Elvaston is a historic estate on the edge of the city of Derby. At the heart of the estate is a Victorian gothic house, the ‘Castle’ with origins dating back to the medieval period. The house is surrounded by nationally significant gardens which form he most complete example of William Barron’s pioneering work. Today the estate comprises some 300 acres woodlands, parkland and formal gardens for the public to explore.
Until the 16th century, the estate was held by Shelford Priory. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Crown sold the priory and its estates in 1538 to Sir Michael Stanhope of Rampton, Nottinghamshire. Sir John Stanhope (died 1611) granted the estate to his second son, also Sir John Stanhope (d .1638), High Sheriff of Derbyshire, in 1629. The Stanhope family became the Earls of Harrington in the mid-18th century.
The original manor house was built for the latter Sir John in 1633. This Elizabethan-style house was redesigned and extended in a grand Gothic Revival style by James Wyatt in the early 19th century for the Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington. Wyatt designed a new wing, a new great hall, and most of the interiors of the castle, but died before work was completed. His designs were carried out by Robert Walker between 1815 and 1829.
It is rumoured that the 3rd Earl invited ‘Capability’ Brown to Elvaston. If this is true it must have been at the outset of the 3rd Earl’s tenure, as Brown died in 1783. It was reported that Brown declared the “place so flat that there was such a lack of capability in it that he would not meddle with it”.
In 1829 the Estate was inherited by the 4th Earl, also a Charles. He must have been keen to continue the work initiated on the house by his father, as he appointed architect Lewis N Cottingham to work on extensions and interiors at Elvaston. The 4th Earl also introduced William Barron to Elvaston, as Head Gardener, in 1830. It was Barron who, more than anyone else, established the character of the Park and Gardens as we see them today.
The 4th Earl, was a nineteenth century eccentric ‘dandy’ who, towards the end of the 1820s, met and fell in love with Maria Foote, an actress. Maria, by the order of the day, had something of a chequered past. The couple married in 1831, and were not received well in London society. In part, as a result of this, the Earl and the Countess retreated to Elvaston. The 4th Earl appointed William Barron to create romantic pleasure grounds for the married couple.
Maria and Charles are described as “inseparable and besotted”; the Earl wanted the gardens to be a “private and secluded oasis of great beauty” for himself and the love of his life. Barron would spend the next 20 years working on the gardens; he even brought in full-grown trees to try to give instant gratification to the Earl. He utilised his passion for conifers and evergreens to create a year-round garden, developing the practice of transplanting mature trees. The garden today features the remains of the rockwork structures created to give height and topography to the site. Barron worked for the 4th Earl until his death in 1851 and then, with a much reduced garden staff, for the 5th and 6th Earls until Barron left Elvaston in 1865.
The Fourth Earl and his Countess valued their garden for the romantic seclusion it afforded them, however following the death of their only son aged 4, the couple isolated themselves at the castle, never leaving and forbidding anyone from entering the grounds. (Some sources claim it was the Earl that instigated the seclusion and forbade his wife from leaving)
Following the Fourth Earl’s death in 1851, his brother, Leicester Stanhope, 5th Earl of Harrington, opened the gardens to the public. They became renowned as “a Gothic paradise”, and are Grade II Listed.
After Barron left Elvaston it is recorded, anecdotally, that the formal pleasure gardens slowly slipped into decline under the Stanhope family. However this changed in 1929 when the 10th Earl died in a hunting accident just one year after inheriting the title. The 11th Earl was only a boy when he inherited the estate and family title. With the onset of World War II the Stanhope family left Elvaston to live in Ireland.
During the War, Elvaston Castle housed a Teachers’ Training College. In 1964 the estate was first put up for sale. Ultimately the estate was purchased by an aggregates consortium.
After a number of failed attempts to gain planning permission to demolish the Castle and extract aggregates from the site, the consortium sold the estate to Derbyshire County Council.
Elvaston was opened as the first Country Park in England in 1970.
The Estate was run successfully as a Country Park and Museum for more than three decades. Generations of local and wider Derbyshire residents have benefited from school visits, weekend events or simply walking over and becoming familiar with this richly diverse landscape. The working estate museum finally closed in the 1990s.
The Estate is included on Historic England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and have a grade II* listing. In addition to this, many of the buildings on the Estate are listed with the Castle being grade II* and St Bartholomew’s Church being grade I. In total, there are over 50 structures, including stables, kennels, a walled garden, a home farm, several cottages, gatelodges, an ice house and a boathouse.