Derby : Its Rise and Progress

By H.W. Davison

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2016

Derby - Its Rise and Progress


THE origin of Derby may belong to prehistoric times. A British way, or "forest path", traversed the country from west to east - a track now represented in Derby by the Burton Road, with its continuations, Babington Lane and Bag Lane (now East Street). This ancient highway crossed the river - the British Derwent or "rapid stream" - at a point where it was wide and fordable, a passage indicated by the modern road across the Holmes, which beyond the eastern bank of the river was known until recent times as Ford Lane. The floods, to which the Derwent was always subject, rendered the ford at such times impassable, when travellers and merchandise would accumulate on the river bank, a condition implying the existence of a village or settlement. Further, the earthworks on the hill dominating the ford were


probably of British origin, for the distance separating the later Saxon castle and town suggests that this fortress, as in other instances, was erected on an earlier British foundation.

In the first or second century of the Christian era, the Roman, who was gradually subduing the whole of Britain, settled on the Derwent and built the station of Derventio (Little Chester). Some two miles west of the river, he diverted the British road slightly to the northward, along the line of the modern Uttoxeter Old Road and Nuns Street, to strike the Derwent at a narrower part, where a bridge was built to carry the road into the Roman castrum. Near this point it was joined by two other roads - one from the Roman station of Rocester, part of which road still forms the village street of Markeaton, and the other from the lead mines of the Peak. Eastward of Derventio, two roads diverge, although their remains are not so easily traced as those on the western side of the river.[1]

The local remains of this mighty nation are few. The area covered by the foundations of their buildings shows the extent of the castrum, and the remains of the piers in the river prove the existence of the Roman bridge. The numerous coins found indicate business and trade; a large figured vase of Samian ware shows that some families of position lived in Derventio; and an altar, supposed to have been dedicated to the god Mercury, marks a common


phase of Roman life. Beyond these scanty relics little exists of the foreign community stationed here through two or more centuries.

During this long period of military government, the legions on their way from York to Wroxeter or from Chester to Lincoln would pass through, old friends from Gaul or the banks of the Danube perhaps recognised each other here after years of separation, and exchanged opinions on the cold British climate or related the latest news from Rome. At length, in the year 410, the last of the Roman legions left Britain, and the native race, enervated by three centuries of slavery, was left to its own miserable resources. Faction soon fought against faction, as no unity existed, and the Saxon sea-rover, who had caused even the Roman government much trouble, harassed the coasts with impunity, and finding little to hinder him, crept up the rivers and founded settlements in the interior.

Although almost two centuries elapsed between the departure of the Romans and the settlement of the Saxons around Derventio, the Britons in this portion of the country were not left in peace during that long period. Besides their own intestine quarrels, they were subjected to occasional raids from these fierce invaders, which became more frequent and more terrible as the year 586 approached, when Crida founded the kingdom of Mercia, or Central England. From this bald statement we infer that the Saxon came at last to settle; that he probably burned Derventio, as he burned other castra which would not submit; and that after the few Britons who were able to do so had escaped to hide in the caverns of


the Peak, those who resisted were put to the sword and the rest were made slaves.

Having reduced Derventio and subjugated the helpless Briton, the Saxon proceeded to choose a site suitable for his primitive industries, and also as a place of defence against future foes. The river Derwent was too broad and deep for his limited engineering skill to cope with, but southward over the hill, ran a streamlet now known as the Markeaton Brook, which offered easier facilities for dams and small water wheels. Moreover, at a spot where it was joined by a still smaller streamlet from the south-west,[2] now lost to sight but remembered by many now living as Bramley Brook, there was probably a natural clearing of meadow land, which gradually changed into swamp and marsh in the direction of the Derwent. In the fork formed by these brooks, the Saxon settled and formed the nucleus of the modern town. Two names enable us to fix it as a place of defence. Its Saxon name "Northworthige" means the fortified town of north Mercia, to distinguish it from Tamworth, to the southward. The other name which still survives is "Wardwick", meaning the guarded wick or village. This early settlement was therefore protected by streams on the north, south and east, whilst to the west, where there was no natural protection, a rough stockade or a thick hedge would complete the line of defence.

