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St Peters church is the oldest church in Derby and still contains some Saxon fabric. Before that, the church has a Danish dedication and that it was built to serve the Danish hamlet of Derbye (deer town). It lay outside the walls of the Saxon village of Northworthy and close to the ancient castle. (It was in this castle that Edwin, King of Northumberland and his Christian wife met with Paulinus, the first Roman missionary to the region. Here in AD 626, Edwin promised to be baptised if events took a favourable turn. God must have answered the prayers of Paulinus, because Edwin did become a Christian - and his kingdom with him.)
The Danes first invaded the town in 874, but no records of the church exist until the reign of Edward the confessor. At that time the church was allotted to a Saxon man called Leuric. The year in which the church is considered to have been founded is 1042 - the first year of Edward's reign. The Domesday book compiled in 1086 credits St. Peter's to the Norman Lord Ralph son of Hubert, but it was Hugh, Dean of Derby (possibly a descendent of Ralph) who later rebuilt it. The only evidence of Norman craftsmanship that can still be seen in the church today are the capital letters on the pillar at the north side of the chancel arch and on the wall of the South aisle. (These are quite difficult to spot.)
Much of the current church building dates back to the medieval period. The arches between the central and side aisles were built at this time and also the windows in the south and north walls (decorated style). Of the two side aisles, the windows in the south are older. They are the first example of bar tracery in the early English period. The south wall also contains an ancient carved stone, which some people claim to be an old Saxon cross which used to stand in the old churchyard. The south aisle included a chantry established in 1338 by John de Crich (who was its first curate). It was established for the purpose of saying prayers for his deceased father. The altar within was dedicated to The Blessed Virgin. A second chantry was founded, (and a second curate appointed) in the north aisle by Adam Shardlow. He dedicated the altar within it to St. Nicholas. The Flemish chest in the south aisle was made in the 14th century.
A major re-building project took place in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). This included: raising the walls of the central nave and inserting clerestory windows over the arches, reducing the pitch of the roof, widening the chancel arch with the cross keys at the top, shortening the chancel by 36 feet (one bay), installing the east window, rebuilding the tower, constructing gargoyles (to keep evil spirits away), adding the two-floor vestry with a 'squint' or peep-hole. The squint is unusual as it was not built for the benefit of lepers as is normally assumed, but for the clergy to see the high altar from the first-floor vestry.
In the Tudor period the church benefited from the philanthropy of local worshippers. Robert and Alice Liversage had no children. They were rich. They lived on the corner of the Corn Market and Albert Street on the site where the Samuels shop now stands. Robert was a highly skilled and respected dyer of wool and a very clever business man. We are told that his life was an example of faith, hope and charity. Robert Liversage donated much of the money needed to build the cathedral tower. But Liversage made out a will which would benefit his own church, St. Peter's, where he worshipped regularly. In his will written in 1531 he established a chapel to be built at the East end of the North aisle and made provision that most of his property would be given to the vicar of St. Peter's in order to benefit the poor of the parish. Upon his death; the hearse lay in the chapel, partially hidden from public view by a 'screen'. (His body was afterwards buried in a vault 20 feet deep underneath the chancel floor where it was accidentally discovered by workmen in 1929.) A daily mass was said by the Liversage chaplain for the souls of Robert and Alice -but not for long. The practice was abolished by Edward VI a few years later. A divine worship was to be celebrated in the chapel every Friday, to be attended by 13 people who would each receive a silver penny ... A most unfortunate bequest! - Hutton, Derby's first historian wrote: 'A sufficient congregation was not doubted, nor their quarrelling for money. The priest found his hearers in that disorder which his prayers could not rectify. They frequently fought, but not the fight of good faith, nor did the ill-neighbourhood end with Friday. No scheme is likely to fill the church as a silver penny... no devotion is valid that is bought with a price.' The majority of his wealth was far better managed! 12 almshouses were built on St Peter's Churchyard (now the site of numbers 24-28). These were replaced in 1836 by the 24 almshouses on London Road which still house pensioners who have lived within the (old) parish boundaries.
