The hamlet of Staunton Harold nestles in a corner of North West Leicestershire, close to the Derbyshire border. For five hundred years it was the core of the Staunton Harold Estate, and the Hall was home to the Shirley family, who became Earls Ferrers.
The Shirley family have had a chequered history, with several reversals of fortune. Sir Robert Shirley was an ardent royalist, and built the church here in defiance of Cromwell. He was imprisoned six times, and died in the Tower of London, aged 27. From exile in France the future Charles the Second wrote to his widow, promising redress in better times and, true to his word, restored the family’s fortunes. They became Earls Ferrers under Queen Anne.
In 1760 the Fourth Earl Ferrers, Laurence Shirley, a dissolute rake, shot and killed his steward, John Johnson. For this he was tried by his peers in the House of Lords and condemned to death, the last peer to be hanged. The title passed to his brother, Washington Shirley, an altogether different character, who, over twenty years, demolished most of the old Hall and rebuilt it as we see it today.
Laurence Shirley was the eldest son of The Honourable Laurence Ferrers, himself the third son of the first Earl Ferrers. At the age of twenty, he quit his estates and Oxford University education, and began living a debauched life in France in Paris. At the age of 25 he inited his title from his insane uncle the 3rd Earl Ferrers, and with it estates in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. He lived at Staand i Leicestershire. In 1752, he married Mary, the youngest sister of Sir William Mere, 3rd Baronet.
The Ferrers' estates were then vested in trustees; Ferrers secured the appointment of an old family steward named Johnson, as receiver of rents. This man faithfully performed his duty as a servant to the trustees, and did not prove amenable to Ferrers' personal wishes. On 18 January 1760, Johnson called at the earl's mansion at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, by appointment, and was directed to his lordship's study. Here, after some business conversation, Lord Ferrers shot him. Johnson did not die immediately, but instead was given some treatment at the hall followed by continued verbal abuse from a drunken Ferrers before a Dr. Kirkland was able to convey him to his own home where he died the following morning.
In the following April, Ferrers was tried for murder by his peers in Westminster Hall, Attorney General Charles Pratt leading for the prosecution. Shirley's defence, which he conducted in person with great ability, was a plea of insanity, and it was supported by considerable evidence, but he was found guilty. According to Lord Orford, "Lord Ferrers was not mad enough to be struck with Lady Huntingdon's sermons. The Methodists have nothing to brag of his conversion, though Whitefield prayed for him." Ferrers subsequently said that he had only pleaded insanity to oblige his family, and that he had himself always been ashamed of such a defence.
On 5 May 1760, aged 39, dressed in a light-coloured suit embroidered with silver (the outfit he had worn at his wedding), he was taken in his own carriage from the Tower of London to Tyburn and there hanged by Thomas Turlis. There are several illustrations of the hanging. It has been said that as a concession to his rank the rope used was of silk. After the execution his body was taken to Surgeon's Hall for public exhibition and dissection. The execution was widely publicised in popular culture as evidence of equality of the law and the story of a wicked nobleman who was executed "like a common criminal" was told well into the 19th century.
The Tenth Earl, Sewallis Shirley, inherited as a boy of twelve in 1860, and reigned till 1911. It was his misfortune to live through what have been called the ‘coming down years’. This was a time, beginning about 1875, when poor harvests, cheap food imports and rising taxation decimated the fortunes of a great many old estates. He sold off four fifths of his land but insisted on living in grand style until the end. As a result, his successors lived here in much reduced circumstances and, in 1954, the Twelfth Earl, Robert Shirley, put his house and the 1500 remaining acres up for auction.
The Hall was sold for demolition, but was rescued by Leonard Cheshire to become a Cheshire Home. In 1980 the Home moved to purpose built premises in nearby Netherseal, and the Hall was converted to a Sue Ryder Hospice. This closed in 2002 and the Blunt family bought the property to turn it back into a family home in 2003.
