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Written by Paul Elliott, Lecturer in History, Identity, Conflict and Representation Research Centre   
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The Firs, 320 Burton Road, Derby: A nineteenth-century house and estate
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1.                  Residence of the Abney family

The association between The Firs and the Abney family is very well documented and of national significance. The Abney family had a distinguished pedigree and were originally seated at Abney in-the Peak at about the time of the Norman Conquest. Family property and possessions are very well documented in standard publications such as Burke’s Peerage and in manuscript material at various county record offices. Sir Edward Abney, became a well-known judge, whilst his younger brother, Sir Thomas Abney, served as Lord Mayor and MP for London, and Willesley in Derbyshire, the estate remaining in the family for nearly 600 years). William Wootton Abney who died at Measham Hall, Ashby-de la Zouch (then in Derbyshire) in 1866 aged 59, was the eldest son of William Wootton Abney, Captain in the Royal Horse Guards Blue, by Elizabeth, daughter of William Richardson of Fulford House in York, and was born in 1807. He was a J.P. and D.L. for the counties Derby and Leicester, and was High Sheriff of the former county in 1847. He married, in 1828, Helen Joan Sinclair, eldest daughter of James Buchanan of Craigend Castle, co. Dumbarton.[1]

The Rev. Edward Abney (1811-1892) who resided at The Firs, was a younger son of the Abneys of Measham and Willesley Halls – both then situated within Derbyshire. He married Agnes Mathilda, daughter of Edward William Smith of Tickton Hall, near Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 4 August 1864. They had one son and two daughters. After Agnes’s death in 1888, he married Mary Louisa, daughter of the Revd Eward Nathaniel Mead, of East Barnet, Hertfordshire, on 3 December 1889. They had a daughter. Edward Abney was appointed vicar of St Alkmund’s, Derby, in 1841 upon the death of the leading Tory vicar (and three times mayor of Derby) Rev. Charles Stead Hope, being presented to this by his father in law Jedediah Strutt. He seems to have lived at The Firs until 1866 choosing to live there rather than the St. Alkmund’s Vicarage, when his son inherited the family estate at Measham. He then resigned his living and retired there. Maxwell Craven has noted that Edward was a pioneer in the use of photographs to record topography. Edward was introduced to Francis Mundy’s brother-in-law, William Henry Fox-Talbot, of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, probably at Markeaton Hall, the former’s seat. At this stage, Fox-Talbot was married to Mundy’s sister, Constance and was only the second man (the first British person) ever to take and fix a photographic image. He had managed this only two years before the Abneys moved to Derby. Edward Abney rapidly became enthusiastic about his friend’s new invention and the two of them took to touring the countryside, photographing the scenery and old buildings, using Fox-Talbot’s “Talbotype” method, and various photographs have been attributed to this period. With Richard Keene the Derby photographer, Edward Abney founded the Derby Photographic Society which encouraged the work of his son William Abney.[2]

William Abney was born at the Firs on July 24, 1843, the eldest of five children. His mother was Katherine, a daughter of the younger Jedediah Strutt and a great-niece of the Derby industrialist William Strutt, of St Helen’s House (brother of Joseph Strutt and son of Jedediah Strutt whose fortune, of course, had come from the family textile mills in Belper, Derby and elsewhere). In 1861, William Abney was commissioned into the Royal Engineers, serving in India until 1867 and in 1871, he was appointed instructor in telegraphy at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham and also engaged in research in chemistry and photography. There he soon added chemistry and photography to his portfolio. In 1877, the then Captain Abney became inspector of science schools with the South Kensington Department of Science and Art, founded by Prince Albert, resigning his commission in 1881. He was knighted for his work on the teaching of science in schools in 1900 and was elected FRS in 1876 for his photographic and chemical work, receiving the society’s Count Rumford Medal in 1882 and serving four terms as president of the Royal Photographic Society and one as president of the Physical Society.[3]