Dunston Hall, Chesterfield, has been in the news lately, as it transforms into an events venue. In this blog we take a brief look at its history and highlight what could be an important discovery.
We’ve extracted historical information on Dunston Hall prepared by our county editor, acting as chairman of the Chesterfield and District Civic Society [link – http://www.chesterfieldcivicsociety.org.uk/], for this blog. This information forms part of the society’s response to a planning application for conversation of one of the farm buildings into a function room.
The farm buildings to the rear of Dunston Hall incorporate substantial remains of what was once probably a U-shaped range surrounding a farmyard, with the Hall at its north-eastern corner. Some of them date to original construction of the hall c.1600. The conclusion is that survival of these farm buildings is unusually important and warrants further investigation.
Dunston Hall: an outline history
The property known in recent times as Dunston Hall was built c.1600 on a previously unoccupied site on the south side of a road that then ran from Littlemoor in Newbold village to Four Lane Ends in Upper Newbold. This road is represented today partly by Dunston Lane and (west of the junction of that road with the modern Dunston Road) partly by Dunston Road.
There was another house on the north side of Dunston Road almost opposite the present Dunston Hall, which confusingly was also known as ‘Dunston Hall’. This later became Dunston Old Hall and appears to have been completely demolished in the eighteenth century.
Dunston Hall was built by Richard Milnes, the son of William Milnes of Ashford in the Water in the Peak District. Richard was a lead merchant and wholesale ironmonger. He initially lived in Chesterfield, where he was mayor in 1626, and, like many successful local merchants, moved in later life to a newly built country house just outside the town. A number of such houses survive in the countryside between Chesterfield and the south-western outskirts of Sheffield.
Milnes chose a traditional design for his new house. Dunston Hall was originally a three-storey ‘high house’ with two principal rooms on each floor. This structure can be seen embedded in the northern end of the present mansion, which assumed its present form in the 1820s. Largely unaltered examples of similar high houses can be seen locally at Cutthorpe Old Hall and Barlow Woodseats, as well as further afield. By contrast, Richard’s contemporary (and fellow lead and iron merchant), Godfrey Watkinson, chose a more modern design for his new house at Brampton (i.e. what is now known as Brampton Manor). This also dates from c.1600 but has a symmetrical front elevation, divided into three large gables, an arrangement found in several other local houses of similar date and size.
Dunston Hall remained the property of the Milnes (later Smith Miles) family until recent times. The property was modernised and extended in the 1820s. A new two-storey range was added to the south of the original high house, and the two sections unified by a front elevation carried up to a common eaves-line. At the same time a small park was created around the mansion and the farming activities which would have been a feature of the Hall from when it was built were moved a short distance to the south-west, where a new Dunston Hall Farm was built.
Changes of this sort are a common feature of many gentry houses in the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth, as owners wanted a garden and landscape park, rather than a farmyard full of animals and implements, next to their home, since they were no longer directly involved in farming. Commonly, this sort of transformation meant that older farm buildings were swept away. At Dunston this did not happen and a range of farm buildings that appears to be (at least in part) contemporary with the building of the house c.1600 survived.
The farm buildings of c.1600
This survival of these farm buildings is unusual and makes the buildings that are the subject of a current planning application unusually important. We believe that the farm buildings to the rear of Dunston Hall incorporate substantial remains of what was once probably a U-shaped range surrounding a farmyard, with the Hall at its north-eastern corner.
The main evidence for this conclusion is the survival of what appear from the architect’s sections (contained in the planning application papers) to be four cruck-framed trusses. The planning application Heritage Statement also refers to the survival of cruck trusses in another building and to evidence that at the northern end of another building there was once a return marking the start of a range running east towards the Hall.
It is possible that there were once farm buildings on the fourth (eastern) side of the yard, south of the Hall, completing a quadrangular layout. This cannot be demonstrated from surviving remains, since the extension to the Hall of the 1820s now occupies that area. Although these suggestions can only be speculative, it is clear that what survives at Dunston today represents at least a third of a large range of farm buildings probably contemporary with the Hall.