** – Holy Trinity Chapel – **
By AD 1122 the Augustinian Priory of Breedon on the Hill had a dependent chapelry at Staunton. Breedon was a house of Nostell Priory, which surrendered all its properties to the Crown in 1539 in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Sir Robert Shirley, 4th Baronet had the present Church of England chapel of the Holy Trinity built in 1653. It is unusual for being built during the Commonwealth era and a notable example of Gothic survival architecture. Two inscriptions commemorate Sir Robert's efforts. One is in the chancel and reads Sir Robert Shirley Baronet Founder of this church anno domini 1653 on whose soul God hath mercy. The other is over the entrance and reads:
The exterior of the chapel is substantially buttressed, battlemented and pinnacled. The nave has a clerestory with square-headed Perpendicular Gothic windows. It is flanked by north and south aisles with windows of an earlier 14th century style and arcades of three bays. Although the architecture is Gothic the furnishings are Jacobean, including extensive panelling, box pews, the pulpit and a west gallery with an organ that predates the chapel. In the chancel is a monument with the white marble semi-reclining figure of Robert Shirley, Viscount Tamworth, who died in 1714.
The west tower is of three stages divided by string courses and has a ring of eight bells. George I Oldfield of Nottingham cast the fourth, fifth and sixth bells in 1669 and Immanuel Halton of South Wingfield, Derbyshire cast the third in 1717. Thomas I Mears of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry cast the treble, second, seventh and tenor bells in 1831. For technical reasons the bells are currently unringable.
In 1953 John Betjeman, later Sir John Betjeman, recorded on gramophone records, a talk broadcast by BBC Radio on the 30th December 1953. It celebrated the Tercentenary of the founding of the Church. While extolling the beauty of the Church and praising the “Catholic and reformed" Church of England he railed a little against Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans.
Staunton Harold is part of the Benefice of the Church of St Mary and St Hardulph, Breedon on the Hill. Holy Trinity is now a redundant church and a property of the National Trust.
** – Visiting – **
** – Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts – **
The first crafts unit in the Georgian Stable block was established in 1974. There are now 16 businesses covering a wide range of disciplines and we are recognised as a true ‘making’ centre. All businesses are run independently. Please check individual workshops for opening times.
** – Stable Block Tearooms – **
Staunton Stables Tea Room was established by the current owners in 1984 and is set in the Ferrers Centre which is a stable block converted to a group of craft units and workshops set behind Staunton Harold Hall in the beautiful vale of Staunton Harold. Friendly service is offered by the well established team of dedicated staff in the beautifully converted old stables to Staunton Harold Hall.
A range of coffees made with freshly ground beans and accompanied by bacon baps, toasted crumpets or toasted teacakes is offered from 10am onwards. Homemade specials such as Sunday roasts, shepherd’s pie, chilli, quiches and jacket potatoes are offered from 12 noon and homemade cakes and a variety of teas served in beautiful crockery are served throughout the day.
They pride ourselves on their fabulous team of staff and on using local suppliers for all their meats, dairy products, bakery and greengrocery. They look forward to welcoming both established and new customers and visitors to the delightful and unique vale of Staunton Harold. Proprietors Michael and Alison Kemp.
** – Getting There – **
The Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts is situated on the Leicestershire / Derbyshire border between Ashby de la Zouch and Melbourne off the B587. Their postcode for Sat Navs is LE65 1RU but they are finding that some do better with LE65 1RW. The Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts is sign posted with brown tourist signs from all directions (look for the anvil symbol). Parking is in the Estate Car Park – charges apply at weekends and Bank Holidays only. Charges are £1.00 for 1 hours and £2.00 for 2hours or more; parking remains free of charge in the week. Limited disabled parking is available directly opposite the centre, with good access to the studios and tea rooms.
Location : Staunton Harold Estate, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, LE65 1RW
Transport: Willington (National Rail) then 7 miles (taxi). Bus routes: No buses nearby.
Opening Times Holy Trinity Chapel : Weekends 13:00 - 16:30
Opening Times Ferrers Centre : See Individual Venues above.
Tickets : Free.
Tel. Ferrers Centre: 01332 864 863
Tel. Holy Trinity Church: 01332 863 822