Grid Ref: SK 367 226
Date: 22 August 2013


Calke Abbey is a Grade I listed country house lying about 9 miles east of Burton on Trent and is a National Trust property. It was acquired in 1985 when the owners gave it to the Exchequer in lieu taxes and death duties of about £9 million. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, then passed it to the National Trust. This property is unusual within the National Trust in that it was decided not to restore it but to preserve it in the state of dilapidation in which it was found to show visitors how bad such properties became. The property has extensive grounds and a fine walled garden. At the end of this page I give an account of how many such properties were demolished.

Calke Abbey
The 13-Bay Frontage of Calke Abbey
Monastic History of Calke

The site of the house was occupied by an Augustinian Priory from the 12th century until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The name Calke Abbey was not applied until 1808, and then to the curren mansion, built between 1701 and 1704. The priory was founded between 1115 and 1120 by the 2nd Earl of Chester, Richard d'Avranches (1094-1120). He had inherited estates both in England and Normandy including the land around Calke. Richard d'Avranches married Lucia-Mahaut the daughter of Stephen Count of Blois and Adela daughter of William the Conqueror. He was therefore the brother-in-law of the future King Stephen. However, Richard and his wife were drowned in 1120 in the White Ship accident in which Henry I's only son William Aetheling was lost. It was a consequence of this loss that Henry named his daughter Matilda as heir and she contested the throne with her cousin Stephen of Blois from 1137 to his death in 1154. As Stephen had lost his only heir he had agreed that Matilda's son would succeed as Henry II. He was Matilda's son by ther second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, leading to the so-called Angevin Kings.

The earldom of Chester passed from Richard d'Avrances to a cousin on his mother's side. Ralulph de Gernon was the 4th Earl of Chester and after his death in 1153 the abbey went to his widow, Maude of Gloucester, Countess of Chester. She was the daughter of Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of King Henry I. She built a new priory at Repton and in 1172 moved the Cannons from Calke to Repton with Calke remaining as a subordinate establishment. Maude died in 1189. Her son was Hugh de Kevelioc, 5th Earl of Chester.

As little is known of its history in the 14th and 15th century it may be that Calke acted as a centre for administration of the agricultural estate rather than a religious centre. Repton was dissolved in 1538.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries

In 1537, just before the Dissolution of Repton, the estate at Calke had been leased to John Prest for 99 yars. He was a member of the London Grocers' Company. Later the lease was given by the Crown to John Dudley Earl of Warwick who later became the Duke of Northumberland. After passing through several hands the estate was acquired by Richard Wendsley in 1575 and he built an Elizabethan house around a central courtyard with the entrance through a gatehouse on the south side. Only ten years later Wendsley sold the property to Robert Bainbridge, who was MP for Derbyshire on three occasions. He was of a Puritan persuasion and was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1586 for refusing to accept the new Elizabethan church settlement. His heir, also called Robert sold the estate to Sir Henry Harpur (1579-1639) in 1622 for £5,350. He was descended from Richard Harpur a lawyer who rose to be a judge at the Court of Common Pleas then Chief Justice of the County Palatine of Lancaster. He and his descendants accumulated further estates in Derbshire. It was the 4th Baronet, Sir John Harpur (1680-1741) who extensively rebuilt the house between 1701 and 1704. He married Catherine Crewe, daughter of Thomas, 2nd Lord Crewe and in 1808.

It was the 7th Baronet, Sir Henry Harpur (1763-1819) who changed his name to Harpur Crewe to commemorate his ancestry. The name was subsequently hyphenated to Harpur-Crew. His mother was Francis Greville, the second daughter of Frances Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick. The 7th baronet succeeded his father in 1789. He had an income of £10,000 a year (like the fictional Mr. Darcy) and was one of the richest land owners in Derbyshire. He married his mistress, a lady's maid called Ann Hawkins in 1792 but died when he fell head first off his coach. His son, Sir George Crewe, 8th Baronet (1795-1844) was a Tory MP for South Derbyshire. It was the 9th Baronet, Sir John (1824-1886) who changed the surname to Harpur-Crewe.

The 10th and last baronet was Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe (1846-1924). Sir Vauncey was something of a recluse and very old-fashioned in outlook. He motor vehicles from the estate and did not have electricity in the house. His main interest was in Natural History and he amassed a huge collection of stuffed birds. To modern tastes these seem strange or even repulsive and visitors to Calke must be prepared for a surfeit of taxidermy.

Sir Vauncey's only son predeceased him and his eldest daughter Hilda Ethelfreda Harpur-Crewe (1877-1949), who sold some of his collection. She was succeeded by her nephew, Charles Jenney (1917-81) who was the eldest son of Sir Vauncey's fourth and youngest daughter, Frances Caroline Harpur Crewe (1887-1960). Charles Jenney changed his name to Harpur-Crewe. When he died death duties of £8m were levied on an estate worth £14 million. His younger brother, Henry Harpur-Crewe (1921-1991) gave the property to the Exchequer who transferred it to the National Trust.

Sources for the House and Family

Wikipedia article on Calke Abbey, Maude of Gloucester, Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe, Harpur-Crewe Baronets
Harpur Baronets


Interior   Peeling paint
Just a glimpse of the taxidermy   Carefully preserved dilapidation
Collection   Interior
Collection of coloured stones   The great hall
Bison's head   Kitchen
More taxidermy   Kitchen scene
Detail of fall-pipe   Outbuilding
Pipe Bracket   Outbuildings


The Decline of the Landed Estates

It may come as a surprise to some to find out how many manors and stately homes were demolished in the 20th century. Between the wars, between 50 and 80 demolitions occured in each five year period. This dropped to only 30 between 1940 and 1945 as properties were being requisitioned by the armed forces or taken over by schools from built up areas. Between 1945 and 1950 there were 80 demolitions but between 1950 and 1955 there were 200 - an average if one a week.

