Built: 1821-1826. Main part demolished in 1935
Architect James Trubshaw
Owner: National Trust under lease to the Youth Hostels Association
Grade II* listed
Family mansion of considerable dignity and splendour, erected of freestone in a most substantial manner, the masonry being very strong and durable, principally in the Tudor style of architecture, with Norman towers. The mansion contains 40 principal, secondary, and servants’ bed-chambers, besides dressing rooms, men’s rooms, etc.; a noble suite of reception rooms and private apartments, lately re-decorated, and extensive domestic offices. . There is good stabling for 11 horses, a large carriage house and out buildings. (Morning Post, 5th July, 1885)
‘It is popularly thought that the road by the river side approaching Ilam Hall is the scene of the ‘Happy Valley’ in Johnson’s ‘Rasselas’ , and here, no doubt, Congreve when a youth wrote his celebrated comedy of the ‘Old Bachelor’ and a part of the ‘Mourning Bride’.’
The story of Ilam Hall is typical of many country houses. It was built on the riches of industry and became a showy country retreat for two prominent men. However, the advent of the 20th-century marked a rapid and quite remarkable decline in its fortunes.
The Ilam estate stands on land that used to be part of Burton-on-Trent Abbey. Around it sweeps the rich and lovely Vale of Ilam embellished with hanging woodland and views towards the swelling hills of limestone around Dovedale. At its extremity are the River Hamp and River Manifold, which after taking separate subterranean courses emerge and unite to form a wide river at the valley bottom.
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries the land passed to William Paget, Principal Private Secretary to the King, who sold the manor to John Port in 1547. The Port family built a Tudor mansion on the ridge over the river and remained there for the next 250 years.
With its beauty came its remoteness. A tale is told of the old Countess of Shrewsbury, who visited Ilam Hall, in the days when the roads were dreadful and carriages extremely uncomfortable. On her arrival from Alton Towers she inspected the beauty of the ‘Happy Valley’ with her companion, the Rev. Bernard Port. He proudly exclaimed, “Now my lady, you are in Paradise.” Her ladyship turned on the parson and retorted, “I thought that must be so, for sure, we’ve been in purgatory all the way we’ve come.”¹
In the end, its isolation probably contributed to its downfall.
In 1809 the house and estate was sold to David Pike Watts, an extremely wealthy brewer and vintner, of Portland Place in London. His daughter and heiress, Mary (1792-1840), married Jesse Russell in 1811 and here the story of Ilam Hall really begins.
Jesse Watts-Russell (1786-1875)
Jesse Russell was the son of Mr Jesse Russell, a successful soap boiler of Goodman’s Yard, Minories, residing at Walthamstow, and Elizabeth Russell, the daughter and heiress of Mr Thomas Noble, of Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire.
He was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and took his Bachelor’s degree in 1808, presiding his Master of Arts in 1811 as a ‘Grand Compounder’. Russell appears to have taken little interest in his father’s business and by the time of his marriage was resident in Staffordshire.
The newly-weds made Ilam Hall their principal home and inherited the property on the death of David Pike Watts in 1816. From here on Jesse Russell adopted the Watts name by Royal Licence and by this marriage had four daughters and four sons. He became High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1819.
On the death of his father in 1820, Jesse Watts-Russell was a very wealthy man. He inherited half-share of estates in Essex and a third-share in the remaining fortune. In the same year he became the M.P. for Gatton. Combining the two family fortunes he made plans to build a new house at Ilam to compete with the Earl of Shrewsbury’s grand house at Alton Towers.
The first part of the process was to clear Ilam Hall of its historical contents. In November 1820 he auctioned household furniture and fittings including chimney-pieces, plate glass windows and doors.² Later he commissioned James Trubshaw (1777-1853) to build a new hall to the designs of John Shaw (1776-1832). Work commenced in 1821 and was completed by 1826.
