The Ports of Etwall

Roger Dalton

Published in Derbyshire Miscellany 2014


The name Port has been associated with Etwall since the end of the fifteenth century. Both Sir John Ports ,father and son, lived in Etwall between 1495 and 1557 (see Figure 1). The first Sir John (c1472-1540) received an estate in Etwall including the land on which the former Etwall Hall was to be built. As increasingly wealthy lawyers the Ports then acquired further lands and properties in and around south Derbyshire. On his death in 1557 the second John Port (c1500-1557) is well known for willing the means which led to the foundation of the Almshouses in Etwall and a Grammar School at Repton, now Repton School, in addition to many other bequests. This Sir John had no male heir so he was succeeded by his elder daughter Elizabeth and her husband Sir Thomas Gerard who became manorial lord. However the charities which, over the centuries, have variously supported the Almshouses and the School have continued to carry the name Port. In 1955 Etwall Hall and its grounds were acquired by Derbyshire County Council and it is now the site of the John Port School, one of the largest state secondary
schools in England.


Figure 1 Family Tree of the Ports of Etwall simplified from Baker p. xxii.


The first John Port was the son of Henry Port of Chester a successful mercer and mayor of the city well able to support John in legal studies at the Inner Temple in London.  There, in 1494, John Port became associated with John Fitzherbert  (1435-1502) originally of Norbury, who was King’s Remembrancer,  and in the following year he married Fitzherbert’s widowed daughter Jane after the death of her first husband John Pole of Radbourne.  Baker suggests that Port’s connection with Fitzherbert arose from legal work on behalf of Cockayne of Ashbourne but the consequences were profound as following his marriage John Port received at least some portion of the Fitzherbert estate in Etwall.  Charters from the turn of the fifteenth century indicate two transfers of land and property to John Port. The first of these, dated  1495,  involved 100 acres of land (arable) , 60 acres of pasture, 20 acres of meadow, a windmill, a horse mill and 5 messuages  at a cost of 200 while the second  was for further lands which cost 160.  Henry Port may have had a hand in the financing of these transactions.  In about 1446 John Fitzherbert  had received lands and property in Etwall from the Nottinghamshire Priory of Beauvale  which had held the manor of Etwall from   1370. By 1468 Fitzherbert was described as ‘of Etwall’ indicative of close association and perhaps residence in the village.  Included in the land made over to John Port  was an area described as lying between a stream on its west side, the Etwall Brook, and the common well, the  Etwall Town Well,  on the east side, the latter being central to Etwall village and its church of St Helen. In this way the site and grounds of the former Etwall Hall, now the John Port School, plus other lands came into the possession of the first John Port in 1495.


         Figure 2 Arms of Port

The estate acquired on John Port’s marriage enabled the family to enter the landed gentry in south Derbyshire and in 1506 it was his father Henry Port who obtained a coat of arms (Figure 2), ‘Azur a fess engrailed between three eagles close, each holding in its beak a cross formy fitchy or’ which on his death in 1512 was incorporated into a monumental brass to his memory in the church in Etwall.  John Port’s first wife Jane Port died in 1528 having born him three daughters, Elizabeth, Ellen and Barbara and a son John. Port’s second childless marriage was in 1531 to Margery daughter of Sir Edmund Trafford. Travelling frequently from his domestic base in Etwall John Port developed a distinguished legal career which saw him knighted in 1525. In the north Midlands he was Commissioner for the Peace in Derbyshire, Judicial Commissioner and Recorder for Nottingham, Deputy Justice for Sherwood Forest, Surveyor of Duffield Frith and Surveyor of the Honour of Tutbury and Needwood Chase. He was appointed King Henry VIII’s first Solicitor-General in 1509 and, based in chambers near the Inner Temple, became much involved in state affairs. In 1521 he was made Serjeant at Law and a member of the Serjeant’s Inn, an Assize Commissioner   and Assize Judge on the Northern Circuit, later moving to the Oxford Circuit with his son John as joint clerk. In 1538 he became chief justice of Lancaster. Early in the 1500s he was among those who endowed the new foundation of Brasenose College Oxford. Baker suggests his involvement with the College to be indicative of religious conservatism, indeed Catholic sympathies are evident in the later history of the family despite which John Port helped to enforce reformation legislation as a member of Star Chamber which in the 1530s dealt with opponents of the policies of King and Parliament.


