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78 Derngate Revisited

A Georgian House that will fascinate fans of architecture, history, interior design and model trains, 78 Derngate has something for everyone as Ann Evans reveals.

Pic-1.-W.J.Bassett-Lowke-and-his-wife-Florence-Jane.-Photo-courtesy-of-78-Derngate
W.J.Bassett-Lowke-and-his-wife-Florence-Jane.-Photo-courtesy-of-78-Derngate

Northamptonshire has its fair share of castles and stately homes, yet a simple four-story terraced Georgian house in the centre of Northampton is one that is brimming with history – a history that is relevant to so many of us. Especially anyone who as a child had a Bassett-Lowke model train or ship to play with.

78 Derngate, now a Grade II* Listed Building was the first house bought by Mr Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953) for himself and his wife, Florence Jane. He had ambitions to buy a new house, but in 1916 bought 78 Derngate for £250, a house situated in a part of town where other business people resided – particularly those in the shoe industries which the town was famous for.

Pic-2.-Bassett-Lowke-War-Work.-Pic-courtesy-of-78-Derngate
Bassett-Lowke-War-Work.-Pic-courtesy-of-78-Derngate

He however had come from an engineering background but rather than going into heavy engineering like his father, Joseph Tom Lowke, his passion was for model engineering. As a young man, he, along with H.F.R.Franklin and help from W.J’s father, set up the company Bassett-Lowke Ltd which went on to become one of the country’s largest suppliers of model railways, garden railways, model ships and exhibition models which became famous the world over. As not only were the models much loved play-things for thousands of young boys and their dads, they played a vital role in two world wars.

Pic-3.-The-famous-nameplate-known-by-many-toy-collectors.-Pic-courtesy-of-Rob-Tysall
The-famous-nameplate-known-by-many-toy-collectors.-Pic-courtesy-of-Rob-Tysall

Owing to their skill and expertise the Bassett-Lowke company was the perfect choice to be deployed in invaluable model making for the Ministry of Defence. During the First World War, models ranged from waterline ships for recognition purposes to machine guns allowing new recruits to learn how to assemble and operate them without needing the real thing which were so urgently needed at the front line.

In the Second World War many more models were produced for instructional purposes and the larger ones enabled the military to plan D-Day in secrecy. All of this and more was produced by Bassett-Lowke Ltd.

Pic-4.-The-lounge-hall-rich-with-Charles-Rennie-Mackintoshs-decor.-Pic-courtesy-of-Rob-Tysall
The-lounge-hall-rich-with-Charles-Rennie-Mackintoshs-decor.-Pic-courtesy-of-Rob-Tysall

Once in his new home, W.J. Bassett-Lowke wasted no time in having his house re-designed. He commissioned the now famous Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh to re-design his home. Mackintosh transformed the house into a work of art with his iconic modernist styles and visions. It is believed Mr Bassett-Lowke paid Mackintosh £600 for his work. Today, 78 Derngate is renowned for being the only house in England remodelled by the famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

As a keen writer and photographer, Bassett-Lowke was proud of his uniquely styled and furnished home. He took photographs of the rooms, before and after, showing how it had been restyled so beautifully. These images formed a series of articles in The Ideal Home magazine in 1920.

Pic-5.-Basset-Lowkes-kitchen
Basset-Lowkes-kitchen

This incredibly informative record of how Charles Rennie Mackintosh remodelled the house has been a godsend in more recent times to the Friends of 78 Derngate when they set about bringing the house back to its former glory. The photographs and magazine articles enabled them to analyse in great detail the furniture and furnishings that Mackintosh designed for Mr Bassett-Lowke. So detailed, that Friends of 78 Derngate have been able to restore every room in his house to how it was when he lived there, using original fittings and furnishings or replicas. A great deal of the original furniture is in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Pic-6.-Lighting-Mackintosh-style
Lighting-Mackintosh-style

Mr and Mrs Bassett-Lowke remained at 78 Derngate until 1926, when they sold it for £995 and moved into what was the first modernist house in the UK, New Ways, taking with them some of their favourite Rennie Mackintosh pieces.

With the help of a National Lotteries grant, Friends of 78 Derngate have taken over the two properties either side – numbers 80 and 82, to provide the space for the visitors’ centre, museum and restaurant to be added. As you take a tour and meander through the buildings, it’s fascinating to see the wonderful combination of two great minds – W.J. Bassett-Lowke and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Pic-7.-Bassett-Lowke-Art.-Pic-courtesy-of-78-Derngate
Bassett-Lowke-Art.-Pic-courtesy-of-78-Derngate

Christine Sanderson is a member of the 78 Derngate committee, a tour guide and an expert and enthusiast on the work of W.J. Bassett-Lowke. She has recently launched her second book entitled: Bassett-Lowke – War Work. The Making of an Identity. Her first book is Bassett-Lowke Art. The Making of an Identity.

She explained that it all started with her going on Northampton Radio, hoping to find people who worked for Bassett-Lowke. “Another renowned figure who worked with him at the time was skilled model maker E.W.Twining; and I was so pleased when his great-grandson’s wife contacted me. We met up and she showed me a Bassett-Lowke catalogue cover that Twining had designed. This started me wondering about all the other catalogues.”

Pic-8.-Christine-Sanderson-with-her-first-Bassett-Lowke-book-at-the-rear-of-78-Derngate.-Pic-by-Rob-Tysall.
Christine-Sanderson-with-her-first-Bassett-Lowke-book-at-the-rear-of-78-Derngate.-Pic-by-Rob-Tysall.

Christine went on a year-long quest to source these rare catalogues and acquire the necessary copyright permissions to use them in her book. She added, “I was really lucky as everyone was so helpful and these people have been acknowledged at the end of the book.”

Her Bassett-Lowke Art book features over 80 colourful pages illustrating the work of those artists who were famous in the engineering and art world such as Henry Greenly, Cecil J. Allen, Edward McKnight Kauffer and of course Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Her second book, Bassett-Lowke – War Work. The Making of an Identity, covers the extent and importance of the work undertaken by the artisans of Bassett-Lowke Ltd and their associated companies Winteringham Ltd and E W Twining Ltd.  The work, undertaken mostly with the utmost secrecy, bearing in mind the shortage of materials, makes for an incredible story.

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Pic-9.-Bassett-Lowke-War-Work
Bassett-Lowke-War-Work

She said, “I have been very lucky to have been loaned a lot of ephemera from the Bassett-Lowke Society and various other sources. It took a lot of research and time to find the information, but as it was completed during lockdown it was, of course, a very quiet time which gave me the opportunity to concentrate on the book.” 

She added that printing for both books was generously funded by ‘The Friends of 78 Derngate’ enabling all proceeds from the book to go directly to 78 Derngate.

She now has another two books in the pipeline, Bassett-Lowke Advertising and Stationery. “Whether they will get published remains to be seen, depending on whether the finances for printing can be obtained.  But at least the information is gathered together and can be kept in the 78 Derngate archives for future reference. This is really what my books are about, to save the information so it will not be lost.”  

Pic-10.-Christine-Sanderson-with-her-latest-book-Bassett-Lowke-War-Work.-Pic-courtesy-of-78-Derngate.
Christine-Sanderson-with-her-latest-book-Bassett-Lowke-War-Work.-Pic-courtesy-of-78-Derngate.

Both books are available from the 78 Derngate website. Bassett-Lowke Art – The Making of an Identity costs £7.50 +pp; Bassett-Lowke – War Work – The Making of an Identity costs £9.99 +pp.  www.78derngate.org.uk/shop

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