The history of Calke Abbey

Late 19th-century painting, English School at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

A visit to Calke Abbey, like so many National Trust places, is a step back in time. But Calke is not presented like other country houses of its day. Paintwork is faded and peeling; vast collections of personal belongings are left as they were found. Here, the past is remarkably well preserved, in estate buildings, archaeology and the family’s belongings.

From its roots as a religious priory, to its history as a family home for twelve generations, Calke Abbey tells many stories. Unpeeling these layer by layer, we can explore what life was like at Calke for the people who lived and worked here, and how this unique place was shaped by the wider world.

Religious roots

Calke Abbey stands on the site of a medieval religious house. People first came to live at Calke in the 12th century as part of a small religious community, attracted by the secluded forest and good water supply. Calke Priory only lasted a few years as the canons moved to nearby Repton. The priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538, but the canons had anticipated this and granted leases of Calke.

After passing through several hands, Richard Wendsley acquired Calke, eventually selling the estate in 1585 to Robert Bainbridge. His son sold the estate to Henry Harpur in 1622 for £5,350. It stayed in the Harpur family until the National Trust began caring for it in 1985.

An heir to change Calke forever

Sir Henry Harpur, 7th Baronet, inherited the estate and title from his father in 1789. He finished many works that his father had begun and added his own stamp on Calke. Several new rooms were added and the estate’s lime works were greatly expanded. These lime works were part of the national growth in construction and agriculture, and brought great wealth to Henry.

Henry, like many gentlemen of the time, spent his money on intellectual pursuits. Enlightenment thinking was influencing attitudes towards science, technology and culture at that time, and it was Henry who started Calke's vast natural history collection. He patronised the arts, built a library, and took an interest in technology and society. The dining room, one of Calke’s few restored rooms, reflects the wealth and stature of Henry and his wife, Nanny Hawkins.

The waiting room displays some of Calke's natural history collection
The Waiting Room at National Trust Calke Abbey in Derbyshire
The waiting room displays some of Calke's natural history collection

The family man

Following the untimely death of Henry in a riding accident, George Crewe became the 8th Baronet. Where Henry had been a man of intellectual pursuits, George had a strong interest in family. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Jane Whitaker, and spent hours anxiously waiting outside her bedroom during childbirth. They were both deeply hurt by the loss of two children.

George was a devout Christian and felt a strong duty to all his fellow men. On the Calke estate, he was shocked by the poor conditions in which his tenants lived and worked. To this end, he rebuilt the churches at Ticknall and Calke, built new schools in nearby communities and staffed them with better educated clergy.

George, like his father, was a great collector and many of the paintings hanging in the house today were bought by him.

Calke’s final collector

Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe, 10th Baronet, built his life and time around the estate at Calke Abbey. From a young age, he showed a strong inclination toward the family interest in natural history. As a child, he shared a love of the gardens with his mother, and then in adulthood had papers published in nature journals.

Calke’s natural history collection is the largest owned by the National Trust and much of it was assembled by Sir Vauncey. He acquired eggs, shells, grasses, insects and many other items – a lot of the specimens came from his own hunting expeditions. You can discover how his strong passions shaped the house collection today and how the legacy of nature is continued today with our own work in the grounds.

Sir Vauncey's bedroom as it was found by the National Trust
Sir Vauncey's bedroom at National Trust Calke Abbey in Derbyshire
Sir Vauncey's bedroom as it was found by the National Trust

Modernising Calke Abbey

Sir Vauncey was succeeded by his eldest daughter, Hilda. To settle death duties, Hilda sold half of her father’s natural history collection, as well as some books. With her husband, Godfrey Mosley, Hilda economised the estate, reducing the number of employees and living in a smaller section of the house. Hilda was the first to install a telephone at Calke and lifted the ban on motor vehicles on the estate.

Hilda’s nephew Charles continued to modernise the estate. He ensured that proper sanitation was brought to Ticknall, and installed electricity at Calke for the first time in 1962. 

Later years

Charles’s brother Henry inherited the estate in 1981, at a time of high capital taxation. He faced a tax debt which, at the height of the crisis, attracted interest charges of £1,300 a day. Henry worked to save Calke for the nation, granting permission for historian Howard Colvin to access family records. This resulted in Colvin’s book, Calke Abbey, Derbyshire: A Hidden House Revealed, generating interest in the campaign to save Calke.

Colvin’s work showed that the interiors of Calke had scarcely changed since photographs of the house in 1886. Rich layers of history awaited in the family’s belongings, the estate buildings, and the house and gardens. Despite a divided opinion, Calke Abbey was declared to be ‘of heritage quality’ and eventually came into the hands of the National Trust. 

Preserving Calke in a state of decay

When Calke Abbey was handed to the National Trust in 1985, we decided not to restore these rooms, which had been untouched for many years, but rather preserve them as they were found. Calke vividly portrays a period in the twentieth century when many country houses did not survive to tell their story.

Over the years, we've undertaken necessary repairs to halt the decay of the house and its collections. As you explore the house, you'll discover abandoned rooms, peeling wallpaper, and a vast collection of strange and unique objects – presented exactly as we found them.

Uncover more layers of Calke’s history when you visit the ‘un-stately home’. Your visits help us to preserve this unique place for many generations to come.