Immersive exhibition sheds new light on Calke Abbey’s ‘isolated’ family that was said to hide from the world

Press release
Published : 01 Mar 2019

For more than 30 years, since Calke Abbey in Derbyshire came to public attention, its story has revolved around tales of the reclusive and isolated Harpur Crewe family who had little contact with each other and the outside world. [1]

Calke’s remote location and other-worldly atmosphere, with peeling paint and overgrown courtyards, has helped perpetuate the idea of a family hidden away.

Now, 200 years after the death of Sir Henry Harpur, who was dubbed ‘The Isolated Baronet’ [2], new research by National Trust staff and volunteers, and a team from the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, has cast new light on those who once lived and worked at Calke, revealing a more complex side to the story.

‘HumanKind’, opening on Saturday 2 March, will draw on this new research and invite visitors to explore the lives of six inhabitants of Calke across two centuries, through immersive experiences, displays and outdoor installations.

The researchers, who studied diaries, letters and other archive material, set out to interrogate the evidence that had been used to present a one-dimensional story of an isolated family who shunned the world. 

Suzanne MacLeod, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, explains:

“Soon after we began our research, we realised that the story of Henry and his descendants was largely inaccurate. Rather than a deeper examination of their lives, the focus had been on gossip or quirks of people’s characters, which has stigmatised six generations of one family as eccentric and solitary. 

“New evidence clearly demonstrates that the people at Calke had much more complex life experiences. They had periods of loneliness and isolation as many people do, but they depended on one another. The archive is full of diaries which document busy lives, records of holidays and visits, interests and passions.

“We also found stories of great love, friendship and social interaction. In every case, human relationships and human kindness were their routes out of difficulties.”

The six lives featured in the HumanKind exhibition are:

• The ‘Isolated Baronet’ Henry Harpur (1763–1819) whose reclusive reputation belied a surprisingly outgoing and passionate man of many achievements; 

• George Crewe, 8th Baronet (1795-1844) who felt neglected as a child but in later life was a devoted family man and a confidante to others; 

• Victorian mother Lady Georgiana Crewe (1824-1910), who had been labelled lonely based on a few diary entries, but who was a knowledgeable plantswoman and enjoyed deep and loving relationships, particularly with her son Vauncey;

• Adventurer and independent woman Winifred Harpur Crewe (1879-1953), whose exciting life of world travel came before periods of sadness caused by the loss of her beloved husband in the First World War; 

• Calke’s housekeeper Harriet Phillips (1823-1895) who kept up appearances in the 1860s, whilst hiding the existence of her illegitimate son, but eventually ended her days living with him; 

• Airmyne Jenney (1919-1999) who lost her ability to speak following a life-changing accident, but whose determination and support of her family helped her to learn to talk again.

Visitors will meet the six inhabitants through new displays and audio visual experiences in the modern Family Apartments. In the main house, the ‘time capsule’ rooms are still jam-packed with abandoned collections amassed by the family over generations.

Outside in the landscape, three large steel-framed interpretations of the library, the boudoir and a creative merging of the entrance hall and stableyards represent how the true story of Calke is being brought to life beyond its boundaries for the first time. 

Alison Thornhill, the National Trust’s Community and Engagement Manager at Calke Abbey, said: 

“There is growing awareness of the harmful impact of social isolation on more and more lives, with over 9 million people in the UK identifying as often or always lonely [3]. Through the HumanKind project we wanted to explore how Calke could contribute to a contemporary understanding by looking at its stories of loneliness and isolation, alongside those of kindness and compassion, past and present. 

“We hope that HumanKind, and the issues it raises about loneliness and the importance of human interaction, will stimulate conversations and even inspire people to do something different as a result.” 

Small interventions around the site have been designed to foster interaction. New seating created to encourage conversations has been placed in the parkland, and three new Chatty Cafés [4] have been set up within Calke’s restaurants. A HumanKind Pledge Wall will encourage visitors to pledge an act of kindness or self-care after their visit has finished. 

HumanKind will be at Calke for two years. For more information and opening times visit: 

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Notes to Editors

[1] In 1981 Henry Harpur Crewe inherited the Calke Abbey estate, along with £8 million of death duties. Until this time, little was known publicly about the house and its family or of what would turn out to be a remarkable example of an estate that had hardly changed in over 100 years. A campaign was launched to save Calke for the nation. It was transferred to the National Trust in 1985 in lieu of inheritance tax.

The significance of the house is its value as a remarkable example of the decline and fall of the country house, frozen in time, with rooms stuffed to the gills with textiles, taxidermy, pictures and abandoned furniture amassed by a family of avid collectors. It has been kept preserved in this state of quiet decay since it was handed to the Trust more than 30 years ago. 

[2] Henry Harpur, the 7th Baronet, was referred to as ‘The Isolated Baronet’ in a private diary written by the Reverend William Bagshaw Stevens which only came to light in 1965. There is little evidence as to why the Reverend used this phrase apart from taking exception to Henry not inviting two local clergymen to dine with him on one occasion. 

Onwards through the generations, similar inaccuracies occur which the research has unearthed. Stories of the six lives are available.

[3] A 2016 study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross revealed that over 9 million adults are often of always lonely


About Calke

Calke Abbey stands on the site of the original Calke Priory, which was a house of Augustinian canons, founded between 1114 and 1120 by Richard, Earl of Chester. After the dissolution of the monasteries the priory remained under the control of the Crown until 1547, when it was presented to John, Earl of Warwick. The estate was sold to the Harpur family in 1622, who remained the owners until 1981.

Calke Abbey came to the Trust in 1985, in lieu of tax to the Government and has become famous as an example of a country house in decline in the 20th century, with its peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards.

Calke’s conservation philosophy is to repair not restore, so the house and stables are little changed, with many abandoned areas vividly portraying a period in the 20th century when numerous country houses did not survive to tell their story.

About the National Trust

The National Trust is a conservation charity founded in 1895 by three people who saw the importance of our nation’s heritage and open spaces, and wanted to preserve them for everyone to enjoy.  More than 120 years later, these values are still at the heart of everything the charity does.

Entirely independent of Government, the National Trust looks after more than 250,000 hectares of countryside, 780 miles of coastline and hundreds of special places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

More than 26 million people visit every year, and together with 5.2 million members and over 61,000 volunteers, they help to support the charity in its work to care for special places for ever, for everyone. 

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About the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is led by discovery and innovation – an international centre for excellence renowned for research, teaching and broadening access to higher education. It is among the top 25 universities in the Times Higher Education REF Research Power rankings with 75% of research adjudged to be internationally excellent with wide-ranging impacts on society, health, culture, and the environment. The University is home to just over 20,000 students and approximately 3,000 staff.

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