The writer, Ebenezer Rhodes (1762-1839), visited the new Ilam Hall in 1823 and reported his findings in the publication of Peak Scenery, or the Derbyshire Tourist in 1824:-
‘Ilam Hall, though not entirely finished, had a grand effect even at a distance; approaching nearer, the detail began to display itself, and the general design and arrangement to be clearly understood. On a verdant knoll, a little above the margin of the river manifold, that ran rippling and sparkling through the meadows below, I stopped to gaze upon the new mansion at Ilam, which is truly a noble structure, and a proof of the professional skill and taste of the architect (John Shaw, Esq., of Bedford Square, London). The principal part of the building, with its large bay windows, octagonal projections, and richly ornamented parapets, is in that peculiar style of architecture which was fashionable in the reign of Elizabeth; but there are portions of this structure that nearly a-similate with the gothic, both in character and ornament, and these are decidedly the finest and most imposing parts. The whole appears to be admirably contrived, both for picturesque effect and convenience: but the most beautiful feature in this noble mansion is the circular gothic lantern by which it is surrounded. It is not a paltry thing, made merely for the purpose of admitting light; its dimensions are ample, and perfectly in proportion with the capacious base on which it rests. The circle of which it is composed presents to the eye a series of pointed arches, resting on appropriate shafts: these, in connexion with each other, describe a circle, and constitute the framework of the lantern. Where light is wanted in the central part of a building, the dome is sometimes so constructed as to be a noble ornament: but the lantern at Ilam is a more noble contrivance, and one of the most tasteful and elegant architectural ornaments that ever adorned a building. I have mentioned a part only of what is already accomplished at Ilam: a museum, a splendid conservatory, and a picture gallery, upwards of eighty feet long, are intended to be added.’
In 1832 Jesse Watts-Russell put himself forward in the Conservative interest for North Staffordshire but was defeated by Sir Oswald Mosley and Sir Edward Buller. It was a gallant and determined fight and his supporters later descended on Ilam Hall to present him with a silver candelabra which stood four feet high.
Mary Watts-Russell died in 1840 but Jesse Watts-Russell would marry twice more. In 1843 he married Maria Ellen, daughter of Peter Barker of Bedford and, in 1862, Martha, daughter of John Leach of Wexford.
In his later years Jesse Watts-Russell was in a poor state of health. He died at Ilam Hall on Good Friday in 1875 aged 88. His remains were interred in the family mausoleum at Ilam Church, a building rebuilt by Watts-Russell some years previous, following a quiet and unostentatious funeral. The sombre occasion did not pass without farce. The Rev. C.F. Broughton, of Snelston, was walking up the aisle of the church when he inadvertently stepped into the opening leading to the mausoleum and fell headlong sustaining severe bruising.³
Ilam Hall, along with estates in Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, passed to his eldest son, Jesse David Watts-Russell (1812-1879). However, the former M.P. for North Staffordshire, preferred the family’s other country house, Biggin House in Northamptonshire, and promptly made plans to dispose of Ilam Hall.
First to go was Jesse Watts-Russell’s collection of paintings ‘chiefly of the English school’ which were auctioned at Christie’s. The works included those by Landseer (St Bernard Dogs), Callcott (Dutch Fishing Boats), Collins (The Fisherman’s Return), Constable (Harwich Lighthouse), Turner (Two Street Views in Oxford) and Opie – considered eminent modern painters at the time – as well as a few old masters including A Wood Scene by Gainsborough. Amongst the prized items was a portrait by Sir Peter Lely, of Congreve, with a landscape background. Also auctioned were a number of decorative objects including clocks, carved oak chimney-pieces, and statuary by Chantrey and Gibson.⁴
In August Ilam Hall was auctioned but failed to sell. Bidding started at £50,000 and reached £73,000 before stalling and promptly withdrawn. The presence of a private buyer in the background might have influenced the decision because, on the same day, the Staffordshire Journal was reporting that Ilam Hall had been bought by Mr Robert Hanbury, the M.P. for Tamworth.