John Port’s legal career was profitable and enabled the extension of his initial property portfolio acquired from John Fitzherbert to include lands in Burnaston,  Trusley and  Hilton as well as Etwall and also  manors in the northwest inherited from his father. Baker notes at least 22 further acquisitions of land and manors mainly in Derbyshire but also in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. At the Dissolution, and just two weeks before his death in 1540 and for 434 13s 4d, John Port was granted the manor of Etwall from Beauvale and the rectory and advowson of Etwall Church which had been in the possession of Welbeck Abbey since 1170.  It is not known whether John Fitzherbert of Etwall had built a house or hall on the lands acquired from Beauvale in the mid fifteenth century, but it is certain that Sir John Port did so. However there is no record as to the appearance of the Port Hall which was rebuilt, initially in latter seventeenth century by Sir Samuel Sleigh, manorial lord of Etwall 1646 -1679, using sandstone brought from the slighted Tutbury Castle. Further modification took place between 1717 and 1726 at the instigation of Sleigh’s grandson Samuel Cheetham under the direction of the architect Francis Smith of Warwick.  The internal arrangement of Etwall Hall appears not to have been surveyed when it was pulled down in 1955 to make way for the John Port School complex. However in 1899 the Hall was described as featuring ‘an ingeniously contrived priest’s hole with secret communication with the cellar and roof accessed from behind the fireplace in the master bedroom’. This and a tunnel between the Hall cellars and the nearby St Helen’s Church are referred to by Henderson, resident in Etwall in 1955.  Such features would have dated from the time of the Tudor Hall and certainly would have reflected catholic leanings of the Ports and more especially the Gerards into whom the second John Port’s daughter Elizabeth married.


On Sir John Port’s death in 1540 his estate passed to his son John.  He was twice married, firstly to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Gyfford (otherwise Gifford) of Chillington in Staffordshire, and secondly to Dorothy widowed daughter of Sir Anthony Fitzherbert.  He died in June 1557 without a male heir but was survived by three daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth, Dorothy and Margaret. His career in the law was facilitated by his father as in 1524 he went up to Brasenose College in Oxford with one of the scholarships founded by his father and in 1528 he was admitted to the Inner Temple.  Thereafter he entered the service of Thomas Cromwell and was knighted as a member of the Order of the Bath in 1547. He was a Member of Parliament for Derbyshire on two occasions and also Sherriff of the County. He added to the Port possessions in South Derbyshire by the acquisition of Cubley through his first wife and the purchase of interest in the manors of Milton and Repton in 1553. However the full extent of the Port estate at the time of his death is unclear.


John Port II’s will  was penned in 1556 some 15 months before his death in 1557. His wish, which was fulfilled, was to be buried in Etwall Church within six months of his death in ‘a comely and handsome tomb of pure marble’ positioned to the right of his father’s tomb.  John Port’s Executors were named as his father in law, Sir Thomas Gyfford, his solicitor nephew Richard Harpur,  William Brewster, vicar of Etwall, and his ‘faithful and trusty servants’ John Harker and Simon Starkey. The Executors were placed under obligation of 3,000 within one month of Port’s decease to Sir Thomas Fitzherbert, Francis Courson (Curzon of Kedleston) and William Fitzherbert ‘to perform this will without delay’. In addition they were to address the first John Port’s will ‘in every article, sentence, letter, title and clause by me not done and performed shall be observed and fulfilled’.  To assist the Executors Port willed that ‘they shall have and occupy my house in Etwall for one year’. Clearly Port was seeking to ensure that his wishes would be carried out quickly and to the letter and was perhaps aware that they might not find full favour with his surviving family.


The best known of Port’s bequests led to the foundation of the Almshouses in Etwall and the Repton School. To finance these institutions Port’s executors and their successors were to receive three Lancashire properties, Mosley, now in Tameside Greater Manchester, and Abraham and Brockhurst’, now both in Wigan, on condition of their ‘finding a priest well learned and graduate and of honest and virtuous conversation freely to keep a Grammar School in Etwall or Repton to say Mass thrice a week’. Additionally they were required to build a stone School House plus chambers and lodgings but in the event the Executors purchased for 37/10/- the site of the former Priory in Repton from Gilbert Thacker who had caused the priory buildings to be pulled down fearing revival of religious houses under catholic Queen Mary.  However the Guest Chamber and Prior’s Lodging were still serviceable and were adapted for school use. The   Master of the school, to which position Port nominated his former chaplain Sir William Perryn , was to receive 20 annually and the Usher 10. The scholars were to be required to pray morning and afternoon for Port’s soul, and for the souls of his wife and children.


