Our Town in History

A very brief overview of Chesterfield’s history is below, particularly as it relates to townscape. Don’t forget to visit our on-line resources page for more information on Chesterfield and district buildings, our blue plaques scheme and historic society newsletters. We have also collected together our more recent thoughts on rethinking Chesterfield town centre.

Chesterfield is an historic market town of some substance. Of at least Roman origins, it received its market charter from King John in 1204. It has possibly one of the largest open air market places in Britain. This, the present Market Place and retail area around it, was created as deliberate act in the late 12th century, by the Crown, to construct an entirely new trading area away from the old market area which was around the parish church. This historic decision has led to the current layout of shopping streets – which spread from around the parish church to the market and beyond.

The town sits on a large coalfield which formed a major part of the area’s economy along with pottery, engineering and chemicals, until the 1980s. It was earlier a successful trading town in such products as lead and in wool and linen products. Whilst there is little evidence of these industries today, the town remains proud of its industrial roots.

Most buildings on Knifesmithgate were part of a between the wars offensive to rid Chesterfield of insanitary conditions, narrow streets and poor shopping facilities.

There was a phase, between the Wars, when what looks like an offensive was mounted in Chesterfield town centre, perhaps attempting to revive the charms it probably never originally enjoyed. The awareness of a problem (insanitary conditions, poor dwellings and narrow streets) and the willpower to do something to rectify it at the time is an interesting point. Insanitary conditions were addressed by the construction of council housing estates on the periphery of the town. The 1914 Improvement Plan dealt with street improvements. Much rebuilding was found necessary, mostly shops and public houses. This was in the the Tudor Revival style popular at the time. An good example of this architecture can be found on Knifesmithgate.

The former law courts were established in what was designed to be a civic area.

Then in the 1950s and 60s there is what could be called the Civic Era. It had begun before the Second World War with what some might see as a rather pompous Town Hall on Rosehill. Across from it was the rather smaller and perhaps less fanciful Rural Council House opened only a few weeks after the town hall in 1938. There were also some quite significant interventions in the neo-classical manner in the main streets, and it continued afterwards with the Law Courts and attempts to create a new Civic Centre around the town hall and down the hill towards a new Accountants General Department (Chetwynd House). There was even water and sculpture to be found there. All of the individual projects were quite good for their times, but they were arranged like bedding plants and turned their back on the historic core, which became increasingly seedy. Eventually Chetwynd House was replaced with a pleasant modern office block whose red brick walls and dark roof help knit the area together, though an associated car park on West Bars was not finally demolished until 2016 – to be replaced by a McDonalds.

Chesterfield Central Library

There were a succession of comprehensive redevelopment proposals for the town centre from the 1960s. These would have seen a fair part of the market area, Market Hall and The Shambles lost to various large new buildings. None of these plans went ahead, though, like other towns, there were some significant buildings lost during this period.

Then (from 1976) came the first coherent attempt at a strategy for the whole town, both in its conservation aspects and in the provision of scope for new developments. The architect, Sir Bernard Fielden thought the net result was quite good and was rightly proud of his work. There is a legacy here on what was accomplished in the period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s which is worthy of study. The Pavements shopping centre preserved most of the historic Low Pavement frontages facing the Market Place. The slightly later public library is a successful modern building, whereas Theatre Yard was good on conservation but changes in levels deter footfall.

The later shops on Vicar Lane/Steeplegate work on plan but possibly disappoint by the lack of attention to detail. That, and a respect for context and good quality materials, distinguish the better new buildings around the town. A new courthouse, for example, looks good on the outside, but the artificial stone plinth is starting to let it down. The Market Hall extension shows that improvements can be achieved on a tight budget.

Vicar Lane shopping centre.

The developments over the last 100 years reflect how we value Chesterfield town centre. A 2009 Masterplan for the town centre had a strong commitment to the future. But since that time an new vision needs developing. This will have to take into account retail trends that have left the Co-Op store mostly empty (except from the successful conversation of the upper floors into a hotel). Newer new retail units on the slightly disconnected Ravenside retail park have been filled and a key anchor store from the town centre moved there in 2023. Internet shopping and out-of-town retail are now the order of the day.

It is likely that the town centre will have to become more attractive as a cultural centre and a place to live. To succeed, it will need more attention to the public spaces, more connectivity and more of the good conservation of buildings that has occurred though Lottery funding and more recently by so-called government ‘Levelling Up’ money – such as the on-going revitalising the heart of Chesterfield project. That is quite possible and should be considered alongside the redevelopment of the Northern Gateway and Waterside projects.

There are, of course, challenges elsewhere. What is the future for some of our unloved and neglected buildings? And what of our local shopping centres, such as Chatsworth Road, Brimington, Whittington Moor and Staveley town centre? The latter has its own issues with vacant shops, lower market stall use, etc., but is currently the subject of improvement plans.

The Civic Society supports Chesterfield Borough Council and North East Derbyshire District Council in their work, particularly in these challenging economic times.

This piece was originally contributed by professor John Tarn OBE and Bryan Thompson and published in February 2017. It was edited in April 2024 to incorporate some latest thinking and developments.

You might wish to read the society’s further thoughts on the challenges facing town and city centres on our page devoted to rethinking Chesterfield town centre.

Chesterfield and District Local History Society have information on their website which gives a chronological history of the town.

Page last updated 10 April 2024.