Borrowed time for 27 Queen Street?

27 Queen Street Derby

Ruth Gray, our Heritage Consultant here at Planning & Design writes about the History of Number 27 Queen Street in Derby, the former home to a famous astronomer and influential artists.

27 Queen Street – An Address of Significance

One of my favourite buildings in the whole of Derby is discussed in this article I hope by bringing attention to it someone will urgently come forward and bring it back to life.

In the heart of Derby lies one of city’s most historically-connected and scientifically important buildings, Number 27 Queen Street. Deemed so important the civic society arranged to have a blue plaque put on the building to drive tourism and focus people’s attention on its significance several years ago.

Concern about the future of 27 Queen Street has prompted Derby Civic Society to apply to Historic England to have the building listed. Derby City Council’s recent announcement that buildings adjacent to it could be demolished as part of regeneration of the area has hastened the submission of the application. However Derby City Council have included the building on their local list.

The site lies on the west side of Queen Street, which forms part of the north-south central road in the historic core of the town. Positioned in the heart of the town’s historical nucleus, the site serves as an archaeological treasure trove, with excavations unearthing relics tracing back to the late Anglo-Saxon period and suggesting late Saxon origins. Pottery found dates chiefly from the late-Anglo-Saxon period to the 16th century, although a small quantity of shards have pointed to Roman activity in the vicinity.

A building was first erected in the 1600s by Stephen Flamsteed, father of John Flamsteed, who conducted some of his most notable astronomical work, particularly in the extensive rear garden. His developmental work drew the attention of the London scientific community as well as King Charles II which led to his appointment as the country’s first Astronomer Royal. He brought a new accuracy to astronomy without which fellow scientists including Nicholas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei as well as being linked with the work of Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, all of whom would not have been able to clearly model the visible universe.

In the late 18th century No. 27 Queen Street was home to John Whitehurst, who had acquired the property in 1764, and was a clock maker by profession. He was a keen recorder of weather from a station in the garden of his Queen Street house, where John Flamsteed had used his telescope almost a century before. Whitehurst was one of the founders of the celebrated Lunar Society, a gathering of famed thinkers such as Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, and Joseph Priestley, who would have met at the house. It is also said that he would have entertained Benjamin Franklin who was a writer, scientist, inventor, states person, and philosopher too.

The other important inhabitant of the house around the same time, was the artist Joseph Wright ARA, known as Joseph Wright of Derby, who was a landscape and portrait painter of the personages of the day. He has been acclaimed as “the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, works which are particularly notable include The Alchymist, The Orrery and Bird in the Air Pump and influenced by members of the Lunar Society ,although he was not a formal member of the Society he can be considered a key artistic influence on the men of the Midlands Enlightenment. Wright died in the house in 1797.

In the 19th century the building went into commercial use as a workshop for the clockmakers Smith’s Clock Works, who famously built the clock at St Paul’s Cathedral. During this time a new neo-Georgian façade was added in 1929 when a road widening scheme removed the original front. Smith’s Clock Works continued there until 2000 when it was sold to a developer. Presently, the building stands partitioned, with one facet accommodating the Acorn Vaults while the other houses Smith’s Clock Works. Yet much of the original building survives behind the façade, including a panelled room and an early staircase.

Proposals to extend nearby conservation areas and secure listing status are promising steps towards acknowledging its historical significance and architectural value. Although it will be the third time that the Civic Society has tried to have the building listed. The key lies in reimagining its utility and establishing a new purpose for the building that resonates with the needs of the community whilst safeguarding its legacy.

Historic England do include places for their historical significance for example the Brixton Markets which are a symbol of major social and cultural impact that the Black Caribbean community has made in post-war Britain. The markets do not necessarily have any architectural significance but they are full of history and significance. Likewise this small building and its garden has had an enormous significance to science and art, it can help describe the story of the importance of Derby and why Derby was the catalyst for so much innovation that brought forth the industrial revolution.

Civic Society chairperson Ashley Waterhouse has said: “This is a building of both local and international importance. We want to secure the preservation of the site both directly by obtaining listed building status and indirectly by influencing the ownership and development of the property. We also want to raise public interest in the property both locally and nationally and are looking for a national figure to lead our campaign and examining ways the property can be saved from unsympathetic development.”

Putting this article together I personally cannot believe that we are contemplating the fate of this historical and architectural gem, it seems imperative to me that Derby reflects on its significance and the legacy it embodies, this building stands as a testament to our collective history and cultural identity.

Ruth Gray, Heritage Consultant, Planning & Design Practice Ltd

Main Image: 27 Queen Street in 1999 – courtesy of Derby Civic Society

Update: Hope that Derby city centre’s most historic house can be saved Derby Telegraph, 21/05/2024

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