Carnfield Hall’s Checkered History
I drove by it twice before I spotted the short drive to the front door. It wasn’t what I expected. After all, we picture an English manor house regally set amongst large parklands, making a statement for all to see. But Carnfield Hall is right off the busy Alfreton-Normanton highway in Derbyshire. The grounds were nominal, and, right next door, almost on top of the house was a busy garden center. The owner of the house, James Cartland, wasn’t quite what I expected either. No “lord of the manor”, but a down to earth, eccentric and fascinating fellow, a rabid collector of the old and interesting.
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Carnfield Hall was in danger of the wrecker’s ball, a victim of neglect and the insidious woodworm, when Cartland, living in Sussex, decided to find a house to “rescue”. On his travels he spotted the 15th century Hall, and it was love at first sight.
Which is amazing, considering the windows were missing, the ceiling had collapsed in some areas, and rats had eaten away most of the flooring. Cartland said, “Many of the old timbers were so rotten I could push my hands straight through them.” Needless to say, it was a massive restoration job, taking 3 ½ years to make the home livable. Along the way, fascinating discoveries awaited as Cartland delved into the history of the home.
As we toured the house, the tales of crime, extortion, abduction and even murder unfolded. Carnfield Hall started its life in the 1470’s when Dame Alice Babington moved to the area and built the house. The Great Hall we stood in once soared up to the roof, but, in 1502, Dame Alice’s cousin, Edward Revell, decided he needed more space and created two floors above the Hall, lowering its ceiling. It seems he secured the house for himself in 1498 by nefarious means. He and his brother attacked the house and kidnapped Dame Alice’s husband, intimidated everyone with a claim to the home, and kept it for themselves. Cartland related a tale found in one of the many old documents that he discovered in tracing the house’s history. It seems these particular Revels were tough cookies. At one time they and 27 of their henchmen were involved in a fight with 1000 of the Sheriff of Derby’s men.
The Great Hall, like the rest of the house is stuffed with the treasures of generations, but not necessarily those of the past owners. Cartland’s ancestors suffered from the “collecting bug”, and he inherited the gene. From cellar to rafters Carnfield Hall is filled with their collections. One display case contains the remains of a candle carried at Princess Charlotte’s funeral in 1817, a piece of lace belonging to Elizabeth I, part of the canopy covering the remains of Lord Nelson, a small piece of the coronation robe of George IV and much, much more.
I admired the original oak panelling, carefully restored by Cartland, in the Great Hall and throughout the house. The fireplace in the Great Hall is made from the wood of a 17th century carved bed found in the attic 150 years ago. Another Revell added the 17th century oak staircase tower off the Great Hall, thus turning the front of the house into the back. The top treads of the stairs are made from complete tree trunks, and the bottom post of the steps still shows the marks where dog gates—put in to keep the dogs from going up the stairs—were placed. Proudly framed on the wall of the staircase is an ancestor’s invitation to the coronation of George IV.
Cartland pointed out a small room off one of the bedrooms on the second floor. This room, aptly named “Fortune’s Chamber” was where the squire of the day kept his loot. In 1627, the Revell owner died and his servants decided to help themselves. The criminals were apprehended and the treasures recovered. After a short jail term they were pardoned because the miserly squire hadn’t paid their wages for 25 years.
In the 1690’s Robert Revell, who had inherited the house, was made High Sheriff of the county. In spite of his lofty position, he, too, had rebellious servants. But they went a little further and, in 1714, murdered him. His daughter inherited the home but died without children, and the Reverend Francis Revell came into its possession. However, his morals weren’t quite what you’d expect of a man of the cloth. He not only lived in the house with his wife and children but made room for his mistress as well. It is rumoured that their ghosts are still playing on the grounds.
As we toured the bedrooms, Cartland pointed out 19th century costumes, an old wax doll, shoe buckles, 18th century candle snuffers, a jar in which doctors of the times kept leeches, a 1710 pillowcase—the list goes on and on with the centuries of Cartland family collections that have gravitated to this house.
