About seven years ago I found myself sat next to Sir Nicholas Soames at lunch, which put me on my conversational mettle. What does one say to a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill and the son of a Tory Grandee (the last governor of Southern Rhodesia inter alia) and a man who himself is a bit of a grandee?
After a little small talk I suddenly recalled that his grandfather was Arthur Soames, son of the proprietor of the Brampton Brewery, Chesterfield and nephew to Lady Baden Powell. That being so I asked him what he knew of the family brewery, and the family homes, Stubbing Court and the vanished West House Chesterfield. In the event, this got him going splendidly, and I learnt quite a bit about what he had learned from family reminiscences in his childhood.
To be fair, I did know a bit about the latter, simply because it was on the reserve list of houses to be included in The Derbyshire Country House, but which failed to make the cut when Mick Stanley and I were planning the second volume in 1982.
West House, Chesterfield was a classic piece of rus in urbe: a country villa situated almost in the centre of town, in this case, Chesterfield. It stood on West Bars, the street leading from the SW angle of the Market place towards Brampton, on its north side hardly more than two or three hundred yards from the bustle of the Market Square itself.
The land appears originally to have had a confusing succession of owners, but in 1765 George Holland, who had owned the site for eight years (but whose ancestor William Holland had sold it as far back as 1616) sold it to opulent lead mining entrepreneur Nicholas Twigg for £110. He enlarged the plot in 1769 and proceeded to build a new house. The reason may have been his desire to live adjacent to his partner in his mining enterprises, Henry Thornhill, who had acquired neighbouring Rose Hill, upon which I shall have more to say in a later article. Unfortunately, if that was his intent, Thornhill shortly afterwards moved his base to Derby, and Twigge re-sold the land along with his ‘newly erected messuage’ to Anthony Lax in 1770.
Lax was the scion of a minor Yorkshire landowner whose mother, Sarah Jefferson, was the great grand-daughter and ultimate heiress of the somewhat grander Maynards of Kirk Levington Hall in that county. The wedding was on the 22nd May 1766 and the settlement would appear to have included the large area called West Fields either side of West Bars so the acquisition of a brand new house adjacent would have made much sense.
West House was quite a grand brick house of two and a half storeys, the five-bay entrance front facing West Bars, from which it was artfully shielded by trees. The architect was almost certainly Edmund Stanley, a Nottinghamshire born builder-architect who settled in the town in 1763. Of two and a half storeys, the entrance front had a three-bay centre, which broke slightly forward under a generous pediment centred with an oval patera, although the Doric pilastered door-case below was stone and here the pediment, supported by pilasters and frieze, was modillioned. There was a sill band at first floor level right round.
The west front was centred by a wide full height canted bay with a hipped roof, possibly added a generation later, whilst the other show front, that to the east, also of five bays under three gables, looked across lawns to a wall which hid the backs of the buildings of the town. The service accommodation was to the north with a lower stable block running westwards from it enclosing the pleasure grounds and concentrating the semi-rural view westwards.
The interior was apparently well fitted up with good joinery including a very fine staircase leading off the hall; as was de rigeur for the whole of the first half of the 18th century, then the dining room was panelled. The grounds were landscaped as a small park.
Anthony Lax’s mother Sarah, apparently a redoubtable old girl and keen to be seen as a cut above Chesterfield’s municipal elite, assumed the surname of Maynard in September 1784 and the following March received a grant of arms, so the owners of West House henceforth became Maynards. Anthony died in 1825 without issue, leaving the house and Derbyshire estate to his brother John’s fourth son, Edward Gilling Maynard, then thirty-two and married into the Wallers, local attorneys. His eldest brother received the landed estates in Yorkshire and the family latterly were of Skellingthorpe Hall, Yorkshire.
Meanwhile, Edward was appointed to the bench, and to a deputy lieutenancy and kept a pack of harriers at West House. He made few if any changes to the building, however, bar enlarging the stables He died in 1881, to be succeeded by his son Edward Anthony Jefferson Maynard, who found the increasing pollution and expansion of the town too much, and so moved away to Duffield Hall and later Egginton Hall, both of which he rented, eventually building himself a superb Arts-and-Crafts seat called Hoon Ridge just west of Hilton.
He had trouble finding a tenant for West House, especially as he had sold much of the land for building, thus cutting his own throat economically. Some of the ground, south of West Bars, called Maynard’s Meadows, went to the upstart Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway which built a very impressive station looking more like a country house than a railway terminus, diagonally opposite West House.
Nevertheless, in 1889 he found a tenant. This was Harold Soames, the second son of Arthur, of Irnham Park, Lincolnshire, a descendant of an ancient family enriched as London traders in the reign of James I. Harry Soames was the proprietor of the Brampton Brewery and had previously been tenant of the Gladwins of Stubbing Court, where his children were born. He moved the drive, added imposing new gates whilst blocking an old pedimented pedestrian entrance.
These children, two daughters and a son, were brought up at West House and apparently enjoyed a very happy childhood there. The son, Arthur, eventually bought Sheffield Park, Sussex from the 3rd and last Earl of Sheffield, and his son was the Tory Politician Christopher, later Lord Soames who ended his career enjoying the dubious accolade of having brought Zimbabwe into existence. He, of course, married Mary, Winston Churchill’s daughter, and hence their son, my companion at that lunch.
One daughter, Auriol Edith married Robert Davidson of Colombo, capital of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and the other, Olave St. Clair, born 1889, married in 1912, Robert Baden Powell, hero of Mafeking and founder of the scout movement, later created 1st Lord Baden-Powell. She, for her role in her husband’s endeavours was, like her cousin once removed, Lady Soames, made GBE and became first Chief Guide. She died in 1977.
The Soameses left West house in 1895; the prospect of the opening of the LD & ECR Market Place station proved an intrusion too far, and Harry went to live in the engagingly named Liliput, Dorset. Neighbour, Fred Butcher of Rose Hill bought it for a shade over £3,000, who let it to Col. Kinsman from whom the tenancy rapidly descended to his nephew, Lt. Col. A T H Barnes, of Lord Gorell’s family and another descendant of the 1616 seller of the site. His son occupied it, but moved in 1906 and a year later it became the relatively short-lived Park Hotel and Restaurant which closed in 1912. The following year it re-opened as the local Conservative & Unionist Club which moved again in 1915. Eyre & Co. were the next tenants, but in 1921 it was sold to the government as a tax office. When this closed in 1935 the freehold was sold to the Borough of Chesterfield which cleared it soon afterwards to make way for Chesterfield’s spanking new Town Hall.
Ironically, the station, latterly LNER and serving a line which never prospered, closed to passengers on 3rd December 1951 and to freight traffic on 4th March 1957. The building was subsequently demolished to allow a new road to be put through.
No trace of either station or house now remains and architecturally, Chesterfield is poorer for the loss of both.