According to legend, Alfreton takes its name from Alfred the Great, who drove the Danes from their settlements in this part of the country and repaired much of the damage done. However, there is evidence that a settlement existed here in Saxon times.
Originally, agriculture dominated the settlement. This was supplemented later by brown earthenware and stocking manufacture as the main trades. The real growth came when coal was discovered and mining commenced in earnest. Most men of working age worked were employed down the mines until the industry went into decline and the last colliery in the area closed in March 1969.
Apart from the 2,500 redundant miners in the area, the situation was made worse by the closure of the British Steel Plant, at nearby Riddings. Strenuous efforts had to be made to attract other industries to the area and helped by a good transport network the town is now thriving again.
The town centre has been redeveloped, and parts of it pedestrianised. A new leisure centre was built in the 1970s, one of the best in the Midlands at that time, but whose future is now uncertain.
One man who did make a big difference to Alfreton, in the first half of the 20th century, was Robert Watchorn. He was born in a small cottage in the town, on 5 April 1858, the second son of a family of nine. His parents were poor and at the age of 11, he went to work down the pit. Despite working long hours, he still managed to attend night school and, at the age of 22, he took the decision to emigrate.
On reaching America, he was so anxious to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty that he missed his breakfast. After landing, he went to a café on Ellis Island for a meal and was cheated out of his money by a waiter, who called him a liar. As a result, a fight broke out and a police officer was called. The policeman found the money the waiter said he had never received in his possession and an unpleasant experience was over, but not forgotten. Many years later, when Robert Watchorn had become Commissioner for Ellis Island, he again met the friendly policeman whom he had encountered on his arrival in the country and promoted him.
Watchorn rose through the ranks rapidly and when he retired in 1909, he was Supervising Inspector General of Immigration to the United States. He was held in such high esteem that the King of Italy once sent for him to thank him for the kindness and understanding he had shown to Italian immigrants. The king told him: ‘Any man, who has done what you have done for my people, holds an honourable position far ahead of kings.’
In his retirement, he founded the Watchorn Oil and Gas Company of Oklahoma and became a very wealthy man. After losing his son in the First World War, he and his wife Alma gave most of their fortune away.
Alfreton remained deep in Watchorn’s affections and benefited by nearly £100,000, an enormous sum in those days. In 1927, the Watchorn Memorial Primitive Church was founded and later a school, a manse and cottages, all in memory of his mother. A sports ground and pavilion were given in remembrance of his son. He also had the Lincoln Library built, now a Masonic Hall.
A prominent feature at the top of King Street is the War Memorial, erected and dedicated in 1926. The initial sum of money collected for the erection of the memorial, during the hard times of the 1920s, was modest. Hearing of the difficulties Robert Watchorn helped fund the project.
Lower down King Street stands the House of Confinement. It is now rather shabby looking and with no notice to tell visitors of its history as an almost unique example of a parish lock-up. Built about 1820, it has a stout oak, iron studded door, small circular windows and a stone slabbed roof. Inside a passage leads to two cells, one for men the other for women.
A market charter was granted to the town in 1252 to hold a weekly market; owing to traffic congestion, this now takes place indoors. Originally, Alfreton spread from the market place to the south down Town Street, now known as King Street, and to the west along Church Street. In recent years, the town centre has moved to the east, with the establishment of new shopping developments.
Until the coming of the railways, Alfreton was an important coaching centre. The route north in those days did not follow the line of the current A61, but went down Meadow Lane, to Westhouses and Shirland. The opening of the new road entailed cutting through the yard of the George Inn, leaving the hotel on one side of the road and its stables on the other. The George is now closed, but the buildings to the rear are still used for hospitality, under the name of The King’s Banqueting Hall.
Following the death of R. C. A. Palmer-Morewood in 1957, Alfreton Hall was purchased by Derbyshire County Council and for a time was used for adult education. It is now a high class function venue with French style restaurant. There is no trace of the earlier hall thought to have been positioned where Hall Farm and Stables are located. On the opposite side of Hall Farm is St. Martin’s Church, a spacious building, parts of which date back to the 13th century. The Old Vicarage is the oldest inhabited house in the town.
A prominent landmark along High Street, the former King Alfred public house, has been re-named Ye Olde MacDonald’s Farm! Alfreton House, built in the mid-1650s with its lawn and fine beech trees, provides an attractive feature at the end of the main High Street shopping area. It is in the possession of Amber Valley Borough Council and, apart from housing various offices, also plays host to the delightful Alfreton House Victorian Coffee Shop. The former Town Hall and Post Office on the other side of the road are now occupied by shops.
The re-emergence of railways as an important form of public transport led to the re-opening of the Alfreton Parkway Station, on the eastern side of the town, which provides a link to London St. Pancras.
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PLACES OF INTEREST IN THE LOCALITY
Midland Railway Centre, (Tel. 01773 570140) fine heritage railway offering a seven-mile trip through Amber Valley countryside. The Railway Museum containing a unique collection of restored locomotives and rolling stock: the Golden Valley Light Railway, miniature and model railways form only part of the many attractions. Telephone for details.
Wingfield Manor (Tel. 01773 832060) impressive ruins of a huge country mansion, where Mary, Queen of Scots was once imprisoned. It is now under the care of English Heritage. For further information website: www.english-heritage.org.uk
Crich Tramway Village, (Tel.0870 75 87267) a village setting of restored buildings, home to a large collection of vintage trams, exhibitions and memorabilia. Open daily in the summer. Reduced winter opening.
Anchor Inn, Oakerthorpe, (Tel. 01773 833575) is an attractive roadside inn, open for bar snacks at lunchtime and in the evening during the week and all day at the weekends. Outside seating.
Alfreton Leisure Centre Cafe, (Tel. 01773 834817) is a pleasant spacious cafe open every day from 10am to late evening. Light snacks and hot meals available all day. Licensed.
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This is a very refreshing walk, passing over undulating countryside with splendid open views. The scenery is quite mixed, which adds to the interest of the walk.
After crossing lovely Alfreton Park and the local golf course, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Oakerthorpe Nature Reserve, created out of a former coal mine, is entered. Shortly after leaving the Nature Reserve and ascending David’s Hill and walking through a wood, the outskirts of South Wingfield are reached.
All Saints' Church at South Wingfield dates mainly from the 13th century, and is situated a surprising distance from the main part of the village. The Midland Railway Line runs nearby. The former railway station house, designed by Francis Thompson, was once described as ‘the most perfect of all station houses.’ Queen Victoria reputedly visited the station.
All details on this page were correct at the time of publication, but changes may be made without notification.