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History of Calke Abbey

South East View of Calke Abbey, late 19th century painting, English School at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire
Late 19th Century painting, Calke Abbey | © National Trust Images/Christopher Hurst

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 fading 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.

The early days of Calke Priory

Calke Abbey stands on the site of a medieval religious house. People first came to live at Calke in the 12th century, initially as a small, independent community until Calke became a ‘cell’ of Repton Priory in 1172.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII brought insecurity to Calke. It’s mother priory Repton was dissolved in 1536 and then reinstated the following year on payment of a large fine. It was surrendered for the final time in 1538, when the freehold of Calke transferred back to the Crown.

In 1537 a 99-year lease for Calke priory was negotiated by John Preste, a Master Grocer of London, with 59 years prepaid to reflect the fine John had lent to reinstate Repton Priory. John converted the priory at Calke into a Tudor house, and left the lease to his youngest daughter on his death. But, instead, Calke passed through several lawyers’ hands for their own benefit, going against the terms of John’s will and several court rulings.

In 1622, Sir Henry Harpur bought the estate for £5,350. It stayed in the Harpur family until the National Trust began caring for Calke in 1985.

Sir Henry Harpur inherits Calke Abbey

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 significantly expanded. These lime works reflected the national growth in construction and agriculture at the time and brought great wealth to Henry.

Henry, like many gentlemen of the time, spent his money on intellectual pursuits. The Age of Enlightenment 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.

Visitors looking at stuffed birds at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.
Visitors looking at stuffed birds at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. | © National Trust Images/John Millar

George Crewe improves the estate

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.

Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe: the 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 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. On a visit, you can discover how he shaped the collection at Calke and how the legacy of nature is continues with the work we do today.

View of Sir Vauncey Harpur's Bedroom at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Sir Vauncey Harpur's Bedroom at Calke Abbey | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

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 rationalised the estate, reducing the number of employees and living in a small 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.

Saving Calke Abbey for the nation

Charles’ 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 taken in 1886. Rich layers of history can be revealed in the family’s belongings, their 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 20th century when many country houses did not survive to tell their story.

Over the years, we've carried out many repairs to halt the decay of the house and its collection. 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 visit helps us to look after this unique place for future generations.

A view of the west side of the house and  a glimpse of the Pleasure Grounds through trees on a sunny day at Calke Abbey

Discover more at Calke Abbey

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