Cartland is not interested in the commercial value of these family treasures. What he does treasure is the way they reflect the social history of the generations. One of his ancestors who was at court retrieved (from a footman who had rescued it from the garbage) Queen Victoria’s blotted mirror image signature. A glass case in one of the parlours contains the salt cellars of the Marquis of Rockingham, Prime Minister in 1784, who died suddenly. These salt cellars are part of an interesting tale. Apparently, the Marquis’ wife was so shocked when he died that she didn’t speak for 6 months. One day she came to the table and picked up the salt cellar, and suddenly said, “What a beautiful salt cellar”, dropped it on the floor and cracked it.
There were more stories as we moved into what was the original minstrel’s gallery, now converted into a room. Off this original gallery is a small room in which a maid was murdered 250 years ago. Cartland said visitors have seen her ghost, and some sensitive souls will not go into the room—they even get strange feelings when walking by the door. He, himself, has heard footsteps in the vicinity. But what’s a manor home without a ghost or two.
We headed up the second set of stairs where the lord of the manor preached to his servants. Cartland pointed out the marks on the staircase walls where servants stuck tallow candles to light the way. “I love to imagine the conversations of the twenty generations who have lived here”, he said as he began another tale of kidnapping.
In the 1730’s Sophia Browne, the heiress of the estate, had the audacity to elope with her father’s coachman. This disgrace caused the family to disown her. Other family members kidnapped her, drugged her and attempted to force her to sign away her inheritance. But her husband came to the rescue. The estate passed through several other relations and eventually ended up with the son of the Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir John Wilmot.
The Wilmots never lived at Carnfield Hall. Their agent, Joseph Wilson, another man of doubtless morals, ran it. While the Wilmots were in Tasmania, he faked documents to acquire the Hall for himself. However, he got his comeuppance by dying in Derby prison for debt and embezzlement in 1814. Somehow, his son-in-law, related to the real owners, the Wilmots, inherited.
Cartland led me into the attic that was originally partitioned into 8 rooms for servants. He took out the partitions, cut out the rotten parts—riddled with woodworm—of the wooden pegged roof beams and put in new ones. In doing so he discovered original carpenters’ marks designed to guide in the re-assembly of the roof which was first put together in the forest where the trees were cut. Not only the roof suffered damage. During World War I coal was mined from under the house and nearby land, causing one end of the house to sink. A beautiful avenue of trees in front of the home was sacrificed to prop up the cellar.
The last Wilmot owner died in 1912, and the estate agent, a shady fellow by the name of Watson, bought the house. Like Robert Revell, he met a violent end. It seems Tom Sims, one of his tenants, felt badly treated and decided to murder Watson. He shot and killed him in his town office, then turned the gun on himself. Watson’s widow lived on at Carnfield Hall until 1949, when it was sold. Abandoned 10 years later, it remained derelict until 1989 when Cartland discovered it.
As we sipped tea in the comfortable and homey study, we poured over the old manorial documents and estate maps. These papers are part of the history of the family and the Carnfield Hall. Cartland’s enthusiasm for the house and its collections is contagious. He said, “This house and its history is a wonderful sort of bodge-up.” Then he proudly showed off his latest acquisition—a jar containing a woodworm that had fallen into his bath.
By road: Carnfield Hall is located on the B6019, 1 mile east of Alfreton, Derbyshire and 1 ¼ miles west of Junction 28 of the M1 Motorway.
By rail: Alfreton Station 5 minutes walk. Bus stop opposite drive to the Hall.
Visiting Carnfield Hall: Throughout the year by prior arrangement. Guided tours only. No wheelchair access. No facilities (located at the Garden Centre next door). Photography not permitted inside the Hall. Adjoining car park. (Tel. (0) 1773 520 084)
Carnfield Garden Centre and Restaurant. Located next to the Hall.
Attactions in the Area
Ault Hucknall Church: The tiny parish Church of St. John the Baptist. Churchyard contains a great yew tree. Inside is a fine monument to the first Countess of Devonshire, designed by John Smythson. Open every Saturday from April to October from 1pm to 5pm. Service: Sunday 10:45am.
