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Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007
Eckington is a large and ancient parish sprawling along a high ridge and down into the Rother Valley in the `border country’ between Chesterfield and Sheffield in the extreme north of the county. The parish also embraces the neighbouring villages of Ridgeway, Marsh Lane and Renishaw, but whilst Eckington itself with a population in excess of 12,000, is the size of a small town, it has the parish council administration of a village just like it’s neighbours.
It is recorded in the Domesday Book as `Echintune’ and like it’s neighbour `Witantune’ (Whittington), was probably settled by a Dane during the late ninth century, although earliest references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles date from 1002.
Following the Norman Conquest it was the King’s Land and divided into two manors, the smaller of which along with Witantune, was in the Royal Manor of Newbold, whilst the larger, seven miles from both Sheffield and Chesterfield was held by Ralph Fitzhubert and contained a mill, a priest and fourteen villagers.
Eckington’s long history is dominated by the remarkable Sitwell family who down the centuries have been it’s major benefactors, and whose family seat, the magnificent seventeenth century Renishaw Hall, stands stately and proud amidst it’s fine gardens overlooking the rolling downs of Renishaw Park a mile or so east of the village.
There have been Sitwells here for almost 800 years, with a Walter `Cytewel’
first recorded at Ridgeway as early as the late thirteenth century.
His son Simon held 50 acres of copyhold land in Eckington parish in 1301, and there were Sitwells living at Southgate, Eckington from 1431 to 1543.
However, it was during the Tudor period that a Robert Sitwell of nearby Netherthorpe laid the foundations for the family’s future wealth when he purchased large tracts of border land rich in coal and iron in 1530.
By 1588 Robert Sitwell was reputedly one of the five richest men in Derbyshire, having purchased `several closes in the south field of Eckington’ and exploiting land in the Rother Valley and the Vale of Scarsdale for it’s coal and iron.
These prosperous holdings eventually passed to his cousin’s grandson George, who was an Ironmaster and early industrial pioneer owning several furnaces and forges in the area. George and his eldest son Francis Sitwell were forerunners of the coming Industrial Revolution and by the middle of the seventeenth century they handled between them one tenth of the nations iron trade, whilst Francis was reputedly the world’s largest manufacturer of iron nails.
Around 1625 George Sitwell began the construction of the splendid family seat of Renishaw Hall, whilst in every direction the sprawling parish was a hive of Sitwell activity with furnaces built at Mosborough and Foxbrooke, the first slitting mill in the East Midlands on the road to Staveley, and numerous coal pits scarring the landscape, providing fuel for the furnaces and the main source of employment for the menfolk of the border country around Eckington. The Sitwell ironworks also produced bar iron and castings, including iron sugar-cane rollers and sugar boilers for shipment to the burgeoning sugar industries of the West Indies, with goods shipped the short distance overland to the inland port of Bawtry and down the River Idle to be trans-shipped into sea-going vessels at the east coast port of Hull.
Prior to this new industrial activity Eckington had been a largely pastoral agricultural community, but the influx of workers to the iron works and coal pits saw the population treble during the early years of the eighteenth century and new dwellings filled in the spaces between the farms and the furnaces. A number of churches and chapels sprang up and large new mansions were built by local industrialists during Eckington’s most prosperous period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Sitwells withdrew from industry late in the eighteenth century when the estate was inherited by country squire, Sitwell Hurt, who promptly changed his name to Sitwell Sitwell, and was responsible for the major rebuilding between 1793 and 1808 of battlemented extensions on either wing of the original Renishaw Hall. The Sitwells became Lords of the Manor during the nineteenth century and Sir George Sitwell laid out the magnificent gardens in the 1890’s, and the golf course in 1911, employing Sir Edwin Lutyens to remodel the club house in 1914. Fittingly there are various memorials to the Sitwell family in the tree embowered parish church of St.Peter & St.Paul which stands proudly on rising ground beside Mill Lane and Church Street.
The church, with broad square tower and short spire is an excellent example of Early English architecture, of which Pevsner says: “it is of exceptional architectural interest for its contributions to the 12th and 13th century styles in Derbyshire”. It has a vast and ancient burial ground, part of which is derelict, overgrown and sadly, shows signs of vandalism.
By the end of the nineteenth century most of Eckington was heavily industrialised, with ironworks at nearby Renishaw being a major employer and a number of collieries, mostly owned by the Wells family providing work for the growing populace. The railway came in the 1850’s and the Midland Station was built to serve the needs of a village with the population of a small town. A large Market Hall and Assembly Rooms quickly followed, with dances and concerts at the Assembly Rooms which regularly accommodated some 1500 people – even the Methodist Sunday School had over 400 regular attenders during the late Victorian era.
The twentieth century saw vast changes in Eckington; the Assembly Rooms became a cinema, but in the years after the second world war most of the centre was demolished and both the Market Hall & Assembly Rooms went in 1977, as did the large Methodist Chapel built in memory of George Wells in 1876. The railway stations closed following Dr Beeching’s infamous `axe-ing’ in the sixties and much of the industry in the Moss Valley ceased, the coal pits gradually closed, and finally the iron works went, and the once flourishing and prosperous border township of Eckington slid into decline.
However during the last quarter of a century civic pride has restored much of Eckington’s infrastructure with a newly pedestrianised Market Street at the centre, which boasts a revived and flourishing open market each Friday.
A new library, swimming baths, and Civic Centre have rejuvenated the heart of Eckington, especially along Gosber Street which runs down past the new Adult Education Centre and Eckington Business Centre to Southgate, with its perfectly situated Post Office and shops.
Of particular architectural delight in modern Eckington is the Georgian fronted Rectory near the war memorial on Church Street, which stands in delightful gardens and is much older than its 1771 enlargement by the Rev.Christopher Alderson.
Another gem is Green Hall Farm, a splendid mullion-windowed manor house dating from around 1670 which stands opposite the Jet petrol station along West Street, and just a hundred yards from the massive edifice of the United Free Church of 1875.
Notable amongst the many hostelries are the Royal Hotel at the junction of Southgate and Station Road, and The George on Southgate, the venue for the founding of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Mining Association in 1865.
Modern Eckington has all the facilities of a small town, and a population of around fifteen thousand to match. It boasts a brand new Co-Op hypermarket, and even has its own Snooker Centre (on Peveril Road) and Corner Playhouse. There’s a surprising number of antique and curio shops and bargains to be had for the intrepid seekers of such things!
New businesses and modern luxury dwellings are springing up all around and Eckington is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its decline with a revived spirit and a fresh wind of civic pride blowing away the cobwebs of its industrial past, whilst the winds of change signal a bright future.