Stone steps lead to the main reception with tall doors opening to the formal entrance to the house. The centrally positioned, spectacular T shaped hallway presents an immediate impressive introduction to Rockwood House showcasing original features including deep skirting boards and an impressive high ceiling height (a theme which is continued throughout), ornate coving and the most spectacular bespoke, carved oak staircase and stained glass leaded window reminiscent of the period of build. (Fine & Country)
Rockwood House is an unassuming and little known property tucked quietly outside Denby Dale to the south-east of Huddersfield. In early times Denby Dale was sparsely-populated but like so many other Pennine hamlets it grew with the dawn of the industrial revolution. Not surprisingly, the area developed a small textiles industry and the population spread. These circumstances were the reasons why Rockwood House was built and can be called one of those ‘brass castles’, properties built from the proceeds of commerce and industry.
Walter Norton (1833-1909)
Rockwood House was built in 1870 for Walter Norton, the second son of Joseph Norton who had built Nortonthorpe Hall at Scissett. Along with his brother Benjamin and his cousin, Thomas Norton of Bagden Hall, they ran a ‘plush’ manufacturing business, Norton Brothers & Company Ltd, manufacturing fancy shawl, mantle cloth, dress goods and rugs at Nortonthorpe Mills.
Walter was chairman, a role he appreciated, and held a similar position at the Denby Dale Gas Light Company. Money was something the Norton family weren’t short of, but Walter quickly earned his own fortune. He married his cousin, Elizabeth Norton, the eldest daughter of George Norton of Bagden Hall, in 1859.
He gained a reputation as a keen sportsman and founded the Rockwood Harriers Hunt in 1868 of which he was Master for many years and which still exists today. It was after the hunt that he named Rockwood House.
Eleven years after his marriage he bought 500 acres of land on the far side of Denby Dale, just far enough away from his employees who worked on the other side of the village towards Scissett. The architect of Rockwood House is unknown but it was typical of a small Victorian country house complete with castellations, a central front door and bays either side. Then, as now, its appearance was deceptive as the interior was much larger than its appearance suggested .
Walter and Elizabeth lived happily at Rockwood House entertaining family and friends. He was a pillar of the community, buying the manorial rights to Penistone in 1877, a strong Conservative and churchman and was much attached to Camberworth Church. For over thirty years he was also a West Riding Magistrate frequently sitting at the Barnsley Petty Sessional Court. Despite all this, his marriage to Elizabeth failed to deliver any children, and he became a widower following her death in 1903. Walter died six years later in 1909 leaving estate worth £45,099.¹
Dr Duncan Alistair MacGregor (1857-1924)
With no heir to Walter Norton the contents of the house were sold at auction but Rockwood remained within the family. It passed to Dr Duncan Alistair MacGregor who stayed for the next ten years. He had married the daughter of Dr Clayton, of Highfield House in Denby Dale, who also happened to be the niece of Walter Norton.
MacGregor had spent nearly 40 years in practice at Clayton West and Denby Dale where he was held in high regard. He was also the Medical Officer of Health for the township of Gunthwaite and Ingbirchworth, near Penistone. In 1919 he was offered the post of Medical Officer to the Exeter City Mental Hospital, and so at the age of 62, he moved his family away from Rockwood House which was put for let. MacGregor died at Exmouth in 1924 leaving a widow and a son and daughter.²
Wilfred Dawson (1871-1936)
Following MacGregor’s move to Devon the house was occupied by Wilfred Dawson J.P., a typical Yorkshire councillor, who had entered the Council of the County Borough of Huddersfield unopposed at a by-election of 1917. He became Lord Mayor between 1921 and 1923 and later became chairman of the Finance and Watch Committee. His greatest achievement had been the purchase of the Ramsden Estate by Huddersfield Corporation in 1919, at the time the largest purchase of valuable land ever made by a British municipality. Outside of council affairs he was a director of W. Bentley & Co, stock and share brokers, as well as being a director and vice-chairman of Huddersfield Town Football Club.
The ownership of Rockwood House at this time is uncertain. It is possible that it remained in the Norton estate after MacGregor left. It is also feasible that Wilfred Dawson eventually purchased Rockwood because newspaper reports of 1924 suggest he might have been the owner. In this year the house was once again offered for let but we do know that by 1925 it was the residence of Henry Gordon Cran.³
Henry Gordon Cran (1889-1971)
Very little is known about Henry Gordon Cran and his purchase of Rockwood House was likely to have taken place during 1924. However, the house was reported to have been sold by Cran by private treaty in 1925. By now the estate consisted of approximately 30 acres including three paddocks with timbered grounds and walks. It was a far cry from Walter Norton’s 500 acres which had been sold off in various lots over the years.
