Monday, 20 July 2020

Happy memories and
missed conferences at
Swanwick in Derbyshire

Swanwick Hayes was built in the 1860s as a wedding present in the Fitzherbert Wright family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing earlier this morning how the annual conference of USPG was due to take place this week in the Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick in Derbyshire. But the Covid-19 travel restrictions have forced the cancellation of both this year’s USPG conference and the Lambeth Conference, due to begin later in the week.

Instead, I spent much of today taking part in an online meeting of USPG Trustees. But I am missing a few days in the Derbyshire countryside, and had also hoped to spend a night or two at either end of the conference in Lichfield.

For most years, the USPG conferences have taken place at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in the Hertfordshire countryside, close to Stansted Airport and close to Cambridge It is 44 years since I first attended a conference at Swanwick. It was a peace conference in 1976, and one of the speakers was Bruce Kent, who was then involved in Pax Christi. Both of us quickly found ourselves being involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

I remember well how I had a room in the old house at Swanwick that year, much to the amusement – perhaps even slight jealousy – of other conference delegates, who realised that there is something special about this house.

I was back in Swanwick for a few peace conferences since then, in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and then – after an absence of decades – for USPG conferences in 2008, 2010 and 2016.

Swanwick became a Christian conference centre in 1911, providing residential and day conference facilities for up to 400 delegates. It is set in beautiful Derbyshire countryside, and several church-based organisations have been delighted in this place as a venue for many decades.

Swanwick is an old Derbyshire village, midway between Ripley and Alfreton. Before the Hayes was built in the 1860s, several families have figured prominently in the history of Swanwick. The Turners, beginning with George Turner in 1620, owned the local mineral rights and became coal magnates, until the death of Charles Turner in 1736.

John Turner built Swanwick Hall around 1690. Elizabeth Turner built a school in 1740 for 20 children from poor families. The schoolhouse is now a private residence. The other most significant family was the Woods family, who lived at the original Swanwick Hall (‘The Old Hall’) in what is known as Wood’s Yard, and was built in 1678.

A famous painting by Joseph Wright of Derby of Hugo Wood and his children used to hang in the family dining room in Swanwick Hall. Joseph Wright also painted the work of art that raised £550,000 at auction five years ago to support the work of USPG and the Anglican chaplaincy in Athens with refugees in Greece. The Meynell family had inherited the painting of Julia, and Mary Maynell was an ancestor of Fitzherbert Wright family of Swanwick, marrying William Fitzherbert (1712-1772) of Tissington.

Swanwick is set in beautiful Derbyshire countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on image for full-screen resolution)

In the late 18th century, the Butterley Company changed the face of Swanwick. The company took any surplus labour that Swanwick had and a new turnpike from Alfreton to Derby opened in 1807. Much of the land around the centre of the old village was built on at this time.

Swanwick Hayes – now the Hayes Conference Centre – was built by the Derbyshire industrialist, Francis Wright, in the 1860s as a wedding present for his son, Fitzherbert Wright (1841-1910), when he married Charlotte Rudolphine Louise von Beckman (1848-1932), the daughter of a German pastor, in 1865.

Fitzherbert Wright’s father was a leading Derbyshire industrialist, while his mother, Selina Fitzherbert, was a daughter of Sir Henry Fitzherbert (1783-1858) of Tissington Hall, an early 17th-century Jacobean mansion house at Tissington, near Ashbourne.

The Fitzherberts acquired Tissington by marriage in 1465. The old moated manor at Tissington was replaced with the new mansion in 1609 by Francis Fitzherbert, and it remains the home of the Fitzherbert family. Today, it is the home of Sir Richard Ranulph Fitzherbert. These connections are recalled in the name of the Tissington Room on the ground floor of Lakeside, where I stayed during the 2016 conference.

Fitzherbert Wright had interests in the Butterley ironworks and local coalmines, and was a county councillor and JP. When he was retiring from the Butterley Company as managing director in 1903, he paid for a new tower as a gift for the Parish Church of Saint Andrew, which was built at the crossroads in Swanwick in 1860.

Fitzherbert Wright died on 19 December 1910, and in 1911, the FitzHerbert Wright family sold the house for £11,500, about a fifth of its original building cost, to the First Conference Estate Ltd, and it was converted into the Christian conference centre that operates to this day.

During World War II, the Hayes was used as a prisoner of war camp for German and Italian prisoners. Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe officer, escaped from here, but was recaptured at nearby RAF Hucknall as he tried to steal an aircraft. He later made the only verified German escape, from Canada.

Walking in the Derbyshire countryside at Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Well-dressing survives as an old Derbyshire tradition, and at one time there were several wells around Swanwick, often in obscure places. By far the largest well once stand on Hayes Lane close to the entrance to the Hayes Conference Centre. This was a massive Victorian affair with a large seat. However, it was removed in the 1970s to make room for housing on Hayes Lane.

The remains of the well were supposedly buried on the Chapel Street recreation ground. But when he Parish Council tried to find them, the search was soon abandoned – the stones were either placed under the pavilion or were taken and are now serving as fireplaces in Swanwick.

Undaunted, the council decided to build a new well to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The new well was placed on Broadway Head close to Saint Andrew’s Church. Now a well-dressing ceremony takes place every year in Swanwick, with Morris Dancing as a feature.

Today, the Hayes is one of the largest conference centres of its type. But past stories are cherished with names on rooms such as Butterley, Tissington, Haddon, Chatsworth and Alan Booth.

I am not sure when the USPG conference next returns to Swanwick or High Leigh, but hopefully I shall return to Swanwick soon.

Night settles on the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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