Ashbourne, Derbyshire

A Portrait Of Ashbourne

Excepts from Early Victorian Country Town - A Portrait Of Ashbourne in the Mid 19th Century
(By kind permission oh Mr. A. Henstock)

By the Ashbourne Local History Group - 1978
Edited by Mr Adrian Henstock . Contributors include:-
Cyril Caderbank, Hazel Fletcher, Herbert Inch, Doreen Wheatcroft, Aarlen Collier, Peter Fletcher, Reginald C. Smith
This book is currently out of print.

Chapter 1 - Setting the scene

"Ashbourne is a township, and well-built Market town, beautifully situated in a deep, rich, well-wooded valley, on the eastern bank of the river Dove, over which there is a stone bridge. It is 13 miles NW of Derby, 47 from Manchester, and 14614 miles from London by railway, and 139 NW by road..." stated Francis White's Derbyshire Directory of 1857, with commendable precision.

Situated on the old main road from London to Manchester at the junction of the Peak District and the Midland Plain, Ashbourne in the 1850s was a characteristic English country town, with a population of around 3,300. It provided a focal point and market centre for many Derbyshire and Staffordshire villages in the surrounding countryside. This was an area that encompassed the spectacular beauties of Dovedale and the adjacent limestone uplands, increasingly frequented by tourists from the 18th century onwards.

Agriculture was the dominant activity of the district, although there was some textile industry and lead mining. The farming emphasis was on dairying, and cheesemaking was carried out extensively on the individual farms for sale in the cheese-fairs of Ashbourne or Derby, much of it subsequently exported by river or rail to London or further afield.

Unlike parts of Derbyshire to the North, no aristocratic landowners dominated the countryside around Ashbourne. The influence of the Earl of Shrewsbury was felt in the Alton and Cheadle area of Staffordshire some ten miles to the west of Ashbourne, but this did not impinge on the town to any great extent. But much of the surrounding countryside was owned by different representatives of the local gentry, and a number of villages (although a minority) were 'closed' communities dominated by their landlords. Tissington under the FitzHerberts, Ilam under the Watts-Russells, Okeover and Mapleton under the Okeovers, Snelston under the Harrisons and Osmaston under the Wrights were all examples of 'closed' villages, each with its prominent hall and park.
Tissington, Ilam and Sneiston, considered to be three of the most attractive villages in the area today, are all notable for the number of neat estate cottages erected by their respective landlords in the mid-19th century. This process was not only the prerogative of the established gentry, however.

At Clifton, only two miles from Ashbourne, old houses were replaced by 'neat Gothic cottages' in the early 1840s by a member of the nouveaux-riches - William Smith, farmer, cheese factor, and general merchant. And less than a mile from Clifton was built in 1856 a very different type of 'estate housing' in the form of terraced stone mill-workers' cottages situated alongside the Mayfield cotton mill. As well as beautifying their estates many of the local gentry built or rebuilt their own mansions in the early or mid-19th century, mostly in fashionable revivalist styles.

The pattern for neo-Gothic mansions in the area was set by the Earl of Shrewsbury's vast Alton Towers, built gradually during the first half of the century, followed by the adjacent Alton Castle of 1847, designed by Pugin. Cottingham's Gothic Snelston Hall of 1827 was built for Derby lawyer and businessman John Harrison.
Ilam Hall, erected for Jesse Watts-Russell in the 1820s and '30s, was a mixture of Tuscan, Gothic and Tudor styles. In the middle of the century the great talking-point of Ashbourne and district was Francis Wright's Italianate Osmaston Manor,(since demolished), designed by Derby architect Henry Stevens and built between 1846 and 1849 with no expense spared. This building was remarkable for incorporating many novel features, including a subterranean tramway, hot-air central heating, and a method of drawing smoke from all the fireplaces downwards into a main horizontal flue before ejecting it into a communal chimney in a 150 ft high tower standing in the kitchen garden.
Other lesser and more restrained residences erected in the 1840s were the Elizabethan-style Callow Hall, Mappleton, on the fringe of Ashbourne, built on a virgin site for John Goodwin Johnson, and the remodelled Calwich Abbey, for Augustus Duncombe. Also dating from around this period was Birdsgrove House, Mayfield, home of the Tunnicliffe family in 1850.
To complete the village scene, a number of these landowners enlarged or rebuilt their village churches at the same time, and examples of this period are still to be found today at Osmaston, Clifton (both 1845) and Hulland (1851).
From these large houses, staffed by retinues of servants, the gentry ruled much of the countryside around Ashbourne in their capacity as justices of the peace, conducting much routine local government administration as well as judicial work. Ashbourne, however, was the focal point of much of their local social life as well as their administrative work.

