The true love story of the Elvaston estate as we know it today really begins in the early 1800s but the full history of the Elvaston estate can be traced back to the 11th century and earlier with ownership changing hands several times in the proceeding centuries. Records show Sir Thomas Hanselin as one of the original estate owners before it passed into the hands of the Musards of Staveley, followed by the Frenchvilles before being purchased by Sir Walter Blount in 1420.
The estate then passed through several other families before it was transmitted to Sir Thomas Stanhope of Shelford in the reign of Mary I, and his grandson Philip, the first Earl of Chesterfield, commissioned a new house which was built in 1633. A branch of the Stanhope family took up residence in the house and oversaw various developments of the property over the next century.
In 1742, the Elvaston Stanhopes took up the title of Earl of Harrington and proceeded to commission more rebuilding. But the house as we know it today really started to take shape when the third Earl of Harrington, Charles Stanhope, commissioned James Wyatt to remodel the old house. Wyatt didn’t live to see his plans to fruition, the designs instead being executed by Robert Walker between 1815 and 1829.
Amongst the changes designed by Wyatt (pictured right) were the gothic façades which still grace the house today. A new great hall was added to the west and a new wing added to the north-west. Much of the existing interior was also Wyatt’s design, including the spectacular screen of four-centred arches, niches, fan vaulting and pendants in the great hall.
The fourth Earl of Harrington, Viscount Petersham, was nearly 50 when he inherited the title and estate in 1829. He had a reputation as something of a Regency buck, renowned for his stylish dress, tall and handsome looks, charming personality and way with the ladies.
When he finally married in 1831, it was to Maria Foote – a Covent Garden actress seventeen years his junior. Prior to their marriage, their affair had been the talk of the town in both London and Derbyshire and their relationship had been heavily frowned upon by the previous Earl and many other members of the family.
Lord Petersham and his wife (pictured right) took up residence at Elvaston shortly after their marriage. The couple were inseparable and besotted with one another. The Earl would never allow Maria out of the grounds – nor would he allow visitors in – such was his love and obsession for his wife. To that end, the Earl set about creating an private and secluded oasis of great beauty for himself and the love of his life – a Gothic paradise designed as a symbol of his undying love for her. It is here that the Elvaston estate as we know it today began to take shape.
The final phase of building at the house began in 1836 when Lewis Cottingham was called in to rebuild the south front with the brief to give the facade, still the original from 1633, a more harmonious look to match the rest of the newer building work on the house.
The Earl also commissioned the work on the surrounding grounds. Respected landscaper Humphrey Repton had originally been called in by the third Earl to oversee the project, but Repton turned down the commission, daunted by the unerring flatness of the estate. So, in 1830, the fourth Earl turned to previously untried gardener William Barron.
Barron (pictured right) spent the next 20 years working on the surrounding gardens, woodlands and pleasure grounds, introducing many revolutionary designs and techniques to the grounds including spectacular topiary, intricate drainage methods and a pioneering technique for transporting fully-grown trees from one location to another – a method necessitated by the Earl’s impatience to see his gardens in full splendor which forced Barron to bring in and plant full-grown trees for instant impressive effect rather than planting saplings. Barron’s work at Elvaston established him as one of the most respected landscapes of his time and he and his successors enjoyed much prominence in the business for the next century. The gardens today, deservedly so, retain Grade II Listed status.
Following the completion of Barron’s work, the estate remained shrouded in privacy as the Earl and his Countess craved their seclusion. However, following the death of the Earl in 1851, his successor, Leicester Stanhope – the Fifth Earl of Harrington – finally opened Elvaston to the public. The estate had amassed a huge reputation of the preceding years and thousands flocked to Elvaston to see the glory of the house and gardens finally revealed.
The estate remained under the ownership of the Harringtons for the remainder of the 19th century and for much of the 20th, being occupied by the Harrington’s kinsmen the Lillingstons up to the onset of World War II. During the war, the house was taken over by young women and turned into a teacher training college after the original college in Derby was evacuated for safety. The college vacated the house in 1947 and it remained mostly empty for the next two decades.
With the house in a state of neglect and the grounds mostly unkempt and overgrown, the estate was finally put up for sale by the Harringtons in 1966. Derbyshire County Council and the then Derby County Borough Council were the joint purchasers. They set about a restoration project which brought much of the grounds back to beauty (although sadly, some were beyond restoration back to their full former glory) and the estate opened to the public as a Country Park, the first of its kind in England, on Good Friday, 1970.
New features were added to the estate over the following years, including the Working Estate Museum which opened in 1980. The top stable yard building were also redeveloped to provide visitor facilities such as a information centre, shop and educational centre.
But, by 1990, a combination of increased visitor numbers but dwindling finances were starting to take its toll on the estate. Much of the pathways began to show signs of erosion, as did the castle building itself. By the late Nineties, the castle had fell into such disrepair that much of it was closed to the general public, reopening only on occasions for rare open days.
By 2000, Derbyshire County Council had admitted that they could no longer afford the ongoing running costs of £500,000 per year, let alone the estimated £3million repair costs to the estate. The Council therefore opened up bidding for the lease of the estate to private bidders – a process which has since lurched from failure to failure for the past 4 years.
Now, in 2004, the castle is desperately in need of restoration. The council, in a bid to save money on the estate, have closed many of the facilities including the Estate Museum and stables and now seem intent on leasing the castle and grounds to a hotel group who will inevitably close much of the remaining grounds to the public
First Broadcast: 9th August 2005