John Port willed that an Almshouse ‘be builded in or near to the churchyard in Etwall’ and the present site to the north of St Helen’s Church was seemingly obtained without difficulty. Henderson and Robinson refer to church houses, ‘St Eleyn houses’ in Etwall in 1527 so there may have been a tradition of ‘charitable’ housing here.  Port further willed that ‘six of the poorest of Etwall Parish shall have twenty pence a piece weekly over and besides an Almshouse. The Executors were to take his properties and the farm at Musden Grange near Ashbourne for seven years and to use the profits therefrom to find a priest to pray for the souls of Port and his parents in his Chapel in Etwall St Helen.


A number of Port’s smaller bequests appear to have recognised that the dissolution of monastic institutions had removed the long established basis for the support of the needy. Every week for three years after Port’s death 12 pence was to be given to poor prisoners in the Common Gaol for Nottingham and Derbyshire. Provision was also made for thirteen of the poorest drawn from Dalbury and Lees, Hilton and Repton to receive a penny every Friday for three years following the saying High Mass at Etwall. In the event of honest householders in these places being found to be in a state of ‘decay and poverty’ they were to receive twenty six shillings and eight pence. Three score maidens resident on Port owned land in Derby and Chester were to have an angel or noble or 10 shillings on marriage.  Port’s servants and tenants in Etwall and Burnaston were to be given a black coat as was every person in his livery while house servants were to have 40 shillings and a black coat. Of five named tenants three were left 20 shillings and two 40 shillings while Port’s godson John Collier was to have 5 marks. Henry Woodward was to have the farm at Cubley.


In addition to seeking prayers for himself and family John Port benefited local churches and their incumbents. Sir Thomas Otway, parson of  Dalbury, received  5 marks to offer prayers on Port’s behalf and also a vestment of silk. The churches at Repton, Hilton, and Sutton also received vestments.  St Helen’s at Etwall was to receive 23shillings and 4 pence from lands and tenements in Burnaston for a ‘perpetual lamp for oil and light ever burning before the most blessed and holy sacrament’.  Thomas Brewster the Vicar of Etwall was bequeathed 3 6s 8d, as well as 20 from the first John Port’s will,  while the church gained a vestment cloth of gold, two other cloths to cover the sepulchre and a brass plaque for his father’s tomb.


Port’s Executors were instructed to make and finish the churchyard wall in Etwall with gates to keep out cattle and swine. The bridges and highways about the town of Etwall were to be repaired ‘special betwixt the Town and Radbourne and the bridges towards Hilton’. A causey of stone pebbles and well gravelled the same for carts,  wains or horses was to be constructed ‘from Etwall town until Portal Hill leading towards Mickleover’ to be  paid for by 20 shillings  from lands at Burnaston. A further 20 shillings  a year ‘forth my lands in Repton’ was specified towards the maintaining, repairing and upholding of Swarkestone Bridge if I have male issue otherwise 10 and then 10s annually’,  the latter presumably being the case. The roll of the Prior of Repton as Surveyor of the Tolls for Swarkestone Bridge had expired at the Dissolution so such support was evidently necessary.


Brasenose College at Oxford was to receive 200 while further amounts of money went to members of Sir John Port’s family. His wife Dorothy was bequeathed 100 plus unspecified goods and chattels and each of the three daughters 100.  Port’s godson John Francis was named for 40 marks and forgiveness of debts, Sir Thomas Gifford his father in law 10, Richard and John Harpur lands in Cheshire and 200 marks, Jane Harpur 100 marks, Francis Courson of Kedleston 20, Richard Pole a cup of silver worth 5marks, John Port of ‘Ylam’ 10 and his cousins Hugh and Sir Henry Brothercome a black gown and 20 shillings.


The Will therefore lists beneficiaries the greater numbers of whom were to receive single sums of money or often lesser amounts over a period of years. The total willed for immediate payment exceeded 930 but taking account of amounts payable over a number of years plus gowns, coats etc the total committed would have been in the region of 1,000.   John Port’s wife, Dorothy, and his three daughters were to receive the modest sum of 100 each and their expectation could well have been to have greater benefit from the landed estate. However the will does not specify John Port’s wishes with regard to the manor of Etwall, the Hall and the considerable estate of lands, manors,  messuages etc. except for those bequests to be realised through income from assets at specific locations.