Henry Gordon Cran, a former member of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, had married Dorothy, the daughter of William and Mary Broadbent, of Huddersfield. Her father was the son of Thomas Broadbent, who had founded an engineering and millwright business in 1864. After repairing and refurbishing several centrifugal extractors, installed as dryers in the textile industry, he had seen potential for its application in other industries which had a need for separating liquids and solid. In 1870 he had produced his own extractor to remove water from washed wool and cloth and became a rich man. He died in 1880 and the business was eventually passed to William Broadbent and his brother Horace. The company, known as Thomas Broadbent and Sons, would eventually manufacture a diverse range of products including steam engines, cars and overhead travelling cranes.
It was into this family that Henry Gordon Cran married and inevitably found himself working as an engineer at Thomas Broadbent and Sons. In reality his job role was far more important than suggest. He was a designer and inventor and many patents were registered under his name. Cran became a wealthy man and was able to afford the grandness that Rockwood House provided.
It appears that the sale of 1925 did not proceed and the Cran family remained at Rockwood House until at least 1949 when Dorothy died. Henry died in 1971 at Threlkeld in Keswick.
Matters are confounded by reports that Colonel Alfred Whiston Bristow was living at Rockwood House in 1945. The house is listed as being owned by Henry Gordon Cran but it is conceivable that he may have rented it to Bristow.
Colonel Alfred Whiston Bristow (1879-1949) was an engineer of remarkable versatility. He was a pioneer in aviation rising to the rank of commander in the Royal Naval Air Service and testing many early aero-engines. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. In 1927 he became interested in low-temperature carbonisation and soon developed a successful and profitable industry. Besides being chairman of Low Temperatures Carbonisation Ltd (eventually known as Coalite and Chemical Products Ltd) he was the chair of various other similar companies.⁴
The 1950s and a period of uncertain ownership
Any doubts over ownership and tenancy of Rockwood House pale in comparison after 1950.
It is reported that the house passed through various owners and one significant name is mentioned. He was Commander Henry George Kendall (1874-1965), a British sea-captain who survived several shipwrecks and was involved in the capture of Dr Crippen. He was also the captain of RMS Empress of Ireland which sank in the Saint Lawrence River after colliding with a Norwegian coal freighter in 1914. Alas, I am unable to confirm his connection with Rockwood House. He died in a nursing home in London in 1965.
Another account suggests that Rockwood House became a private school, known as St Aiden’s, and lasted until 1964. This is confirmed by Roy Fisher, a local, who says it operated as a school in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, although he believes it was known as Rockwood House School. His mother worked there as a cleaner and he remembers the closing down sale when lab equipment, coat hangers and various other items were sold off. By the late 1960’s it was once again a private home and he remembers attending a party hosted by the daughter of a ‘very senior naval officer’.
In 1972 the house was converted into the Rockwood House Country Club, a restaurant and club, under the ownership of Richard Mattock Berry. The concept might have appeared reasonable but the undertaking was beset with problems. Financial difficulties pushed it into receivership and the country club closed in 1976.⁵
Rockwood House was bought by Michael Winch in 1980 who carried out extensive renovations to the house and grounds. During the miners’ strike of 1972 he had the enterprising idea of selling homemade decorated candles from the back of a van. This was the start of Candlelight Products Ltd which now employs 130 staff in the UK and a further 2,000 in the Far East.
The house has remained in the family since but it was put up for sale, along with 7 acres of land, for £1.85 million in 2016.
“It was my father who purchased Rockwood House around forty years ago, and for him, looking after the house itself and transforming the gardens has been a lifetime project. It’s an extremely impressive home, almost like a fairy-tale castle with its turrets and castellations. As you approach it via the very long, private driveway, you come around the corner and through the trees and the house slowly comes into view; it’s incredibly striking. It was a magical place to grow up in, very grand in both its appearance and scale. Every room, including the bathrooms has a beautiful open fireplace, and the house as a whole is awash with gorgeous period features. The rooms are all very large and the ceilings are high, but it’s a very comfortable family home and particularly conductive to entertaining. My father invested a lot of time and effort into completely transforming the gardens, and as well as adding lots of beautiful plants, he also had the tennis court refurbished and a swimming pool installed; it’s now an absolute paradise. The views are magnificent and a dense wood of exotic trees that were planted by Walter Norton, who was also a keen botanist, surrounds the house” (Ben Winch – Fine & Country Sale Brochure)
¹Barnsley Chronicle (28 Aug 1909)
²Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (21 Apr 1924)
³Yorkshire Evening Post (2 Aug 1949)/Huddersfield Directory Who’s Who (1937)
⁴Colliery Year Book and Coal Trades Directory (1945)
⁵The Gazette (Mar 1976)
Barnsley Road, Denby Dale, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, HD8 8XF