The surviving remains have clearly been altered since they were first built, most obviously by the building up of the walls in stone and the replacement of what were probably originally thatched roofs. As well as the loss of buildings that may once have stood on the northern and eastern sides of the farmyard, part of the southern range has been completely rebuilt.
One of the buildings as described in the planning application Heritage Statement and Technical Note, appears to date from 1713, the date on a keystone over one of the entrances, alongside the initials ‘R.M.G.D.’. This must refer to Richard Milnes, who succeeded his father George Milnes in 1671 and died in 1729. The two other initials are probably those of Richard’s son George and his daughter-in-law Dorothy (Newham).
George and Dorothy may have lived at Dunston after Richard bought a second house at Aldercar in south-east Derbyshire in 1703, which became his main home in his later years. This building has conventional roof trusses made up of tie-beam, principal rafters and collars, which appear from photographs in the application’s Technical Note to be consistent with an early eighteenth century date of construction.
The survival of substantial remains of such an extensive range of cruck framed farm buildings associated with a well-documented gentry house is important, since so often such buildings have been swept away when the main house has been rebuilt or a modern home farm built.
It would be unwise to claim that the buildings at Dunston are unique, but they appear to be the largest range of this type anywhere in north Derbyshire or south Yorkshire.
More than fifty years ago the late Mrs B. Bunker, in a pioneer single-handed survey which has yet to be superseded, located some 80 cruck-framed farm buildings in this area, but none had more than two or three surviving trusses.
At Dunston (which Mrs Bunker was not aware of) there are at least four in one of the buildings and apparently others in a further building. The buildings at Dunston are therefore clearly of regional, if not national, importance.
Chesterfield and District Civic Society have made comments on the application, part of which contains the above history of the house. They have asked that the local planning authority (Chesterfield Borough Council) should impose some conditions on the applicant. These include:
- The applicant should be required to commission and pay for a detailed survey of all three surviving buildings, undertaken by a suitably qualified and experienced buildings archaeologist, whose appointment must be approved by the county council’s archaeology officer.
- The survey would include much more detailed drawings than those prepared for the planning application, and the budget should include the cost of publishing a report on the findings in the Derbyshire Archaeological Journal.
- The applicant should also commission and pay for dendrochronology dating of sample beams from each of the three.
- If the county council’s archaeology officer so determines, the applicant should be required to pay for limited excavation of some floor areas in the hope of establishing the original use of different parts of the building.
This is not a full list of the society’s recommendations, which can be read in the civic society’s report available to down load.
Dunston Hall and the two ranges of outbuildings were listed in 1977, when much less was known about historic farm buildings, and the use of cruck framing north of the Trent, than is the case today. Fifty years ago any cruck truss tended to be regarded as ‘medieval’, whereas it is now accepted that this method of construction continued in the East Midlands, especially for non-residential buildings, until after 1600.
One way in which this revised chronology was established was by the use of dendrochronology to date medieval and post-medieval timbers, a technique that was in its infancy in the 1970s. As far as we know, none of the timbers at Dunston Hall have been dated in this way.
To read the full application and its associated documents (including the Heritage Statement and Technical Note) visit Chesterfield Borough Council’s planning application on-line search facility and type in Dunston Hall. The application references are CHE/22/00111/FUL and CHE/22/00112/LBC.
The above history is a revised version of that contained in our VCH Newbold draft text.
 These four cruck-framed trusses are lettered A–D in what is described as Building A in the Heritage Statement and Technical Note which accompanies the planning application. These documents are produced on behalf of the planning applicant.
 Described as Building C in the Heritage Statement and Technical Note which accompanies the planning application. There is apparently evidence that at the northern end of ‘Building A’ there was once a return marking the start of a range running east towards the Hall.
 Building C as the described in the Heritage Statement and Technical Note.
 B. Bunker, Cruck Buildings: an opinion as to their origin and dating arising from a study of existing and recently demolished cruck buildings in north Derbyshire and south Yorkshire (published by the author, c.1970)