Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans
We start our story around 2500 years ago. The Celts had crossed Europe and settled in Britain. The local tribe of the Brigantes built fortifications in the Peak District such as Mam Tor and Castle Naze, which is above Combs, close to White Hall.
The old track running behind White Hall may have existed then, so that travellers could follow the safer high ground, rather than the riskier, heavily wooded Goyt valley route below, where bears, wolfs and hostile tribes may have been lying in wait. Perhaps there was some habitation at this point that was under the safe watch of the warriors garrisoned at Castle Naze.
We now journey through time by a thousand years. Castle Naze has new masters, the Romans, and the old track has been surfaced with stone and beaten earth to connect Aquae Arnemetiae (Buxton) and Mancumium (Manchester). Its course would have passed through White Hall grounds, following the back drive down to the Whaley Bridge road. The Romans established Buxton as a spa town and this suggests that the area had become relatively peaceful and prosperous now that the Celts had been banished to the Welsh Hills and Scottish North.
The Dark Ages followed the Romans and our only contact with this period is the base of a Saxon cross located near White Hall's back gate. This likely indicates an established Saxon route and perhaps a crossroads.
It is not until after the Norman Conquest in 1066 that any written references about White Hall appear. The Doomsday Book of 1068 reports that William Peveril was administrating the Peak Forest Estate from his castle at Castleton. However, it is not until 1216 that reference to a Richard de Whitehall as tenant appears. The name Whitehall or Wytehalles (as there is no standardisation of spelling at this time) is mentioned in a number of documents throughout the next 400 years, though it’s not until 1604 that we finally see White Hall appear on a map.
Elizabethan, Stuarts to the Georgians
In 1614, from a list of tithe payers, we know that Jo Lowe of Whitehall paid a fee of three pence. We don’t know what that fee was for, but it was common practice at that time to pay a fee or tax for keeping livestock, so an educated guess would be that there was a farm stead at White Hall during this period.
White Hall appears on a Charles I map from the 1640’s which also features Archers Wall that is located nearby. Legend has it that Robin Hood challenged local forestry officers to a contest at this place. The story is recounted in an old Derbyshire Ballard that mentions "Combs Moss and Buckstone Boss, a gritstone outcrop on the edge of the moss".
Around this time, the area is being tamed, trees are felled and agriculture and farming are prospering. This is reflected in a significant event that takes place in the local area in 1675 which witnesses the last wolf in England meeting its end in the Peak Forest area. The 1724 turnpike act mentions White Hall and the road passing through it that goes to Withen Lache, Elnor Lane and Whaley Bridge. This road is the only one to Buxton from Whaley Bridge until 1789.
Victorians, Edwardians and interwar period
Most of the buildings we see today were built between 1815, (the date is above the old stable block which is now used as the main stores and boot room) and 1851. In 1842, William Pass is the farmer at White Hall. There is one other owner until Henry Shaw, a devout Catholic, purchased the ‘estate’ in 1884. Shaw added the chapel and had sufficient wealth and influence to have the turnpike road, which followed the Roman road through White Hall grounds, redirected to its present location outside of the boundary walls.
Shaw died in 1900 and the estate passed to his son. In 1934, the Staveacres bought the property. They were 1930’s socialites, without the same Catholic tradition as the Shaw family. The White Hall chapel, so much part of the Shaw household, was used by the Staveacres to store gardening equipment! Today the chapel houses an indoor climbing wall. We aren’t sure which use Mr Shaw would have frowned upon on the most!
The Staveacres equipped the house with electric lighting powered from a generator. They also enjoyed trips in their open top Rolls Royce and lavish picnics in the countryside. The Staveacre family continued to live at White Hall until the beginning of the Second World War when the building was leased to Derbyshire County Council and used as a school for evacuees.
The war years - Guernsey's Elizabeth College in exile
Pupils from Guernsey's Elizabeth College for Boys were evacuated to White Hall during the Second World War. Over the intervening years, many an ex-pupil has knocked on the front door of White Hall wanting to take a look around and relive some of their memories. They were struck by the setting of the house near the moors and remember seeing snow for the first time in their lives.
Our last Elizabeth College old boy called by 10 years ago. It was fascinating to hear about his White Hall and which rooms were used for which classes etc. It was also enlightening to hear his recollection of leaving his parents and siblings behind on Guernsey that was war-torn and under German-occupation.
Time must have caught up with most of the ‘old boys’, however the impression of their stay must have been so powerful that we do sometimes get visits from their sons and daughters who had grown with stories of White Hall. In many ways, this was the beginning of White Hall as an inspirational place for young people to develop through new experiences and activities in the countryside. It certainly made an impression on the Guernsey old boys.