The Church owes a debt of gratitude to the wisdom of the monks of Darley Abbey. Realising that trouble was ahead, they sold the patronage of St Peter's to a private citizen, Peter Marten of Stapleford. Now dis-associated from the monastery, the church survived the reformation intact. From this time on, the patronage passed backwards and forwards between the crown, town and noblemen; changes being made at the whim of the reigning monarch: Edward VI took the patronage for the crown, then gave it to the Babington family. Mary took it away from them to give to the Bailiffs and Burgesses of Derby. Elizabeth I gave it back to Babington, but he was later charged with high treason. Babington was a Roman Catholic and had plotted the murder of Queen Elizabeth I. His estates were forfeited in 1588. Elizabeth then granted the patronage of St Peter's to Sir Francis Beaumont of Gracedieu, Justice of the Common Peace. Sir Anthony Babington. Some ancient memorial tablets have been placed in St Peter's church, the oldest being on the wall to the left of the Flemish chest which was placed there in 1652. Soon afterwards a stone commemorating Percival Willughby, the first ever gynaecologist, was laid on the floor close by. The first mayor of Derby was buried in St Peter's churchyard in 1637. This was Henry Mellor who lived in Babington Hall. Several prisoners of the old County Gaol were also buried in the churchyard. The gaol was built close to the brook which still flows underneath Victoria Street. It was not a pleasant place in which to reside. Quite apart from being frequently visited by pigs, it was always damp: a contributing factor to the 'gaol fever' often fatally suffered by the inmates. At times of flooding, the cells filled with water and the prisoners were 'apt to drown'! The prison windows opened out to the street and the prisoners would beg from passers-by. However, they were in competition from the lepers, each provided by the town with a bell to warn of their approach. 'Mad Margery' also roamed the streets wearing a bright red gown, provided for her out of the St Peter's Churchwardens account.
The Tudor tower stood proudly at the western end of the central nave. It was supported by arches which were badly damaged by the earthquake in Derby in 1811. A crack also appeared below one of the clerestory windows on the south side, which can still be seen today. Underpinning of the tower attempted to make good the damage, but it was not successful. The bells hanging in the tower could no longer be rung. More damage to the church was caused by the planting of ivy over the church exterior walls. It may have looked lovely - but wrecked the masonry.
During the 18th and 19th centuries it was customary for pews to be 'owned' by individuals for the accommodation of their families. Pews could be bought and sold, but a faculty was required from the diocese of Lichfield. New ownership had to be announced by the vicar during the course of Sunday morning worship. There are records of families in dispute over the ownership of a pew in 1739. As Derby increased in size, more pews were required. This was to be achieved by the addition of galleries. Between 1793 and 1827 galleries were added to the North aisle, 2 across the (longer) South aisle, under the repaired tower and even across the chancel itself. With high box pews installed on the ground floor the overall appearance of the church at this time must have been dreadfully claustrophobic. The Victorians must have thought so too, because in the 1850s they set about the task of ripping out all the pews and galleries. First came the restoration of the chancel. Pews were removed and the curious misericords inserted. These are a bit like cinema seats which fold upwards. They must have come from one of the collegiate churches in Derby and were useful for tired monks who wanted to appear to be standing up when they were actually sitting down. The Victorians also: Removed the flat plaster ceiling from the chancel. Put the beautiful painted glass into the East window. Re-built the vestry. In 1865 the organ chamber was created in front of the vestries.
In the 1860s the city council negotiated with the church council to buy for £130 a strip of the churchyard in order to widen St Peter's Street. This was agreed upon and the council also paid for the erection of the wall which still adjoins St Peter's Street. 20 years later a similar project was undertaken to widen the narrow section of St Peter's Churchyard, pulling down the old Liversage cottages and taking away another piece of the churchyard land. This time no recompense was made, and worse, the work was carried out rather carelessly. Skeletons were exposed and cartloads of rubbish from the excavation of the street were just tipped out all over the graves. The fine old vicarage on St Peter's Street with its 'clear stream of running water' crossing the property was sold and a new vicarage bought on Burton Road. This too was later sold (in 1892) and some of the land was used to widen the road now known as Vicarage Avenue. Some would claim that at this time and until the turn of the century St Peter's was Derby's principal church and was used for civic functions. The church was certainly known to be 'high'. It was the last church in Derbyshire in which a 'man in a white sheet' participated in an 'open penance for defamation' service.
Within a year of his induction, Rev J E Matthews had bought the old Derby School with the intention of using it to accommodate his new Sunday School. A heating system had been installed in the church and he had had extra pews put into the chancel. In that year he also launched an appeal to enlarge the church by rebuilding the tower in a different position. The entire project was completed by the middle of 1900 at a total cost of £6,500. The bells were re-dedicated in 1902 and a ringing team established. The clock, still in operation today, was donated by the Whittaker family, and electric lighting was put installed in the 1950s. (Information extracted from St Peter's Church website)
This image is one of a collection by the famous local antiquarian, Thomas Bateman, of Middleton by Youlgreave. (1821-1861). Bateman organized his collection by inserting them into a 4 volume copy of Lysons Magna Britannia, Derbyshire, creating a fascinating and unique illustrated record of the county. The purchase of the collection for Derbyshire Libraries was made possible by the generous bequest of Miss Frances Webb of Whaley Bridge, well known local historian, who died in December 2006.