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The Historic Core of Derby

The Historic Core of Derby

by Maxwell Craven

People often quite reasonably assume that Derby’s Market Place was the original historic core of the borough, but appearances can be deceptive. When King Edward the Elder founded the city as a defended settlement c. 928, the actual core was the area between the Cathedral and old St. Alkmund’s (now part of the inner ring road) with a grid of streets off Queen Street. Derby’s Market Place did not come on stream until about 1100, a fact established by archaeology in advance of the Assembly Rooms being built. It was host to stall holders and ringed by houses with selling spaces in front. 

The other fact that is not at first apparent, is that there was a road running from a crossing of the Trent at Swarkestone north, through the future site of Derby, to the Derwent by Darley which was in use at least from the Iron Age. The use of the Trent crossing is confirmed by finds of Roman coins along the course of the present Swarkestone Bridge. It was along this road that St. Alkmund’s was founded some two centuries before the city and along it were established most of the medieval churches, except St. Werburgh’s. 

Iron Gate is part of this ancient former trackway, and if you were to assume that it got its name from hosting the shops of iron mongers, you would be right. In the mid-13th century a Darley Abbey charter calls it (in Latin) ‘the street that leads from St. Mary’s Gate to the Market Place’ but in 1318 it was (again in Latin) ‘the street of the (iron)smiths’ and indeed there are records of iron smiths with premises there in the borough’s charters. 

All the streets were then exceedingly narrow but, in 1866, the council began a very long-running campaign to widen them and Iron Gate (the suffix ‘gate’ is from the Norse gaeta, meaning ‘street’) was the first, when all the properties on the east side (some very ancient) were bought up, demolished and the much-reduced plots sold off to finance the whole thing. This is why the oldest buildings of Iron Gate line the west side and those opposite are mid-Victorian or later.

Meanwhile, the Market Place, by the early 14th century, was home to the first Guildhall, which stood in the middle, of two storeys: a lock-up for miscreants on the ground floor and a meeting room above reached by an outside staircase, much like that which survives at Aldburgh, Suffolk. Around it, the old shops gave way to grander houses, like that built by Bess of Hardwick’s fourth husband, Lord Shrewsbury, later rebuilt in the 1660s as Newcastle House by her grandson, but disastrously demolished, unrecognised, in 1970 to make room for the current Assembly Rooms. 

Needless to say, Market Place was the focus of a market from the time of the 1154 Royal Charter until some tidy-minded councillors in 1933 erected a new market area on The Morledge, leaving the entire space bereft of purpose. Prior to that though, there had been numerous improvements. In Charles II’s reign a block of buildings was erected facing the west side (traditionally called Market Head) which housed the meat market, known as The Shambles. To this, Samuel Crompton, the banker, in 1708 added a handsome arcaded block backing on to The Shambles facing east called The Piazzas, with warehousing above and shops at ground level. Here people could browse display windows under cover but – strangely enough – it never took on, and from lack of use was eventually demolished, along with The Shambles in 1871-77, to make more room for stalls.

In 1731 the old Guildhall was replaced by a fine Georgian building by Richard Jackson, a Staffordshire architect who was then building Mr. Crompton’s House at The Friary. The council wanted to build it on the south side, where the present Guildhall stands, but the property owners were asking too much. It was only in 1828 that this could happen, which meant the demise of the eighteenth century guildhall and the building of a new one which, as luck would have it, burnt down rather spectacularly on the night of Trafalgar Day 1841, to be rapidly replaced (using the original ground floor and south elevation) by the present building, by Henry Duesbury.

The Market Place was also, from 1763, home to the combined county and borough Assembly Rooms, removed respectively from Full Street and the Moot Hall in Iron Gate. Lord Ferrers, assisted by Joseph Pickford, built a sumptuous building fitted out by Robert Adam in 1774.  That survived as the hub of local social life until damaged by a fire in 1963. It could have easily been repaired – today Historic England would have insisted on it – but the councillors, with grandiose ideas, destroyed it to make way for the present (and terminally empty after yet more fire damage of nine years ago) Assembly Rooms designed by Sir Hugh Casson. 

At any time from the laying out of the Market Place, you would have set out for Ashbourne by descending Sadler Gate, thence along Bold Lane and Willow Row to Ford Street where one could have crossed Markeaton Brook to reach Nuns’ Green (now Friar Gate) to Ashbourne. In the 13th century it really was a haven for leatherworks; Lawrence the Saddler was recorded there then and Potts the saddlers still had a shop there until the 1980s. Iron Gate was originally the width of Sadler Gate, but the latter was never widened. Indeed, it was 1971 before pressure from then newly-formed Derby Civic Society persuaded the Council to ban motor cars and pedestrianise it. Interestingly, although most of the frontages are 18th or early 19th century – essentially Georgian in style – the buildings behind are mainly much older; Derby thrift preserves many a 16th or 17th century building in Sadler Gate. Only the little shop opposite the end of the 1871-built Strand Arcade, with No. 46 (dated 1675) and the contemporary Bell Hotel (but with a 1926 frontage reconstructed of old timbers salvaged from elsewhere) survive from these earlier eras.

And, of course, once you reached the foot of Sadler Gate, having passed several pubs, including the Ostrich (now the Shakespeare) and the defunct Half Moon, you have to cross the Markeaton Brook. Needless to say, there was a stone bridge over it, and the street between the Half Moon and Bold Lane was indeed called Sadler Gate Bridge; the street sign is still to be seen above the shops on one’s right as one faces the Museum.

Mind you, the brook is not apparent any longer. In 1870, super-rich serial mayor of Derby and railway construction magnate Sir Abraham Woodiwiss bought up the land flanking the brook between Sadler Gate Bridge and Victoria Street, and culverted it, turning it into an elegant street, and commissioned the serpentine curve of stone shops with apartments above that still line the east side of the street to this day. They well compliment the former Post Office of a decade earlier, at the south end. Derby architects Giles and Brookhouse designed the buildings, but left a gap into which Woodiwiss slotted what he hoped would be Derby’s answer to London’s Burlington Arcade – the Strand arcade connecting through to Sadler Gate.

The Strand, in the 1870s and afterwards, was the epitome of elegance and fashionable shopping. It also housed the Derby Club, the National Liberal Club, the Mechanics’ Institute and, from 1880, the Art Gallery (now part of Derby Museums and Art Gallery). Previous to the street’s creation, the relatively opulent homes of the élite along the Wardwick were prone to flood catastrophically every now and again, when the brook backed up through rising levels of floodwater in the Derwent. Henceforth, Woodiwiss’s culverting and the installation of a sluice ended this, although ironically, most of these grand houses were replaced gradually by the expansion of the Museums and the Mechanics’ Institute. In 1939, a steam road roller fell through the road surface, which reminded all and sundry that they were traversing the banks (strands) of a watercourse. Not content with that, in 1967, the culvert had to be relined, and the old Sadler Gate Bridge was once more exposed, more or less intact, during the proceedings.

Since then, the sweeping façade of Giles & Brookhouse’s architectural set-piece have been cleaned and the shop-fronts made uniform, much improving the visual impact of one of central Derby’s newest streets. Now it must be the Council’s aim to reverse the flight of retail from the historic core of the city and turn the whole area – Market Place, Iron Gate, Sadler Gate and The Strand – back into being a thriving and indispensable part of Derby.



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