The National Trust had acquired 32 houses between 1907 and 1948. By 1950 it had 10,000 members compared to the 4 million today. Between 1948 and 1991 it acquired 87 further properties. This century it has acquired only four - Tyntesfield, Croome Court, Godolphin and Seaton Delaval. In addition, many house found new uses as schools, hotels, golf clubs, police colleges, or were taken over by large companies as offices or corporate headquarters.

However, after the war, many houses, especially those that had been requistioned, had received little maintenace for several years and endured harsh treatment. They were too expensive to repair or to live in. Nobody wanted to buy or rent them in their dilapidated condition so demolition was the only option. Architectural scrap merchants would value them for the lead on their roofs, marble fireplaces, timber and stone. In the case of Lowther Castle shown elsewhere on my Celebrating England site, the roof was taken off so that rates did not have to be paid. I also illustrate Whitly Court and Kirby Hall as properties that fell into ruin but were not demolished completely.

This was not just the result of the Second Word War; it was the culmination of processes begun in the 19th century. The aristocracy and landed gentry lost political power, starting slowly with the Reform Act of 1832 which increased the number of voters from about 500,00 to 800,000 in a population of about 14 million. The Reform Act of 1867 under Disraeli's government increased the electorate to about 2.5 million and by the Edwardian era about 60% of men, but still no women had the vote. In 1919 more men got the vote and also women over 30. Finally in 1929 there was universal suffrage.

A second major factor was the reduction in power of the House of Lords with the Parliament Act of 1911 which followed a titanic struggle between the Commons and the Lords over who governed Britain. The Liberals were in power from 1906 but the House of Lords blocked David Lloyd George's budget of 1909. He wanted to raise taxes on the rich for social reform and the construction of battleships in the arms race with Germany. With the budget blocked there was a constitutional crisis and general elections were called in February 1910 and again in the December. The Liberals were returned to government both times, albeit the second time with help of the newly emerging Labour Party, who recieved one cabinet seat for John Burns. The government was able to persuade King George V that if necessary he would create enough new Liberal peers to overturn the Conservative majority in the Lords. Once it became known that the king had asked for a list of possible candidates the Conservative lords gave up the fight. The Parliament Act followed, restricting the power of the Lords to block legislation from the House of Commons. With universal suffrage, people naturally voted for parties which would support their interests not those of the old ruling elite which had enjoyed the lions share of land, wealth and power for centuries.

It has been estimated that England was governed by about 2000 families -the biggest landowners - more or less since the Norman Conquest. In the 19th century there were 600 members of the House of Lords but other great landowners who were untitled or who had baronetcies or knighthoods, which did not qualify them for a seat in the Lords. The cast of characters had changed at various crucial phases of English History. Some male lines were eliminated in the Wars of the Roses. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries some wealthy merchants and lawyers and some untitled gentry were able to acquire new estates which increased their influence. Some Royalist families lost their property during the Civil War in the 17th century. With the Industrial Revolution, wealthy manufacturers sought to become country gentleman in the style of the aristocracy by buying estates. Sir Robert Peel is a good example.

A third factor was death duties, which started in 1894. The rate of duty rose in the 20th century and as noted above the duty levied on Calke Abbey was £8 million on an estate worth £14 million in 1981. The estate tax fell particularly hard on some families where the head was a bachelor and the estate passed to a younger brother who died only a few years later. During the Great War some familes lost the head and then the eldest son too, thereby incurring two sets of duty within a short space of time. In some cases the Great War took all the male heirs. A final factor was an early phenomenon of globalisation. Until the Industrial Revolution the great landed families made their money mainly from agriculture. Some had mining interests and some real estate. Although there were ups and downs in the 19th century, on the whole agriculture had serious new pressures. The Great Plains of the USA and Canada were opened up to settlers, railways were built and steamships could carry wheat to Europe. By the end of the 19th century refridgerated ships could transport beef from Argentina and lamb from Australasia. The settler farmers of the New World were not tenants of landed gentry and they could produce more cheaply. Dairy farming continued to prosper as milk, butter and cheese could be sent to the growing town. Those of the British landed gentry who had only agriculture as a source of income were often in difficulty even before the Great War. In 1919, the Times newspaper had a headline "England for Sale" as more land changed hands than at any time since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.

So the end of the great landed estates could be put down to democracy, taxation and war. The National Trust could often run a country estate at a profit when the original owners could not, purely because as a charity it payed no tax. There was a time in the 1950s, when the top rate of tax, called super-tax, which was on unearned income, was 19 shillings and sixpence in the pound - 97.5%. The top rate of tax did not drop to 60% until the 1980s. Now many of the former aristocracy and landed gentry estates have gone. The great survivors are those who had a wider portfolio of interests and converted them into companies which do not have inheritance tax, such as the Duke of Westminster's Grosvernor Estates, the company behind the redevelopment of Liverpool 1.


The National Trust, by Roger Mitchell at Alston Hall Adult Education College, Longridge, Lancashire, two one-day courses, 2013
Life in the Victorian Countryside, a course by Rose Wheat at Wedgwood Memorial College, Barlaston, Staffordshire, six weekends, 2000/2001.
Staffordshire Aristocrats and their Seats, a course by Rose Wheat at Wedgewood Memorial College, Barlaston, Staffordshire, six weekends, Sept 1998 to March 1999.
The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, by David Cannadine, Yale University Press, 1990.
The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley, Abacus Press, 2006.

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