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The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Blackwall Hall

The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Blackwall Hall

When one speaks of houses that are lost, one speaks of houses built, lived in and eventually discarded as redundant, too expensive, too damaged or too inconvenient to continue living in. With regard to the potentially spectacular house that Bess of Hardwick no less, built or intended to build at Blackwall-in-Peak, none of the above need apply, for it is by no means certain that Bess actually completed her new house there or, indeed, even began it.

Blackwall-in-Peak is more generally spelt Blackwell these days, which is a reversion to the Blachewelle of Domesday Book (thus, ’dark well’), although by the early 14th century it was invariably spelt Blackwall, which usage continued until relatively recently. Blackwall was one of those manors in Derbyshire held in chief by William Peveril, and his tenants there seem to have taken their name from the place sometime in the late 12th century or a little later. By that time, however, Peveril had granted his estate there to Lenton Priory. Mind you, Lenton is a good way from Blackwall, which lies just north of the A6 west of Taddington, which meant that the prior and canons of Lenton were obliged to appoint a man on the spot to collect the rents and tithes in the township, and the evidence is that this was done by the leading free tenants, the Backwalls. Indeed, by the early Tudor period, Richard Blackwall of Blackwall had been appointed to the office of collector of rents and tithes on behalf of the Priory at an emolument of 40/- (£2) ‘and a gown’. 

Once dissolved, however, the manorial estate was in the hands of the Crown until 1552 when it was granted to Sir William Cavendish, then freshly arrived in Derbyshire as the second husband of Bess of Hardwick. Within a few years, the rent collecting proclivities of the Backwalls having been made redundant, the family migrated south to Kirk Ireton, where they built a new, still extant, manor house and from whom it took its name.

Bess, meanwhile, two further hubands down the line, had turned herself in to something of a mega-builder, inspired in all probability by Sir William’s efforts in rebuilding Chatsworth, especially his use of the high house style, whereby the grandest reception rooms were placed in the uppermost storey (as in the east facing long gallery at Chatsworth) so that Derbyshire’s incomparable views might be best appreciated, inspired by Prior Overton’s tower at Repton and the high tower at Wingfield Manor.

After her estrangement from her fourth husband, Lord Shrewsbury, Bess began to rebuild her ancestral home at Hardwick along similar lines, but without the benefit of much architectural discipline. Once widowed, she brought in Lord Shrewsbury’s architect, Robert Smythson, to build anew all over again a few hundred yard to the NE, to produce the spectacular Elizabethan ‘prodigy house’ of Hardwick Hall with its upper storey long gallery and state rooms, a flat roof peppered with banqueting houses in the towers on which to enjoy summer evenings, classical detailing, and an innovative through hall. Indeed halls, prior to this point, were invariably set longitudinally along the main façade of a great house with the main entrance at one end and a screen at the other through which access could be made to the services. At Hardwick, however, one goes up into a hall that runs away from you through a screen across with the width of the building.

Nor did she stop there, for almost simultaneously, Bess began building another house of similar size at Oldcotes, Heath, for her son William Cavendish, which was very much in the Hardwick mould and which appeared in Country Images for November 2015. However, she wanted more. Between 1590 and 1600 (on the estimation of the late Mark Girouard) she commissioned Robert Smythson to design another house, plans for which remain in the Smythson collection of the RIBA now housed in the British Library. The plan for the principal floor (to be built, like Hardwick over a raised basement of lower ground floor) is headed, in Smythson’s witing, 

‘A House for/Blackewall in the/Peacke.’

You might ask, why would Bess want another country house only 15 miles from Hardwick, and in an elevated (and frankly, very exposed) position, despite the views? The answer lies in the plan. Like Hardwick, it was rectangular in plan. With the hall running right through the principal storey. There were square towers inset from the corners of the building, but on the entrance side they were joined by the main wall, pushed forward flush with their outer sides, and not recessed as on the opposite side, a very similar effect as Hardwick, but much, much more compact. There were only two main rooms on either side of the hall, a parlour (with main stair alongside) and a great chamber. The hall was full-height, meaning that there was also space only for a pair of rooms on either side above, linked by a gallery over the hall screen (although no plan for the first floor survives, only one for the semi-basement).

This lack of accommodation tells us clearly that this was not a permanent residence, but a lodge, for occasional use. In Elizabethan times there were two main types of grander lodge: either a retreat to which the family could repair once a year whilst the main house was cleaned from top to bottom, or as an occasional residence for either watching or indulging in the chase. A classic example of the former (of similar size and date) is Lord Burghley’s Wothorpe Lodge near Stamford, barely more than a mile from the main house and now a ruin. Yet the compact plan and notable tallness are very similar. As regards hunting lodges, a closely related building, although with a very much more compact in plan, is the hunting stand designed for Chatsworth by Smythson in about 1585; Wardour old castle a rebuilt Medeival keep, attributed by Girouard to Smythson c. 1570, is closer in scale, but somewhat earlier. 

We have no clear idea of the appearance of the elevations of the house (Robert Smythson called such plans ‘uprights’) but taking the ground plan and the detailing of Hardwick as our cue, a reconstruction, like that by John Mellor after Marshall Jenkins, done for volume II of the first edition of The Derbyshire Country House in 1983, is not wide of the mark.

But was it ever built? Mark Girouard (Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House, 1983) thought ‘probably not’, Marshall Jenkins doubted if it had even been started, both through the lack of building records and the fact that it does not appear on a map of the Cavendish possessions made by William Senior in 1620. Mick Stanley and I took the view that a start might well have been made in the first decade of the seventeenth century but that the death of Bess in 1608 brought work to a halt, never to be resumed. After all, this is what her son Sir Charles (who in 1608 had inherited Blackwall) did in 1599, after an armed and  violent confrontation with the Stanhope clan. The great house he had begun (almost certainly to Smythson’s design) in 1597 on Grives Hill, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, was abandoned with walls barely up to full ground floor height; the last vestiges were squirrelled away by DIY-mad locals only in the late 19th century.  

We visited the site, roughly opposite the present, later house calling itself the hall, in 1982 and were told by a local savant that there were bumps in Pond Close and in a covert nearby which were felt to be where work had begun. We checked, and there (just about) were – but could they have had more to do with lead mining? Not a lot about lead extraction was to be found regarding Blackwall, so we concluded that perhaps Bess really had started, but died before much had been achieved. After all, there were enough ashlar blocks of carboniferous limestone around the hamlet to allow us to entertain the possibility that some walls had been started and that, after 1608, what was there was gradually transferred for use in the rebuilding of local farmhouses, barns and field walls. Perhaps we were being optimistic, for the matter is probably beyond resolution.

As for the estate, that passed to Sir Charles Cavendish and thus to his son, the ‘loyaull’ Duke of Newcastle and from his son’s heiress via the Holles Earls of Clare to the Pelhams, also created Dukes of Newcastle. They later made a substantial property exchange with the Dukes of Portland in the early 19th century, which included Blackwall. 

It is hard to visualise the effect of such a tall and substantial house in the Blackwall of today. One wonders if, had it been built, it would have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries or whether it would have been peremptorily demolished or even whether it would have been just abandoned and left a gaunt ruin in a bare landscape, like Wothorpe.


  1. An interesting post. I live in Blackwall House, the property near Kirk Ireton. It has been in thr family since it was built.


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