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The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Old Thornbridge Hall – Ashford in the Water

The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Old Thornbridge Hall – Ashford in the Water

Thornbridge was once part of the estate of the Longsdon family of Little Longstone, who claim a descent (never securely sorted out, but nevertheless highly likely) from Serlo de Longstone living around 1100 and, although the estate was held by that family (latterly spelling their name Longsdon) from the twelfth century until 1790, there seems no evidence that there was ever a house there, although there certainly may have been.

Nevertheless, the family were numerous and still flourish today, although the claim made by G. T. Wright, JP in his very substantial book, Longstone Records (Bakewell 1900) that he himself and the Wrights of Eyam were descended from them in the male line does not really stand up to scrutiny. 

Thomas Longsdon of Little Longstone (1706-1780) was twice married and produced no less than eight sons, who began rebuilding the family’s fortunes after some decades of decline, for the eldest son, James Longsdon (1745-1821) was a partner until 1786 of Andrew Morewood, a Manchester cotton merchant, as were his younger half-brothers Anthony, Matthew and Peter, all of whom actually lived in Manchester, not to mention David, a grandson. This effective family migration towards Manchester in pursuit of cotton riches, led to the sale of Thornbridge by James, in 1786 when he inherited Little Longstone. The purchaser, after over three years without a taker, was his former business partner, Andrew Morewood (1714-1794), of a younger branch of the Morewoods (later Palmer-Morewoods) of Alfreton. The sale was probably to raise capital to invest in the remaining Longsdon estates.

The price for the estate was apparently £10,000, and did include a house about which little is known. It was most likely a modest farmhouse, conceivably that upon which hearth tax was assessed in 1670 for one hearth when it was inhabited by a member of the family. 

Andrew Morewood, had made a considerable fortune in the cotton trade, although it should be remembered that, contrary to what one might read on various websites, Manchester at this period traded cotton, not from the southern states of the USA (as later in the 19th century), where it was picked by slaves, but from India and Egypt, where cotton was picked by paid labour (although I would not vouch for the free status of those who picked for the Mamluks, Ottoman Egypt’s de facto rulers). He therefore decided to build himself a modest country villa, the first Thornbridge Hall, completed in about 1792, and died there two years later.

Frederick Craven’s new house photographed about 1888, with the tower of the stable block rising behind it

His new seat was a typical later Georgian country house, built of Carboniferous Limestone with Millstone Grit sandstone dressings, probably from Bakewell Edge, and of two storeys. The entrance front was five bays wide with a three-bay pedimented central section which broke slightly forward. The right return was of one wide bay under each pile of the building, expressed as Venetian windows, superimposed, one above the other, with flat mouldings, and there were quoins at the angles. Who designed it is difficult to say; probably an architect who was also a builder, as was then usual, although from the relative sophistication of the design it was unlikely to have been a local man armed only with a pattern book; perhaps he chose someone from Manchester.

John Morewood (1754-1811), who soon succeeded, extended the house by adding a matching range at right angles to that already existing, but with an oeuil-de-boeuf or oculus in the pediment. A modest park of 20 acres was also laid out around the house, to which he added a further 20 acres leased from the Duke of Devonshire. The situation of the house cannot have lacked grandeur in the first place, and it is doubtful whether a professional landscaper was involved.

John Morewood was succeeded by his brother, George and, after his death in 1854, by his third daughter’s husband, James McConnell, a Prestwich cotton spinner who in 1835 had bought nearby Cressbrook Mill and built the hall there to the designs of Thomas Johnson of Lichfield. He soon decided that Thornbridge was not quite to his taste after all and decided that he preferred the more overtly Gothic Cressbrook which was set in an even more spectacular setting.  

Therefore, in 1856 McConnell decided to move on, placing an advertisement in The Times for 17th December 1856 offering it to let, but, receiving no takers, eventually sold it in 1859. The buyer, rather surprisingly, was the Revd. Henry Longsdon (1826-1899) of Little Longstone Hall, whose ancestor had sold it in the first place. He had inherited the family estate at Little Longstone aged 18 months in 1827, but his senior line of the family had not benefited quite so royally from the family’s excursion into cotton trading, and he was then the newly appointed vicar of Eyam. However, he still needed somewhere nearby to live, as the Joseph Pickford designed vicarage at Eyam had not then become available, and the family manor house was occupied by his mother. However, after a year or two this situation resolved itself, and Thornbridge was again put on the market, shorn of much of its estate, which was retained as part of that of Little Longstone. 

The next new owner was John Sleigh of Leek, whose exhaustive History of Leek came out in 1862, with a second edition (less desirable to the collector, but slightly more helpful to the researcher) followed in 1883. He also wrote frequent antiquarian articles for The Reliquary, an historical periodical edited by his friend Llewellyn Jewitt of Winster Hall. The Sleigh family ultimately descended out of Hartington and had at one time acquired the Etwall estate too, but quite why Sleigh wanted to move from Leek, which he clearly loved, is not clear. Nevertheless, he was prepared to spend £10,000 on it (the same price as Andrew Morewood had splashed out in 1790, but, of course, with much less land) remained there until 1871, when it again came onto the market. One attractive feature which enhanced the value of Thornbridge from 1863 was the opening of the Midland Railway’s line from Rowsley to Buxton, with a station called (Great) Longstone, which was only a few hundred yards from Sleigh’s front door.

Longsdon coat-of-arms (NB the eagle displayed)

It was probably the presence of the station, with direct access to the fleshpots of Manchester, that impelled Sleigh to commission estate agents Messrs. Carrick, Brockbank and Wilson of Manchester so undertake the sale. Sleigh most likely also felt that it was likely to be, yet again, from amongst the manufacturers of that city that the next buyer would be found. The house was engraved on the prospectus with a map of its environs, including the railway line (giving us the only view known of the house) and we learn that it was sold with 41 acres, of which 19 were leased from the Chatsworth estate, as before. 

Sleigh’s hunch turned out to be right on the mark, for the next buyer was indeed another North-Western businessman, Frederick Craven (1818-1894) – no relation, I hasten to add – son of John, of Kersal, Lancashire. He was a silk and cotton merchant and an associate of the Clowes family, too (see Norbury Hall, Country Images of August, last year), which may have influenced his move.  

He set about acquiring more land so that after a decade or so he had accumulated nearly 185 acres. Nevertheless, he decided that the Georgian house was not to his more opulent tastes, and after about five years started all over again. Consequently, he demolished the old house, it is thought completely, after only 80 years of its existence and started afresh in a rather distinctive Neo-Jacobean idiom,  probably re-using much of the stone from its predecessor.

This house survived until after Frederick Craven’s death, when his son, Frederick Brooks Craven sold it in 1896 for £25,000 to George Jobson Marples of Eccleshall, Yorkshire who, in his turn completely rebuilt Craven’s house, nearly doubling it in size and completely changing its architectural appearance, but keeping the Burne-Jones/William Morris stained glass and other refinements installed in the original (new) house.

It is Marples’s house that still stands today, containing within its walls substantial portions of the 1875-1877 house, but of its more modest classical predecessor, no trace appears to remain, for all the 18th century vestiges visible today were mainly rescued from the destruction of Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire in the 1930s by the then owner of Thornbridge, Charles Boot, including a riot of garden ornaments which remain to embellish the park, re-landscaped by Simeon Marshall at the turn of the last century. 

Were John Sleigh, the Morewoods or the Longsdons to see the house and setting today, they would not recognize the place at all!


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