One often comes across houses – not always ancient ones – which have names carrying the suffix ‘Priory’ or similar. Very often, such houses were built on former monastic land or even adapted from monastic buildings, although it has to be admitted that sometimes the connection is spurious and the nomenclature arrived at quite vicariously.
The present St. Helen’s House in Derby is a case in point. Thanks to the enterprise and dedication of Richard Blunt, this magnificent mansion of 1766-67 by Joseph Pickford, is not qualified as a subject for this series, being now again resplendent on King Street, although a decade ago one might have been forgiven for assuming it was well on the way to being so included.
The name goes back to the existence of a lost parish church on a site almost opposite, dedicated to St. Helen. Such dedications, if traceable to the early 12th century and beyond as here, are usually taken to be ancient, possibly even late Roman in origin, the dedicatee being in this case the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great and discoverer of the True Cross.
This parish church, although likely of pre-conquest origin, is not thought to have been one of the six recorded in Domesday Book for, as Dr. David Roffe pointed out – when he was working with us at Derby Museum and with the former Derbyshire Museums Service in 1985 to re-evaluate the Derbyshire Domesday for the nonocentenary of the original – much more than one might imagine were omitted, mainly because they were free of the burden of tax payable to the Crown. This included some proprietory churches, especially in towns, which were often built by a landowner on his town property – his urban fee – as a personal holding.
Thus in c. 1135 a burgess of the burgh of Derby, one Tovi, or Towy, probably a man of Norse descent, gave property on King Street, then part of the spinal road passing through Derby from north to south, as a monastery, including a well called St. Helen’s. Within a decade, another grandee, Hugh de Derby, had given land at Little Derby, now Darley Abbey, for the foundation which had then transferred to its new site to become the largest monastic foundation in the county. This donation had the benefit of the support of the Earl of Derby.
Thus the small foundation in King Street then became an oratory, a sort of outlier to the main monastic foundation, and by the reformation had become an hospital staffed by nuns. In 1538, it was dissolved with the main abbey in the second round of the dissolution, a move that must have placed many in the town and surrounding area into distress.
These days, people forget that the monasteries were the original welfare state, providing mainly medical care both in-patient and external, hospitality for traveller, and educational services for children. All of these were furnished by the Abbey of Darley, and post-dissolution Derby School was formed to replace the latter function, albeit only nominally in continuous succession to the Abbey, until ‘comprehensivised’ in the 1960s and then losing its identity entirely in a move by the County Council thirty years ago.
The site was sold in 1545 to an asset-stripper, William Berners (later Sir William) and part at least of the conventual buildings, thus secularised and described as a messuage (house outbuildings and grounds) rather than an hospital, was sold off at a profit.
The site of St. Helen’s, apparently including the original church, adapted as an internal chapel, was sold to the powerful knightly family of Foljambe, of Walton Hall, near Chesterfield. They also had a substantial holding in Derby, just south west of the town on the far side of the Odd Brook, called rughedyche, today’s suburb of Rowditch which did not, it would seem include a residence. This later presence of the Foljambes may be reflected in the much earlier foundation of another chapel (or the original chapel re-dedicated), dedicated to St. John, within the Hospital of St. Helen, and endowed with Foljambe lands at Brampton by Chesterfield in the 1220s.
It may be that Sir Godfrey Foljambe purchased Berners’s portion and united the holding, enabling him to build a house for the use of his family when in Derby. It is likely that St. Helen’s adapted, was used also by their bailiff for Rowditch and by the family when in Derby on official business, as grandees like the Foljambes were expected to serve as High Sheriff and perform other legal functions as well as looking after their business interest which, in the Foljambes’ case included both coal and lead. In other words, the site became their Derby town house.
By the Jacobean period, a new two storey and attics house appears to have existed which had segmentally coped curved attic dormers both on the front and side elevations, with mullioned windows. The presumption is that this was built onto the north side of the existing (and surviving) conventual buildings. These latter were probably of stone, for monastic houses tended toward a more permanent, solid, if expensive, method of construction, although the domestic parts might have been timber framed. It is not clear if the Foljambe addition – probably the work of Sir Francis Foljambe, of Aldwark, 1st Baronet – was of brick or stone, but when the building was drawn in February 1792, the main block had lost its original fenestration and had been adapted as an artist’s studio for our most celebrated painter, Joseph Wright. Such alterations would have been far simpler to have been made in a brick building than stone.
