The Crooked Spire
An exhibition looking at the history and stories behind Chesterfield’s iconic building. This exhibition was created in partnership with St Mary and All Saints Church.
Chesterfield's famous 'Crooked Spire' Church
The famous spire of Chesterfield Parish Church has towered over the town for hundreds of years. It is an iconic and memorable image that has been used time and again by local organisations and businesses. Let’s take a look at a few you may recognise.
Chesterfield Borough Council
Chesterfield has held Borough status since 1204 and had a mayor since the Elizabethan charter of 1598. The Borough Council adopted the Spire as its logo in 1974. In 2014, forty years after the original image was conceived, a new visual identity was created by Chesterfield-based company Crush Design.
New council logo
Chesterfield town football club saw its foundation in 1871. The team adopted the well-known blue and white strip, the colour still worn by Chesterfield Football Club today. From its early days the team became known as the Spireites and, through thick and thin, through highs and lows, it’s been a name the team has always carried with pride.
At 42 St Mary’s Gate is a blue plaque which commemorates the offices of Scarsdale Brewery. The Brewery was founded in the 1750s, but only began using the trademark Spire image in January 1866. The spire remained the logo until the brewery was bought by Whitbread in 1958.
Scarsdale Brewery label
There was tremendous excitement in Chesterfield when the new Civic Theatre had its opening night on 21st February 1949. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the theatre saw growing popularity and numerous successes. The theatre used the image of the Spire on many of its programmes throughout the 1960s.
The start of the Robinson PLC packaging business really began in 1839 when chemist John Robinson bought a small Pill Box making business. John could not have imagined that, at its height, Robinson's was the biggest single employer in Chesterfield, employing over 4,500 people. Robinson PLC frequently used the Crooked Spire on their logo to represent the town it has always been proud to call home.
Spire Transport Founded by Harold Pears in the 1950s, Spire Transport was purchased by Robinson’s and Sons in 1966 at a cost of £80,000. The new fleet was managed by Bill Rhodes and, under the chairmanship of E B Robinson and George Wallis, Spire Transport became a valuable subsidiary of Robinson's. Spire Transport was well known for using the image of the spire on its vehicles.
A Brief History
So where does the history of the Parish Church begin?
In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, part of a Roman fort occupied the present site of the church.
Evidence of the first Christian church, however, seems to date back to Anglo Saxon times and you can still see the Saxon font in the south transept of the church. The font is thought to date from around 890-1050. It was removed from the church many years ago. Possibly to safeguard it during the Reformation or perhaps it was ordered out of the church during the Civil War years. The font was, however, discovered many years later, in 1898, hidden in the Vicarage garden. Much of the carving has been lost but it’s still possible to see details of leaves and a foliated cross.
Close up of the font showing Anglo Saxon carvings
There was certainly a mention of the church in Chesterfield during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) and historians are also positive that a Norman church stood where the south side of the church stands today. However, only a few items proving its Norman history have been found.
When Chesterfield became a ‘free borough’ after receiving its charter of 1204, the Parish Church, as we recognise it today, was a must. Possibly it was also around this time that the church received the dedication’ All Saints’.
The building of Chesterfield Parish Church began in 1234 on the east side. This is where the oldest pillars in the church still stand. Throughout the Medieval period, most especially in the 14th century, Chesterfield Parish Church continued to be expanded and improved. The original builders wheel or windlass used in the construction of the Parish Church is on display in the Museum.
Like many churches and cathedrals in England and Wales, the 16th century Reformation saw Chesterfield Parish Church lose many of its Medieval decorative details and statues. Then in the 18th century, there was reparation and development, like the rebuilding of the north transept in 1769.
However, it was in the nineteenth century when the famous gothic architect George Gilbert Scott carried out significant restoration work and ensured the church remained the beautiful building it is today.
Market and 'Crooked Spire' Church in 1766
Through its history Chesterfield Parish Church survived storms, withstood the effects of local coal mining, and underground tunneling for the railways. It almost did not survive, however, the fire of Christmas 1961.
On the morning of December 22nd, 1961, fire swept through the North part of the Parish Church. Thankfully, the alarm was raised in the nick of time by a clerk at the town's Library who had seen smoke rising from the large window in the North Transept. Flames not only melted the glass in the North window, but also destroyed the roof, the choir room and the famous Snetzler organ (one of only six in the world)
Images of the fire in 1961
The Church was saved by the almost super-human effort of firemen from Chesterfield and the surrounding area. By directing jets of water into the belfry, immediately under the spire, they just managed to prevent the collapse of the steeple and eventually brought the flames under control.