Robert William Hanbury (1845-1903)
With a new owner at Ilam Hall there was still outstanding business in relation to its previous owner. Trustees of the late Jesse Watts-Russell put the library contents up for sale in 1876. The auction by Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge contained numerous important works which excited considerable competition.⁵
Robert William Hanbury was the only son of Mr Robert Hanbury and Mary Anne, of Bolehall House in Warwickshire. He was educated at Rugby and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, with adeptness at rowing. He had captained the Corpus boat when it was head of the river.
Hanbury had also travelled throughout the world – from the Holy Land “from Dan even into Beersheba” and explored Egypt a quarter of a century before the days of Kitchener’s “Express to Khartoum”.⁶
A man of importance he was a magistrate and Deputy-Lieutenant for Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire. From 1873 until 1880 he was a Captain in the Queen’s Own Royal Regiment of the Staffordshire Yeomanry. He sat as the M.P. for Tamworth between 1872 and 1878, a seat he vacated to become the short-lived M.P. for North Staffordshire. He would later become the elected M.P. for Preston in 1885. In 1895 he was appointed Financial Secretary by Lord Salisbury but the pinnacle of his parliamentary career was being made President of the Board of Agriculture and a place in the cabinet in 1900.
In 1874 Mr Hanbury made the overland tour to India by the Euphrates and Tigris, a route not often taken. The journey through Asia Minor was carried out with comparative ease. Dervish Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister, placing at his disposal a troop of Turkish cavalry, to protect his caravan from possible attacks by marauding Arabs.
Robert Hanbury married Ismena Tindal, daughter of Thomas Morgan Gepp of Chelmsford, in 1869. She died in 1871 and he later married Ellen Hamilton Knox.
Hanbury was a man of wealth. He was the son of a country gentleman of ample fortune, and was left fatherless at an early age. Much of his wealth derived from collieries around Cannock Chase and he could now claim to be Lord of the Manor at Norton Canes, Ilam and Calton in Staffordshire.
The fact that Hanbury spent most of his time in London meant he took no part in local affairs and only sat on the local bench on two occasions. However, he used Ilam Hall to entertain political and other friends and was held in high esteem by farmers of the district. This was partly due to his role as Chairman of the Board of Agriculture for which he laboured for the domain of farming.
His stay at Illam Hall was one of improvement. He carried out a comprehensive scheme of electric lighting, power being obtained from the River Manifold. Hanbury’s plan was to power the hall, farm buildings, the church and the nearby village. He also improved the gardens and would personally supervise planting schemes and garden layouts.
The house was full of treasures, antiques and curios, gathered from all parts of the world. His most prized possession was said to be a short bronze sword, which was said to the oldest weapon extant, with an inscription showing its age. Hanbury had obtained it while making an overland journey from Europe to India, when he came across a colony of Franciscan monks at Nineveh, who presented him with the sword as a souvenir of his visit. The British Museum later declared it was Egyptian and, from the cuneiform characters three times repeated on it, had belonged to an Assyrian king reigning about 1300 BC.⁷
Hanbury’s second marriage to Ellen Hamilton, the only child of Colonel Knott Hamilton, took place in 1884. This marriage, like his first, produced no children, but the couple settled down to life in London and at Ilam.
In April 1903 Hanbury returned to his home at Belgrave Square, London, after a short visit to Preston. The following day he entertained friends but left the dining table feeling ill. Dr Jones, his medical adviser, arrived shortly after and pronounced that Hanbury was suffering from a severe attack of pneumonia and influenza. A week later he grew much weaker and died on 28th April. At Ashbourne, where he was entitled to sit as a Magistrate, flags were flown at half-mast in recognition of the man.
Hanbury’s coffin was conveyed from Herbert House, in Belgrave Square, to Ilam and remained in the spacious hall covered with floral tributes. The funeral was mainly a local affair attended by villagers, tenants and farmers. The coffin was carried from the hall by twelve employees from the Coppice Colliery, Cannock Chase, in which Hanbury held a large interest. His body was finally laid to rest at Ilam Church, a stone’s throw from the house.