The beginnings of outdoor education
The power of sport and outdoor activities has long been used as an educational tool. From the fields of Eaton, Rugby and Harrow for the privileged, to Victorian ‘muscular Christianity’ where sport was used to instil morality, rules and values for the working classes. Baden Powell established the scouting movement in 1907 after a career as a military officer, he’d noticed how bush craft and outdoor survival techniques fostered greater independence and self-reliance in soldiers.
There are reports that Baden Powell actually spent two weeks visiting White Hall as part of his honeymoon tour of friends and family with his new wife. Kurt Hahn, a German educationalist who had been forced to leave his own country, used ideas from scouting and his own experiences as a head master in Germany to develop educational principles that used education outside the classroom as a core theme. He established Gordonstoun, an independent school in Scotland, on these principles.
He also created outward bound in 1941 after concern about the inferior survival rates of young seamen compared to their older compatriots in the north sea convoys. Kurt used outdoor activities to teach confidence, tenacity and perseverance to give young seamen the ability to survive. He later went onto develop the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme from a similar scheme already running at Gordonstoun.
The first local authority outdoor education centre: White Hall
Talented climber Jack Longland (later to be knighted) became the Director of Education for Derbyshire in 1949. Anyone who has climbed Longlands on Cloggy using modern equipment, or marvelled at how anyone could have climbed Javellin Blade on Idwal wearing boots from the 1930’s, will appreciate his exceptional ability! He was also an accomplished mountaineer and was on the 1933 Everest expedition where his leadership and courage were demonstrated when he led six sherpas down from near the summit at 8200 metres (27,000 feet) in white-out conditions.
The concept of outdoor learning and education for state educated students was new in the 1940's. Sir Jack had to convince Derbyshire's councillors of the benefits that an outdoor education centre would bring to the young people of the county. He presented his arguments at a full education committee meeting, and afterwards one Swadlincote councillor was so convinced that he is reported to have said that "I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them after leaving the meeting, had gone down to Sadler’s Gate to Wakefields and brought themselves a full rig-out, boots, anoraks, ropes, the lot!".
White Hall’s first residential outdoor education course ran in 1951 from 26 February to 2 March for a group of boys from Spring Bank School, New Mills. Walking to local rock faces or longer walks with bivouacs was the main transport of the day until a mini bus and old Land Rover were acquired. Over the next seven years, White Hall’s reputation grew as more Derbyshire young people came to stay and teachers reported back on the positive effects the experience had had on their students. The ‘educational experiment’ was seen as a success and began to be taken up by other local authorities.
Recognition for Derbyshire County Council and White Hall was to come in the form of Royal approval with a visit in 1958 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He watched a group canoeing on Whaley Bridge canal and a climbing session at Castle Naze. To reach the foot of the cliff at Castle Naze, the Duke needed to walk uphill for 10 minutes so was given a pair of White Hall wellingtons to wear. Story has it that the Duke’s shoes were somehow mislaid on his return, so he had to leave for his next engagement wearing the wellies! Somewhere in the Palace may sit a pair of White Hall wellingtons. If you are ever there, you’ll recognise them by the holes punched in the tops to mark the size. A system that is still in use today.
To skip over the next fifty years would seem to be an injustice for all those who have worked at White Hall, attended courses here, been assessed for outdoor qualifications and have been influential in outdoor education for the benefit of so many. Staff from the centre have played their part in setting up the mountain leader scheme, the cave leadership scheme and local accreditations in climbing and mountain biking which have allowed thousands of people to experience the outdoors safely. Some of the greats within the outdoor world have played their part in White Hall's history; Eric Byne, Geoff Sutton, Joe Brown, Don Morrison, Eric Langmuir, Doug Scott, Simon Nadin and Sam Whittaker, to name but a few.
At the time of our 60th anniversary in 2011, we estimated that over one million young people from all parts of Derbyshire had walked through the front doors of White Hall. Add in all the young people who have participated in outdoor activities because their teachers or youth workers had been trained and assessed at White Hall and that figure could be double or even treble.
So has White Hall as an outdoor activities centre changed? Yes and no. Education has developed, government and local priorities have evolved and young people’s expectations change. White Hall hasn’t sat on its laurels but has developed and adapted to meet the challenges of today and even to prepare for tomorrow! However, at its core, it remains the warm welcoming house on the hill where visitors can have life-changing experiences, eat well, sleep well and have fun!
AB Afford, who worked at the centre, wrote that Peter Mossdale, the first principal, returned for a visit in 1975, after the efforts of three intervening principals and twenty years, he concluded that “it still seems the same’. AB, after initially feeling a little hurt from all the work and development they had put into the centre, concluded, on reflection, ‘Yes, that’s how it should be’.