The Will specified that the Executors had the use of Etwall Hall for one year but presumably Port’s widow continued to live there. However within six days of Port’s death his youngest daughter Margaret married Sir Thomas Stanhope in Etwall Church. They were aged 14 and 17 respectively and lived in Etwall Hall before moving briefly to the Port manor of Cubley in the early 1560s.  In 1569 the Port daughters and their husbands entered a formal agreement with respect to the destination of Etwall manor to the advantage of Elizabeth and Sir Thomas Gerard: ‘the like for George Hastings, knight, Dorothy his wife, Thomas Stanhope and Margaret his wife, to alienate the Manore of Etwall, the Manore of Dalbury Alias Dalburie Lees and lands there, to Thomas Gerard and Elizabeth his wife and the heirs and assigns of Elizabeth’. Sir John Port’s daughter Elizabeth and her recusant husband Sir Thomas Gerard subsequently used Etwall Hall as their Derbyshire seat.


The requirement that the Executors were to proceed quickly with their task of establishing the Almshouses and  School using funds from the estate of lands etc evidently led to tension between them and the Port co-heiresses and their husbands. By 1558 the two parties were seeking judgement in Chancery Court regarding the manors of Mossley and Abram and Brockhurst and also Derbyshire properties in connection with the founding of the School and Hospital.  This proceeding took a number of years but did not impinge on the implementation of the Will.  Income from other assets was available to the Executors which are listed in the agreement of 1621 by which a Corporation was established as the body to administer the Almshouses and School.  In addition to the three Lancashire manors the following locations in Derbyshire are named: Radbourn, Parwich, Middleton, Wirksworth, Winster, Trusley, Caldwell, Marston, Tutbury, Bupton, Longford, Ashbourne, Clifton, Compton, Stenson, Rodsley, Aston on Trent, Normanton. The assets are described as messuages, lands, rent, tenements and  heriditements.  It is conceivable that the Executors may have drawn just a proportion of the income realised and that the co-heiresses may have received benefit. Initially the income available to them was put at 71 annually but by 1621 it had risen to 214.


Cobbing and Priestland suggest that the nomination of income from the farm at Musden Grange for seven years to finance the School and Almshouses delayed settling the jointure between Margaret Port and her husband Thomas Stanhope, a situation which would have also applied to her two sisters and their husbands. However the co-heiresses must have gained a share of the estate as Margaret Port wrote after her husband Stanhope’s death in 1596 ‘I brought to my husband a thousand marks by year of good land his estate then being so mean…. He was not able to make me above 60 a year for my jointure’. However disagreement was to continue well into the seventeenth century. Sir Thomas Gyfford died in 1560 and thereafter Richard Harpur took over the administration of the Almshouse and School, a roll assumed by his son Sir John Harpur on his death in 1573. In 1614  the descendants of the co-heiresses were initiating proceedings against Sir John Harpur for inadequate administration of the John Port estate as a consequence Harpur surrendered his interest which facilitated the petition for the Charter  by which the Corporation was established. Sir John Harpur and his heirs were enabled to retain premises in Milton and Repton and a farm at Marston and was installed as the first governor of the Corporation. However he died in 1622 which allowed the management to be taken over jointly by the descendants of the marital families of John Port’s three daughters: Gerard, Huntingdon and Stanhope. 


Macdonald notes a lost a Bill of Chancery of 1629  by which the then Sir Thomas Gerard, grandson of Dorothy Port, sought the renewal of a lease which was seemingly the final episode of the  attempt by the Gerard, Huntingdon and Stanhope families to claim to themselves as much of the John Port estate as they could. Apparently the matter was settled out of court with lands being made over to Huntingdon and Stanhope and leases to Gerard.  Presumably the families were satisfied but equally the incomes available to the Corporation were sufficient to enable the rebuilding of the Almshouses in 1681 and to progress the development of the School in Repton. Sir John Port’s wishes were thus fulfilled and although he probably had no vision that the Almshouse and School would be jointly administered this remained the case until 1873/4 when an expanding Repton School was enabled to break from the Corporation and go its own way.

