Friday, 19 February 2010

What survives of Georgian Derby? Local historian Max Craven investigates

One of Derbyshire’s earliest historians, William Woolley, wrote of Derby in the second decade of the 18th century:

“Derby…is at present a very large, populous and rich and well-frequented borough town – few inland towns in the Kingdom equalling it – yet has it many good houses, especially on all parts….of the town, mostly of brick….In it is [sic] many persons of good quality and a great number of coaches kept in it. It has a very handsome Market Place – a square with good buildings about it….”
Nor did those who followed significantly dissent from this – an anonymous ‘gentleman from London’ (1757), Boswell (1777), Pastor Moritz (1795), William Mavor (1800) and Sir Richard Phillips (1828); even grumpy old Lord Torrington admired it, albeit grudgingly, although he was scathing about the best inn.

Derby was, after Birmingham, a centre for the Lunar Society – John Whitehurst and Erasmus Darwin both lived in the town for substantial periods – a cockpit of the intellectual revolution that drove the industrial one, and an ancient county town with a particularly wealthy hinterland.

It was a centre of excellence too for a number of trades and industries catering unashamedly for the luxury end of the consumer market: wrought iron, fine clocks, barometers and philosophical instruments, china, silk, and objets de vertu of local stones and minerals. The latter included work in the incomparable Blue John, Black Marble, Alabaster, polished Peak District limestones, foreign marbles and the like, often ormolu mounted to rival anything from Boulton’s Soho with which the firm was for a time in competition.

This refinement of richness was later almost swamped by heavy engineering - iron founding, railway locomotive, rolling stock and bridge building – narrow tapes manufacture and later aero engine making, all of which left an indelible and often damaging visual mark.

Yet some cast iron foundries also made fine architectural ironwork; the aero engines grew out of what was essentially a foundry set up to produce luxury goods in the earlier tradition of the town, in this case prestige motor cars; the china making miraculously survived and even multiplied; one of the philosophical instrument making firms, John Davis, continues, now making precision industrial instruments; and a clock making firm – John Smith & Sons – also survives, as a specialist in turret clock manufacture.

Georgian Derby – photographed with limpid clarity by Richard Keene from 1853 - survived more or less intact along with the mediaeval street plan until the end of the Second World War, mainly because nearly all of it grew up on the periphery. And by a miracle, hardly any damage was done by German air raids.

In the event, all the damage to the historic core of the City (as it became in 1977) was effected by post war planning nostrums keenly promoted by officers appointed from outside, with little feel for the excellence of the past and supported to the hilt by an ignorant gerontocracy, left in power with only two minor interruptions from 1930 to 1988. Paradoxically, it was only the essential conservatism of the latter that prevented Derby from succumbing to the sort of chilling array of 1960s municipal tower blocks that meet the eye on approaching many of our larger town and cities. It took the blandishments of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, as was, finally to encourage the Council to allow a couple of tame developers to wreck the skyline.

Derby retains an extraordinary number of pre-Classical buildings, including two substantial early 17th century town houses and a decent brick burgher’s house, two timber framed pubs (along with three or four other good timber framed buildings in the suburbs) and numerous buildings, nearly all on burgage plots, refronted in Georgian or Victorian times but with much earlier timber framed rear portions, some quite impressive.

The wealth, mainly from mineral deposits, of the numerous quite modest-sized Derbyshire estates provided the impetus for a good post-Restoration building boom which never really flagged throughout the Georgian period which followed.

Derby’s impressive Artisan Mannerist Shire Hall, completed in 1660 to designs by George Eaton of Etwall in St. Mary’s Gate, was the first manifestation of the returning post Civil-War confidence and, with its attendant inn of 1798 and Judges’ Lodgings of 1809-11 by John Welch, comprises one of the finest Classical legal enclaves in the Midlands, despite the desperately dull additions inflicted on this Grade I listed building by the Lord Chancellor’s Department and the County Council in 1999-2001.

This same period saw the “Loyall” Duke of Newcastle extend the town house he inherited from his grandmother, Bess of Hardwick, in the Market Place, to include a 60-foot saloon with a ceiling much in the style of Edward Goudge. Lesser men were also building classical houses, usually utilising pairs of adjacent burgage plots, and a group of four architecturally related houses survive, three in a line from Iron Gate to Corn Market and one – Mundy House – in The Wardwick, all datable to the period 1693-1699. We do not know who designed them; the only man in the town then calling himself an architect was one George Morledge, to whom not a single building can certainly be attributed.