Ilam Hall’s remote location meant that most of his political colleagues attended a memorial service at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, instead. However, Lord Newport made the long journey as representative of the Prime Minister. At the memorial service the Prince of Wales was represented, as also was Prince Christian. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Westminster, and practically every member of the cabinet was also in attendance.⁸
His death sparked a number of tributes, the most glowing coming from the Sussex Agricultural Express:-
“It has been said with truth that no one since the Board of Agriculture was called into existence did more to study the difficulties of the British landowner, the needs of the British farmer, and the circumstances of the agricultural labourer. Mr Hanbury during the closing months of his life laboured unweariedly to master this complex – perhaps insoluble – problem, and in the endeavour to do so, by personal inspection and inquiry, he amassed a fund of knowledge that has been lost with him.”
Robert Hanbury left personal estate to the net value of £104,667 (£204,000 at gross value) but the executors, his wife Ellen Hanbury and Charles Fisher, of the Coppice Colliery, would face difficult times ahead.
Ellen Bowring-Hanbury (1861-1931)
Robert Hanbury’s coffin had barely been in the ground before widow Ellen Hanbury found herself a suitor. The fellow in question was Victor Henry Bowring (1867-1943), a close family friend who had attended the funeral.
The attachment was no surprise as Ellen Hanbury was regarded as a ‘strikingly beautiful and vivacious woman’. (In 1931 the Birmingham Mail reported that she was had been very popular with the miners at the Coppice Colliery. She had cut the first sod in 1892 when the pit was sunk and the miners had chosen to name the colliery ‘The Fair Lady’ after her.)
Bowring was the youngest son of Edgar Alfred Bowring, past M.P. for Exeter and former librarian and registrar to the Board of Trade as well as a former Royal Commissioner of the Great Exhibition of 1851. His grandfather had been Sir John Bowring whose adventurous career had been full enough for half a dozen lives. He had been kept in prison by the Bourbons in 1822 and after the French Revolution of 1830 had been the first Englishman received by Louis Philippe. He became Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary to China, and involved Britain in the war with the Celestial Empire. On his way home he had been shipwrecked, and spent three days on a coral island without food or shelter before being rescued. He spent the rest of his days writing poetry and prose.
Victor Bowring had been educated at Cambridge and was a 36-year-old eligible bachelor living at 30 Eaton Place, London, as well as owning a country house near Brighton. His family background opened doors to the upper crust with endless invitations to royal and aristocratic occasions. He might also have been called somewhat ‘eccentric’ – the press enchanted at his aptitude for embroidery and his ability to make curtain hangings for his mother’s home. (In 1925 he displayed his work in an exhibition.)
When his marriage to Ellen Hanbury was announced in February 1904 it was regarded as one of the most fashionable weddings of the year.
It was welcome relief for Ellen Hanbury as she had just concluded litigation with in the courts with respect to her late husband’s will. The question at issue was whether under the will Robert Hanbury had gifted his estate to his wife or whether she simply had life rent. The wording of the will proved rather ambiguous – “the whole of my real and personal estate absolutely and in full confidence that my wife will make such use of it as I should have made myself, and that at her death she will devise it to such one or more of my nieces as she may think fit.”
It would appear that Ellen Hanbury needed clarification as to her obligations to Robert’s seven nieces. We can only speculate as to the circumstances leading to the court action. Had the seven nieces wanted to benefit from Hanbury’s death or were they simply protecting their own interests? After all, provision had been made for them in his clumsily worded will, and the presence of Victor Bowring might well have been seen as a threat to any entitlement that they had a legal right to.
The will was subject to scrutiny and after several court cases ended up in the Appeal Court. The ruling was that Robert Hanbury had left his property absolutely to the widow without giving a reversionary interest to his nieces, leaving their future participation to the widow’s discretion.