The Parish Church of Chesterfield is, without doubt, an extraordinary building. Yes, because of the famous spire, but also due to the other historical gems visitors can discover.
The most recognisable part of the Parish Church, its adopted name, is of course the Crooked Spire, constructed in 1362. However, the spire certainly is not crooked. It is twisted and leaning, but not crooked. Historians have suggested a number of factors for this - the use of unseasoned wood, a lack of skilled labour, the later use of heavy lead sheeting in the 17th century. Many have tried to explain what makes the spire twist and many have disagreed as to the real reason. Perhaps we shall never know for sure.
Close up view of the spire
One thing is certain, past errors have given Chesterfield an iconic building and a lasting symbol.
Medieval Stained Glass
The skill of producing stained glass really came into its own in the Medieval period and the Parish Church of Chesterfield certainly had beautiful stained glass in its early history. The Reformation (1529-1537), however, saw the removal of Medieval stained glass from churches all over Britain and it was not until the 1800s that the use of stained glass was revived.
Medieval stained glass window
Many of the beautiful stained glass windows in the Crooked Spire church today are from this later period. Nevertheless, if you look carefully, you can still discover several Medieval examples
Since the early 1800s the Parish Church has boasted ten bells, which once could be heard up to four miles away. Really, there are eleven bells. The eleventh is known as the Shriving or Curfew Bell. Chesterfield was, from 1803, a centre for Napoleonic army and navy officers on parole. These soldiers were permitted to wander for a distance of two miles, on the condition they return to the camp on the ringing of the Parish Church ‘Curfew Bell’.
Not having been repaired since 1788, in the early 1800s Mr Robinson, clockmaker of Chesterfield, contacted a Mr Paine, a horologist from London, to undertake serious work on the church clock. The clock was then lit up for the first time in October 1836. Later improvements included electric lights installed in 1905 and an internal clock mechanism fitted in 1929.
It’s difficult to see from the ground, but the west face of the clock stands out when the other faces don’t. This was because the west face housed the gas burners. Only the west face, the side that faced the town, was illuminated
In 2014, there was a problem with the clock on the south face and, to mend it, the hands had to be removed.
Spire clock with no hands
A Look Inside
Chesterfield Parish Church, like so many churches in Britain, is cruciform in shape and architecture. What does cruciform mean? It is a style of church built in the form of a cross and usually shows the influence of Gothic architecture. It has:
- an east end, with the main altar and often an elaborate stained glass window
- a west end, which sometimes contains the font
- North and South transepts, the arms of the cross, which often have small side chapels, and house an organ
- the ‘crossing’ which is the point beneath the dome or spire
Plan of the Church
The Guild Chapels
We often think of Medieval times only in terms of noble families, knights and peasants, but Medieval citizens were also business people and craftsmen. During the first century of the Parish Church’s history, the system of Guilds flourished throughout Britain. Merchants’ and craftsmen’s guilds were formed to protect the rights of members and prices in the local economy.
These Guilds often gave money to local churches and had their own private chapels. Chesterfield Parish Church became, in the 14th century, very much a Guild Church and although many Guilds were abolished at the time of the Reformation a number of the chapels still remain today.
The Foljambes and the Lady Chapel
One of the earliest chapels to be built was the Lady Chapel, the Chapel for the Guild of our Lady. The religious upheavals of the 1500s resulted in the Lady Chapel becoming the chapel of an influential local family, the Foljambes, and being renamed the Foljambe Chapel.
The Foljambe’s history dates back to the Norman Conquest (1066). Godfrey Foljambe was a loyal supporter of William I (1028-1087) and was rewarded with land in Derbyshire and Yorkshire. During the 1400s Henry Foljambe acquired land around Chesterfield which was passed to his son, another Godfrey (the fourth), a favoured noble of Henry VIII. It was, however, the sixth Godfrey (1558-1592) who made the most lasting legacy to Chesterfield when his will:
- provided the salary for a lecturer at the Parish Church
- founded Chesterfield Grammar School
- provided relief for the poor funded from rents paid in Ashover
To this day, the alabaster tombs of the Foljambes remain in the chapel, which is located in the far south east corner of the church.
