Derby in 50 Buildings by Gerry Van Tonder
In the Christian calendar between 100 and 200 AD, the occupation forces of Roman Britain established a military revictualling military and trading station, Derventio, at a ford across the Derwent.
Two centuries after the demise of Rome’s hold over the Britons, Saxon invaders levelled Derventio, forcefully asserting their authority over the settlement’s erstwhile owners. The defensive site, named Northworthige by the Saxons and bounded by the Derwent and several streams, witnessed the growth of primitive industries.
In 597, the monk Augustine arrived in England, sent by the Papacy on a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. As pagan worship yielded to the new religion, church buildings started to appear throughout England, typically basic structures made of wood. In the centre of Northworthige, St Werburgh’s was constructed, providing a focal market point for traders and farmers to conduct their business.
In the ninth century, the much-feared Viking coastal raiders moved inland, and in 874, this warring wave of plunder and pillage overwhelmed Northworthige. Forty years later, the female warrior, Ethelfleda, gathered a strong enough Saxon army to drive the Danes from the village. Less than three decades thereafter, however, the Danes re-claimed their ownership, but this time compromise was the order of the day as Dane and Saxon elected to live together under one common law. Exercising their political majority, the Danes renamed the village Derby: the ‘town on the water’.
The Norman invasion of 1066 and the death in battle of the Saxon King Harold, brought Saxon rule to an abrupt end. The agricultural town of Derby started weaving its own cloth and grinding its own corn in small mills. A corn market was established close to the St James’s monastery conglomeration of church and agricultural buildings.
As disputes grew over taxes and agricultural excise duties, central control manifested itself in the courts of assizes, responsible for civil and criminal jurisdiction. The assizes were held initially in the County Hall at St Mary’s Gate. By the middle of the fifteenth century, merchants and traders established their guild in the Town Hall, transforming its function towards that of a borough corporation.
Agriculture and allied markets continued to fuel Derby’s expansion, and by the 1700s, the town boasted large residences in Full Street, the Corn Market and the Morledge. A post office and banks serviced the economy, while shopkeepers catered for the new wealth. The growth demanded significant improvements in the transport infrastructure. Turnpike roads were constructed and tollhouses sprang up to collect revenue from the road users. Coach inns proliferated, and bull-baiting, wild beast shows, theatres and fairs were held, as the town’s 1750 population of 7,000 centred their lives on the Market Place.
The late 1830s would have a major and lasting impact on Derby: the railway had arrived.
Iron and engineering works sprang up to cope with the demands of this revolutionary and efficient method of transport. New mills were built and the manufacture of Derby Crown china revived. New streets were laid and existing ones widened. The Market Place expanded, and gradually, Derby started losing much of its historic appearance.
Typically, however, the increase in wealth had an undesired by product: the poor; members of the Derby community who gained no benefit from industrial prosperity. Legislation was promulgated to address the issue, but a major provision to qualify for aid, was for the poverty-stricken to move into the new Workhouse on Osmaston Road.
The most profound event in the future economic strength of Derby, occurred in 1906 when Rolls Royce commenced the manufacture of that icon of luxury motoring: the Rolls Royce. The company’s factories and offices spread from Osmaston Road to other parts of the city, an expansion accelerated by their highly successful venture into aero-engines. The company would evolve into becoming the single largest contributor to the town’s future wealth and economic security, something that is reflected in many of Derby’s buildings.
Without a doubt, the most enjoyable part of the project was that of discovery. After having lived in Derby for more than sixteen years, I quickly found that I knew very little about the city that I now called home. I believe we are all guilty – to a lesser or greater extent – of going about our business without taking in our surrounds.
Arguably, the greatest and most exciting revelation was the interior of the ancient St Werburgh’s Church on Cheapside. Surprisingly, I was given a key at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery (an enormous key at that) and told to go across the road and help myself – the church is generally not open to the public. After a struggle with the idiosyncrasies of a very large, very old door, I stumbled into darkness, my senses assailed by the smell of antiquity. I eventually found a few lights, which helped little, a gazed in awe at my surrounds.
Founded in the seventh century, St Werburgh’s was the first Christian church in Derby, less than 100 years after the first Christian missionary, Augustine, had arrived in England. The building would have been a crude, thatched wicker and daub structure.
Saint Werburgh, who died in AD700 was, at the end of her life, senior abbess of the kingdom of Mercia. The daughter of King Wulfhere and Queen Ermenhilda of Mercia, she took the unconventional step to become a nun, and although her father wished her to marry, he eventually relented and gave his permission for her to enter Ely Abbey. The Church Calendar now celebrates Feast Day annually on 7 February, to commemorate the day of her death.
The church was rebuilt towards the close of the seventeenth century, with the 1601 tower being retained. Staffordshire-born lexicographer, poet and biographer, Dr Samuel Johnson married Elizabeth Porter (nee Jervis) in the church in 1735.
Rebuilding work on the rest of the church commenced in 1893. Designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield in the Gothic Revival style, ‘Rough Rock’ sandstone for the construction came from the nearby Coxbench quarry.
In 1990, the building was declared redundant and the inside of the building converted to commercial use. For a brief period, the church was used as a shopping mall, comprising small stalls. The venture never really took off, and access to the building is now restricted. With the church and its cemetery no longer in use, the headstones have been propped up against the outside walls of the building.
Today St Werburgh’s, its tower refurbished in 2004, owes the fact that it is still standing to its Grade II-listed status. Volunteers from the Churches Conservation Trust look after the tower and original chancel, keeping in a good state of repair the 1708 reredos with its ornate panels and Queen Anne’s Coat of Arms overhead, as well as the stained-glass window and a monument to Sarah Elizabeth Winyates who died in 1828. This 1832 neo-classical figure of a woman in mourning is by prolific English sculptor, Sir Francis Chantrey, commissioned at a cost of £600.
Gerry Van Tonder's book Derby in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.