The physical appearance of the actual town of Ashbourne perhaps changed less in early Victorian times than did that of some of the villages. As an historically-prosperous market-town of mediaeval origin, it still retained a considerable legacy from the past in the form of the fine cruciform 13th century parish church with its 212 ft. spire, its Elizabethan grammar school, and numerous groups of almshouses of 17th or 18th century date.
Many of the domestic buildings of the town had been rebuilt in brick during the 18th century, and the main street and Market Place were lined with large Georgian houses. The rebuilding coincided with a period when Ashbourne became a fashionable social centre and achieved considerable repute as an adjunct to the Lichfield intellectual circle associated with Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Dr. Samuel Johnson. This development was partly made possible by the improvement of the six main roads that met at Ashbourne by various turnpike trusts. The town's inns enjoyed an era of commercial prosperity from the many stagecoaches that travelled these roads, particularly on the London - Manchester route.
With the eclipse of coach travel by the railways in the 1840s, however, Ashbourne's commercial and social prominence was beginning to decline. To a resident of the town now, the Ashbourne of the mid-19th century would not have looked too strange a place. The smaller Population was housed in a much smaller area; indeed it had barely expanded beyond its mediaeval limits, but the basic layout of the long main street - named Church Street at the west end and St. John's Street at the east - and the triangular Market Place partly infilled with buildings formed the nucleus of the town as they do today.
The small stream - the Henmore or Compton Brook - flowed through the town under three stone bridges. To the south lay the suburb of Compton, a long wide street fined with houses and yards which was administratively outside Ashbourne but which was in all other respects an integral part of the town. Immediately adjacent to the town to the east was Ashbourne Hall, a somewhat plain late Georgian mansion standing in extensive grounds overlooking a park landscaped with clumps of trees and a small ornamental lake (now the Fishpond). Although situated only a few hundred yards from the east end of St. John's Street, the Hall was separated from the town by a high brick wall, a line of tall trees and a set of imposing park gates. These gates faced down the street, reminding the inhabitants forcibly of the presence of the established order, as did the gates and towering spire of the parish church which closed the view at the other end of the main street.

Around the fringes of the town were small housing developments of the late Georgian and Regency periods. The New (Derby) Road, constructed by a turnpike trust in 1783 - 1785 as a more gradual ascent of the hill out of the town, had been developed at its lower end with a scattering of small houses and had become one of the respectable new suburbs.

On the far side of the valley was Belle Vue, a group of houses built in the early 19th century at the east end of Back Lane. 'These houses,' stated Bagshaw's Directory of 1846, 'from their elevated position, command some very pleasing and picturesque views of the surrounding neighbourhood'. They were chiefly occupied by retired middle-class people in the 1850s.

The road known in now as Cockayne Avenue did not exist, and modern roads such as The Green Road, Park Road, Belper Road, Station Street, Clifton Road, North Avenue, Windmill Lane or Mayfield Road west of the Church were all rural lanes without any buildings apart from the occasional cottage or barn. Dove House Green had few buildings on its west side, but the east, now marked by the wall surrounding the grounds of Dove House, was the site of a populous row of terraced cottages nearly all of which disappeared later in the century. The general appearance of the town conveyed a 'pleasing idea of security and social happiness' as Stephen Glover described it in 1833. A number of gentry families lived in mansions actually within Ashbourne or on its immediate fringe, although few were really substantial landowners.

