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The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Rose Hill, Chesterfield

The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Rose Hill, Chesterfield

by Maxwell Craven

The publication in 2019 of Chesterfield Streets and Houses by Philip Riden and Chris Leteve throws much fascinating and detailed light on the history of the built environment of Chesterfield, although is a little light on architectural history and evaluation. Yet, when it comes to the early history of Rose Hill, a substantial villa on the western edge of Chesterfield, it fails to address the early history of this important house, which is a shame: however, Country Images to the rescue!

Rose Hill stood on rising ground facing south on the norther side of West Bars and indeed, we looked at the history and fate of West House, adjacent, in Country Images some time ago – in September 2019. Indeed, the array of impressive residences there are well encapsulated in the view painted by George Pickering in 1812 (now in the care of Chesterfield library) where they can be seen in their prime with the crooked spire away to the right. 

The story of Rose Hill begins with Henry Thornhill (1708-1790), fourth son of John Thornhill, who had inherited the Stanton-in-Peak estate through Henry‘s mother Anne Bache, along with extensive lead mining and other interests. Henry was the son (there were many) who showed real flair for carrying on the family tradition in the lead trade. He was set up by his father at the age of twenty as a lead smelter in Chesterfield and it was he who took these enterprises on. Henry not only made a great success of them but pioneered considerable expansion of the family’s interests elsewhere, as well as eventually taking on the Pleasley Vale estate and founding the mills there that gave us Vyella and similar formerly well-known products.

Around 1735, Henry took himself off to live in Chesterfield.  Indeed, he eventually remained in residence there long enough to have become an alderman of the town and, on the basis of that, a member of the Chesterfield bench. He also served twice as Mayor, in 1750 and 1755. As Chesterfield was the prime lead trading centre in Derbyshire and on the route from the Derbyshire mining areas to Bawtry in Nottinghamshire, where the lead pigs were transhipped onto Trent barges, it was a natural choice of base for the ambitious trader.

We also know where Thornhill lived in Chesterfield, for the house, latterly known as Rose Hill, is recorded as having been ‘built by the Thornhills in the 1730s.’ This is re-inforced by the mention of Henry in a deed of 1744 as ‘of Brickhouse in Chesterfield, Gent.’ As Rose Hill was indeed brick, the identification would appear to be secure, although the subsequent destruction of the house seems to have been reflected in the loss of any papers relating to it. In fact, a deed of 1736 reveals that Henry had obtained a mortgage of £330 – 14s – 9d from his wife’s uncle, Alexander Holden of Newark, which suggests that this was to fund the building of his new house. 

A final clue in the Thornhill records is a lease from the Mayor and Aldermen of Chesterfield of the site of Rose Hill for twenty years at £9 per annum dated 20th March 1735, later converted into a freehold. The lessee was one George Sims (1693-1761), a joiner and builder, acting as Henry Thornhill’s agent, and who was indeed contracted to build his house on the site.

Knowing what the house at this period looked like is difficult as no view of it is known. According to some accounts of the house after it was rebuilt, the entrance front was more like that of neighbouring West House – pedimented, with more ornate detailing: quoins and architrave surrounds to the windows – which sounds like an arrangement more closely matching  the traditional date for the house of the mid-1730s. Nevertheless, not only does the name ‘Brickhouse’ confirm the basis for the old story – unlikely to be strictly true – that Rose Hill was in its day the first substantial brick house in the town, but also confirms its distinctive name when first built. Indeed, the first reference to the house as Rose Hill (the name of the eminence on which it stood) only occurs in the mid-19th century. To the north of the house was a large quadrangular stable block, and the parkland stretched away west to the municipal boundary.

After being constrained by business pressures to leave Chesterfield in around 1761, Henry retained the house as a town residence as well as for the use of his nephew Bache Thornhill of Stanton Hall. However, it was let in the 1770s to Robert Lowndes, by which time it was called The Mansion House.  Lowndes, who had been involved with Thornhill in a number of lead-centred transactions, was married to the heiress of Richard Milnes, the second son of James Milnes of Chesterfield, a member of the Ashover branch of that family.

It was Lowndes who rebuilt Rose Hill in the plain neo-classical style seen on the garden front, the only aspect of which illustrations are known, which, once rebuilt, was of five well-proportioned bays and two and a half storeys, under a hipped roof. The house was of brick with sparing stone dressings and was beautifully proportioned, the windows having rubbed gauged brick lintels, but was largely devoid of ornament. The only decoration was provided by a plat band below the sill band on the first floor with balustrading below the first floor windows between them; even the cornice was plain. Inside, sales particulars of 1851 inform us that there were four reception rooms on the ground floor (probably drawing room, dining room, library/study and breakfast room) and four bedrooms (three with dressing rooms) on the first floor with further bedrooms above in the attic storey.

The date of these works is unknown but they were certainly in place ‘by 1779.’ The architect is not known, but what we see in the surviving views and given the urbanity of its proportions the house, one strongly suspects that it was designed by the celebrated John Carr of York for, although he did not design the Chesterfield Guildhall until 1787, he designed a virtually identical house for Lowndes’s cousin John Milnes in Wakefield there in 1773. What then, could be more natural than that his cousin would recommend the man who designed his new house? Furthermore, three other Yorkshire houses by Carr – all admittedly earlier – have a striking resemblance to Rose Hill: Fangfoss Hall (1766), Knaresborough House (1768) and Street Thorpe Hall (1769-1771). Indeed, Carr’s introduction to Chesterfield society may have been the catalyst for being chosen to build the Guildhall. In 1797, Lowndes inherited the Palterton estate. 

In consequence of this, the house in Chesterfield passed to Lowndes’ brother, Thomas, who had just purchased Barrington Hall, in Essex, who sold it at a date that has not been able to be determined – probably c 1798 – to Revd. Edward Heathcote, a member of an old and still prominent Chesterfield. He was succeeded by his son, also Edward and a parson, who in 1819 assumed the surname and arms of Hacker in lieu of Heathcote on the death of his heiress mother. Oddly, he later reverted to using his original surname – but 170 years before the fictional Jim Hacker became PM! 

When Heathcote died in 1844, his son Godfrey sold the contents, but allowed the house to stand empty until 1851 when it was sold to Scots land agent John Brown, later a Chesterfield Alderman, on whose death in 1882 it passed to his daughter Mary, then married to Sheffield steel-man Frederick Butcher – also owner of Cutthorpe Hall – who himself died in 1891. He seems to have developed some of the grounds both to east and west. Their son, however, opted to live at Cutthorpe but Mary remained at Rose Hill and re-married. This time her husband was Francis Albert Turner, headmaster of Staveley Grammar School, but she outlived him too, dying as a considerable age at Rose Hill in 1930.    

Hence the house and more modest grounds came on the market at a most fortuitous time, for the Borough of Chesterfield was planning to build a brand new set of municipal buildings somewhere out of the town centre but close by. The site of Rose Hill suited their plans admirably and, in 1931, the Corporation bought it. The house was demolished that winter to make way for the erection of the Borough’s grandiose new town hall of 1936. This 23-bay wide brick and Portland stone show of Neo-classical opulence, with its hexastyle giant order, pediment and attic marking the centrepiece, was designed by the Bolton (Lancs.) firm of Bradshaw, Gass and Hope, which still flourish. 

Meanwhile Rose Hill’s pleasure grounds were, at the same time, municipalised into the present rather bland surrounding park and the new approach road to the complex from the town was named Rose Hill Street. 


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