It wasn’t until 1905 that the matter was resolved once and for all. After the nieces had appealed the original decision the matter returned to the House of Lords where the Lord Chancellor, in giving judgement, said he thought that it was quite clear what Robert Hanbury intended was to give his wife life interest in the property (a trust), and that at her death she should make such selection of his nieces as she thought fit. ⁹
The wedding took place at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, on Tuesday 16th February 1904. Despite being billed as one of the most anticipated weddings of the year it was attended by only twelve people. Ellen Hanbury wore a deep diamond collar and brooch which was reputed to have once belonged to Marie Antoinette.¹º Afterwards the party attended an informal reception at the Hyde Park Hotel. From now on the couple would be known as Victor and Ellen Bowring-Hanbury.
The newly-weds retreated to Victor Bowring-Hanbury’s house at Brighton before making their first visit to Ilam Hall in June. For the occasion the village was gaily decorated, the church bells rang and schoolchildren and villagers gave them a warm welcome. It also provided an opportunity to present them with a belated wedding gift – a beautiful rose bowl.¹¹
In December 1905 the Bowring-Hanbury name hit the headline again. This time it was news that Ellen Bowring-Hanbury had been robbed of £8,000 worth of jewellery while waiting with her maid at Euston Station for the train to take them back to Staffordshire. Among the items was a diamond tiara given to her by Robert Hanbury. The train had left London when the loss was discovered and after all efforts to find the jewels failed, the train was stopped by means of the communication cord.
The robbery captivated the press for the next two years. Ellen Bowring-Hanbury had originally offered a reward of £100 for information that would lead to the arrest of the jewel thief. This was boosted by £500 from the London police authorities and after a lapse of nearly seventeen months the Goldsmiths’ and Silversmiths’ Company of Regent Street offered a further £1,000. In the end the jewellery was never recovered, believed to have been spirited away to America where the jewels were broken up and the gold melted.¹²
In July 1910 Victor and Ellen Bowring-Hanbury made their first attempt to dispose of the Ilam Hall estate. However, with the terms of the will in mind the reserve price was set by the Court of Chancery. At the Royal Hotel, Derby, the house and the estate were put up for auction. It was originally offered as one lot but, with no bids forthcoming, the sale was split into several lots. Lot 1 included the hall, grounds and farms, amounting to 852-acres. The bidding opened at £35,000 and reached £38,500 before the auctioneer, Mr Howard G. Frank of Knight, Frank and Rutley, referred to a sealed envelope that contained the reserve price. With the final offer failing to reach reserve the estate remained unsold.¹³
Events might suggest that the Victor and Ellen Bowring-Hanbury were living beyond their means. Future events would dictate that Victor Bowring-Hanbury was not the best guardian of financial matters and the family wealth was obviously tied up in Ellen’s inherited estate. In 1911 Knight, Frank and Rutley offered for sale 30 lots of Ellen Bowring-Hanbury’s fortune which realised over £50,000 and included Worcestershire and Derbyshire properties.¹⁴
Ilam Hall, however, remained a sticking point, and the couple would remain at the house until 1926. By now Ellen was an invalid and ill-health forced Victor to be virtually house-bound. Every year he would make the long journey to Brighton for a few months but seldom left the house.
In August 1926 the Ilam Hall was once again put up for auction, still governed by a high court order concerning the settled estates of Robert Hanbury. The sale took place at the Midland Hotel, Derby, under the direction of Knight, Frank and Rutley. Bidding for the whole estate started at £15,000 and reached £28,000 before being withdrawn. The sale was split into lots and Ilam Hall and its grounds were once again withdrawn at £7,000. The sale was further split and Ilam Hall once again withdrawn when bidding reached £3,500.¹⁵
Victor and Ellen-Bowring left Ilam Hall and took up residence at 5 Belgrave Square. It was another year before Ilam Hall was finally sold by private treaty.