The mid 19th century was, however, remarkable for the vacation of many of these residences by the old families, either as a result of the failure of heirs or of other causes. Indeed, so great was the market in the local mansions at this period that the inhabitants of the town might well have felt that the old social order was passing forever.
The principal large residence of the town itself, Ashbourne Hall, had been occupied since the 17th century by the Boothby family, baronets and lords of the manor. On the death of Sir William Boothby, the 9th baronet, in 1846 the family's long connection with Ashbourne was severed, and the Hall and park with its small agricultural estate were put up for auction in London. Withdrawn at 27,950, they were later purchased privately by John Fox, an Ashbourne solicitor, as a speculation, and within two months the estate was sold off in 46 separate lots. The Hall itself subsequently passed through various hands, being briefly owned by the local Roman Catholic priest before becoming the property of Captain Holland, a stranger to Ashbourne, whom again sold it in 1858.

The early 1840s also witnessed the death of William Webster, esquire, owner of The Mansion house in Church Street, a late 17th century town house extensively enlarged and elaborately refurbished in the late 18th century by his ancestor, Dr. John Taylor, a typical 'squarson' and friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson. As Webster was the last representative of the Taylor family, the house was subsequently leased out to Captain Henry Folliott Powell.

Ashbourne Green Hall, the William and Mary home of the Hayne family, was also occupied by tenants at this period. Cockshutt Heathcote lived there until 1852, when the house's contents were sold, and in 1855 a young ladies' boarding school was in occupation. The house was finally sold by the last Hayne heiress in 1858.

Dove House or Dove House Green, the family home of Major Thurston Dale, was offered to let in 1850 and in 1851 and seems to have remained unoccupied throughout most of the 1850s.

The Gell family who owned The Grove near Ashbourne Green rarely lived there at this period, and its contents were sold in 1853. The contents of Clifton Hall were similarly sold in 1857. Only Sandybrook Hall, the Georgian home of Sir Matthew Blakiston, bart., and the newly-built Callow Hall remained in continuous occupation by their owners at this period.

The sales of large mansions in the immediate locality were thus a commonplace of Ashbourne life at this period; once vacated by the old family, new owners or tenants of the same class were apparently hard to find. Their empty rooms were probably symptomatic of a social malaise that affected many country towns at this period. Their heyday had been in the late 18th century, but by the 1850s it was more fashionable for the well-off to live in the metropolis, the resorts and spas, or in new 'villas' in the suburbs of larger towns.

Another major feature of Ashbourne's architectural history of the mid-19th century was the appearance of so many new public and semi-public buildings. The growth of municipal consciousness and pride coupled with commercial expansion, religious enthusiasm, and the zeal for founding new administrative bodies and institutions, were all features which characterised Victorian England and produced their crop of new buildings throughout the country. Even small country towns such as Ashbourne produced a surprising harvest of such buildings in the middle of the century, most of which remain to the present day as a legacy of the period.

By the 1840's the town already possessed a parish church, grammar school and almshouses, two 18th century charity schools and two early 19th century nonconformist chapels, but these were rapidly supplemented by other buildings. The gasworks were built in 1840 and enlarged in 1852. In the same year a booking hall and goods warehouse were erected at the terminus of the recently arrived North Staffordshire Railway.

A public bathhouse was built in Sandy Lane sometime after 1859. The Savings Bank in Church Street was enlarged and re-fronted in 1843, and a Primitive Methodist chapel erected on Dove House Green in 1846. New institutions which appeared on Belle Vue were the lock-up in 1844 and the Union Workhouse, built in stages between 1846 and 1855. Not far from the latter was built the new Vicarage in 1846.
The need for a public hall produced St. John's Hall in St. John's Street in 1858, and three years later appeared the Market or Town Hall, the ultimate achievement of Victorian municipal pride, designed primarily as a covered market and general assembly room.

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