Ilam Hall, erected for Jesse Watts-Russell in the 1820s and '30s, was a mixture of Tuscan, Gothic and Tudor styles. In the middle of the century the great talking-point of Ashbourne and district was Francis Wright's Italianate Osmaston Manor,(since demolished), designed by Derby architect Henry Stevens and built between 1846 and 1849 with no expense spared. This building was remarkable for incorporating many novel features, including a subterranean tramway, hot-air central heating, and a method of drawing smoke from all the fireplaces downwards into a main horizontal flue before ejecting it into a communal chimney in a 150 ft high tower standing in the kitchen garden.
Other lesser and more restrained residences erected in the 1840s were the Elizabethan-style Callow Hall, Mappleton, on the fringe of Ashbourne, built on a virgin site for John Goodwin Johnson, and the remodelled Calwich Abbey, for Augustus Duncombe. Also dating from around this period was Birdsgrove House, Mayfield, home of the Tunnicliffe family in 1850.
To complete the village scene, a number of these landowners enlarged or rebuilt their village churches at the same time, and examples of this period are still to be found today at Osmaston, Clifton (both 1845) and Hulland (1851).
From these large houses, staffed by retinues of servants, the gentry ruled much of the countryside around Ashbourne in their capacity as justices of the peace, conducting much routine local government administration as well as judicial work. Ashbourne, however, was the focal point of much of their local social life as well as their administrative work.
The physical appearance of the actual town of Ashbourne perhaps changed less in early Victorian times than did that of some of the villages. As an historically-prosperous market-town of mediaeval origin, it still retained a considerable legacy from the past in the form of the fine cruciform 13th century parish church with its 212 ft. spire, its Elizabethan grammar school, and numerous groups of almshouses of 17th or 18th century date.
Many of the domestic buildings of the town had been rebuilt in brick during the 18th century, and the main street and Market Place were lined with large Georgian houses. The rebuilding coincided with a period when Ashbourne became a fashionable social centre and achieved considerable repute as an adjunct to the Lichfield intellectual circle associated with Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Dr. Samuel Johnson. This development was partly made possible by the improvement of the six main roads that met at Ashbourne by various turnpike trusts. The town's inns enjoyed an era of commercial prosperity from the many stagecoaches that travelled these roads, particularly on the London - Manchester route.
With the eclipse of coach travel by the railways in the 1840s, however, Ashbourne's commercial and social prominence was beginning to decline. To a resident of the town now, the Ashbourne of the mid-19th century would not have looked too strange a place. The smaller Population was housed in a much smaller area; indeed it had barely expanded beyond its mediaeval limits, but the basic layout of the long main street - named Church Street at the west end and St. John's Street at the east - and the triangular Market Place partly infilled with buildings formed the nucleus of the town as they do today.
The small stream - the Henmore or Compton Brook - flowed through the town under three stone bridges. To the south lay the suburb of Compton, a long wide street fined with houses and yards which was administratively outside Ashbourne but which was in all other respects an integral part of the town. Immediately adjacent to the town to the east was Ashbourne Hall, a somewhat plain late Georgian mansion standing in extensive grounds overlooking a park landscaped with clumps of trees and a small ornamental lake (now the Fishpond). Although situated only a few hundred yards from the east end of St. John's Street, the Hall was separated from the town by a high brick wall, a line of tall trees and a set of imposing park gates. These gates faced down the street, reminding the inhabitants forcibly of the presence of the established order, as did the gates and towering spire of the parish church which closed the view at the other end of the main street.