In the year 669, the minster Church of St Chad was founded at Lichfield, from whence issued forth


the missionary priests to convert and baptise the pagan Saxons of the diocese. At Northworthige their efforts resulted in the church which rose in the centre of the little town, its name, St. Werburgh's, fixing the date of its origin in the seventh century. Around the new church was the open space, where, according to Saxon Custom, the traders and farmers gathered at fair and market, and to this day the street adjoining St. Werburgh's churchyard is called "Cheapside", although the cheapening and higgling migrated centuries ago to another quarter of the town.

The appearance of Cheapside to-day, however, bears little resemblance to its original of the seventh century. The dwellings of that time were huts, with walls built of wicker smeared with clay or plaster, and with roofs of thatch. Even the churches were constructed of the same rude and unsubstantial materials, with unglazed windows open to wind and weather, and the bare earth to kneel upon. Probably the Latin mass-book possessed by the officiating priest, was the only piece of literature in the town.

Away on the slope to the south-east, partly surrounded by marsh and river, stood the castle, where the king of Mercia with his suite held his court on his tours through the province; although, separated as it was by so wide an interval from the town defences, it might almost be regarded as a neighbouring stronghold, than as assisting in the defence of the town itself. Its remains have long since disappeared, although some traces of the earthworks were discernible on Cockpit Hill in Hutton's time. The name, Castle Fields, testifies to its existence,


and Bag Lane may refer to the burgh or Saxon earthwork to which this street formed a boundary.

Stretching away up the valley of the brook were the town lands, where each freeman owned his arable plot and exercised his right of common pasture. Next to the town defence came the king's farm, still localised in the name "King's Mead", for Northworthige appears to have been a royal borough. Beyond were the common fields of the burgesses, as far as Markeaton, the village at the mark or boundary to the estate. On the hill to the north was Quarndon, where these early colonists quarried their querns or small millstones, and away to the southward lay Chellaston, the chalk town, where they found the lime with which they plastered their wattled huts.

For three centuries the Saxon remained in possession of the town which he had built near the banks of the Derwent, although the last fifty years were filled with disturbing rumours of the advance of another invader, as ruthless and daring as his own ancestor who had wrested the land from the degenerated Briton. As the ninth century advanced, and the new enemy, who had at first confined his savage raids to the coast towns, began to creep inland, it became certain to the dweller in Saxon Derby that the time was at hand when he must take down his father's battle-axe to defend his corn-mill or his farmstead.

In the year 868, this second wave of colonists, known to our Saxon ancestors as Northmen, and called in our day the Danes, advanced from the north and seized Nottingham, where they entrenched


themselves against the Mercian army which came against them. They were, however, unable to maintain the position, and retreated to York for the following winter; but five years later, in the spring of 874, they suddenly overwhelmed the district, their victorious career suffering no check. The Mercian King fled to Rome, leaving his people to their fate; the success of the Danes was complete, the great abbey of Repton, the burial-place of the Mercian kings, was sacked and burned, and the savage conqueror wintered around the ruins. Derby fell before the invader, and although no historian has left any details, the ruthless character of their warfare is apparent. On the one hand was the colony of Saxons, reinforced by the owners of the surrounding farmsteads, cooped up in their little town, fighting for hearth and home; on the other side, a wild horde who gloried in the horrors of war, and whose ferocity was stereotyped in the Northern church litany, for centuries afterwards, by the prayer, "From the fury of the Northmen, defend us, O Lord".

The result can never have been doubtful. The town, whose natural position of defence was weak, having no protection except the outlying castle, fell a prey to the Northmen, and the surviving Saxons fled across Trent, leaving their land and property to the conquerors.

