The locally renowned Arts and Crafts architect Percy Heylyn Currey (1864-1942) was born into a well-established family of lawyers and architects. His uncle Henry was employed by the Duke of Devonshire as an architect and built a number of structures for the Duke in Buxton, while his other uncle William was a solicitor to the 6th Duke and handled much of his legal work in Derbyshire. Percy’s father Benjamin Scott Currey (1830-1910) was articled to his uncle William and when qualified moved from London to Derbyshire where the Duke set him up as a junior partner to John Barber of Derby. The firm prospered, becoming Barber & Currey operating from St. Michael’s Court, and tasked primarily with looking after the Duke’s legal business.
Benjamin married Helen Heygate in 1859 at St. Werburgh’s church, the daughter of Dr. James Heygate, a wealthy surgeon living in Friargate. The latter was anxious to settle some property on his daughter and grandchildren, and so in 1867 the two men purchased a 17 acre estate in Little Eaton and Henry Currey, the Duke’s architect, was called in to design the house known as Eaton Hill. The family moved there from Vernon Street and took up residence when the house was completed. Benjamin and Helen had seven children, five boys and two girls. Of the boys, Henry Erskine became a solicitor like his father, three became Anglican priests and remained single, and one, Percy, became an architect. The two girls never married and only Percy produced children.
Percy attended Derby School between 1875 and 1882 when the school was at its height under the headship of Rev. Walter Clark and during this time Percy developed an interest in drawing and studying old buildings as evidenced by his surviving sketchbooks, which contain a wealth of detailed drawings of local churches and prominent buildings. He toured the surrounding countryside on a bicycle during his leisure time and became an accomplished draftsman. Unlike his four brothers, he did not go to university but instead in 1883 became articled to a local architect (F J Robinson) for three years and then in 1887 secured the post of assistant to Sir Arthur Blomfield of Montagu Place, London and worked with him on new buildings at Repton School, before finally setting himself up in practice at 3 Market Place, Derby. Given his father’s wide circle of business connections and those of his three brothers in the church locally, he had every hope of making a success in his chosen profession.
Unsurprisingly then, his first known work is the entrance lodge to the family home at Eaton Hill in 1889, followed by a major restoration of Ilkeston parish church.
His first big solo commission came in 1889 to erect a new church at Borrowash, and soon after in 1891 he was appointed to build a new chapel at Derby School in memory of his old headmaster who died in 1889. The author remembers this building particularly well, being a pupil at the School from 1961 to 1966, and attending many services there, but never knew that the designer of the chapel was an Old Boy. Having lain empty and un-used for many years, the chapel was demolished in September 2017 to make way for new housing apartments.
During the 1890s commissions came thick and fast and Percy’s career took off, helped no doubt by his securing the post of Diocesan Surveyor in 1895, which ensured plenty of work from the church. His most productive period spanned the next twenty years and a list of his most important works is appended at the end of this brief article. Practically all of them are situated in Derbyshire and therefore relatively accessible. Those situated in Little Eaton will be examined in a later paragraph. As to the bare bones of professional biography, suffice it to say that in 1903 he went into partnership with fellow architect Charles Clayton Thompson and in 1907 he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
But what of the man himself? What do we know of him? Fortunately, there are some diaries as well as the copious sketchbooks, from which we can glean some idea of his personality and the sort of man he was. Clearly the boy was father to the man and his interest in buildings was firmly established during his schooldays. He was also a man who loved the countryside and no-where more so than his beloved Little Eaton, as the pages of his diary testify to rambles and walks along the local footpaths with family members who shared his passions for walking, cycling and even river bathing.
He was a keen member of the Derby Archaeological Society and served for thirty years as its secretary, publishing several articles on a variety of architectural topics. As a member of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, he undertook a number of projects to rescue or repair endangered or damaged buildings – such as Wilne church and St. Mary’s Bridge chapel. He was also fond of his old school, and attended many of the Old Derbeian Society functions, like speech days, dinners and school plays and finally became President in 1925.