The School then became an even more significant feature of the fabric of Repton village. In Etwall the Almshouses offered a privileged refuge for the elderly the residents receiving housing, pension, and coals and nursing care. They were modernised in 1983 and continue in their original function in a quiet corner of the village.



   J.B. Henderson and E.R.Robinson, The Etwall Heritage, 1979.  A. Smith, Etwall, A Portrait of a Village, 1990.

    The only known images of the two Sir John Ports, their wives and families are to be found on their tombs in St Helen’s Church in Etwall.

    The second John Port’s will is transcribed in D.G. Edwards (ed) Derbyshire Wills 1393-1574,  Derbyshire Record Society 1998 and  R. Bigsby,  Historical and Topographical History of Repton, 1854  pp.156-162.

    Currently: Sir John Port’s Charity based at Repton School and the Sir John Port and John Osbourne Charity to support Etwall Almshouses.

    John Port’s career is summarised in the Introduction to J.H.Baker (ed) The Notebook of John Port,  Seldon Society 1986.  See also J.H. Baker, Port, Sir John, Dictionary of National Biography 2004 p.925.  Notes made by John Port in connection with his legal work are amongst the earliest surviving relating to English Law and are important from the perspective of legal history.

   Baker op cit xii-xiii.

   Ibid  xii.

   I.H.Jeayes, Derbyshire Charters, 1906,  nos 1203,1204,1285,1286.

   Cal Inq 18Henry VII, H.J.H. Garrett Derbyshire Feat of Fines 1323-1546 1983 and I.H.Jeayes  1906 op cit summarise a number of agreements between John Port and John Fitzherbert.

   Baker op cit xiv.

 Beauvale Charters  7 , Beauvale Society, Eastwood, Notts.  Most likely these date from around 1446 the year to which K. Cameron, Place Names of Derbyshire  vol iii 1959 p. 560 attributes the earliest record of the fields named in the indenture.

 Pat Rolls 1367-1370 451.

   K. Wilson-Lee Representations of Piety and Dynasty: Late Medieval Stained Glass and Sepulchral Monuments at Norbury, Derbyshire, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, 2011 p.228.

  This coat of arms features forms the basis of the crests of both the John Port School in Etwall and Repton School.

  Baker op cit xiv.

  Ibid xv-xvi.

  Jeayes op cit 1206.

  Baker op cit xix et seq.

  Welbeck Abbey see VCH Nottinghamshire, ii 1910 pp.105-109.

  M. Craven and M. Stanley, The Derbyshire Country House,  2004,   pp.95-97 provides a detailed account of the former Etwall Hall.

  Anon, Etwall Hall, Country Homes and Gardens Old and New, 1899.

   J.B.Henderson and E.R. Robinson 1979 op cit p.59.

  S.Glover, History and Gazeteer of Derbyshire, vol  ii  1833  p.153.

  A. Macdonald, A Short History of Repton 1929 indicates that the manor of Repton was divided and that Port may have only acquired a partial interest.

  D.G. Edwards (ed) 1998 op cit pp 108-114 and R. Bigsby 1854 op cit. The summary of the provisions of the Will has been based on these texts.

  As can be seen in St Helen’s Church in Etwall today.

  Musden Grange presumably received by John Port at the Dissolution is located to the west of the River Manifold on the bank opposite to the  property of the Port’s of Ilam.

  Macdonald 1929 op cit p.48.

  The purchasing power of 1 in 1560 is estimated to have been 300 times greater than today so the sum committed in John Port’s will was approximately 300,000.

 B.Cobbing and P.Priestland,  Sir Thomas Stanhope of Shalford, 2003  pp.196-7.

 Pat Rolls 1566-69 410.

  National Archives C3/71/65 Gyfford and others v Gerard and others.

  Bigsby op cit. pp.163-175 gives the complete text of the Charter of the Hospital of Etwall and School of Repton.

  Cobbing and Priestland op cit p.53.

  Ibid p.49.

  Macdonald, op cit pp. 93-4 indicates that proceedings by the descendants of the co-heiresses against Harpur in 1614 for maladministration made way for the Charter of 1621.

  ibid p. 93 states that this document no longer exists.

36 In 1681 the original buildings were replaced at the instigation of Samuel Sleigh Lord of Etwall Manor 1646-79. The rebuilt almshouses which stand today were 12 in number plus a wing of four   to the south added in the early eighteenth century. Each house comprised two rooms @ 14 feet square being one up and one down with a stairway.  There was also a house for the Master.