For the succeeding thirty years Derby became a link in a strong chain of fortifications which protected the Trent valley, and formed the southern boundary of that portion of England which the Danes had subdued. Knowing that the Saxon only awaited a favourable opportunity, when he would return


reinforced to win back his lost territory, defences were executed with a boldness which shows the superiority of the Dane over the Saxon in warlike strategy. The town on the Markeaton Brook was well situated for the Saxon millowners, and as a market for the convenience of the neighbouring farmers, but overlooked as it was north and south by hills, and open to the river on the east, the Dane saw that to retain his prize and give no advantage to the enemy, he must command the heights to the southward, which still bear witness to the fact in the name Normanton, "the Northmen's town". He therefore advanced to the hill on which this village stands, and here he proceeded to erect earthworks of which the remains were, until recently, traceable in the fields around. The value of the position is recognised, for it commands a wide view of the Trent valley, including the ford at Twyford, where the Saxon highway to Repton crossed the river.

For a generation to come, the Dane had slight cause to fear an onslaught on Derby from the Saxon, for even the great Alfred, after several attempts at united action against the foe, was forced to fly and hide as an outcast in the swamps of Somerset; but in the succeeding reign matters improved, the warrior who re-organised the Saxon army and drove the Danes in defeat being the woman, Ethelfleda, who checkmated the strategy of the Danes by building a parallel line of defence along the southern slopes of the Trent valley, from whence, when the time was ripe, she advanced and crushed the foe. In the month of August, A.D. 917, Derby fell before the attack of Ethelfleda, who lost four officers during the conflict.


If the words of the Saxon chronicler, that these chiefs fell "within the gates", may be taken literally, they testify to the desperate resistance offered by the Dane, who continued the struggle even after the Saxon had gained the earthworks. From the hill top, one may view the expanse of the Trent valley, and in imagination

"Hear the faint echo of those brazen throats",

as in the dusk of the early morning the Saxon horde rushed up the southern slope; for, like Alfred's great attack on the Danes at Chippenham, the earthworks at Normanton were taken by surprise, the hateful enemy was driven from the town, and the Saxon held his own once more.

The Dane, being defeated along the whole line of the Trent, retired northward, and for twenty-six years there was peace, or rather a restless truce, during which the inhabitants of Derby, conscious of the ultimate intentions of their active neighbours, ploughed and sowed, uncertain of the harvest. At length, in the year 943, the Dane swept southward with resistless force, once more the Saxon was overwhelmed, and, although the native chroniclers state that he regained the town in the following year, his success can only have been partial, for subsequent events show that the Dane finally remained master of the situation.

Tt is doubtful whether this later conquest was accompanied by the savage butcheries which characterised the earlier conflicts between these rivals, for about the year 950 some compromise had been effected, and the two races were living in the town under a common law. Nevertheless there is evidence


to show that the Dane possessed the greater share in the government, for the old name "Northworthige" disappears, and the Danish name "Derby" or Darby, the town on the water, takes its place.[3]

A story relating to the origin of the shrine and church of St Alkmund belongs to this period of alternate mastery. This Alkmund, son of a king of Northumbria, is stated to have been slain in battle against the Danes in the year 819, and his memory being revered by his Saxon countrymen, his remains became sanctified, although it would appear more from political than from religious reasons. The church at Lilleshall, in Shropshire, where he was buried, was dedicated to his memory, and parts of his remains or relics were distributed throughout Mercia, giving origin to several shrines or churches bearing his name.

Monkish history tells us that in transferring some of the saint's bones from Lilleshall to Northumbria, the party entrusted with the mission rested at the ancient spring near the river, now known as St Alkmund's well, or the "lion's mouth", whilst permission was asked from the Derby authorities to pass onward. The party, however, proceeded no further, for a shrine was erected at the spring, to be removed later, with the relics of the saint, to the present site of the church named after him. An inference suggested by the narrative is, that objection was taken to the passage of the relics of the Saxon prince, because the government of the town had become Danish, and a site for his remains was,


consequently, found outside the walls by his sympathising countrymen, the Saxons.

