The History of Chesterfield
Chesterfield is an example of a settlement that outgrew previously larger neighbours, eventually becoming a town of some significance where once it had none.
Local folklore indicates there was an Iron Age market village on the moorland to the west of Chesterfield, and other prehistoric sites have been discovered in the surrounding area. But Chesterfield itself appears to be a Roman foundation, albeit their presence was brief: a fort of some description was established by the Romans perhaps as early as 70AD. When they had established control over the region, and their forces were required further north, the fort was abandoned, possibly occupied for only 50 years or so.
The name of the town links its Roman and Saxon periods: the Saxons dubbed old Roman fortified sites casters or casters, so the Saxon name Cestrefield as recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 was the grazing place around a Roman fort. It is thought a church or chapel of some description existed in the area by the 7th century, indicating a village thrived even then, expanding slowly until the Conquest .
In 1086 Chesterfield was regarded as part of Newbold, a situation long ago reversed. Five years later William Rufus granted the village church to Lincoln Cathedral , though what this church consisted of and its antiquity is unclear.
Under the Normans Chesterfield grew apace: by 1165 there was a market; 1182 saw the establishment of a fair; King John in 1204 gave Chesterfield its first charter, one element of which conferred the right to a second market. The local production of wool would appear to have driven this economic growth, though the town also had a notable leather industry which in turn fuelled the work of glovers and saddlers there.
Chesterfield was the site of a battle in 1266, as Henry III mopped up the remaining rebels (including the Earl of Derby) previously led by Simon de Montfort who died the previous year at the Battle of Evesham .
The town’s most famous landmark, St Mary's Church - its twisted and leaning spire - dates from the 14th century. Many reasons for the defect have been suggested, one rather insulting to the virtue of the town’s womenfolk. One of the more likely explanations is that during the great plague of 1349 work was suspended on the spire, allowing rain to soak the timbers and sun to dry them unevenly.
The reign of Elizabeth I saw several milestones in the town’s development: on the positive side, a grammar school was founded in 1594, the same year that the town charter was confirmed and expanded; but in 1586 the place was devastated by a terrible plague.
While regional rivals developed specific industries during the Industrial Revolution , Chesterfield remained a very mixed economy, with flax; leather, brewing and lace all important.
Trade was facilitated when the first turnpike was built here in 1739; and by Chesterfield joining the canal network in 1777. The greatest name of the Railway Age, George Stephenson , played a major role in Chesterfield’s development in the mid-19th century: his Derby to Leeds line begun in 1837 included a station in the town. During the construction of that line Stephenson’s company discovered coal and iron-ore in the area, the exploitation of which changed business there (Stephenson decided to live in the town, at Tapton House, from 1838 until his death 10 years later, partly to oversee the mining operations).
In spite of possessing the raw materials, Chesterfield only developed its heavy engineering sector in the early 20th century, a period that also witnessed retail innovator Montague Burton’s first store open in 1903. Contrastingly two of the greats of the Labour Movement are associated with Chesterfield, the birthplace in 1910 of Barbara Castle ; and constituency of Tony Benn from 1984 to 2001.
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