Ellen Bowring-Hanbury died in March 1931 leaving unsettled property to the value of £26,395. The residue of her property went to Victor Bowring-Hanbury who went on to sell parts of her art collection, among them some ten pastels by Dunkarton, and works by Gainsborough Dupont, Hickel, Hurter, King and Morland.
Victor Bowring-Hanbury became a ‘society sensation’ of the 1930’s. The house at Belgrave Square contained old masters, rare china and old furniture, which he valued at over £150,000. However, some of the collection had been collected without the means to pay for it. In 1935, while Victor was spending the day at Ascot, part of the collection was seized for a debt of £5,000. Soon after he declared bankruptcy and was discharged in 1938. Fortunately for Victor, two women friends had bought up a large number of his confiscated lots, and duly returned them before his death in December 1943.
A place of amusement
In April 1927 Ilam Hall was bought by Edward C.S. Backhouse for an undisclosed fee. Backhouse had been one of the bidders in the August 1926 auction and frustrated when his bid was rejected. However, he eventually managed to get ownership of Ilam Hall as well as the nearby Izaak Walton Hotel.
He converted parts of the house into a restaurant with plans to develop the grounds into an amusement park. The restaurant was advertised with ‘excellent catering at popular prices’ and encouraged customers to send for ‘our menus of satisfaction’. A hotel opened in the hall soon after.
By 1930 Ilam Hall was advertised with an 18-hole miniature golf course, archery, dancing in the ballroom to popular bands such as the British Legion Band, and an invite to visitors to see the ‘priceless massive oak 15th-century fireplace and underground rivers’. Later advertisements showed that visitors were also able to play tennis.
Ilam Hall and its grounds were open daily from April and newspaper advertisements showed that popular coach companies like Bartons and the Trent Motor Traction Co were including the hall in their motor excursions.
Ilam Hall’s location in its beautiful Dovedale surroundings must have been welcome relief for the working classes of Derby, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent. However, quite how successful Mr Backhouse’s business venture proved to be is open to question.
In 1932 the North Midlands Regional Council of the Youth Hostels Association rented the right wing of Ilam Hall. The plan was for four dormitory bedrooms accommodating ten men and ten women. In addition there was a large common room, kitchen, cooking apparatus and shower baths for the residents. The intention was to attract hikers, ramblers and cyclists who regularly visited the beautiful countryside around Ilam and Dovedale.
The interest shown in the youth hostel was not lost on Edward Backhouse. The YHA, doubtful that the number of beds was insufficient, were relieved when he agreed that any overflow could be lodged in the main hall, having decided upon a special low tariff for hikers and cyclists. He also offered meals for guests if required. Quick to see a business opportunity he was soon telling people to ‘Make Ilam Hall your holiday centre’.
With summer occupancy at capacity the YHA didn’t bargain for the isolation and severe weather conditions that affected the peaks in winter. Quite unsuitable for winter accommodation the hostel closed and was not brought into use again.
The closure of the hostel was a devastating blow to Edward Backhouse who would declare bankruptcy in 1933. By September solicitors acting on behalf of Mr Backhouse put Ilam Hall and its grounds up for auction in six lots including the mansion, fishing lodge, country cottage, entrance lodge, accommodation, parkland and woodland. Buried within the newspaper advertisement was the gloomy declaration of ‘building land’ – obviously aimed at aspiring property developers.¹⁶
William Twigg (1881-1958)
The new owner of Ilam Hall was William Twigg, a constructional engineer from Matlock, who paid £1,600. If Edward Backhouse had failed to turn a profit on Ilam Hall then William Twigg was well qualified to do so.
Born in 1881, the son of a farmer, he had developed an interest in second hand plant and machinery. In 1905 he borrowed money to buy Slack Quarry in Ashover and later set up business buying and selling old quarry machinery. He would later buy the Manifold Valley Railway from the L.M.S. Railway Company, including nine miles of track, railway engines and stations, and immediately sell it at a profit to a rival bidder.
With regard to Ilam Hall the reasons for his purchase were quite clear.