It is also a matter of history that the important line of fortifications known as the Five Boroughs formed a powerful confederacy, of which the government was essentially Danish. That Derby reaped an advantage from its connection with this union there is no doubt. When the Danes invaded Mercia A.D. 874, Repton was the capital of the province, and Derby was one of a number of secondary towns; but a century later, and under the influence of the vigorous Danish rule, she entered on a career of social and commercial growth, which has continued with varying success to the present time; whilst Repton has remained stationary, a village to-day, as it was a thousand years ago. The influence and protection of the Dane-law was also useful to the town in later ages, in preventing its becoming an object of profit or greed to some neighbouring overlord, by which its growth might have been cramped in order to satisfy individual cupidity.

The century which followed the settlement of Derby under the Dane-law appears to have been a prosperous period in the early history of the town. In the year 1066_there were six churches in Derby, of which St. Mary's, which may have stood at the lower end of St. Mary's Gate, has long since disappeared. The origin of St. Werburgh's and St. Alkmund's has already been noticed; St Alkmund's and All Saints', were each collegiate churches or small monastic establishments, beyond the town limits when first founded. St. Peter's served a small hamlet which grew up around the castle, and which, on account of


its isolated position with regard to the Saxon town, may account for the name by which St. Peter's Street is still known to old residents - namely, "The Parish". This steady extension of church property points to a growth of the town itself, and, consequently, of its trade; whilst a further indication of this prosperity is found in the evidence which shows that a bridge was thrown over the Derwent during this period, Derby becoming thus connected with Nottingham, an important town on the highway between London and York. Also, the line of churches - St Alkmund's, St Michael's, All Saints', and St Peter's - marks the course through the town of the highway from the Peak to the southward - the road to Leicester, which crossed the Trent at Swarkestone.

Derby, situated securely in the centre of the kingdom, and unaffected by those struggles for the mastery which still affected London and the littoral counties, - enjoyed a century's prosperity, heedless of the slowly-gathering storm which was destined to effect so sudden a change in the government, the character, the customs, and even in the language of the people.

In September, 1066, William the Norman landed on the south coast. Harold, the Saxon king, then at York, hastened to London, probably passing through Nottingham, and leaving orders with the aldermen of the shires to march southwards with their levies.

We see the neighbouring farmers and their hinds dropping the reaping-hook and sullenly obeying the call to arms, for it was the time of corn harvest, and the landing of an enemy on the coast two hundred miles away would have had but slight effect on the


mind of the Saxon farmer intent upon his crops had not the fear of the alderman's power to punish deserters compelled him. In a few hours this rude army had marched away, for in those days there were no impedimenta of commissariat or ordnance to cause delay; each man filled his wallet, shouldered his battle-axe, and joined his company.

The Norman chronicler of Hastings mentions the men of Nottingham in his list of the Saxon levies who fought under King Harold, and it is presumable that the men of Derby reached the field along with them, for the two counties were in those days under the rule of one Sheriff, and the bridge at Nottingham was the chief passage over Trent. Moreover, it is shown in Domesday Book that the Derby burgesses suffered severely for their loyalty to King Harold.

With this march to Hastings the Saxon rule closes and the reign of the Norman abruptly begins.

[1] Straight roads in the neighbourhood of a Roman station generally Ibltaw the line of its old streets or boundaries. Judging by this method, the Old Chester Road and the Mansfield Road mark the line of the north and east walls; City Road represents a main street of the castrum, crossed at right angles by a street from the bridge, which has disappeared, although its position is defined by the Roman road, which as a modern field road passes under the Midland Railway to the eastward.
[2] Near the General Post Office.
[3] Compare Darley or Derley (Dwr-ley), the enclosure by the water; also Duffield (Dwr-field), the field or clearing by the water.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in November 2016.

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