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The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Willington House

The Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Willington House

I think I am right in saying that Willington House must rank as Derbyshire’s most recent lost house. At any rate, if there have been subsequent casualties, I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can tell me about them. Willington House – never the sort of architectural set piece to send the pulses racing, it has to be said – was bulldozed in autumn 2001 to prevent a developer from having to pay the then rate of 17.5% VAT to adapt it as apartments. 

Its grounds were subsequently covered with 24 modern three storey houses and its site similarly re-developed. The position of this former gentleman’s residence, delightfully set looking south to the banks of the Trent, proved irresistible to a developer, impelled by the urgings of the former Deputy Prime Minister, my Lord Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull, to use brownfield sites on which to build, ‘Brownfield’ in this case being a bit of a misnomer, being defined as the site of any house, including its garden (normally anything but brown). Hence, over the first decade of this millennium, the spacious lawns of many a Victorian villa on the outskirts of a town was covered in gimcrack houses, even if a listing obliged the developer to retain the original house. Indeed, I did a ten-minute programme on the subject for BBC East Midlands’ once excellent ‘Inside out’ programme in 2005.

In its declining years Willington House was used as the sort of hotel where the locals liked to organise affordable weddings or get blitzed en masse on a Saturday night, and it thus presented a rather hotchpotch image to the world. The garden front – the main façade, in any case – was irregular, although largely of two storeys. To the right was the original three bay Regency farmhouse with Georgian sash windows set in stone surrounds, but as is so common with south Derbyshire farm houses of this period, there was a wide gap between the upper storey windows and the eaves, so that an attic storey could be worked in behind. It was of brick, stuccoed with Derby made Brookhouse’s Roman Cement, as was normal for the period. 

The left portion was later, also of two bays and two storeys, but with taller ceilings to provide better reception rooms. In the 1870s, a gabled lean-to porch and timber arcaded loggia was added on the south front with a loosely interpreted Venetian window to the left and a full height square brick bay to the right. All the windows were given strange little sloping tiled catslide mini-roofs supported on pairs of shaped timber brackets, a nod to the Arts-and-Crafts movement. However, around 1900, a taller gabled cross wing was added to the west end, timbered above the kneeler, with a full height square bay, lit by triple windows, a feature repeated at the far right end of the façade too, but in this case with a catslide roof that gave it a jaunty air. 

The north side was even less impressive, but hardly more regular, nor was the interior especially impressive, although the insertion of a new, rather ponderous, timber staircase a century ago had given the hall some presence. Inside, most features of any interest had been removed, although there was a sturdy oak staircase in the newer part, but the various alterations meant that it was not included when the Derbyshire statutory list was compiled.

Willington House photographed in decline, July 1981 [MC]

The house began as a farmhouse probably on the Harpurs’ portion of the manorial estate of Willington, the Burdetts owning the greater portion, having bought it from the Meynells long before. The high-eaved design of the original farmhouse is typical of those built at the beginning of the 19th century under the aegis of Derby architect Samuel Brown, who worked extensively for the Harpurs at that period; one of the best examples of these is his Stenson House, near Stenson Bubble. There is another, Hill Farm, more sober and rather less modified just north of Willington village on Etwall Road going towards the A38 and on its east side. The architect of all three was probably Samuel Brown of Derby, much involved with building for the Harpur family.

At some stage there was a land exchange and sale, in which the Spilsburys, who had acquired land in the village through marriage to the heiress of Benjamin Ward of Willington Grange, a local merchant, acquired some land by the river bank and elsewhere. Furthermore, we know that by the middle of the 19th century there were three substantial houses in Willington, one of which was the Burdett-owned Hall and the others were both in the hands of Revd. Francis Ward Spilsbury. One of these, the Grange, he lived in and the other was Willington House.

The tenant of this ‘neat mansion’ (as the Directories termed it) was George Smallwood. I am not clear how he came by his money, but his brother was a Derby timber merchant, which may be something to do with it. In 1857, George’s daughter Hannah Warren Smallwood married Francis Spilsbury’s younger son, Revd. Benjamin Ward Spilsbury (1830-1908) who later succeeded his father as patron of Willington church and was simultaneously appointed vicar, which incumbency he held for nearly 36 years. Smallwood – or the Spilsburys – probably added to the house and the former left two sons but, in the event, neither was able to live there, for they too were parsons, one at Ashby and the other at Whitley, in Cheshire.

The house was let, instead, to George S. Messiter, MA (1847-1907), the son of another George, a master at Repton School. The family had originally been landed gents at Barwick park, Somerset, where George’s homonymous grandfather had erected a number of bizarre follies, ostensibly to mark the cardinal points but also to create work in the post Napoleonic depression.

Messiter was also a schoolmaster, first at Dulwich, then with his father at Repton. Around 1875 he founded a ‘Gentlemen’s preparatory school’ as a feeder to the establishment across the Trent (this long preceding the rise of Foremark as the prep-feeder to Repton). This at first seems to have been run by his wife Mary (née, Salisbury), but later he resigned from Repton and took over the running of it in person and it flourished until it closed in 1899, when the Messiters moved to Staffordshire. At the 1881 census there were 24 pupils (built up from six at foundation), including Ashton Spilsbury, son B. W. Spilsbury no less, then also vicar of Findern. One wonders if the good parson, as freeholder, had his sprog’s fees waived!

Stenson House: Willington House began as a single farmhouse very much in this style and probably by the same architect [Fine & Country]

At this juncture, the freehold appears to have been sold, the purchaser being H. Gordon Ley (1874-1944). He was the son and heir of Francis Ley of Epperstone Manor, Nottinghamshire, founder and proprietor of the eponymous Derby iron foundry and keen promoter of baseball. The Leys were an old Staffordshire family of minor gentry, but Francis was made a baronet in 1905 and a Grand Cross of the Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem, to which order he had been remarkably generous. The son, Gordon, rebuilt Willington House, adding the gabled crosswing and remodelling the interior. He also recruited the notable firm of William Barron & Son of Borrowash to lay out the gardens down to the river in their inimitable style.

Ley, who was a Captain (TA) in the South Notts. Hussars and served in France during the Great War retiring as a Major, lived at Willington House until the end of the conflict, during which, in 1916, he had succeeded as 2nd baronet. Once demobilised, he moved his main residence to Lazonby Hall in Cumberland, which was on a large shooting estate which his father had acquired becoming, in the process, lord of Lazonby, Staffield, Glassonby and  Kirkoswald. He retained ownership of the house, however, letting it in the 1930s to his manager at Ley’s, Ian Forbes Panton. Incidentally, the Panton family are unusual in British terms in being of ultimate Welsh extraction – the name derives from the patronymic ap Anton (son of Anthony) – but long settled in Scotland. However, he died about 1935 although his widow remained there until 1941. 

After the war, no tenant could be found and it was sold to Margaret Horton who converted it into what at first was a very pleasant hotel, which included amongst its attractions a gravity railcar in the gardens (much appreciated by children), the Saddle Bar in the stable block and another in the house called The Glue Pot. 

In the 1980s decline began to set in, and about half the grounds were sold for re-development, the proceeds going into a ‘modernisation’ carried out for Mr. Hobson, the then proprietor. In 1995 the house’s late Victorian water tower, a notable landmark in its way, was demolished by Peach Leisure who turned it into a pub and renamed it The Willington. But the writing was already on the wall, and it closed for good in December 2000 and South Derbyshire made the lamentable decision to grant consent for the re-development on 25th September 2001. 

By 1st December, poor old Willington House had been reduced to rubble.

Maxwell Craven


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