Dronfield History

The first settlers in this area were probably attracted by abundant water in the river and tributary streams and by mature woodland. The Old English derivation of the name suggests that they perhaps also found open land which was infested by drones and for this reason called the place Dranfleld, or, more familiarly Dronfield.

Place name meanings are really all that can be adduced in the way of evidence for the growth of the Anglian settlement, traditionally supposed to have started on the site of the long, low, five-bayed cruck building, now divided into several small shops, opposite the Parish Church on Church Street.

Other names of Old English origin point to early outlying settlements on land cleared of trees, (Woodhouse, Stubley), or on land with a predominant type of vegetation (Bircher). Other hamlets have descriptive names – Coal Aston, the old eastern farm; or Cowley the clearing of the charcoal burners.

Not much is known about Dronfield from its origins up to and beyond the Norman Conquest, apart from the fact that it seems to have suffered considerably during William Vs harrying of the North perhaps as a punishment for insurrection and non-cooperation with the Normans. The Domesday Survey of 1086 says very little about the settlement except to confirm its existence and suggests that it was not very valuable.

The old ecclesiastical Parish of Dronfield was very extensive, stretching from Little Barlow to Coal Aston and Povey, from Holmesfield to Unstone and Apperknowle and including Dore and Totley. The church of St. John the Baptist, the earliest known date for which is 1135 when Oscot was Rector, was one of the richest livings in the Hundred of Scarsdale and has in its churchyard the remains of what is reputed to be an Anglican preaching cross, which would, if such it is, predate the first church building.

Apart from the church, known vestiges of Dronfield’s mediaeval past remain in buildings such as the Green Dragon Inn, once the hail of the chantry priests and the headquarters of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary established in 1349. Its history as an inn probably dates from the dissolution of the monasteries and the subsequent suppression of the guilds and chantries in 1547.

The interior of the barn on High Street with its carved king post roof suggests that it may have been a fifteenth century house on an important north facing site overlooking the river valley and the steep slopes opposite.

That the Dronfield area was prosperous during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is inferred from the number of fine houses dating from these periods, still standing today.

Some of this prosperity derived from Dronfield’s position on one of the routes from the lead mining and grindstone making areas of the Peak towards the transport network on the navigable rivers to the east; several successful lead merchants, amongst whom were the Rotherhams who became lords of the manor of Dronfield made their homes in the immediately surrounding district and the town itself.

One other less well known source of reasonable competence was the trade in wool. Studies of Dronfield from 1535-1650 have shown that many farmers had sizeable sheep flocks and that a significant number of families were engaged in spinning and weaving, in fulling and in the production and selling of cloth. There was a dye works situated near the bottom of Soaper lane, with soap making and tanning also going on in this river bank area.

Coal mining was an early feature of Dronfield life, pits at Stubley being mentioned as early as the sixteenth century and a map of cl64O of Hill Top showing numerous workings.

The pace of development was slow, gathering speed with the opening of mines at Dronfield Woodhouse, opposite the top of Carr Lane in 1795 and at Coal Aston in 1785 and coming to a climax around 1870 with the opening of the Midland Railway and the consequent improvement in communications. By the end of the century there had been mining in most parts of the district, although few traces of it now remain.

Another traditional Dronfield industry was the making of scythes, sickles and other edge tools, although this was never carried out to the extent as in neighbouring Eckington, Ridgeway and Troway. As with coal mining there was a slow but steady development throughout the eighteenth century.

By 1811 Samuel Lucas, steel refiner, had set up a foundry exploiting his patent for malleable iron the ancient dyeworks site and by 1822 his brother Edward, had bought the works and continued family association with Dronfield lasting 160 years.

What was made in the Lucas foundry in the beginning is not precisely known, although one product is reputed to have been cannon balls during the Napoleonic Wars; certainly by 1828 firm was making spindles and fliers for the machinery of the fast expanding cotton, jute an linen trades in Lancashire, Dundee and Northern Ireland. Lucas’s also made spades, shovels, files and railway wheels, steel spokes and plates of malleable iron at the whole pre 1870 mill dam site with its ancillary workshops and grinding shops.

There was another spindle and flier manufacturing concern at the Damstead Works of Ward, Camm and Siddall on Mill Lane and many smaller firms making sickles, reaping hooks, scythes and heavy edge tools.

Industrialisation in Dronfield reached its zenith its 1873 with the arrival of the Wilson Cammell steel rail making plant on Callywhite Lane and for ten years the town enjoyed boom conditions. The population rapidly increased, new areas of housing were built and many shops were opened.

The coal and the steel industries both suffered a decline in the 1880s and by 1883 the making plant had been removed to Workington Cumberland in an operation which astonished the commercial world.

The economic slump and the Wilson Cammell removal left Dronfield a stricken town with hundreds of empty houses and it was many years before there was a return to relative prosperity.

Some coal mining remained into the twentieth century and there were still some steel and tool making concerns, Lucas’s foundry and spade shovel works amongst them.

The scars of the intense industrial activity of the nineteenth century healed slowly and now have mostly been obliterated although the town’s core remains as an evocative reminder of a very different past.

by K.M.Battye