Bolsover Town Trail: Bolsover is located off the M1 junction 29, 6 miles from Mansfield, 6 miles east of Chesterfield on the A632. Walking trails starting at Bolsover Castle and Bainbridge Hall include information on the local architecture and history of the town. For leaflets contact Bolsover TIC, located at Sherwood Lodge, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbysire, England S44 6NF, Tel 0 1246 240 000. Fax. 0 1246 242 424.
Website: Bolsover District Council
Bolsover Castle: In the town of Bolsover, off M1 junction 29, 6 miles from Mansfield, 6 miles east of Chesterfield on A632. (Tel 0 1246 822844 or 823349). The castle was built in the early 17th century. It consists of a complex of buildings. The Little Castle has battlemented walls, elaborate fireplaces, panelling and wall paintings. There is also an Indoor Riding School, one of the oldest in Europe, and the ruins of the great State Apartments. Open 1st April-1st Nov daily 10am-6pm, 1st Nov-31st March Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm, closed 24-26 Dec. English Heritage.
Church of St. Mary and St. Lawrence: At the town of Bolsover, off M1 junction 29, 6 miles from Mansfield, 6 miles east of Chesterfield on A632. (Tel 0 1246 824 989 or 0 1246 824 414.) The original church was destroyed by fire but the 12th century tower and spire remain. The 16th century Cavendish Chapel houses an elaborate tomb of Sir Charles Cavendish and his wife, Katherine. Services: Sunday 8am, 9:30am, 6pm (4pm in winter). Choral Evensong every 4th Sunday. Tue 7pm, Thu 9:30am. Open to visitors other times by prior arrangement with the church wardens.
Chesterfield: Located on the A61 south of Sheffield. Famous for the crooked spire of St. Mary and All Saints Church (open Mon-Sat from 9-5, Sun for services only). TIC is located at the Peacock Information Centre, Low Pavement, Chesterfield. Tel 0 1246 345777. Open 9-5:30 summers, 9-5 winters; exhibition on premises open 11-4.
Chesterfield Town Museum: Located at St Mary’s Gate. (Tel. 01246 207 777/8). It tells the story of the crooked spire and Chesterfield. Open Mon, Tue, Thur, Fri, Sat all year from 10-4.
Revolution House: Located 3 miles north of Chesterfield off A61, then B6052. 17th Century thatched cottage, once the Cock and Pynot alehouse, was the location of 3 noblemen who planned their roles in the 1688 Revolution. The house contains a display of 17th Century furniture, an exhibition and video.
Open mid April - 1 Nov, daily, 10am - 4pm, also mid Dec-24th Dec and 27th Dec-Jan 3. Admission Free
Cresswell Crags: On Crags Road, Welbec, Creswell, Worksop, Nottinghamshire. A limestone gorge with Ice Age caves and fissures. Displays, audio visual, cave tours. Woodland walk leads to the gorge with natural caves.
Open 1st Feb-31st Oct, 10:30am to 4:30pm daily; 1st Nov-31st Jan, 10:30am to 4:30pm Sundays only.
Website: Creswell Crags
Hardwick Hall: Located at Hardwick Park, Doe Lea, Chesterfield, Derbyshire. Take the A6175 from junction 29 of the M1, then south on the B6039, signposted. From Derby take the A38/61 to the B6039.
Famous home of Bess of Hardwick completed circa 1597, one of the finest, most complete examples of Elizabethan architecture. Opening times: 1st April-29th October, Wed, Thu, Sat and Sun, Bank Holiday Mondays from noon to 5pm. Managed by the National Trust.
Hardwick Old Hall: Large ruined house built for Bess of Hardwick, finished in 1591, interesting decorative plasterwork.
Managed by English Heritage; owned by National Trust.
Location: Hardwick Park beside Hardwick Hall.
Open 1st April-29th Oct, Wed. to Sun. 10am to 6pm.
© Barbara Ballard