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  • Lost Derby by Maxwell Craven

    Loss, in environmental terms, is not necessarily a bad thing, but is an inevitable consequence of growth, modernisation, changing demographics and the demands of technology. It is a necessary thing, but needs to be managed, which is why the 1948 Town and Country Planning Act was adopted by the government of Earl Attlee. If one has a legal and statutory framework to work to, change can indeed be managed so that the best of what is already in place – buildings, landscapes, streetscapes – can be protected and the requirements of the modern world fitted round them in such a way as not to devalue them.

    Iron foundries sprang up from the 1780s, closely followed by brass founders, one of whom, Sir John ('Brassy') Smith, established his firm in 1844, later moving it to Cotton Lane and eventually having a nationwide reach. (c. Maxwell Craven, Lost Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    There is also the problem of human nature. Loss of the familiar can be traumatic and, whatever the reality of that loss, to look back on it in comparison with what has succeeded it creates nostalgia; the rose-tinted spectacles of times past, re-inforced by well-remembered and loved familiar surroundings. Change inflicted upon ordinary people de haut en bas inevitably causes pain.

    Yet change must come, and we have to endure the loss of the familiar to some extent and very often what replaces it can come to be enjoyed in its turn, softened by the passage of time. Historic buildings, however, are more than just pieces of equipment in which we live, work, buy & sell, or enjoy ourselves. They are very often the product of a creative process which starts with the architect in concert with the person paying the bills and moves through the creators: sculptors, artists, masons, bricklayers, joiners, stuccadori and so on. An architect designed building, however humble or workaday, is as much a work of art as a painting.

    The difference is that a building also has utility and cannot be moved into a gallery to be admired when time-expired. People who seek to make impressive profits from re-development and local politicians hoping to cut a dash, frequently have a problem remembering this. Which is why the 1948 Act gave us listing and subsequent legislation, adding scheduled ancient monuments, conservation areas, world heritage sites and so on.

    Derby is no different to any other medium sized semi-industrial settlement although, thanks to its history, it punches well above its weight in the historical baggage it carries, along with elements of the built environment that reflect that history.

    After four centuries of Roman rule, the original core of Derby at Little Chester was re-fortified by the Danes, who were ultimately evicted from the area in 918, after which modern Derby was founded nearly a mile further down the Derwent.

    The Old Mayor's Parlour, Tenant Street, was the largest fifteenth-century timber-framed town house in England when it was unforgivably demolished by the council in 1947. (c. Maxwell Craven, Lost Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    A prosperous county town grew up and from the early 18th century gradually became a leading site for the burgeoning industrial revolution. By 1723 we had England’s first factory in the Silk Mill, soon to re-open as the Museum of Making, an attraction of national standing. Derby was home to two members of the Lunar Society, the intellectual cockpit of the English Enlightenment and their circle included such creative men as Joseph Wright, Joseph Pickford and Peter Burdett – who painted them, built for them and inspired them. Then came Jedidiah Strutt and Thomas Evans with their cotton mills, a series of modernising Improvement Acts and ultimately the Railway age. Which refocused the industrialisation of the City from luxury products to engineering, ushering in an age from which the City, renewed, is only just emerging.

    Thus the 18th century gave us ‘high end’ products: silk, clocks, scientific instruments, fine porcelain, pottery, decorative ironwork, spar ornaments and cement render, whereas the 19th gave Derby heavy and railway engineering, iron and brass founding, narrow tapes, silk trimmings, and brickmaking alongside continuing prestige manufactures.

    The last century saw many of both these decline, especially the heavy industry, although the coming of Rolls-Royce cleverly combined ‘high-end’ products with a new aspect of engineering, the automotive. That, driven by the exigences of conflict, gradually mutated from luxury cars into aerospace. In the present era, aerospace continues, whilst the decline and re-invigoration (through de-nationalisation) of the railways, has revived many aspects of railway engineering, now almost as high-tech as aerospace, along related developments including those related to the digital age, in themselves an element of a totally new industrial revolution.

    All this has led to a continuous growth in population, which itself presents considerable challenges, and has driven environmental loss and renewal just as powerfully as the demands of industrial change. The key to achieving a balance between necessary development, and harmful destruction of historic environments, is to acknowledge the need to provide for quality of life and the retention of an urban environment which remain humane in scale.

    In the early 1970s the DRI was still expanding rapidly, at the expense of the terraced streets to its south. (c. Maxwell Craven, Lost Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early 1970s, there was much destruction of historic buildings and environments going on in Derby, but without much in prospect to replace them, leaving only empty spaces, frequently turned into ad hoc car parks.  Come the prosperity ushered in during the 1980s, and the battle then was to get new buildings on these sites of real quality, but this was often a losing battle.

    Today the fight is to get humane scale, good quality, new buildings on the remaining empty land, without resorting to thoroughly inhumane residential tower blocks, much canvassed by business leaders (who do not have to live in them or near them). This concept of living uniformly packed vertically into compact units, goes back to Le Corbusier, a grim Anarcho-syndicalist, who believed that the mass of people should live where they are told to live. His famous Unité d’Habitation was just such a misguided piece of utopianism, wherein people were to be decanted into tiny living spaces in huge brutalist blocks, producing a dystopian nightmare which came to fruition throughout the Soviet Empire, not to mention post war London, Birmingham, Glasgow and other places. Where pleasant municipal semis were discarded as outmoded under this philosophy.

    Miraculously Derby, ever a little behind the times, escaped all that. Only one municipal high rise was built, a mere eleven stories, quite well designed and low-set, barely visible. The worst was the DRI Nurses’ home, 15 storeys and on a hill, demolished in 2017.

    Some losses have been entirely unnecessary, some preventable, others not. Thus, as the reader proceeds through the images assembled here they will be able to make their own judgements. But in the end it is important to stress that for all the lost city on display below there remains in Derby the core of a fine Georgian Market town which, with its later overlays, is still easy to discern and enjoy, aided by the friendly people who inhabit it and the compact size of the City centre still with its Medieval street plan.

    Maxwell Craven's new book Lost Derby is available for purchase now.

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