The Restoration of the Nineteenth Century
The most significant development in the Parish Church’s more recent history was the Great Restoration, a project of design, renovation and improvement undertaken by the famous nineteenth century architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78).
Gilbert Scott was an enthusiastic member of the Camden Society who promoted the building and renovation of churches in the Gothic style. The restoration work was undertaken in 1843 and the Parish Church closed for nine months. The final cost of the renovation was about £3,500. The value of this can be appreciated when you consider that new churches, of the same period, were completely built for almost the same price.
Blessing an area of land around a church for burial came about in the eighth century. Not everyone was permitted to be buried within the churchyard, however. The north side was not blessed and those who had committed crimes were buried there, as were children who had died before baptism.
Prior to the 1800s, about 75% of burials were on the south and west sides. Additional graves often simply laid on pre-existing ones. After 1831 no further burials were allowed as it was noticed that the inside of the church was lower than the outside. A problem remedied during renovations of the 1840s.
A century later, in 1932, all gravestones to the south and west were re-positioned at the very edge of the churchyard.
The Alpine Gardens
The Alpine Gardens were opened and presented to the town of Chesterfield in 1909 by T P Woods. The gardens led a path through the north side of the Churchyard, linking the town centre to the railway station. The gardens, located where Rykneld Square is today, were removed in 1932 to make way for a new thoroughfare.
The Alpine Gardens
The Frenchman's Grave
On the north side of the churchyard is a headstone dedicated to Francois Raingeard, a French Officer from the Napoleonic War who died in 1812. Francois was a prisoner of war billeted in Chesterfield. The inscription on his gravestone is in French, English and Latin.
Inscription on Francois Raingeard's grave
A Lamp and a Bee
Explore the south side of the church and you will find a special lamp and a special bee. The lamp, the town’s first gas lamp (1824), was made by Joseph Bower who also re-designed the copper ‘Weeping Tree’ fountain at Chatsworth House. Originally located on Market Square, the lamp was moved to the churchyard and converted to electricity in 1974.
Chesterfield's first gas lamp
The Queen Bee, carved by Derbyshire born wood sculptor, Andrew Frost, from Derbyshire oak proudly rests on an elm tree stump, She commemorates the much loved 140 year old elm, blown down in the winter storms of 2014, and also the importance of bees to our environment.
Carving of bee in the Churchyard
- 1821 – A ban put in place to stop local folk from suspending washing lines in the churchyard and local children from playing there. This ban, of course, was heartily ignored
- 1862 – Rails were installed to enclose the church yard and trees were planted
- 1914 – The Alpine Gardens and Church were illuminated for the Chesterfield Market Festival
- 1940 – All the church railings were removed and the metal used for the War Effort. The railings were replaced in 2013
Restored church railings
Every church has its folk stories and its local legends. The Parish Church is no different. Here are just a few curious tales about the Parish Church. Believe what you will.
The Devil Incensed
One evening the devil was flying from Nottingham to Sheffield. He stopped for a moment to rest on top of the Parish Church spire. The smell of incense drifted up from the church below and so irritated the Devil that he gave a violent sneeze and flew from the tower. In doing so, his tail caught the top of the spire and twisted the entire structure into its famous shape.
The Devil's sneeze
The Virgin Bride
Many moons ago, a virgin married in the Parish Church of Chesterfield. The church, so surprised to hear of such a thing happening in Chesterfield, turned its spire to gaze down upon the bride and couldn’t straighten up again. Legend says the tower will only return to its former shape when a virgin, once again, gets married in the Parish Church.
The Devil and the Blacksmith
Another Devil related legend tells the story of a powerful magician who convinced a blacksmith in Bolsover to shoe the hooves of the devil. The brave blacksmith drove a nail into the foot of the Devil with such force that the Devil screamed in agony and flew towards Chesterfield. As he passed over the Parish Church he viciously kicked out with his injured foot, caught the Spire and twisted it. The spire has remained crooked ever since.
The Whale and the Cow
Did you know that a whale bone is kept in one of the chapels of the Church? No-one really knows where this whale bone came from but, as is often the case curious objects provoke curious stories.
