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Listed Building record MDR3092 - Willersley Castle, Cromford

Type and Period (1)

Protected Status/Designation

Full Description

Willersley Castle is a Grade II* listed building built for Sir Richard Arkwright (who died before completion) and designed by the architect William Thomas of London. Three storeys with the centre-piece defined by projecting round turrets that extend above the full height of the building. A large and severe castellated house in extensive grounds. The interior retains a fine oval hall with galleries on upper storeys. (1) Sir Richard Arkwright bought the manor of Willersley in 1782 and construction of Willersley Castle began in 1786, a seven-bay gritstone building entirely classical in conception but romanticised by semi-circular turrets at the angles of the side wings, ushering in the Gothic Revival in the domestic architecture of Derbyshire. Below the house stretches parkland falling towards the river Derwent, immediately beyond which towers the massive perpendicular limestone crag of Scarthin Rock, obscuring the view of the Cromford mills, with Masson Mill visible from the grounds but not from the house. The foundations were built upon a huge rock, which had to be levelled before construction, with the beer and wine cellars dug into the rock. The house was roofed in 1789 but a fire greatly damaged the interior in 1791, disrupting the early stages of furnishing. After Sir Richard Arkwright's death in 1792, his son Richard oversaw the completion of the house and work was finished by 1796. Contemporary opinions regarding the house were somewhat scathing, with John Byng (Viscount Torrington) commenting upon the exterior in 1788, stating that Sir Richard "by sticking it up on an unsafe bank, he contrives to overlook, not see, the beauties of the river, and the surrounding scenery. It is the house of an overseer surveying the works, not of a gentleman wishing for retirement and quiet" and in 1790 dismissing the interior as "an effort of inconvenient ill taste". John Webb, architect and landscape gardener of Lichfield, a former pupil of William Emes, was commissioned to lay out the grounds by Richard Arkwright after his father's death. (2) A mansion house located on rising ground and set in a Grade II landscaped park. It was commissioned by Sir Richard Arkwright, who died before it was completed. It is constructed of ashlar sandstone. The central fa├žade is defined by projecting turrets. Contemporary observers described Willersley as "an effort of inconvenient ill taste" and "a great cotton mill". The Arkwright family occupied the castle until after the First World War. In the grounds of the castle the stable block and home farm buildings (though not the farmhouse, which predates the Castle), by Thomas Gardner of Uttoxter, survive though in an altered form. It is now in the ownership of Christian Guild Holidays. (3) The gardens and parkland around Willersley Castle were created by William Emes into a naturalistic Picturesque hillside landscape, which originally stretched north as far as Matlock High Tor. After the fire in 1791, a remodelling of the inside and the matching five bay two-storey extension offset to the east was undertaken by Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter. Further alterations were made during the mid 1840s, just before the death of Richard Arkwright the younger in 1848. The house stayed in the Arkwright family until its sale in 1936 to the Wesley Guild, who still operate it as a holiday and conference centre. (4) Willersley Castle was built as a mansion house for Sir Richard Arkwright. He commissioned it in 1786, the year he was knighted, to provide a suitably prestigious 'seat' to which he intended to move from Rock House [SMR 29768]. However, he died in 1792, before the house was completed. Sir Richard gave the commission to William Thomas, who was much influenced by the work of Robert Adam. Thomas' Willersley Castle design owes much to Adam's designs for Culzean Castle, which is roughly contemporary. Following a serious fire in 1791 and after Sir Richard's death in 1972, the Castle was completed in a modified form under the supervision of Thomas Gardner. The pleasure grounds [SMR 29779] were laid out for Sir Richard and his successor, Richard Archwright II by John Webb, who took the meadows sloping to the River Derwent and turned them in to an Arcadian park (Webb was a pupil and later partner of William Emes). On completion of Gardner's work, Richard Arkwright II and his family took up residence. The house was further modified during the occupancy of Richard Arkwright II's third son Peter Arkwright (1784-1866), who employed the architect Edward Blore to increase residential accommodation by converting one of the original service wings for residential use and providing new service accommodation in association with the west service wing. The Castle remained a residence used by the Arkwright family until the First World War, when most of it was made over for use as an auxiliary hospital. The family did not return and was offered for lease and later, in 1927, was sold to Sir Albert Hall. He immediately broke up the estate and sold Willersley Castle to a consortium of Methodist businessmen for use as a Methodist Guild Holiday Centre, in which use it still remains. (5) The original Richard Arkwright appointed William Thomas to design a suitable residence for him overlooking his first factory some time between 1782 and 1788. Following a major fire, in August 1791, however, Arkwright fell out with Thomas. As a result of this dispute, in 1791 Arkwright replaced Thomas, as architect, with Thomas Gardner. In 1792 the original Richard Arkwright died, and it was his eldest son, Richard Arkwright II, who first occupied the building. (6)

Sources/Archives (6)

  • <1> Listed Building File: Historic England. 2011. The National Heritage List for England. NHLE No: 1248280.
  • <2> Bibliographic reference: Fitton, R S. 1989. The Arkwrights: Spinners of fortune. pp 182, 196-200, 246-8, 273.
  • <3> Unpublished document: Derwent Valley Mills (DVM) Nomination Steering Panel. 2000. Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage List Nomination Document. p 48.
  • <4> Bibliographic reference: Craven, M & Stanley, M. 2001. The Derbyshire Country House: 2. pp 236-7.
  • <5> Unpublished document: Joyce, B & Buxton, D. 2011. Willersley Castle, Cromford.
  • <6> Unpublished document: Morris, M (Mel Morris Conservation). 2019. Willersley Castle, Cromford: Heritage Impact Assessment.



Grid reference Centred SK 2965 5723 (57m by 34m) (Centre)
World Heritage Site Derwent Valley Mills

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Events/Activities (2)

  • EDR3942
  • EDR5095

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Record last edited

Aug 28 2020 10:12AM

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