Calke Abbey – The Un-stately Home and HumanKind

Calke Abbey, located near Ticknall, Derbyshire, England, is not what most people think of when they think of the stately homes under the care of the National Trust. This home came into the care of the National Trust in 1985 upon the death of Charles Harpur-Crewe and has been kept exactly as it was when it was handed over. With a complex history and a narrative of a reclusive and socially isolated family, the National Trust decided to present the house as an English country home in decline. Work on the house has been done to halt decay but no restoration work has been done to transform it back to the glitzy and majestic home which many people come to expect from National Trust properties. Portraying a period of the twentieth century when many stately homes fell into financial ruin and did not survive to tell their stories, Calke Abbey gives the visitor the sense that the family has just stepped out and will return at any moment. Toys are left strewn across the floor in the children’s rooms, piles of tools and old planters are piled in the corners of the garden sheds. It is this exact feeling that makes Calke Abbey such an incredible place to visit. There is a sense of comfort in the disheveled feel of the home. While stepping into a grand home, with all its fineries on display is wonderful, most times you just don’t feel like you belong. But at Calke, by showing the state of what this home actually was like when the family lived here is a much more comfortable feel. There is still the grandeur in some of the rooms of the country estate, but you don’t feel as out of place walking around in your jeans and trainers. There is a true sense of a home, a lived-in space. 

The garden shed

Calke Abbey had a very interesting and long history before its story with the National Trust began. The site that the current house sits on was originally the home of an Augustinian priory, founded by Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester sometime between 1115 and 1120 and remained there until its dissolution by Henry VIII. The land eventually made its way into the hands of Richard Wendsley, an MP for Derbyshire twice over, in 1575. He is credited with building the first house on the estate which forms the core of the current house and is visible within the house’s courtyard. Wendsley later sold the estate to Robert Bainbridge, 3-time MP for Derby, in 1585. It eventually passed on to his son who sold it to Sir Henry Harpur in 1622 for £5350, and this is where our story really begins.

Calke Abbey would remain in the Harpur family for ten generations, with the narrative of an isolated and secluded family beginning with Henry Harpur, 7th Baronet (1763-1819), also known as the ‘Isolated Baronet’. Gossips spread word that he was incredibly shy, and he was described as suffering from a ‘disease of the mind’ by the diarist Joseph Faringdon, who had in fact never met Henry at all. From these small pieces of gossip sprouts the story of a family that distanced themselves on their vast estate not only from society, but from each other, and who all rejected modernity.

Fast forward to 2019 and new research through a partnership with the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester and The National Trust that has resulted in a new narrative of Calke Abbey and the Harpur-Crewe family. The project came from Calke’s desire to develop interpretation and programmes around the contemporary issue of social isolation and loneliness in 2019, an issue that is now more important than ever in the COVID-19 world we are now living in. The collaborative research has culminated in the immersive exhibition called HumanKind. Six new stories of those who lived at Calke shed light on the isolation and loneliness, but also on the amazing kindness and compassion that was shared between its residents. Working with the Campaign to End Loneliness, the goal of all this work was to challenge the stigma surrounding loneliness and social isolation and to get people talking about this taboo subject matter, and to hopefully help foster small acts of human kindness. (You can learn more about the research conducted by the RCMG here).

The Stories of HumanKind

The exhibition begins with Georgiana (1824-1910) the daughter-in-law of George Crewe, 8th Baronet of Calke Abbey. Often describe as isolated due to one diary entry, she was in fact a deeply loving women who had an incredible relationship with her children. Through beautiful letters from her son Vauncey, we learn about their loving relationship and their shared interest in the natural world. Perhaps the most beautiful installation of the exhibition, the visitor is treated to a project animated film in the living room showing the love between Georgiana and her son. Beautiful images of the lime avenue, which Georgiana had planted in celebration of Vauncey’s birth, and the crocus roots Vaucney planted to celebrate the return of his mother from her travels and is accompanied by loving messages taken from letters the two exchanged. Georgiana’s love for her children passed down through Vauncey who would have an equally as loving relationship with his own children.

Animated film detailing letters between Georgiana and her children

The next story tells of the only non-family member in the exhibition, that of Harriet Phillips, the Housekeeper (born 1823). Little is known about Harriet, except for a secret she kept to herself for her whole life. At the age of 20 Harriet gave birth to an illegitimate son, a social stigma that could destroy both of their lives. Harriet paid for another woman to care for her son, ensuring that he would be given a better life. Harriet came to Calke in 1865, and although her son was now 21, she would still never speak of him. Harriet did not acknowledge Samuel as her son until she reached the age of 88, when they finally were able to live together in 1891. Harriet’s story is told in the kitchen through a simple installation, a still life which sees a large up wright cupboard with a locked box inside, a beautiful and moving representation of Harriet.

The visitor then moves on to the installation surrounding Henry Harpur, the 7th Baronet (1763 – 1819). The new research shows that despite the rumours of his isolation, Henry was like every other child, doodling strange creatures in his school notebooks and writing comments in the margin like “H. Harpur is a fool”. As he grew up, he was influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, collecting books, commissioning music and building the library. It is this side of Henry that the exhibition chooses to showcase, the smart, inventive man who was influenced by the world and brought a new school of thought to Calke Abbey. A more nuanced interpretation of Henry’s life is told in the Dining Room, where visitors can look at three books, the diary in which Farington gossips about the young boy, and two of Henry’s personal books, a book of Latin prose which contains his childhood doodles and a book on how to be a gentleman. Visitors are also entertained by a short-animated film showing Henry’s drawings running after and eating all the hurtful, stigmatising words used towards him.