The end of the 17th century also produced a fine new church, St. Werburgh’s, the fine chancel of which was suffered to survive a total rebuild by Sir Arthur Blomfield, but only one really good early 18th century house (of about six) survives in the City centre, Allsopp’s House (now The Wardwick Tavern) in The Wardwick of c. 1708, which sports a very subtle brick façade; another. The Homestead, is an ornament of the suburb of Spondon.

Church building continued with Gibbs’s All Saints’ (now Derby’s Cathedral), constructed 1723-25 under the supervision of Francis Smith of Warwick and actually built by Derby man William Trimmer, whose brother Thomas undertook all the superb joinery inside. Indeed, the craftsmen available for building this church all belonged to enduring dynasties like the Mansfields and the Needhams and displayed skills of the highest metropolitan quality, not least Robert Bakewell, England’s greatest native-born wrought ironsmith.

Most of these craftsmen worked elsewhere with the Smiths and also in Derby on the 1731 Guildhall – long demolished – which was designed by Richard Jackson of Armitage, Staffordshire, who was almost certainly responsible for The Friary (1731) in Friar Gate, a fine and substantial Baroque town house which survives, despite numerous extensions, from 1760 onwards. There are other fine houses of similar date in the same street (pictured), as well as in St. Mary’s Gate (both these streets, with The Wardwick, are the three finest Georgian thoroughfares in the City) and in Iron Gate.

Derby reached its apogee of elegance with the succession of Improvement Commissions which oversaw the development of the City from 1768 to 1835. The first provided building land on Friar Gate as far as Ashbourne Road and led to a whole new street, all built within the decade 1768 to 1778, several to the designs of Joseph Pickford (1734-1782), including his own house, No. 41 Friar Gate (1769-70), now a Museum.

Pickford himself came to Derby in 1763 to build the Assembly Rooms for 5th Earl Ferrers F.R.S.; the Neo-Classical interior was by Robert Adam, 1774, but it was all swept away, along with the Duke of Newcastle’s town house in 1971, to build Sir Hugh Casson’s overbearing and hideous replacement. Pickford’s other surviving works in the City include the former Tiger Inn, Cornmarket (1764), the Orangery at demolished Markeaton Hall and his chef d’oeuvre, long-neglected St. Helen’s House (1766-67), probably the finest purpose-built Palladian town house outside London and now being restored by Richard Blunt.

The Second Improvement Commission had Thomas Harrison of Chester design handsome St. Mary’s Bridge, now rather upstaged by a motorway bridge of enduring awfulness right beside it, with Derby’s 15th century bridge chapel sandwiched in between – and the third built Georgian Bridge Street, whilst opening up the western part of the town to industry. It also oversaw the building of the first Infirmary (1810, replaced in 1891), encouraged the canal (opened 1796 and now under restoration) and laid out Vernon Street, a sort of triumphal avenue lined with stuccoed villas leading to Francis Goodwin’s County Gaol (1826), of which the curtain wall and massively Doric portico survive.

Regency improvements, mainly driven by William Strutt FRS, an amateur architect himself and for almost 40 years Commission chairman, included a double terrace of 16 ashlar Neo-Grecian houses called North Parade, whilst the suburb of Darley Abbey saw the erection of a large and impressive cotton mill complex from 1782, probably the most intact in the whole Derwent Valley World Heritage Site and recently re-listed Grade I accordingly. The Regency model village here is one of the finest set pieces of this type in the United Kingdom.

Also at this time, the gentry were relinquishing their town houses for elegant suburban villas, many built by one of their number - another amateur, Richard Leaper (1759-1838). Very few are listed, however, and two succumbed to “re-development” as recently as 2006, one an 1814 attempt at producing a miniature version of Belsay Hall, almost certainly under the influence of locally-born antiquary Sir William Gell. Another, Allestree Hall, survives – albeit as a building at risk – in its landscaped park, designed in 1802 by James Wyatt and finished by another hand in 1805-6.

Two other major country houses, Markeaton Hall (James Denstone of Derby for Wrightson Mundy, 1755) and Darley Hall (1723 for William Woolley, attributed to Francis Smith with additions by Joseph Pickford 1778 for Robert Holden) were demolished by the Council in the 1960s, but their parks, both by William Emes, remain.

The final late Georgian set pieces are the Royal Hotel, Athaneum and bank, Victoria Street/corn Market (Robert Wallace, 1837-39) and the Arboretum of 1840 ( J. C. Loudon). This last, paid for by William Strutt’s brother Joseph, was finished in 1840, with lodges and other buildings by E. B. Lamb. An adjoining unlisted villa would appear to be Strutt’s “summer retreat”, built before 1811 and rebuilt to match Lamb’s Jacobethan lodges thirty years later.

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