views updated May 18 2018

Derbyshire is a heart-shaped county in the heart of England, traditionally bordering Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire, but stopping a few miles short of Lancashire and Warwickshire. It has been little altered by boundary changes, but since 1974 borders Greater Manchester.

The Romans, chiefly interested in the county for its lead and the springs at Buxton, established a number of forts and roads. Christianity came with the first religious house in Mercia built at Repton in 656 (where the Saxon crypt survives), but thereafter Danish invasions placed Derbyshire in the front line of battle until 1013, when Sweyn conquered the whole country.

Throughout the medieval period Derbyshire remained sparsely populated, but numerous market charters were granted and there is a reference to coal-mining near Ilkeston in 1285. The county suffered grievously from the plague, the final outbreak occurring famously in 1665 when six-sevenths of the population of Eyam died. The Civil War saw Derby occupied by parliamentarians in 1643 and, with the north and west of the county royalist in sentiment, a number of small battles followed, including skirmishes at Hartington and Wirksworth (1643). However, Derbyshire's chief importance to the Stuarts came in 1745, when the young pretender and his army occupied Derby before retreating to Scotland. By the 17th cent., the Cavendishes had established themselves as the premier family, mostly due to Bess of Hardwick (countess of Shrewsbury) (1520–1608); they owned 14 per cent of Derbyshire at one stage, controlled one of the county's two MPs, built the magnificent Chatsworth House (1687–1707), and in 1756–7 William Cavendish, 4th duke of Devonshire, was prime minister.

In addition to the building of great country houses, such as Kedleston and Calke abbey, the 18th cent. saw the development of cotton-mills in Derbyshire (notably by Arkwright at Cromford, 1771), impressive growth in coal-mining and iron production around Bolsover and Chesterfield, and framework-knitting at Belper, Ilkeston, and Heanor in the east. Though canal-building did occur in the county, it concentrated on the rivers Derwent and Trent (in the south) and to the north of Chesterfield only; more effective in improving communications were the turnpike roads (the first opened in 1725). It was, however, the railways that profoundly changed Derbyshire and, by the mid-19th cent., Derby had become the railway centre of the midlands, hastening the urbanization of the east of the county. Today, although coal has ceased to be of economic significance to Derbyshire, quarrying (especially limestone) is still important, as are textiles and engineering, most famously at Rolls Royce's aero-engine factory in Derby. In addition, with most of north-west Derbyshire in the Peak District (Britain's first national park), the county attracts vast numbers of visitors, making leisure and tourism major Derbyshire concerns.

Derby is by far the largest town in the county, with 235,000 inhabitants in 1999, but Derby diocese was only created in 1927 (though the cathedral was founded in the 10th cent.), its city status was conferred as late as 1977, and, culturally, Derby has suffered from its proximity to larger Nottingham. Additionally, the city's southern location reinforces the county's diffuse nature, with the north-east looking to Chesterfield and beyond that to Sheffield, and the north-west looking to Manchester. Furthermore, north Derbyshire is millstone grit and limestone country, with stone walls, sheep farms, and bleak moors, whereas in the south there are hedged dairy and arable farms on clay, sandstone, and alluvium.

The county's administrative headquarters are at Matlock, a fine spa town second only to Buxton, its first bath built in 1698, and its dramatic cliffs drawing visitors ever since. But it was Buxton, in the west of Derbyshire and England's highest market town, that prospered most from its hot waters; its sumptuous Crescent, built by the Cavendishes 1780–6, is said to have cost £120,000 and the town retains a sense of Georgian elegance. Also in the rural west, to the south, lie Bakewell and Ashbourne, both granted charters in the 1250s and boasting magnificent parish churches. In Ashbourne, an ancient Shrovetide football game is still played along attractive Georgian streets, and local villages, notably Tissington, dress their wells with flowers annually.

In the east and north, where iron, cotton, and coal dominated the economy, and where much of Derbyshire's industry is still based, runs the M1 motorway, past Ilkeston and Alfreton. Above them is Chesterfield, with its celebrated twisted spire atop an exceptional Gothic church, and Dronfield, which has almost merged with Sheffield. The north-west tip of Derbyshire is the least populated part and contains the Ladybower reservoir, opened in 1945; its largest town, Glossop, retains the appearance of a Victorian mill town, but has a number of attractive 17th-cent. gabled houses.

After the Banham commission report in 1995, Derbyshire retained its county status, with the city of Derby becoming a unitary authority.

Andrew Iain Lewer


views updated Jun 27 2018

Derbyshire County in n central England; the county town is Derby, other major towns are Chesterfield and Alfreton. Low-lying in the s, it rises to the Peak District in the n and is drained by the River Trent and its tributaries (the Dove, Derwent, and Wye). Agriculture is important, such as dairy farming, livestock rearing, wheat, oats, and market gardening. There are coal deposits in the e. Industries: steel, textiles, paper, pottery. Area: 2631sq km (1016sq mi). Pop. (1997) 737,700.