The grounds of the house included the King Street frontage at least up to Lodge Lane, which probably took its name from a gatehouse and lodging relating to the convent there. It also included orchards and gardens to the south beyond the present St. Helen’s Street stretching to the NW boundaries of the houses on the N. side of St. Mary’s Gate and the east boundaries of those in Willow Row.
However, Sir Francis Foljambe – something of a spendthrift – in 1633 sold off some of the grounds before dying in 1640, when the remainder left the family, being sold to Francis Goodwin, third son of former Bailiff of Derby Francis Goodwin the elder (1548-1626). On his death aged 67 in 1660, the southern half of the property, known as Goodwin’s Orchard, passed to the second son, Thomas (1633-1699) whilst the northern portion, including Old St. Helens, passed to the third son, Samuel.
Samuel seems to have removed the conventual buildings to the south and added a neat four bay two storey wing in Restoration style, but included a lancet doorcase, clearly a vestige of the old oratory, for the entrance. This was clearly henceforth the ‘polite’ part of the house. There were cross windows and a top balustrade hiding a flat roof.
Samuel Goodwin died in 1717, when it all passed to his nephew Samuel Burton of Weston Underwood (d. 1750). On his death the house was let by his re-married widow in 1751 to William FitzHerbert of Tissington, who required a town house, being then Town Clerk of Derby.
His second son, the eminent diplomat Alleyne FitzHerbert (died 1839) was born there in 1753. He must have had fond childhood memories of it, for he took St. Helen’s as his title when raised to an Irish peerage in 1792; Cdr. George Vancouver named the explosive Mt. St. Helen’s in Canada after him that year. Later, the house was sub-let until he succeeded as 6th Earl Ferrers in 1778, to Hon. Robert Shirley. Soon afterwards, William FitzHerbert’s son, Sir William FitzHerbert 1st Baronet, granted the painter Joseph Wright ARA a new sub-lease in April 1779. He it was who must have had the first floor removed and the windows altered to bring in north (actually NE) light, as recorded in the later picture.
Joseph Wright is said by his niece, who wrote a reminiscence of the artist’s life there at this time, to have stored his canvases in the former Chapel of the oratory which she says was panelled. The Wrights remained there and brought up their family until Hannah Wright died in 1790. The loss of his wife marked a sharp decline in Joseph’s health and in May 1793, he moved to a smaller house nearby, 27, Queen Street, formerly the home of his friend John Whitehurst FRS.
On the death of freeholder Samuel Burton’s widow, the Burton holdings at St. Helens passed to Joseph Sikes of The Chauntry, Newark. The other part of the property, the two and a half acres of orchards to the south, had already descended to Derby’s radical Tory MP Daniel Parker Coke of The College. Meanwhile, Joseph Sikes had died in 1798 when the house and land were put up for sale as surplus to his heirs’ requirements..
Sir William Gell’s 1792 picture was copied by Orlando Jewitt for Stephen Glover’s various accounts of Derby, but he misunderstood what he could see, and turned the arched gables on the south side into semi-circular dormers in the 1660s wing, which was also very conveniently given a pitched roof for them to light; he also managed to lose the balustrading altogether.
In 1798 William Lindley of Doncaster, an architect of some repute hired by the Sikes family, had written:
“Another of my worthy employers (a gentleman in Lincolnshire) has recommended me to make a valuation of a large premises in the Town of Derby belonging to a Mr. Sykes (sic) of Newark, and Mr. Cooke [Coke] of the former place; I am also to make [a] plan thereof to form a new street etc. so that the ground may be sold in separate lots for building upon.”
He recommended the house be demolished, which was done in winter 1799; the materials were advertised for sale in early February 1800. The site was bought in April 1802 by spar turner Richard Brown, who proceeded to erect his marble works on the site, specially designed machines being driven by a Boulton & Watt 6 hp steam engine.
Lindley’s “alley or footway” was indeed improved to form the street by Richard Brown who took over the site in 1800 and of which the Improvement Commissioners wrote 19 August 1815:
“Messrs. Brown & Son having formed a street from St. Helens to the Willow Row, which if laid open, will be a great public convenience.”
The Commissioners therefore resolved to persuade the parish of St. Alkmund to “adopt” it and “place it in such a proper state of repair as [they] are willing to accept” after which they would undertake “the future repair of the footpaths in the street”. This clearly happened and it certainly appears on a map of 1802. Today it is, of course, St. Helen’s Street.
The marble works continued until 1884, and was succeeded by a variety of users until becoming part of Smith’s clocks in 1993, being sold off in 1998. The oldest industrial building in Derby, it is about to be transformed into a care home.
But of the ancient St. Helen’s, not a trace remains.