Here in Little Eaton he sang in the church choir, served as churchwarden, and also Chairman of the parish council from 1921-37. Clearly, he was very much a man who felt he had roots in the local landscape, and so it will come as no surprise to find that he carried out a good deal of building hereabouts. Much of it was of a “bread and butter” nature that any architect of the time would be bound to undertake but which leaves no mark today and can only be discerned from random diary entries referring to erecting stables, surveying ground, repairing walls or renovating dilapidations. Much work was done of this kind for his siblings and therefore is not part of the more public work that he carried out, though it is believed he built a number of the extensions to the rear of The Poplars, a fine Georgian house opposite Elms Farm, where his elder brother Harry Erskine lived for a dozen or so years after marrying in 1897. Percy also married at St. Anne’s church in the same year, to Augusta Leacroft, the daughter of a doctor, and known later by the family as “Emmie.”
With the birth of his three children, Charlotte Maisie (1899), John Heylyn (1901), and Joyce Mary (1902), it became necessary for him to acquire larger premises, so in 1911 he built a new house in the Lutyen’s style on a piece of land with a fine view to the south and named it after the field name on which it stood – The Hatherings.
Prior to this Percy had lived with his parents at Eaton Hill, but now as a married man he needed a home of his own and so moved to a previously tenanted farm on the estate known as Wyndesmore. Here he substantially extended and expanded the farm cottage to create an attractive little villa in the Arts and Crafts style that he went on to make so much his own.
The latter is probably his finest domestic creation, though a villa he built for a Midland Railway official Edward Letchford bordering the Arboretum in Loudon Street runs a close second and is certainly worth visiting. However, it is now sub-divided into flats and much of the interior decoration has unfortunately been lost.
The finest collection of Currey’s work in Derby is to be found at the site of the former Diocesan Training College on Uttoxeter Road (now converted and sublet to a series of business and offices) where throughout his career he was called in to add a series of buildings as the College expanded. The chapel of 1900 bears a striking similarity to the Derby School chapel in red brick with gritstone embellishments, but with a battlemented parapet. It was deconsecrated in 1985 and now used as a workshop. Flanking it is a veritable cornucopia of Currey’s work, comprising of a number of lecture rooms, accommodation blocks, dominated by a splendid Practice School of 1905, which displayed his hallmark predilection for steep tiled roofs, depressed gables and expansive fenestration. It was regrettably demolished in 1997 to make room for a series of undistinguished apartment blocks.
However, the remarkable Gymnasium of 1914 still survives with its lofty brick buttressing, but for how long? This ensemble was rightly praised by the builder and Derby Architect F H Thorpe, who commented: “The Training College buildings and schools are admitted to be splendidly planned and carried out – the Schools being the best in this county of their kind.” Pevsner in his 1953 book on the architecture of Derbyshire, whilst stating that of the 20th century, “there is nothing of note,” goes on to add, “except the sound and sensitive” work of P H Currey, “an architect worthy of being better known.”
The same year (1914) he designed St. Mary’s church at Buxton, perhaps his most perfect church, with sweeping roofs, and little dormer windows looking more like hooded eyebrows, giving the whole a perfect cottage-like appearance.
Thereafter he undertook few major commissions and was content to concentrate more on restoration work, but his affection for his native village was manifested in a simple but beautifully designed lych-gate for St. Paul’s church, erected in 1922 in honour of those who fell in the Great War.
His parents and sisters were buried in the churchyard, as were two of his children, so when Percy died in 1942 at the age of 78, he too found interment there, but of his grave no record remains. It is believed that the fragile wooden headboards he erected for his sisters were copied to mark his own final resting place. An unfortunate decision, as his headboard failed to survive the rigours of wind and rain. Although his grave is unmarked and now lost, he needs no monument, as his many buildings surely stand as fitting memorials to this worthy son of Little Eaton.
Brief Gazetteer of Major Works
St. Stephen’s church, Borrowash – 1889
St. John the Evangelist, Ilkeston – 1893
Diocesan Training College chapel, Derby – 1900
St. Peter’s church, Stonebroom – 1900
Christ church, Holloway – 1901
St. Osmund’s church, Derby – 1904
St. Anne’s church vicarage, Highfield Road, Derby -1906
Diocesan Training College, Practising School - 1905
Villa, 28 Loudon Street, Derby – 1907
The Hatherings, Little Eaton – 1911
Diocesan Training College Gymnasium, Derby – 1914
St. Mary’s church, Buxton – 1914
St. Bartholomew’s church, Derby – 1920
St. Stephen’s church, Sinfin, Derby – 1935
Maxwell Craven, (Derby Civic Society). Chris Stone, George and Mary Drew (LE)
Special thanks to Andrew Polkey the author of the above.