Stretton, along with Measham and Appleby Parva (for the lost houses at which see Country Images December 2019 and October 2020), lay within a large ‘island’ of Derbyshire, separated since Saxon times from the bulk of the county, itself created in the mid-10th century. This ‘island’ also included Oakthorpe, Donisthorpe, Chilcote and Willesley (see Country Images for March 2018 for the lost hall there) and in another, even further south, lay Ravenstone, all since 1888 safely transferred to Leicestershire, except Chilcote which went to Staffordshire
Not only that, but Stretton is about the most sequestered place you could possibly find in the local area, despite lying north of Appleby and west of Measham flanked by the A42 and the A444, the river Mease forming the third side of a sort of topographical triangle. With a population barely in double figures there is a fine church, St. Michael, long redundant and with an uncared-for look and a strange brooding atmosphere – or so it appeared to me and Mick Stanley when we visited, in the process of writing volume two of The Derbyshire Country House in 1981. The site of the hall was covered by what appears to be a tangled growth of impenetrable bocage. Even when Nichols was writing his history of Leicestershire over two centuries ago (in which these Derbyshire islands were included) the village was essentially a seriously shrunk one, having but the hall, a mill, the church and a few cottages.
The Domesday tenant under Robert de Ferrers was almost certainly the ancestor of the de Stretton family, which managed to hang on to the estate, despite some intervening hiatuses until at the beginning of the fifteenth century it was split between three cousins, being later united by the Findernes of Swarkestone and then sold to the Blounts of Barton Blount, Lords Mountjoy. In around 1540 they sold the estate to John Browne of Horton Kirby, Kent, a London merchant and Henry VIII’s mint master. His father and grandfather had both been Lords Mayor of London, so there was no shortage of cash with which to invest in land. John’s son built a new hall at Stretton towards the end of that century.
It continued with the Brownes until the death of William Browne in 1744, whereupon it descended to his grandson John Cave, also of Ravenstone nearby and of Eydon, Northamptonshire. In that same year he added the surname and arms of Browne to his own. In 1757 he married, which in due course necessitated him enlarging the hall, according to Nicholas, ‘by a large stone edifice on the north side’ probably in the 1760s. It is this house of which that author provides an engraving, revealing the late Tudor house as having had two storeys with attics in four gables of which the central pair broke forward. There were string courses above the mullion and transom cross windows, tall slim chimney stacks and a low wing to the north east. In 1670 there were 12 hearths taxable, indicating a reasonably substantial house but it was at that time divided as two distinct households between John Browne and the widower of his half-sister, Christian, Henry Adams.
John Cave’s addition, as the engraving makes clear, did the north side of the house no favours aesthetically, being three full storeys high and essentially a canted bay added centrally, uniting the two central projecting gables, like a Palladian penetrating pediment. Here, there was a double string course and sash windows, pedimented on the ground floor with the windows either side of the addition turned into, on the left, a segmentally headed niche and on the right by a matching doorcase and all crowned by a pyramidal roof, the whole arrangement looking thoroughly awkward, although the fault may well lie with Nichols’ artist who made the sketch for the engraving. The architect may have been Joseph Pickford’s contemporary William Henderson of Loughborough (c. 1739-1797) whom we encountered when talking of Measham Hall, trying to make the best of a bad job. Yet the arrangement, bearing in mind that all this new accommodation faced north, cannot have been wholly satisfactory. What precisely he did to the garden front, however, seems to emerge later, when we look at the next stage in the alterations.
John’s son, William, in 1810 inherited the baronetcy of the Caves, succeeding a distant cousin as 9th baronet, subsequently adding Cave to his already double-barrelled name by Royal Licence in 1839 thus ending up as Sir William Cave-Brown-Cave.
Sir William’s son, Sir John decided in 1845 to do something about the house, Bagshaw remarking that in that year it was ‘undergoing considerable repair’, which is something of an understatement, for the appearance of the surviving mansion demonstrates that he essentially pulled down much of the previous house – probably piecemeal, so that the family could continue living there – and largely rebuilt it. The south (garden) front had clearly been similar to that on the north, but the 1757 rebuilding seems to have led to the deletion of the central two gables, and the insertion of a two storey, five bay recessed centre with Georgian sashed windows, a feature also applied to the windows of the gables. In 1845, a further bay was added at each end of the façade and the gables embellished with ornamental bargeboards, the architect being clearly influenced by the contemporary enthusiasm for the cottage orné style, as championed by John Claudius Loudon, creator of the Derby Arboretum. Judging from the low pyramidal roof just visible over the roof in the Keene photograph of the south front the awkward canted bay of 1757 was allowed to remain. Unfortunately, no photograph of that side of the house has ever emerged to tell us how it was primped up.
Despite this, the house was let in the 1850s, first to Charles Colville of nearby Lullington Hall (whilst his house was being rebuilt) then to Capt. Lewis Conran, a military friend of the family during the minority of Sir Myles, 11th Bt. The latter, later an hussars officer and a DL and JP died in 1907 and was succeeded by his elder surviving son, Sir Genille Cave-Browne-Cave.
Sir Genille’s life to that date had certainly been packed with excitement for, having been a younger son with no particular expectations, he had gone first to Africa to indulge in big-game hunting and then, still deprived of the adrenaline of adventure, proceeded to the USA and rode the range in the Old West, not only as a cowboy and bartender but also later as a rancher (under the name of Harrison) whilst simultaneously acting as a Wesleyan minister. Eventually, he returned home, entering the army and serving in India, Burma and in the ill-fated and chaotic Boxer expedition to China, before seeing service in the US-Spanish war, although in quite what capacity has quite eluded my research. In 1905 he became a Captain in the newly founded Legion of Frontiersmen – a sort of private army formed to patrol the frontiers of the empire to warn of any infiltration or invasion and, if possible, to counter it – and it was whilst so serving that he inherited the baronetcy and estates from his father, his elder brother having died in 1880. On the outbreak of the Great War, he served in the Royal Garrison Artillery but, on being demobilised, entered the Church, was ordained, and eventually became rector of Londesborough in Yorkshire, where he died in 1929.
Since the death of Sir Genille’s mother Isabelle in 1922, however, the hall at Stretton had lain empty, and his successor, Sir Reginald, lived on part of the family’s Northamptonshire estate, so the house remained largely unused, except for a skeleton staff, from then on. Sir Reginald died within a few months of Sir Genille, incurring crippling iterated death duties, which led to the sale of much of the family’s estates. Thus in 1939, when Sir Reginald’s brother Sir Rowland also died, bringing upon his heirs yet further crippling impositions from the taxman, much of the land was sold and the house was requisitioned for use by troops as a billeting centre.
Once the war was over, the family still had no use for the house, added to which, more than five years of army occupation had done it no favours and the compensation offered by the government towards expensive and costly repairs (which because of post-war restrictions could not be undertaken for some years in any case) was paltry indeed. Hence, within a year of the cessation of hostilities, the house had been demolished and the site left to go wild. When we revisited more recently, much of the bocage had been cleared and a new house erected on or very close to the site, the original 1845 gate piers being the only vestige of the original house.