A local legend tells that the bone is actually from a gigantic cow! This cow gave an endless supply of milk to the people of Chesterfield until an old witch, acting out of spite, milked the cow from dusk until dawn. Needless to say, the cow went mad. A local archer ended the poor cow’s suffering and – in remembrance of the cow – gave its rib-bone to the church.
The Spire in the News
As the symbol of Chesterfield, events surround the ‘Crooked Spire’ always make the news. Let’s look at a few of the stories that have been printed in the papers.
Under Chesterfield’s Crooked Spire – Derbyshire Advertiser, March 1909
An interesting advert for the miraculous effects of Dr William’s Pink Pills. Cured from three terrible medical conditions, Anaemia, Nervous Headaches and St Vitus’ Dance, three young women from Chesterfield relate their stories of the pink wonder pill.
‘Friend though Chesterfield is to the strangely warped spire that has adorned its famous church for hundreds of years, friends of the North East Derbyshire town have recently exhibited a new pride, connected with an incident concerning three young women residing there.’
The Man in Search of a Wife - Derbyshire Times, October 1859
Victorian readers loved the serialised stories that appeared in newspapers. This story, about a man searching for a wife, was serialised in the Derbyshire Times in 1859. Chapter Two begins…
‘Ben now found himself beneath the shadow of the Crooked Spire and commenced to look around the old town. He walked along the top of the Market Place, through the old churchyard, where he stood for some moments gazing at the curious steeple.’
A Suggestion of Copper – Derbyshire Times, February 1898
In the late 1800s fears over the stability of the spire were growing and an interesting suggestion was made.
‘A letter appears in another column making the suggestion that the present lead covering should be stripped off, and one of copper substituted. The writer, the Ex Mayor of Chesterfield, Mr Charles Markham, argues that the covering would be lighter, and the strain on the timbers would therefore be less…’
Parish Church Bells’ Miserable Tinkle – Derbyshire Times, March 1939
‘It is a complete disgrace that we should have ten splendid bells in our tower and never ring them.’
This comment was made by Archdeacon T Dilworth Harrison about the advice that it was not safe to ring the spire bells during the period that repairs were being carried out and also that it was difficult to find good bell ringers. The Vicar also commented that if the bells were not going to be rung that they be given to a church that would use them. He then suggested that a gramophone should be bought in order to play a recording of ‘a peal of Bow Bells’.
‘I am only suggesting that the present miserable tinkle is altogether unworthy of the Parish Church.’
Came to See the Crooked Spire – Derbyshire Times, June 1935
‘I wish you police would stay home on Sundays!’ was the comment made to police by Mr Harold Muschamp of Sale. Mr Muschamp had been speeding – driving over 30 miles an hour - on Chatsworth Road, Chesterfield.
The defendant pointed out that he had only come to Chesterfield, with a lady friend of his wife, to see the Crooked Spire.
Blamed the Crooked Spire – Derbyshire Times, June 1941
Another motorist falls foul of the charms of the Crooked Spire.
Fred Turley (22) was summoned to court in Chesterfield after driving his car up the Tapton Lane, a one way street. Fred said that when he got to the foot of Tapton Lane and saw the Crooked Spire at the top, he went straight up.
The Chief Constable commented, ‘I have never heard of the Crooked Spire being blamed for an offence before.’
Flying by the Crooked Steeple – Derbyshire Courier, April 1914
Leaving Sheffield at 8:40am, Mr Blackman and his passenger, Little Miss Independent (Miss Mai Bacon) passed over Woodseats, Dronfield, Unstone and Sheepbridge.
Having circled the town and flown high over the Crooked Steeple, Mr Blackburn flew gracefully to Highfield Hall. For Miss Bacon it had been a ‘simply gorgeous flight.’
‘After we had passed the corner,” she said, “and we were approaching the Crooked Spire it was simply jolly to see the spire at the angle at which we were banked.’
A Picture of the Night – Brilliant Spectacle in the Alpine Gardens
No prettier scene can be observed…than that of the Alpine gardens, which are a memorial to the generosity of the late Alderman T P Wood.
With the aid of some 1000 electric eight candle power carbon fairy lamps a decorative scheme has been carried out to represent a pavilion. The front faces Burlington Street and it has been outlined with lamps of various colours.
When the whole of the lamps are lighted at dusk the scheme is most effective and presents the most charming picture of the old church with the twisted steeple as a fitting background.