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The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – The New Hall Buxton by Maxwell Craven

The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – The New Hall Buxton by Maxwell Craven

From considerable prominence during the Roman period as Aquae Arnemetiae, Buxton drops from record almost completely (avoiding an entry in Domesday Book) until it re-surfaces as Bawkestanes in a document of 1108. 

Yet the hot springs and associated bathing facilities may well have survived and in use, if only informally, throughout the 600 or so years intervening, for we find a few modern (that is, medieval and later) buildings in the town actually built directly onto the footings of their Roman predecessors; normally, there is a good thickness of what archaeologists call ‘dark earth’ and other debris between the remains of Roman buildings and those built thereon much later.

The New Hall at Buxton was built on the initiative of the Elizabethan grandee George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury KG, in 1572-1573. It was so called because there had been a previous hall there, latterly belonging to Henry Sacheverell of Ratcliffe-upon-Trent. It had probably been previously in the possession of the elder line of the Pole family (of Radbourne, Kirk Langley and Barlborough) for a considerable time before (hence, no doubt, Pole’s Cavern at Buxton, allegedly the refuge of a member of the family who had been an outlaw). The heiress, Lucy, daughter of John Pole of the eponymous Pool Hall, Hartington (now a farmhouse) had married Henry Sacheverell’s father. 

This previous house, called the Auld Hall, later Auld Hall Farm, was sold to Lord Shrewsbury in 1578, which is why much of the east side of the Dove north of Hartington became part of the Chatsworth estate, for in 1615, Auld Hall was granted to Bess of Hardwick’s son, Sir Charles Cavendish, his father’s widow and wife of the long-suffering Lord Shrewsbury. It lasted well into the 17th century, but was clearly inadequate for Shrewsbury’s purposes, which were twofold: to build a house sufficient to house Mary, Queen of Scots (of whom he was effectively gaoler) and to welcome in adequate style friends and relations from amongst the grandest families in the land to come and benefit from Buxton’s celebrated hot springs.

Consequently, he erected a two pile (i.e. two parallel ranges longitudinally attached) four storey tower house topped with merlons (ornamental battlements) with his lordship’s arms in stucco high on the south front, complete by 1573. He already held some land at Buxton, but acquired more by sale from the Cotterells of Marple, including the well chapel (which may have been very ancient) and Bath Croft, which included the Roman baths. Dr. John Jones wrote of it when it was about finished:

‘…a very goodly howse, four square, four storeys hye, so well compact with houses of office beneath…[and] round about with a great chambre and other goodly lodgings to the number thirty.’

George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1580 aged 58. [National Trust, Hardwick]

When you look at the best surviving illustration, done by John Speed in or just before 1610, it is difficult to conceive how all this was encompassed, but the diagrammatic treatment of the attached service and accommodation ranges is the key: they were clearly much more substantial than his drawing admits.

Speed captures the tower-like appearance of the building, but shows four bays of windows on the east side (in shadow) whereas we know there were three with the central one horizontally off-alignment due to the windows there lighting the staircase. We also suspect that there were three little towers on the rood, rather than the one rather unsophisticated one shown, as a drawing of 1631 by William Senior shows three of them, probably with cupolas. Indeed, his plan, although but tiny, almost suggests a central courtyard, but what remains today does not support this.

This building, which was taxed on 12 hearths in 1670 suggesting it was indeed of some size, was innovative. The desire to build upwards in Derbyshire seems to have begun with Prior Overton’s tower (1432), now part of Repton Hall and continued by the Reresby’s of Thrybergh at Eastwood Hall, Ashover (see Country Images in April). It set the standard, not only in height with skied reception rooms, but with a longitudinal hallway the substantial walls of which housed all the chimneys internally, instead of attaching them to the exterior, as was then much more normal. 

The almost contemporary Mary’s Tower, Sheffield Manor, also intended for the Scottish Queen’s house arrest, probably echoes New Hall in plainer guise. Others followed: the Hunting Stand at Chatsworth. Complete with domed cupolas (1580s), North Lees, Hathersage (1594), Stydd Hall, Yeaveley (c. 1610), Tupton Hall (1611), Bolsover’s Little Castle (1612) and Holme Hall, Bakewell (1636), whilst Wollaton Hall and Worksop Manor (both 1580s) and Hardwick Hall (1594) are much expanded versions. All hark back to Bess of Hardwick’s Chatsworth (1550s-1570s). Bearing in mind that Lord Shrewsbury was Bess’s fourth husband, one can see these architectural developments in terms of the personalities: all were built by people in Lord Shrewsbury’s circle, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

The present Old Hall Hotel showing how the spectre of Lord Shrewsbury’s old tower relates to the 1726 house.

In the event, the house was a success, harbouring Queen Mary at least five times, certainly in 1573, 1576, 1580, 1582 and 1584 (she suffered from rheumatism), and there are records of numerous other grandees staying to sample the waters. The bath house was next door to the north and interconnected. In the end it ceased to be a country house, but a very grand lodging, the running of which was eventually franchised out. Charles Cotton, however, in 1670 recorded the building in decay, but in that same year (following a fire and so dated on the fabric) it appears to have undergone a substantial refurbishment, costing the Earl of Devonshire £1,168 (paid six years later, needless to say!). 

Sometime before 1690 the lantern on the roof (possibly of 1670) put in to light the staircase, was removed and an inventory records the ‘Scotch Chamber’, which establishes that the room occupied by Mary Stuart was still known. However, after mixed reports over several decades  as to its standards of cuisine and comforts, it was decided to totally rebuild the edifice with a view to providing up-to-date accommodation. 

Thus in 1725-1726 (we can tell the date, because the landlord’s rent almost doubled then) the building was stripped out, lost all its service and lodging accommodation but much of the original shell of the tower was retained (as was not really appreciated until Michael Stanley and I suggested it in the 1984 first edition of The Derbyshire Country House) and acted like a pie funnel with the new build, designed and built by John Barker of Rowsley (who had a decade earlier rebuilt the bath house), accruing around it to the south and west. 

The new south front of three storeys and five bays does slightly give the game away in that it is unusually tall; the east front, though is the clincher: the central section (the baths to the north having been raised in height to match the hotel in the mid-19th century) is clearly anomalous, in different, greyer, stone than the yellowish and weathered ashlar on the entrance front, with a central bay of staircase windows now flanked by a pair of canted bays, added as two storey ones in c. 1840 and heightened forty years later.

What clinched it for us in 1982 when we looked closely at the building, was that some original door surrounds survived upstairs as does the long corridor right through the building and other, small, leftovers from the original house. Effectively, the current Old Hall, an hotel since the later 17th century, contains the shaddow of its predecessor, present as a sort of half-glimpsed wraith.

When Lord Shrewsbury died in 1590, it passed to William Cavendish, Bess of Hardwick’s third son, who was later made 1st Earl of Devonshire, and it became part of the Chatsworth estate. This historic connection ended in 1954 when it was sold to the landlord as part of the late 11th Duke’s efforts to pay off the crushing 80% death duties levied on the Chatsworth estate by Earl Attlee’s government as a result of the death of his father in 1950 aged 54.  Next time you are in Buxton, see if you can see this enigmatic architectural spectre.


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