Ironville

King William Street, Ironville, Derbyshire (1973)
Victoria Street, Ironville, Derbyshire (1973)

The catalogue of British industrial model villages, constructed by employers enlightened or desperate enough to provide better-quality habitations to attract workers, usually includes, give or take one or another, such names as –

  • Cromford, Derbyshire (1771)
  • New Lanark, Lanarkshire (1783)
  • Styal, Cheshire (1784)
  • Swindon, Wiltshire (1842)
  • Copley, West Yorkshire (1849)
  • Saltaire, West Yorkshire (1854)
  • Akroyden, West Yorkshire (1859)
  • Bournville, Birmingham (1879)
  • Port Sunlight, Wirral (1888)
  • New Earswick, York (1901)

Such lists rarely include Ironville, Derbyshire, begun by the Butterley Company in 1834, largely because the historic village is no longer recognisable for what it was.

The Butterley ironworks was founded in 1790 by the engineers of the Cromford Canal, William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram (1764-1805), in partnership with the canal-company solicitor, Francis Beresford, and the Nottingham banker John Wright.

The enterprise was founded literally on the discovery of rich coal and ironstone deposits during the building of the Butterley canal tunnel.

The ironworks traded on demand generated by the wars with France from 1792 onwards, but produced only pig iron and cast iron.  Land was purchased in 1796 at Codnor Park, a couple of miles down the canal, for a forge and rolling mill to manufacture wrought iron.

Within ten years four limekilns and a row of eleven cottages called Limekiln Row had been built at Codnor Park, soon followed by the forge and another thirteen cottages, Forge Row.

Further land on the site that was to become Ironville was used to construct two rows each of sixteen cottages, Furnace Row and Foundry Row, completed in 1813.

King William Street was laid out in 1834, with its forty-eight two-up-two-down terraced houses, alongside and similar to Furnace and Foundry Rows, and its public house, the King William IV.

In the following years, street after street appeared – Victoria Street (1837), then Albert Street, Tank Street and Meadow Street, followed by the distinctive three-storey “Big Six”, the biggest houses in Ironville.

The final development in the 1850s and 1860s was the Market Place and Queen Street, larger houses built on the cinder bank that served to fill in a former clay pit.

The new settlement offered a high standard of amenity.  By the late 1840s King William Street boasted a chemist, a draper, a baker and a stationer who published the Ironville Telegraph newspaper.   By 1886 there were twenty-four shops, including the sole branch of the Codnor Park & Ironville Equitable & Industrial Co-operative Society, though to be the smallest retail co-operative society in Britain.

The National School was opened in 1841 and enlarged in 1850.  The Mechanics’ Institute, designed by the Derby architect Henry Isaac Stevens, opened in 1846 and was later used as the Butterley Company Colliery offices.  Christ Church, also by H I Stevens, built at a cost of £6,000 and paid for by Francis Wright, was consecrated in 1851 and the vicarage, also by Stevens, dates from c1852. 

The 1854 Jessop Monument commemorates William Jessop II (1784-1852), son of the canal engineer.  It consists of a spacious memorial hall alongside a 70-foot-high Tuscan column with a viewing platform, reached by a spiral staircase of 150 steps.  The column was severely damaged by a lightning strike in 1861, though it continued to be used despite its precarious condition for years afterwards.  Both the column and the hall were restored in 2007, but are not accessible to the public.

Though Codnor Park and Ironville are geographically separated by the canal they always formed a unit, depending on the shops and social facilities around King William Street.  Whit Monday fêtes at the Codnor Park Memorial Hall were the highlight of the year.  Another long-standing custom, arising from an influx of Scottish ironworkers in the 1870s, was traditional Burns Night celebrations that were perpetuated into the 1960s.

Though Codnor Park Forge closed in 1965, followed by the adjacent wagon works ten years later, the Ironville community and its buildings remained largely intact until the Butterley Company was taken over by Lord Hanson’s Wiles Group in 1968.  The site of Codnor Park works was cleared by 1972. 

Though the derelict canal-side Butterley Company settlement at Golden Valley, a mile up the canal towards Butterley, was well restored by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust in 1979-81, the streets of Ironville, which had remained largely intact, were either demolished or modernised beyond recognition, pebble-dashed and shorn of chimney stacks by Alfreton Urban District Council in 1973.

Though the resulting conversions are no doubt comfortable, they could have been comfortable and attractive if Ironville had been sympathetically restored.

Ironville was a milestone on the road to comfortable dwellings for ordinary people.  Now it’s simply a housing development, incomplete, unrecognisable, its street plan defaced, its traditions disregarded.

To see the best of nineteenth-century workers’ housing, people don’t come to Ironville; they go to Cromford, New Lanark, Swindon, Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight – places that were valued and cared for.  Ironville isn’t on the list.

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