A History of Derby

By Tim Lambert

Roman Derby

Derby began as a Roman fort. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD. Around 50 AD they built a fort west of the River Derwent on the site of Belper Road. Then, about 80 AD, they built a new fort on the east bank of the river. The Romans called the fort Derventio. There may have been a civilian settlement outside the fort at Derby. The civilians could sell goods to the soldiers.

However, in the 4th-century Roman civilization declined. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD. The Roman buildings at Derby were abandoned and fell into ruins.

Danish and Saxon Derby

There may have been a Saxon village on the site of Derby after the Romans left. However, the Danes founded the town of Derby about 873 AD after they invaded England. They created a fortified settlement at Derby. It was an easy place to fortify. To the east the river Derwent protected it. To the east and south, a tributary of the Derwent protected Derby. All the Danes had to do was to fortify the northern approach between the two rivers. They dug a ditch and erected an earth bank with a wooden palisade on top. The name Derby is derived from the Danish words deor by meaning deer settlement.

In 917 the native Saxons captured Derby and it became part of the kingdom of England. Derby was more than a fortified settlement. Derby was also a place of trade. In the 10th century, it had a mint and a market. Craftsmen would have worked in the little town, men like blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters and comb makers.

By the time of the Domesday Book (1086) Derby had a population of about 2,000. That might seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. (A typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants).


In 1154 Derby was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). In 1204 a new charter gave the people of Derby the right to rule themselves. They were allowed to elect 2 bailiffs who ran the town. The merchants of Derby were also allowed to form a merchant’s guild. The guild regulated trade in the town and protected its member’s interests.

Several trades were carried on in Medieval Derby. There was a wool industry. The wool was woven then fulled. This means it was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. The wool was then dyed. There were also many leather workers making gloves and saddles. There were also the same craftsmen found in any town such as butchers, bakers, brewers, carpenters, and blacksmiths.

During the Middle Ages Derby grew in size and prosperity and may have had a population of around 3,500 in the 14th century. By then Derby was quite a large and important town.

St James Priory (a small monastery) was founded in Derby in 1140. In the 13th century, a ‘hospital’ was added where the monks cared for the poor and unwell. There was also a leper hostel outside the town on the site of Leonard Street.

About 1230 Dominican friars (known as Blackfriars because of the color of their habits) came to Derby. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor.


In 1536-39 Henry VIII closed the priory, the leper hostel, and the friary in Derby. However, during his reign, the tower of All Saints church was built. During the reign of his daughter Mary a woman named Joan Wast was burned for heresy in Derby.

Like all towns in those days, Derby suffered from outbreaks of plague. There were severe outbreaks in 1636 and 1665.

However, Derby continued to grow in prosperity. Its cloth industry flourished. Other industries in the 17th century included brewing and, from the end of the century clock making. Meanwhile in 1637 Derby was given a new charter and gained a mayor.

In 1695 Derby gained a piped water supply (for those who could afford to be connected). The water was pumped along wooden pipes by a watermill.


In the 18th century, Derby was a fair-sized market town. In 1717 the first silk mill in England opened in Derby. All Saints Church was rebuilt in 1726.

Then in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops occupied Derby but they left after only 2 days. From the middle of the 18th-century porcelain was made in Derby.

In 1773 George III visited Derby and agreed that a picture of a crown could appear on china. Afterward, it was called Crown Derby. (In 1890 Queen Victoria agreed it could be called Royal Crown Derby).

Conditions in Derby improved in the 18th century, at least for the well-off. From 1735 oil lamps lighted the streets. In 1768 an act of parliament formed a body of men with responsibility for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets of Derby.


From 1821 the streets of Derby were lit by gas. In 1839 the railway reached Derby. Then in 1840, a man named Joseph Strutt gave the Arboretum to the town as a gift. In 1867 Michael Bass, a brewer, gave land to the town to be used as a public park.

St Mary’s Church was built in 1839. It was designed by the famous architect A W Pugin (1812-1852). In 1842 a new Town Hall was built in Derby. In 1810 an infirmary was built and in 1877 a hospital for sick children was built.

Life in 19th century Derby gradually improved. The first public swimming pool in Derby was built in 1873. Derby School of Art opened in 1878. A public library and museum were built in 1879.

From 1880 horse-drawn trams ran through the streets of Derby and in 1894 the first electric lights in Derby were switched on. Also in the 1890s slum clearance began in Derby albeit on a very modest scale.

In the mid 19th century Midland Railway Company began making railway engines in Derby. The railway workshops soon became a major employer. There were also many iron foundries in Derby. Other industries in Derby in the 19th century included brewing and paint making.

Derby grew rapidly in the 19th century. In 1877 the boundaries of the town were extended to include New Normanton and Little Chester. In the late 19th century many new houses were built in Normanton and Peartree.


In 1907 Rolls Royce decided to open a factory in Derby where cars and aircraft engines were made. Other industries in Derby in the 20th century were railway engineering and making aircraft engines. There was also a textiles industry.

In 1904 the first electric trams ran in Derby. They stopped in 1930 and were replaced by buses. Meanwhile, the first cinema in Derby opened in 1910.

In 1916 a Zeppelin airship bombed Derby killing 5 people and in 1924 a war memorial was erected in Derby. Then in 1927, All Saints Church was made a cathedral, and City Hospital was built in 1929.

In the 1930s a ring road was built around Derby. Furthermore, in 1933 John Logie Baird’s Roadshow demonstrated television in Derby

Markeaton Park opened to the public in 1931. The River Gardens opened in 1934. A new bus station was built in Derby in 1933 and the Council House was built in 1939-41. Meanwhile in the 1920s and 1930s slum clearance continued and the first council houses were built.

During the Second World War 74 people were killed by the German bombing in Derby and over 300 were injured.

After 1945 Derby council built many more council houses. The largest council estate was built at Mackworth in the early 1950s. Many private houses were also built. In the 1980s a large estate of private houses was built between Chaddesden and Breadsall.

Derby Silk Mill opened as a museum in 1974. The Eagle Centre was built in 1975. (It is now the Derbion). The same year, 1975 Derby Theatre opened.

In the late 20th century Derby continued to thrive. In 1976 Derby was twinned with the German city of Osnabruck. Then in 1977 Derby was made a city.

Pickford’s House Museum opened in 1988 and the Ram sculpture in Albion Street was erected in 1995.


In the early 21st century manufacturing industry in Derby continues to thrive. There is also a significant tourism industry. In 2018 Derby Silk Mill is being renovated.

In 2022 the population of Derby was 261,000.