In the 1920’s Twigg had bought Wingerworth Hall from the Hunloke family and stripped the flat roof of 50 tons of lead, which sold for £1,500. In addition he spent two years stripping and selling the interiors making a handsome profit in the process. (This massacre of a fine old house has been described as ‘recycling’ by some modern-day observers.) Once stripped of anything salvageable the house had eventually been demolished.
Twigg was mindful that Ilam Hall also had a flat roof but well aware that the price for lead had fallen dramatically. To what extent he stripped Ilam Hall of its glories is uncertain but we know that the ballroom fireplace was sold to Arthur Rank studios for use in film productions.¹⁷
William Twigg, satisfied he had taken whatever riches Ilam Hall offered, declared he would look for a quick sale on the property. If unsold by the start of 1934 he said he would have no hesitation in demolishing the entire building.
Sir Robert McDougall (1871-1938)
History books state that demolition was well under way by the time Robert McDougall bought Ilam Hall in June 1934. This is untrue but the house was in such a sorry state that demolition might have been the cheapest option.
Robert McDougall, of Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, had been brought up in the family’s flour mills business and later became a director of its flour milling companies. McDougall’s Flour was created by the McDougall brothers. It followed their discovery of a new type of baking powder, a ‘yeast substitute’, in 1864 and, later, a product called ‘self-raising’ flour that revolutionised home baking.¹⁸
McDougall was keenly interested in social and philanthropic work and, in 1933, gave £20,000 to the Society of Friends for a scheme providing allotments for the unemployed. He had bought up large swathes of Dovedale and gifted it to the National Trust. He contested the High Peak division for the Liberals without success on three occasions and would be appointed the unpaid Deputy Treasurer at the University of Manchester. In 1937 he would be knighted for social and philanthropic work in the Coronation Honours.
McDougall bought Ilam Hall and 20 acres of grounds for a nominal fee with the intention of saving this once grand house. His first task was to gift it to the City of Stoke-on-Trent but, after careful consideration, the council rejected the offer.
McDougall had approached the council because of the interest which the Stoke-on-Trent Corporation had made, through its representatives on the National Trust Committee. The council’s General Purposes Committee visited Ilam Hall and determined that the only viable option would have been to use it as a hospital for tubercular patients. However, the majority of the committee thought that it would be a very costly matter and almost impossible to use in the winter due to its inaccessibility. Alderman Sir Fred Hayward said that Ilam Hall “had all the faults of architecture 100 years ago. It had 17 staircases and very lofty rooms.”²º
McDougall’s second option was to donate Ilam Hall with its woodlands and parkland to the National Trust.
He had already decided that portions of the hall would be let to the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), who would also keep up the kitchen garden, and eventually run a tea house for the benefit of the general public. A common room, refectory, kitchen and wardens’ quarters were planned for the old manor house and dormitories would be provided in separate blocks, with bathrooms for men and women. It was anticipated that the entrance hall would be converted into a conference room.²¹
The cost of this project, with central heating and hot and cold water for 150 people, was estimated at more than £3,000.
Part of the plan was the demolition of the greater part of Ilam Hall allowing the old house – built c1600 – to be exposed to view. This meant only the formal entrance, service wings and estate buildings would survive from Jesse Watts-Russell’s house.
Work began immediately and projected for completion in May 1935. However, complications meant the youth hostel did not open until September when it was officially opened by Mr William A. Cadbury of Birmingham.
As well as Robert McDougall, cash gifts were given by the W.A. Cadbury Trust and the Carnegie Trust. It became the largest youth hostel in England with the entrance hall and east wing adapted for the purpose.
With the youth hostel proving extremely popular, the arrival of the German Youth Orchestra in March 1938 did not detract from future events. The orchestra, consisting of 35 men and 15 girls, played a programme of folk dances and songs as well as classical works. The concert was recorded for broadcast on the BBC Midland Regional service.