From the dining room we move to the story of Winifred Harpur-Crewe (1879-1953), daughter of Vauncey. Known as an inspiring and passionate woman, she lived an incredible life full of adventure and travel. She married the love of her life, Albert “Bertie” Morton Sr. in 1914. Bertie was an officer in the Indian Army and soon after their wedding they were off to Burma. Unfortunately, the joy would not last long as Bertie was killed on his first day of duty by friendly fire in 1916. Her father had a deep love for his children and brought the grieving Winifred home to be surrounded by her supportive family. The most moving depicting of this story is so simple, it can easily be missed. In one of the upper rooms of the house which contains images and keepsakes from Winnie and Bertie’s short marriage, a blue piece of silk is draped in mourning over a portrait of Bertie. We are not able to see the portrait, but we can empathize with the grief that Winifred would have experienced upon seeing that portrait.

An upper room in the house with images and keepsakes from Winnie and Bertie's marriage

The visitor is next introduced to Henry’s son George Crewe, 8th Baronet (1795-1844). George was sent away to boarding school at a young age and although he enjoyed his time at school, we know that he deeply missed Calke as expressed in his letters home. This longing caused great distresses to George, so much so that he considered suicide, a moment he reflects on later in his life in his journal. He eventually found solace with his wife Jane Whitaker and her family. In the hallway leading towards the servant’s hall the visitor gets to glance into the mind of George through entries of his diary where his anxiety and love for his wife are revealed.

The final story that is shared is of Airmyne Jenney (1919-1999), granddaughter of Vauncey. Continuing her family’s love of the natural world, Airmyne was a lover of horses and all animals. She suffered a horrific accident where she was kicked by a horse which resulted in her losing her ability to speak. Her family were instrumental in her recovery and speech therapy, specifically her brother Henry who she would describe in her notebooks as ‘Hen-ry the lis-ner’. She was always known by her friends and family to be an incredibly generous person who loved to give gifts. She believed in nurturing kindness to combat the cruelty that can so easily be spread in the world. Visitors can experience her story and how she learned to speak again where segments of her speech therapy notebooks are displayed on the floor while her favourite song, “Que Sera Sera (Whatever will be will be)” sung by Doris Day is played in the background.

In the final installation located in the Servants Hall, the exhibition ends with a film which explore the contemporary issue of loneliness and isolation, some of the groups most likely at risk and the small steps we as a society can take to combat this by looking after ourselves, each other and creating connection-friendly communities.

Alongside the interior exhibition located on the main floor of the house, the experience continues outside. Large structures, which have been given the term ‘landscape rooms’ were created that mimic rooms from the house associated with three of the stories, within the sight lines of the indoor spaces. These large, colourful, modern interventions were designed to foster conversation and connection between visitors, with spaces to sit and explore. They create a striking contrast to the classical exterior of Calke Abbey, which might not always be of taste to some visitors, but I find them fascinating.

Landscape room
Landscape room

I had the opportunity to learn from the lead researchers on this project this past year during my Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and was able to see all the incredible work and thought that went into the creation of HumanKind. This exhibition is one that truly speaks to the soul of the visitor. Not afraid to speak about taboo subjects, like loss, grief, mental health and suicide, it also speaks to the wonders of human nature and how equally kind and loving we can be. Perhaps the most impactful element to this exhibition is the Kindness Wall, located near the exit of the gift shop. Filled with small, colourful pledge cards, each one lists a small act of kindness visitors can do to bring a little joy to people’s lives. From calling up an old friend to inviting a neighbour to join the dog walking club on the estate, it acts a as a catalyst to show how easy it is to show true human kindness. Standing in front of this wall was an amazingly moving experience, seeing how easy it is to bring kindness into the world which can be so cruel. You can visit the virtual Acts of Kindness wall here.

Acts of Kindness wall

Although the HumanKind exhibition is temporary, Calke Abbey provides a great outdoor space to discover. Nature and the environment have been at the heart of Calke for many years and still are to this day. Situated on over 600 acres of majestic and historic parkland, nature conservation is incredibly important to Calke. Work is done to return historically accurate plants in the Pleasure Garden, Orangery, and Physics Garden while still keeping the vision of an unkept home. Ten thousand new trees were planted in 2018 to help expand the existing woodlands and create valuable new habitats. The grounds are also home to some beautiful animals including a flock of rare-breed Portland sheep and a herd of red and fallow deer. In 2018, Calke Abbey in partnership with Butterfly Conservation and Natural England began reintroducing the Grizzled Skipper, a rare butterfly species to the grounds. Calke Explore, a new outdoor recreation area was opened in the summer of 2019 as a designated area to help visitors explore the wider parkland and nature programmes. Here you can discover walking and biking trails, as well as a natural woodland play area and a refreshment kiosk. As always, conservation and sustainability are key and Calke Explore has taken steps to ensure it is as green as possible.

Part of the 600 acres of majestic and historic parkland
Herd of Red and Fallow Deer

Whether it is to explore the grounds or discover the home of the Harpur-Crewe family, Calke Abbey is a National Trust home not to be missed.

Opening Hours*

House: 11:00am – 4:00pm

Calke National Nature Reserve: 9:00am – 5:30pm

Garden: 10:00am – 5:00pm

Restaurant: 9:30am – 4:30pm

Shop: 10:30am – 4:30pm

Stables: 10:00am – 5:00pm

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic visits need to be booked in advance.


Adult: £8.00

Child: £4.00

Family: £20.00

1 Adult and up to three children: £12.00

Location: Ticknall, Derby, Derbyshire, DE73 7JF

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Amelia Taylor

Amelia Taylor is a recent graduate of the Museum Studies Masters programme from the University of Leicester, United Kingdom. She received her BA in History from York University, Toronto where she specialized in micro-history of Late Medieval and Early Modern European and Mediterranean history. She is interested in Women’s History and the feminization of the museum to expand the sectors interpretation.