in North Wingfield in 1613. It was Brailsford who built a house on the west side of the main road which became the true Old Hall.
It was of coal measures sandstone, gables and modest in size, being assessed for tax on just four hearths in 1670. A portion of it survives, hemmed in rather by subsequent structures. The Civil War did the loyalist Brailsfords no favours and having compounded their modest estate, were forced to sell, the purchaser being George Turner of Alfreton, who once again was after the coal under the estate rather than the agricultural value of what was on top of it. He enlarged the Old Hall in 1675 (date stone) and was succeeded by his grandson John, the first of the family to be accorded the style of gentleman. It was this John who built a new house nearer the church.
What he built was quite advanced for its era; brick, four square, flat roofed, three storeys and with a main south front of seven bays, but unrelievedly flat. There were bands between each stoey, stone quoins, mullion and transom cross windows and a top balustrade, the detailing all being in coal measures sandstone from Pentrich. The only other detailing was on the main front, where the entrance had a triangular pediment over and the window above was ensigned by a segmental one.
The west front was of four bays, but bay two was blind except for an oeuil-de-boeuf on the first floor, lighting the staircase. There is no account of the interior, but the contemporary plaster ceilings of Tupton Hall and Crich Manor House both sported dining room ceilings with exuberant displays of ovals decorated with fruit and flowers and were probably done by the same stuccadore, possibly the highly accomplished Joseph Needham of Derby, who seems to have done quite a bit of work of this type in Derby and round about, although it was his son Joshua who attained considerable eminence, through working with Francis Smith of Warwick. The form of the house was quite advanced for Derbyshire, the flat roof with balustrade and plain façade hark back to Inigo Jones’s Queen’s house, Greenwich (1616 & 1629-30) and Banqueting House, Whitehall (1619-1622).
It recurs at Wilton (Isaac de Caus & Inigo Jones, 1636-1640), albeit on a grand scale with angle towers. A more immediate precedent was set by Sprotbrough Hall in Yorkshire, built in 1685 for Sir Godfrey Copley 2nd Bt who, like Turner, was a coal owner and who a decade later employed George Sorocold of Derby in the creation of the waterworks in his park. Like Swanwick, it was three storeys, had a main façade of seven bays, a pedimented entrance and top balustrade. It also had bands between the floors, although at Sprotbrough they were waved over the curved heads of the windows, a refinement lacking at Swanwick.
It differed also in being a far more ambitious house, having a pair of lower five bay wings either side of the main block which broke forward at the ends to form a generous cour d’honneur, with ogee topped towers positioned on the insides of the angles. This model of house flourished further in Buckingham House, London (now Buckingham Palace, William Winde, 1703) and Wotton House, Bucks (possibly John Keene 1704) before taking off in a big way with the later provincial Baroque of Francis Smith of Warwick, as exemplified just up the road at Alfreton Hall, built in the 1720s. Regrettably, we do not know the name of the architect of this impressive and architecturally up-to-the-minute house. Sprotbrough was designed by John Etty of York, who is not known to have worked in Derbyshire, although such a link is of course possible.
More likely it was done by a local man, perhaps George Morledge of William Trimmer of Derby. The property itself passed into the hands of trustees in 1736, one of which was the manager of Turner’s coal mines, Anthony Tissington (1703-1776). He subsequently became the tenant of the house, leasing it from the Turner heirs, the Thorotons of Flintham, Nottinghamshire. Anthony Tissington was a neglected but important figure. He was born in Darley Dale in 1705 to a lead mining entrepreneur and was the fourth successive member of his family to bear his name. In 1730 he married Sarah Wall of Cowley, daughter of another successful lead trader.
By the 1750s he controlled mines in Scotland, Wales and various parts of England, not only extracting coal, but also ironstone and lead. He was a friend of Erasmus Darwin and John Whitehurst, who had a twelfth share in the Tissington firm, netting him more than £50,000 over a period of about 14 years, which was good going in the mid-18th century. Whitehurst’s codification of geological strata, as set out in his scientific chef d’oeuvre, An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778 & 1782) benefited from his collaboration with the mine owner, who gave him access to his mines and in return the Derby clockmaker was able to predict from the strata where his friend should sink shafts to guarantee finding the precious minerals. In 1767 Tissington was elected FRS and acquired a town house in Derby. His brother George lived at Winster and his cousin, another George, was also involved in the family enterprise. In 1770 Tissington moved out and let the house to John Balguy, a portrait of whose wife, painted by Joseph Wright, has recently been acquired by the Holburne Museum at Bath.
They moved out in 1791 when John, by then Recorder of Derby, moved to Duffield Park. At this stage, there seems to have been some difficulty in finding a tenant and the house lay empty. Meanwhile in 1771, another local mine-owning family, the Woods, acquired part of the former Turner estate and Hugh Wood (another client of Joseph Wright) commissioned Joseph Pickford of Derby to build him a neat compact villa which survives as the core of the former Grammar School.
Hugh’s son, the Revd John Wood, normally resident in a Pickford-designed vicarage in old Edensor village as chaplain to the Duke of Devonshire, decided to buy the empty Hall – the Woods’ house did not acquire this name until the 19th century – to expand his small park and in 1812 it was unceremoniously demolished. A strange coda to all this lies in the posterity of Tissington. His daughter Mary married John Tatlow of Codnor, farmer (another minor coal owner) and their descendant, Revd Dr W Tissington Tatlow, a Canadian, was from 1911 director of the non-conformist conference centre set up in Swanwick Hayes, a large stone house erected nearby in 1865-67 by Derby architects Stevens and Robinson for FitzHerbert Wright of the Butterley Company family and extended in 1893-96.