Yoxall Lodge was originally built as a hunting lodge in what was then the extensive Needwood Forest, a popular hunting ground for the kings of England. Much of the Needwood Forest has long since disappeared but remnants remain with evidence of early coppicing and pockets of ancient native broadleaved woodland. Some of the best examples are to be found within the Newchurch Parish and none better than at Yoxall Lodge.
The hunting lodge was rebuilt as a comfortable Georgian country house by John Gisborne in the mid 1700's and his eldest son Thomas (1758 to 1846), known as a divine and a poet, was to become its most famous resident. After attending Harrow and Cambridge where he was an outstanding scholar, a brilliant career was predicted for Thomas Gisborne and a parliamentary seat offered to him. However, he chose to take holy orders and was ordained a priest in 1783.
The following year he married Mary, daughter of Thomas Babington of Rothley Temple, Leicestershire. Mary's brother, also named Thomas, was at Cambridge with Thomas Gisborne and William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner who was to become a regular visitor to Yoxall Lodge.
Thomas and Mary Gisborne settled down to a seemingly quiet, but nonetheless eventful life amongst the tranquillity at Yoxall Lodge. They produced eight children, their youngest daughter Lydia achieving notoriety and scandalizing society by conducting an affair, whilst married, with Branwell Brontë, brother of renowned literary figures, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.
As well as devoting himself to the church, Gisborne was a naturalist and was described by Charles Cordale Babington, a Professor of Botany at Cambridge, as 'an ardent botanist.’ Indeed, there are over 20 volumes of beautifully preserved botanical specimens with over 600 different plant species in the herbarium of The British Museum, all collected by Gisborne at Yoxall Lodge.
The peaceful surroundings inspired Gisborne to publish, in 1794, a book of verse entitled, "Walks in a Forest" describing the forest scenery at different times of the day throughout the seasons. Without doubt, the poems reflect his strong attachment and love for the place.
It was about this time that William Wilberforce, a friend of the Reverend Gisborne from their Cambridge days, began to make Yoxall Lodge his regular summer residence, arriving with vast amounts of papers, safe in the knowledge that this was the one place in England he could digest them in perfect peace.
The statesman spent weeks at a time at Yoxall Lodge, along with Thomas Babington, examining evidence and collecting information that would provide the ammunition for the lengthy, arduous campaign to abolish slavery. Their devotion to the cause was summed up by Marianne Sykes, a visitor to Yoxall Lodge, who wrote to her mother in 1790, ‘Mr Wilberforce and Mr Babington have never appeared downstairs since we arrived, except to take a hasty dinner and for half an hour after we have supped; the slave trade now occupies them nine hours daily. They talk of sitting up one night each week. The two friends begin to look very ill, but they remain in excellent spirits and at this moment I hear them laughing.’
The large, comfortable house provided by Wilberforce's old friend Gisborne gave Thomas Babington and Wilberforce the perfect retreat from which to work on the abolition of the slave trade. It is on record that Yoxall Lodge was much favoured by Wilberforce who wrote, ‘Well as I thought I knew this place and much as I admired it, I never saw its riches displayed with such overflowing profusion. I was never here before until late in the year, or saw the first foliage of the magnificent oak contrast with dark holly, the flowering gorse or the horse chestnut.’ Alas, he doesn't mention the bluebells!
The Reverend Gisborne and wife Mary, along with a faithful greyhound, were immortalised in oils by the famous Derby artist Joseph Wright with the picture almost certainly being painted outdoors at Yoxall Lodge. Wright had been a personal friend of Gisborne since the early 1780's and the extent of this friendship is shown by the fact that, in 1793, he presented Gisborne with a self-portrait with the inscription ‘To my friend T Gisborne.’
The Reverend Thomas Gisborne was succeeded by his eldest son, also Thomas, who died at Yoxall Lodge in 1852. The magnificent old Georgian house was pulled down in 1928 after falling into disrepair. Henry Walter Featherstone, Richard's Grandfather, purchased the land and remaining buildings in 1933 and it has been a family run farm ever since.The old coach house and stabling remain, as does the beautiful walled garden and gardener's bothy, these buildings now being used as part of the farm. The present house was built on the site of the old mansion in 1951.