In December 1938 Sir Robert McDougall died. After a business meeting in London he hailed a taxi outside Mansion House Station but on arrival at Euston Station was found unconscious in his seat. The driver drove to the National Temperance Hospital where it was found that he was dead.
With the outbreak of World War Two the YHA activities at Ilam Hall slowed down.
The house was instead used to house a party of 29 Czech refugees, mainly clerical and engineering workers, from Sudetenland. As the Germans plundered the countryside and villages the British Committee for the Refugees from Czechoslovakia had offered them refuge in Britain.
“As the storm clouds massed over Dovedale’s heights and the rain dripped steadily from the tall firs, I heard 28 Czech refugees sing of their ‘fatherland across the sea’.” (Derby Daily Telegraph 27 Feb 1939)
The refugees had to be accommodated elsewhere over the Easter weekend as the hall had been booked up months in advance by people wanting to use the youth hostel.
In May, now numbering 38 people, they were moved to Farley Hall, a residence owned by Major C.F. Bill, near Oakamoor and close to Alton Towers.
The war had forced the YHA to seriously reconsider their position and by September Ilam Hall had closed indefinitely.
The house was used to accommodate a party of blind people evacuated from Derby for ‘national purposes’.²² They stayed at Ilam Hall until 1943 when the Derby Health Committee decided to return them to Derby.
The hall had been taken over at short notice and was considered far from ideal for its purpose. Two severe winters had proved a trial and had once been cut off by snow for four days. During this time a patient had died and it was nearly a fortnight before transport could be obtained to remove the body. ²³
At the end of the war Ilam Hall once again reopened as a youth hostel and still remains in use to this day. It stands in Ilam Park which, alongside Dovedale, both gifted by Sir Robert McDougall, are managed by the National Trust.
¹Derby Daily Telegraph (25 Oct 1910)
²Derby Mercury (22 Nov 1820)
³Derby Mercury (7 April 1875)
⁴Staffordshire Sentinel (29 Jun 1875)
⁵Morning Post (26 Jan 1876)
⁶Lancashire Evening Post (12 Feb 1901)
⁷Derby Daily Telegraph (7 May 1903)
⁸Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (13 May 1903)
⁹Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (8 Feb 1905)
¹ºCornubian and Redruth Times (13 Jan 1906)
¹¹Lancashire Evening Post (13 Jun 1904)
¹²Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (9 Feb 1906)
¹³Derby Daily Telegraph (26 Jul 1910)
¹⁴Belper News (31 Mar 1911)
¹⁵Derby Daily Telegraph (16 Aug 1926)
¹⁶Staffordshire Advertiser (2 Sep 1933)
¹⁷Derby Daily Telegraph (29 Jun 1950)
²ºStaffordshire Advertiser (30 Jun 1934)
²¹Derby Daily Telegraph (30 Oct 1934)
²²Derby Evening Telegraph (26 Sep 1939)
²³Derby Daily Telegraph (24 Dec 1943)
All above courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.
Notes on William Twigg were provided from ‘William Twigg – a successful and caring company’ by Brian Hall. The company, bearing William Twigg’s name, still survives. William Twigg (Matlock) Ltd provides steel fabrication, steel stock holding and hardware and plumbing supplies.
We have learned that Jesse Watts-Russell built Ilam Hall to emulate the glories surrounding Alton Towers, the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The attempt by Edward Backhouse to create an amusement park at Ilam Hall compared with similar plans taking shape at Alton Towers around the same time. Ilam Hall’s inaccessibility meant the project was always doomed to failure, thankfully so for lovers of the countryside. As for Alton Towers, the rest is history! In the end, both houses were lost in some way or another – Ilam Hall partly demolished and Alton Towers becoming a monumental ruin – but still exist in vastly different circumstances. Some might say that Ilam Hall has come out of it the best of all.
Ilam Park, Dovedale and the White Peak
Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 2AZ
(Ashbourne, the ‘post town’, is in Derbyshire and thus so is Ilam’s postal address, but the Park, and Ilam, are in Staffordshire; the county boundary.)